Book reviews

Archive for July, 2017

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving



I cannot praise A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving highly enough. I usually finish one book and open another right away, but I still feel so attached to these characters that I am not ready to let go of this story yet. I’ll either have to bury myself in cookbooks for a week or so until I get the urge for something else, or start back at the first page of this book and go again. I don’t even want to read another John Irving book, I just want more of A Prayer for Owen Meany.

The story is narrated in the first person by John Wheelwright. The story is told in two sets of times, starting with John as a child and alternating with the present-day John who lives and works in Canada as an English teacher. The very first sentence of the story tells us that Owen Meany is no longer alive, had a “wrecked voice” and was physically the smallest person John ever knew, that he had been responsible in some way for the death of John’s mother and was also responsible for John’s Christianity. That is a big first sentence, not in the sense of being overlong, but it certainly tells us what the story is about.

John and Owen, who lived in Gravesend, a town in New Hampshire, were friends since childhood. Owen was so small that John and his fellow Sunday School classmates used to physically pass Owen around over their heads when their teacher was out of the room, against Owen’s wishes.

Owen’s words are always in capital letters, At first I found this irritating, but I quickly became accustomed to their use as the capitals emphasized that Owen’s voice was a strangled falsetto, even after he became an adult. Once, after John frightened Owen, his grandmother told him,

“I don’t want you to describe to me-not ever-what you were doing to that poor boy to make him sound like that; but if you ever do it again, please cover his mouth with your hand.”

Yes, this sentence made me laugh – on the train…  Honestly, until you have laughed out loud to yourself while you are on your own in a public place, you can have no idea of how socially awkward this can be!

Despite being the size of a five-year old, Owen was mentally the leader of his peers and was also the object of the affections of most of the girls he ever met. Owen’s teachers and the adults in his life generally loved him too and went out of their way to assist with his education and in other ways. Adults and children alike, apart from a few exceptions which became part of the story, fell in with Owen’s plans and arrangements, particularly as he and John became older and Owen became the voice of his graduating year.

When John and Owen were 11 they were playing team baseball when Owen went out to bat and hit a foul ball which hit and killed John’s mother, Tabitha. John, Owen and John’s step-father, Dan, grieved together. John never attributed any blame to Owen, who himself believed that there was a reason for everything and that in this case, God had used him as the instrument of Tabitha’s death.

Owen’s belief in God, or faith is extraordinary. His parents left, or in Owen’s words, “escaped” the Catholic church for reasons which become clear later in the book, and as a child, Owen certainly has it in for the Catholics. Gravesend has plenty of other religious choices though, for example, John begins life as a Congregationalist and later, along with his mother, becomes a Episcopalian when she marries Dan.

Owen is an Episcopalian who sees angels and his own future, and knows from a very young age that he is destined to save a group of Vietnamese children at the expense of his own life. John sees himself as a ‘Joseph,’ the fellow in the background who is just there, no more and no less.

As a child, Owen made an interesting point when he complains that the girl chosen to be Mary in their Sunday School Christmas play is always the prettiest girl. “WHO SAYS MARY WAS PRETTY?” He also complains about the Pastor’s lack of belief, “IF HE’S GOT SO MUCH DOUBT, HE’S IN THE WRONG BUSINESS.” The book is full of Owen’s observations and suggestions.

About three quarters of the way through the story I realised that each character’s name has at least one hidden meaning. Owen’s first name, which he doesn’t use, is Paul and means ‘little.’ Very apt. Saint Paul began by persecuting Christ’s early followers, but turned his life around to live for Christ and to advance Christianity, which also reflected Owen’s path in life. John’s name is also biblical, and in this book his character is probably closest to the apostle John, who gave us the fourth Gospel and Revelations. Again, a fitting name for this character. John’s mother, Tabitha is ‘good works’ and Hester, John’s cousin and Owen’s lover is a ‘scarlet woman’ and both of these names also suit the characters. I expect if I delved into other names in the book, I would find more meanings which tell us who each character is at their heart.

