Book reviews

Archive for May, 2017

Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung


I read Laurinda by Australian writer Alice Pung some time ago and quite enjoyed the story of a Chinese-Australian girl from the western suburbs of Melbourne who won a scholarship to an exclusive girl’s school. When I found a copy of this author’s biography, Unpolished Gem, I was very happy to have the opportunity to read her story of growing up in Footscray, a suburb in western Melbourne where I have worked. Footscray is home to a great many Asian-Australians and this story gave me an insight into a world I can see but not be part of.

I suspect the author was able to tell her Chinese-Cambodian family’s story so openly because her parents do not read English, so she was quite safe from getting into trouble with them after telling all of their secrets. I suspect her parents would say “Wah!” if they realised she had written so openly about their faults and failings.

The family’s life in Australia was in complete contrast to her parent’s lives in China and Cambodia, from the atrocities of Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime in particular.

Some of the stories are funny and absolutely gorgeous. I loved hearing about the author’s grandmother blessing Father Government for giving old people money in the form of a pension, and the joy that came from shopping at supermarkets and stopping traffic with the little green man at the pedestrian crossings. It made me laugh to hear that the Chinese people call white Australians ‘ghosts.’ The happier stories also reminded me of how much I take for granted as a white Australian.

Other stories were more difficult to read. A number of generations living together has its’ blessings and its’ curses, and I felt terribly sorry for Alice as her mother and grandmother used her as a tool to make each other angry or unhappy. Sharing her bed with her grandmother must have been difficult for Alice too, possibly not so unusual for a child visiting a grandparent but quite unusual in everyday life in contemporary Australia.

The story which most made my heart go out to the author was an incident when Alice’s younger sister rolled off the bed and had to be checked for brain injuries while Alice had been looking after her. Luckily the baby was fine, but the blame and guilt heaped on Alice, who was also very young, was excessive.

Alice was diagnosed with depression as a teenager, and did amazingly well to end up studying law at Melbourne University. In Australian, Chinese parents are known for expecting their children to do well at school and I found it sad to read stories of families treating their children with contempt when they failed to achieve what was expected of them. Often these ‘failures’ were just shy of achieving the marks to do law, so in reality, they had achieved very good results in school.

The story ends with Alice about 19 or 20, breaking up with her Skippy (white Australian) boyfriend.

I preferred the fiction of Laurinda, but Unpolished Gem was an interesting read.


Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler


Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my first Anne Tyler book. Not sure why I’ve never picked up one of her books before, because she is good.  I think I was put off by watching The Accidental Tourist starring William Hurt. The story was terribly sad and I didn’t enjoy it.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the story of a very ordinary, unhappy family. The story goes back and forward in time, but starts with Pearl Tull dying as one of her sons sits with her.

Pearl was the mother of three children in 1944 when her husband, a salesman, left her. Somehow Pearl never got around to telling the children that their father wasn’t coming back, assuming that because he travelled so much they wouldn’t notice. Pearl found a job in a grocery store and got on with bringing up the children in their joyless home.

Pearl’s children are wildly different from each other. Cody is an attractive bad boy. Cody is horribly jealous of his younger brother Ezra who is a goody-goody, while their sister Jenny is unsettled and flighty. Pearl is disappointed by all of her children, wanting them to be whatever they are not. Pearl is a perfectionist with a nasty temper, and as adults, the children do not remember their childhood with pleasure.

Each family member has a different view of the events that happened to shape the family. I found it fascinating that what Pearl remembered as the happiest times of her life were when the children were small, but Cody, Ezra and Jennifer have very different memories of particular occasions. This reminded me of a comment one of my sisters once made when she was living overseas and was receiving letters from all of us at home. (Yes, actual letters which had been posted, sent overseas by airmail and delivered into her letterbox. Way back in the olden days…) Anyway, my sister said we all wrote to her with the same news, however everyone had such different outlooks or points to make that each writer could have been describing a completely separate event.

Not much actually happens in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. The characters live ordinary lives, day after day, but the story is so readable and the characters so real that I couldn’t put the book down. The dynamics between Cody and Ezra were particularly interesting, as Cody was so terribly jealous of Ezra that he could barely mention Ezra’s name without saying something mean, and Ezra was so bumbling and eternally hopeful that it was no wonder to me Cody hated him. Maybe an only child wouldn’t find these relationships so fascinating, but I’m sure I’m not alone in recognising some of my worst traits in these characters, particularly those which come out when I am with my siblings.