Owen, who knows he is destined for Vietnam, takes a scholarship from the Army during the 1960s while the war in Vietnam was raging. Once he graduates, his work is bringing dead soldiers home to their families.

Owen is instrumental in preventing John from going to Vietnam and when I read how, I was on the train going to work. I read a few words and couldn’t bear it any more so looked out of the window for a while at people’s backyards, read a few more words, then went back to looking out the window, trying not to shiver and shudder. It took me the whole trip in to Melbourne to get past this section.

This is such a big book that I’ve only touched on some of the themes and entirely missed other important parts of the story. Saying that any review I could write won’t do justice to the book is a cop-out but it is true.

By the end of the story John says that Owen was a ‘miracle.’ A Prayer for Owen Meany is almost enough to make me believe in miracles too. I’ll certainly be looking out for other books by John Irving once I get over this one.








Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery


Honey-Bunny recently gave me the good news that L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables was being made into a television series, Anne With An ‘E’. Funnily enough, He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers and Miss S, who have never read the book, loved the television series. Honey-Bunny and I differed.

The characters who played the roles looked exactly as I had always imagined them and I also thought Green Gables and Avonlea in Anne With An ‘E’ looked perfect, but the story going off in it’s own direction rather than sticking closely to the book drove me crazy. In order to restore my equilibrium, I thought it was time for a re-read of my favourite book from my childhood. And Honey-Bunny, your middle name is Anne with an ‘E’ for a reason.

Reading Anne of Green Gables again was like catching up with a dearly loved friend who I hadn’t seen for far too long.

I don’t think I’ve ever read the book so thoroughly. When I was given the book by Santa Claus at about the age of ten (judging by the curly signature I wrote on the inside cover) I nearly didn’t get through the first page. The first paragraph, with the description of the dip in the hollow where Mrs Rachel Lynde lived, nearly put me off the book forever. Obviously I made it though at some stage, but I remember lending the book to a school friend and advising her to skip the first page!

This time, I read that descriptive first paragraph, and the whole of the first page and enjoyed them. I read and thought about all of the quotations throughout the story, which I had always skimmed over as a child, when I was too anxious to get back to Anne’s adventures to stop and look around at where I was.

I couldn’t remember Anne talking quite so much, but I remembered most of the events, such as Anne breaking her ankle while walking the ridge pole of Diana’s roof, Anne and Diana jumping onto Miss Josephine Barry in bed in the middle of the night, Anne reciting at the concert at the White Sands Hotel and being encored, Anne dying her red hair a horrible shade of green after buying hair dye from a peddler and eating ice cream for the first time;

“Words fail me to describe that ice-cream. Marilla, I assure you it was sublime.”

I read the book on the train to and from work, and was horribly afraid that Matthew’s death would leave me with a seat on my own once and for all, but I managed to hold it together. I did get teary when Anne finally made up her quarrel with Gilbert after he gave up his teaching position at the Avonlea school so that Anne could stay and look after Marilla (I don’t know why, but I had forgotten that part) and I laughed to myself when Anne made herself cry by imagining Diana as a beautiful bride, and “bidding Diana good bye-e-e—-.”

Obviously I love this book. If you missed reading this during your childhood, it isn’t too late now. If you do, I hope you will be left feeling happier for getting to know Anne of Green Gables for yourself.







The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood


There is no way of knowing what goes on in other people’s heads unless they are writers, and based on the two novels I’ve read by Margaret Atwood, stranger stuff goes on in her imagination than what happens in mine. The Heart Goes Last has one of the most bizarre and entertaining plots that I’ve read in some time.

I haven’t read a Margaret Atwood novel since reading The Handmaid’s Tale thirty years ago, probably because that story completely freaked me out. In saying that, I probably should be reading everything this author writes, because remembering the plot for three decades is my definition of a good book. I expect I will be thinking about The Heart Goes Last for some time too.

The story follows an American couple, Stan and Charmaine, who in the beginning of the story are living in their car after losing their jobs and their home. At first, their America seems quite real and recognisable, although it is still not a place I would want to live. Australia is kinder to people who are down on their luck.

When Charmaine sees an advertisement on television for applicants to take part in the Positron Project, where she and Stan would have the opportunity to work and live in a home of their own in the town of Consilience, she convinces Stan to apply with her. They are accepted into the project and have very few doubts about going in, despite the fact that they are signing up for life and that for half of their time they will be prisoners in the town’s prison. After living in their car for so long and fending off other people who wanted to take what little they have, the Positron Project offered them security.

A year later, and Stan and Charmaine have settled into their new life in Consilience. They both have jobs and they are happy in their home. Stan enjoys trimming the hedges and mowing the lawn, while Charmaine revels in their home, particularly the kitchen appliances and fluffy white towels. At the end of each month in their home, they tidy up and stash their personal possessions into a colour coded locker in their basement, and enter the Positron prison, while their ‘Alternates’ live their lives in what is also their home for the next month. In prison, Stan looks after chickens and Charmaine has a job cannot be discussed or even thought about.

Despite the relative comfort and security of living in Consilience, Stan and Charmaine’s marriage has become stale and they both become infatuated with their Alternates. As they become obsessed with their fantasies, the strangeness of their world starts to come out more in the story, and there is some really weird and unpleasant stuff going on. The people running the Positron Project are clearly making money from the town and prison and their business is nasty. The sexual fetishes are not for the faint-hearted either, although some of them are very funny. I’ll never look at a blue, knitted teddy bear in quite the same way ever again…

The story itself is funny too, in a very dark way.

I was so caught up in The Heart Goes Last that the train taking me home from work arrived at my station and I didn’t realise. Luckily, my station is the last one on the line, because I could have ended up anywhere. Next stop, Dystopia Meadows?

I can’t wait to read another book by Margaret Atwood. I am grateful that she is unafraid of what anybody else thinks about what goes on in her mind, and is happy to share her frightening but funny thoughts with readers.



The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon


The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, an award for an unpublished writer under the age of 35. Fair enough, the writing is good. But I didn’t like the story.

You can probably tell from the cover art that there is a Russian element to The Memory Artist. I certainly could, which is why I shouldn’t have chosen to read this book. I’ve never read any Russian fiction (by a Russian author or an Australian author) which hasn’t been miserable. Not surprising really, considering Russia’s history. The Russian people have suffered through horrific times and in weather that is far too cold for my bones. No wonder their stories are melancholy.

The Memory Artist is narrated by Pasha, a young man who grew up in Moscow. His mother and her friends were activists who gathered regularly at Pasha’s home during the late 1960’s to write articles exposing the cruel treatment of dissidents and to remember people and poetry which would otherwise cease to exist in anyone’s memory. Pasha can barely remember his father, who was imprisoned in a mental asylum along with many other dissidents whom the government called insane.

Pasha was an adult living in St Petersburg when his mother died. He is a would-be writer, who doesn’t write much during the course of narrating this novel. After his mother’s death, he tries to make sense of Russia’s past and present, ‘glasnost,’ where people are finally free to openly discuss the wrongs of the past. Mass graves are being found everywhere and people are openly talking about the people who disappeared to prisons, and cities which were built and never used.

Pasha is offered the use of a friend’s dacha for a summer holiday, where he intends to write the story of his family and friend’s times. He gets to know an elderly neighbour who tells him stories of the past, although the neighbour’s wife is silent and afraid that her husband’s verbosity will get them into trouble. Pasha’s girlfriend’s parents behave similarly when Pasha sets about interviewing them too. Older people who remember the violence of Stalin’s years, and middle aged people who lived through the Brezhnev years are often unable or unwilling to speak, and Pasha also seems unable to write openly and honestly.