I hoped that the characters would eventually be able to eat a meal together as a family at Ezra’s restaurant, the Homesick Restaurant, without somebody leaving in a snit, but it wasn’t to be.

I’ll definitely read more Anne Tyler and might even try The Accidental Tourist sometime, although possibly with a box of tissues at hand.




Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova


Lisa Genova has a distinct story-telling style. Pick a horrible disease, preferably something untreatable and fatal. Introduce a lovely character who is an asset to their family and community, make the reader care about the character’s fate and then boom! Give the character the disease and allow the readers to learn about it as the character does. Leave readers sobbing as the character realises how grateful they are to be alive at all, and how blessed they are to have their family and friends.

Inside the O’Briens follows the formula.

The O’Brien’s are an Irish Catholic family living in Boston. Joe O’Brien is in his forties and happily married to Rosie. They have four grown up children and a dog. Joe is a police officer, who, along with his workmates, is jittery after the Boston Marathon bombing. The whole family religiously follow the Red Sox baseball team.

Joe’s temper occasionally flares up and he is clumsy. Rosie gets fed up with him breaking things around the house and when she notices him wriggling constantly, she forces him to visit a doctor.

Joe is diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease.

I knew very little about Huntington’s Disease before reading this story, and neither did Joe or Rosie. Over the course of the story, the O’Brien’s and I learned exactly what a terrible disease Huntington’s is, which manifests as follows;

motor, cognitive, and psychiatric symptoms that typically begin at age 35-45 and advance relentlessly until death. There is currently no cure or treatment that can halt, slow, or reverse the disease’s progression.

Most of the story follows Joe’s day to day life. He chooses to work until he is no longer physically able to manage, but unfortunately, when he does have to retire it is before he is financially ready. Early retirement affects Joe’s pension and Joe and Rosie are advised to take measures they find abhorrent to protect the family home.

Worst of all for Joe, Rosie and their children is wondering which others of them have the disease. There is a fifty-fifty chance for each of his children that they will have the disease. If they don’t have it, the disease stops with them, but if they do, then their children will also have a fifty-fifty chance of having Huntington’s Disease.

Other chapters follow Joe’s children’s lives. One of Joe and Rosie’s children is married, and his wife has just learned she is pregnant. One daughter’s is a ballet dancer and the other, a yoga teacher. Their youngest son is the one they worry most about, he works in a bar, gets in fights from time to time and might be using drugs. Some of the children choose to find out if they will develop Huntington’s, and others are happier not knowing.

For such a sad story, the book ends on a gracious and hopeful note, just as Still Alice and Love Anthony did. There is no hope that the characters (or real people) who have Huntington’s Disease will get a reprieve, but the O’Brien’s are accepting of their fate, grateful for their family and friends, and most importantly, aware they are loved.


Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie



It is lucky that Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie features legendary detective Hercule Poirot, because none of the other characters in this novel had a clue who murdered their fellow character, sex-pot Arlena Stuart, and neither did I.

Evil Under the Sun is set on Smuggler’s Island, where a group of holiday makers, including Hercule Poirot, Arlene, her husband Ken and step-daughter Linda are staying at The Jolly Roger Hotel. Arlene, in her green Chinaman’s hat and white swimsuit is, to everyone else’s disgust, making short work of a fellow guest’s affections, young Patrick Redfern, while feeling sorry for Patrick’s heart-broken wife Christine.

Also holidaying on the island is a sensible dress-designer who grew up with Ken, a pair of oblivious Americans, several shady characters, a fellow who is best avoided once he starts telling long-winded stories about his time in India, and others who are only there to swim, boat and build sand-castles.

As always, Agatha Christie tells an entertaining story.

I did have a bit of a giggle to myself when all of the holiday-makers continued their holiday after Arlene was murdered. Never let a murder get in the way of a good day at the beach!

The landlady of The Jolly Roger was the most distressed person of the lot, worrying about what people would think when it got out there had been a murder on the island. The investigations continued around the holiday making, with Hercule Poirot asking questions and observing his fellow character’s behaviours, while putting together what had happened like a jigsaw until he had a clear case and could expose the murderer. When he did, I realised I had suspected every other character in the book, including the landlady*, while discounting the guilty party.