The time this novel is set is enormously interesting. Glasnost was during the 1980’s, and I liked learning about young Russian people’s thirst for western clothing such as jeans and t shirts, and found it funny when Pasha likened people queueing for McDonalds when it first appeared in Moscow as being similar to people queueing in the past for food. I was also interested enough to listen to some Victor Tsoi punk rock, as Pasha described his music as the voice for his generation, however I didn’t feel very connected to Pasha or the other characters. Pasha’s inability to finish anything annoyed me, although that characteristic may have been symbolic of his generation’s lack of a sense of purpose, since they no longer had something to fight for.

I think that the writing makes The Memory Artist a worthy winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, however the sadness of Russian stories just aren’t for me.





Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady


Sanditon is the novel Jane Austen was working on when she died. I believe she started writing it in January 1817 and wrote 11 or 12 chapters before stopping in March 1817, either because she got sick of the story or became too ill to continue. Jane Austen died 18 July 1817.

The story was not published until 1925, but the version I read had been completed by ‘Another Lady’ and published in 1975. I look forward to finding similar continuations by other authors to see where they take the story.

Jane Austen sets up the story with a husband and wife, Mr and Mrs Parker, travelling on a poor country road when their carriage overturns. The Heywood family come to their rescue and insist on the Parkers staying with them until Mr Parker’s injured ankle has recovered. Once it has, the Parkers continue to their home at Sanditon, taking with them Charlotte Heywood.

Sanditon is Mr Parker’s pride and joy. Old Sanditon is a small village near to the sea, although it is tucked away and protected from wild weather. New Sanditon, where the Parkers live, is right on the sea and Mr Parker has the intention of turning the town into a fashionable seaside resort with the assistance of Lady Denham, a wealthy neighbour.

A number of characters are introduced, including Miss Brereton, who is beautiful, young and poor and a much put-upon companion to Lady Denham, Sir Edward, who is Lady Denham’s nephew, a handful of other young women on the lookout for a husband, and more of the Parker family, including Mr Sidney Parker, who Charlotte found to have “a decided air of ease and fashion  and a lively countenance.” Mr Sidney Parker is also exactly the right age to emerge as the hero.

The Parker family are the funniest group of hypochondriacs ever written about. A letter read aloud by Mr Parker from his sister had me in stitches. The letter told all about everybody’s ailment; poor Susan had been suffering from the headache, and when ten leeches a day didn’t help, her sister Diana, the letter writer, convinced Susan the problem was with her gums, and so she had three teeth pulled. Diana advised that Susan’s “nerves are a good deal deranged. She can only speak in a whisper and fainted away twice this morning on poor Arthur’s trying to supress a cough.” I know Jane Austen meant for me to laugh until I cried when I read this.

Jane Austen’s work finished with Charlotte visiting Lady Denham, and reflecting on the irony of a large portrait over the fireplace of her second husband, (Lady Denham became a ‘Lady’ when they married), and a tucked away miniature of her first husband, Mr Hollis, from whom she got all of her money. In Charlotte’s words, “Poor Mr Hollis! It was impossible not to feel I’m hardly used: to be obliged to stand back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Henry Denham.”

We will never know where Jane Austen would have taken the story of Sanditon next. Plenty of characters had been introduced, Charlotte was clearly the heroine and there were some interesting events ticking away in the background. If Mr Sidney Parker wasn’t to be the hero, there was the promise of some friends of his arriving soon.

‘Another Lady’ continued the story quite well. There were a few red herrings regarding relationships (Emma set the precedent with Jane Fairfax and Mr Churchill), a villain who behaviour was far more melodramatic than any of Jane Austen’s own villains (think Mr Wickham from Pride and Prejudice, Mr Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility, Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park or John Thorpe from Northanger Abbey) and several characters who were quite nasty (Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice, Mr and Mrs Elton from Emma with a special mention to Mrs Norris from Mansfield Park).

The story finished on a high note with all of the mysteries being satisfactorily resolved and all of the appropriate couples either coming out into the open or realising their love for each other, although my biggest complaint about ‘Another Lady’ is that Charlotte and her hero went on and on and on about how much they loved each other once they finally got to that point. Seriously, they ‘lovey-dovey’ bits went on for pages, with Charlotte and her chap telling each other when they first realised they loved each other and how they thought that the other person did not love them, and how much they loved each other, and so on (and on and on and on, as I already said). Jane Austen would never have done that. Once her happy couples had no more misunderstandings about their feelings for each other, she politely left them on the page and in our imagination.

‘Another Lady’ continued the story in a good match to Jane Austen’s style and language. It wasn’t really obvious to me that the story had been finished by someone else other than a few clunky sections and the ‘lovey-dovey’ ending.

I’m sure other readers would agree with me when I say that if any more of Jane Austen’s works were ever to be found, it would be a dream come true.

The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton


Tim Winton writes his stories for me. The Boy Behind the Curtain is an autobiographical collection of stories telling you who he is, what shaped him as a person and a writer, and why he writes the stories he does. He is of my generation and tells the stories of my Australia.

Tim Winton is known for his fiction, for adults and children, and has won the Miles Franklin Award four times but he also writes non-fiction and essays, very often promoting environmental causes. Whatever he writes, I get such a strong sense of the location (usually coastal) that I can smell the sea, feel the wind and taste the salt in the air as I read.

While I enjoyed, or learned something from all of the stories in the collection, the following stories touched me the most.

In The Boy Behind the Curtain, the author tells of his early teenage years, when he took his father’s rifle and stood behind the curtain of his parent’s bedroom, training the unloaded barrel on passersby every time he got the chance. I grew up on a farm and know, as the author does, how easy it is for a person to accidently shoot themselves while climbing through a fence with a loaded gun, never to shoot into water because of the ricochet, never to shoot into bushes or an area where you don’t know what is in there, and never, ever to aim at anything you don’t intend to shoot regardless of whether your weapon is loaded or not. Despite my unease reading this story, the author’s brutally honest recollection of being a teenage boy made me understand the appeal of this very dangerous practice. The author then brought me to tears by recounting the bravery of our Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who pushed for and secured drastic gun reforms in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacres in 1996, on one occasion wearing a bulletproof vest to a pro-gun rally when tensions were running at their highest. Regardless of their politics, most Australians agree that John Howard will forever be remembered in Australian history for making the necessary changes to gun control legislation for Australia to be a safer society.

A Space Odyssey at Eight tells the story of a birthday outing for a group of eight year olds to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the movie frightened the crap out of the boys, it also taught Winton that his imagination was unlimited. I must watch this movie sometime.

Havoc; A Life in Accidents is the story of the accidents which shaped the author and his family. As a copper’s (policeman’s) son, accidents and their aftermaths were part of his family’s everyday life, but when his own father was knocked off his motor bike by a car, all of their lives changed forever.

I read Betsy on the train, which turned out to be a mistake. There is nothing like getting the giggles when you are on your own to have other people give you a wide berth. Betsy was a 1954 Hillman Minx, a horribly uncool car for the author to have been seen in the 1970s when big Fords ruled Australian roads. The story of the author’s father having to stop on the side of the road to empty his bowels after some Chinese food disagreed with him had me in tears again, which is when I nearly cleared my train carriage.

Twice on Sundays tells of the Winton family’s devotions. I was brought up in a religious family myself, so felt the author’s pain at seeing a Sunday slip away in church, although compared to other families I knew, ours was not that bad. For example, we didn’t say Rosaries every night, or go around door-knocking in an attempt to save other people from the eternal hell-fires of damnation, and none of us ever remembered the sermon afterwards. Mum, who was supposedly the most devout, said years later that she only went to church to get an hour of peace and quiet. In Twice on Sundays, Winton says that he most enjoyed the sense of belonging to a community and that he is still a believer. I might not be, but I do understand the appeal of being part of a group who hold the same values as I do.

The Wait and the Flow is an explanation of why people surf. I love surfing on a boogie board, it is one of the most joyful things I do, pure fun, relaxing and invigorating. Tim Winton explains it much better than what I do though, and he manages to liken the experience of surfing to writing, where he waits and meditates until the right wave comes along, then rides it like mad until the end.