I did think that some elements of this particular murder were too far-fetched, but Evil Under the Sun has really good characters and the most appealing location of an Agatha Christie novels other than the Orient Express. I would love to holiday on Smugglers Island myself, but at the rate bodies turn up wherever Hercule Poirot goes, would have cancelled my reservation when I saw him just in case it was my turn to be the murder victim.

*It wasn’t the landlady.





The Dress by Kate Kerrigan


The Dress by Kate Kerrigan is told in a style which is popular right now, where there is a present story and a past story which meet at the end.

In the ‘past’ story, a charismatic young Irishman named Frank sets sail for New York, where he works hard to become rich and successful. Once Frank achieves his aims, he falls in love with a beautiful woman named Joy who is a leader of New York Society. Joy and Frank marry, and are mostly happy, except that they cannot have a baby. As time goes on, Joy’s drinking starts to become a problem.

In the ‘present’ story, we have Lily, a wildly successful Vintage Fashion Blogger (the story didn’t say if she uses WordPress but we will assume she does) who finds an old photo of Joy wearing the most beautiful dress ever created. Lily decides to re-create the dress and in doing so, gets involved in a competition with one of the best known designers in the world to create the most beautiful dress in the world. In doing so, Lily begins digging around to try and find either Joy, or Honor, the designer of Joy’s dress.

There is a bit more to The Dress than this, but for me, reading this story was simply a happy way to spend a few hours without thinking too hard. The large print was easy to read, and as I love vintage fashion, I was as happy as a cricket reading descriptions of gorgeous fabrics and Irish lace and sewing jewels into the skirt. I probably wouldn’t recommend the book as anything other than a very light, enjoyable read, but if vintage fashion is your thing, then add The Dress to your reading list.



The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

good.pngGoodness, if He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers or I had read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford before we got married, I doubt we would have risked it. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an unhappier group of connivers as the characters in this novel in all my reading days.

If you are planning to get married and have any niggling doubts regarding your choice of partner, then read this book and be warned! If you ever intend to read this book, then stop reading right now, as I am going to tell you everything…

The Good Soldier is set sometime before WW1. It is narrated by John Dowell, who is an oblivious fool. John tells the story of himself and his wife Florence, and another couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. Edward, who is unable to keep it in his pants, was formerly a soldier and is ‘The Good Soldier’ of the title.

The couples met at a spa in Germany where Florence and Edward, who have ‘hearts,’ take the baths and other treatments for their health. Things seem straightforward enough in the beginning, when the couples recognise each other as ‘good people’ for very superficial reasons; they all like their beef underdone, the men drink the same spirits and the women prefer the same wine. For nine years the two couples’ friendship continued with regular meetings at the spa, meals and conversations, but as the story unfolded, it turns out that things were not as they seemed to John.

John is a cuckold, to use an old-fashioned term. After his wife’s death, John learned that Florence did not have a ‘heart’ at all, and her supposed ill health was just a lie to prevent a physical relationship with him. Florence and Edward had been having a passionate affair under John’s nose for years. Florence suicided when Edward fell in love with someone else and became frightened that John would learn of her affair with another man before they married. Meanwhile, Edward’s wife, Leonora, was fully aware of her husband’s affair with Florence as she was with all of Edward’s previous affairs, but she was more interested in controlling their financial matters than making a success of their emotional relationship. Later, Leonora got her nose out of joint when Edward fell in love with their very young ward, and did the ‘right’ thing by her and sent her away.

The narrator warns the reader in the first sentence and throughout the narrative that ‘this is the saddest story,’ although John isn’t heartbroken when his wife dies and is quite matter of fact about Edward’s many affairs, romanticising him as a sentimentalist. John takes it for granted that a man’s passion will ebb and that when this happens, his love will end.

The pages of the book will become familiar, the beautiful corner of the road will have been turned too many times. Well, this is the saddest story.

Edward also suicided and his young ward went mad, Leonora ended up married to an ordinary bloke who she seemed to be happy with, and John finished up nursing Edward and Leonora’s ward, who he was also in love with. By the end of this complicated and unhappy tangle of affairs it was difficult to believe anything that John said, except for his wish that he had lived his own life more like Edward lived his.

The character’s morals in The Good Soldier are dreadful, but they all seemed to get what they deserved. The language is beautiful, the story is extraordinarily well told, and best of all, the characters became real to me, but if Ford Madox Ford’s works are all on similar themes, then I don’t want to read any more of his work. I much prefer fairy tales where nice people live happily ever after.






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