The Battle for Nigaloo Reef is the story of the author’s role in fighting alongside his community to protect the coral reef from a proposed resort in the area. At the time, Winton put his money where his mouth is and donated his prize money from winning the Western Australia Premier’s Book Award to the cause. This area is now a World Heritage Site.

Breathe is my favourite Tim Winton novel, but The Boy Behind the Curtain is also going to find a special place in my bookcase.






The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson


Honey-Bunny has recommended The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson to me several times, so as a dutiful parent I bumped this story up to the top of my list.

Honey-Bunny’s recommendations have come a long way. The first book (or series) she discovered for herself and insisted I read too were the Harry Potter books. I enjoyed them, but then came Twilight and a few other vampire books… which were not for me. A decade later, though, Honey-Bunny’s suggestions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared have all been winners.

The story of The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is funny, clever and surprising, with unusual characters constantly doing unexpected things.

The hundred-year old man is Allan Karlsson, a Swedish man who lives in an old people’s home. As the title suggests, on his one hundredth birthday, Allan climbs out of his window and disappears, on the very first page. I don’t know why I found this event to be so surprising considering the book’s title, but it was.

Allan hadn’t pre-planned his escape, and he didn’t have any particular reason for absconding apart from wanting to avoid a fairly lame birthday party which had been planned for him, but as the story went on, this impromptu behaviour turned out to be entirely in keeping with his character and his life events, which were told alternately with the present story.

After shuffling away from the old people’s home, Allan arrived at the bus station where a young lout asked Allan to look after his suitcase while he used the toilet. (The lout used much coarser terms, as you would expect). Allan then hopped onto the next bus with the lout’s suitcase and travelled as far as his money would take him. He got out at an abandoned train station where he met the next main character in the book, Julius. Allan and Julius quickly bonded over a meal and alcohol, and when the angry owner of the suitcase tracked Allan down at the abandoned train station, they shoved him into a freezer and turned the temperature down.

Unfortunately Allan and Julius were having such a good time (alcohol) that they forgot about the lout in the freezer and when they remembered him in the morning, he had frozen to death. The suitcase turned out to be full of cash, so Allan and Julius took off with the suitcase full of cash, wheeling their victim along with them on a trolley.

The present-day adventure continued in much the same vein, with luck falling Allan’s, Julius’ and their future companion’s way for another 350 pages.

The story is interspersed with Allan’s history, which is equally as fascinating as his present day adventures. In his younger days Allan was an explosives expert, who lived at various times of his life in the United States of America, China, Bali, Russia and quite a few other countries. Allan was on first name terms with a number of American presidents and other world leaders, including Stalin, General Franco, Mao Tse Tung and Kim Il Sung, due to being in the right spot at the right time, over and over again. He told Robert Oppenheimer how to make an atom bomb work when he was unable to find a solution to the problem, and was later responsible for giving the Russians the same information.

Allan crossed the Himalayas on foot, was involved in espionage on both sides of various wars as well as being employed as an explosives expert in both sides of other wars, and spent time in a Russian prison camp in Siberia.

I realise that this all sounds quite ridiculous, but the plot was completely believable when I was reading the story. The story itself is funny and the characters endearing, although they have a terrible habit of accidently killing people who are trying to kill them. All I can say is, the only characters that died deserved their endings, and as Allan himself would have said, these characters would have died anyway, eventually.

Allan goes through life without worrying about things he cannot control, in his own words, “Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be.”

The language is slightly awkward, in a story written in a Scandanavian language then translated into English sort of way. I’m not complaining though, because the style made it obvious that Allan was Swedish, rather than English or American or Australian, like most of the characters in books that I read.

I only have one complaint about the book, which is that the paperback was unwieldy to read on the train. I wish publishers would make paperbacks with a lot of pages bigger, instead of cramming more pages into a smaller book. My fingers ache trying to hold paperbacks with too many pages open.

Anyway, The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is an enjoyable book with endearing characters. I am a happier person for having read this, and I will go out of my way to find this author’s second book, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden.

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