Book reviews

Archive for January, 2018

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian author Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book.*

Secondly, don’t be put off because most of the story takes place during World War 2. I avoid war novels and wouldn’t have read The Narrow Road to the Deep North had I realised what the setting was before starting, but as it turned out, I read most of this emotionally draining, gruelling story with a huge lump in my throat. There were times I had to stop reading because I was feeling too much to continue. I can list other books which have made me feel this way with just the fingers on one hand.

“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare, and as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, on more Ithaca for which he was forever bound.”

And lastly, don’t be put off by the beginning of the book which doesn’t do justice to the rest of the story. It also took me a while to get used to quotation marks not being used to differentiate dialogue within the text.

He was your cobber?

Like all immigrants, he seemed to have an erring instinct for the oldest, truest words in his new language.

The story follows the life of a Tasmanian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who for most of the book is a Japanese prisoner of war on the Burmese Railway. The story is interspersed with the story of Dorrigo’s love affair with his uncle’s wife, Amy, who for Dorrigo, no other woman ever lived up to. Later, the story switches to Dorrigo’s life after the war.

The stories of the Australian POWs while building what became known as the Death Railway in The Narrow Road to the Deep North are harrowing, but the story does not treat the characters with pity. Instead, I realised that the POWs themselves had no room in their quest for their own survival for pity, either for themselves or for anyone else, although that didn’t mean that they didn’t show kindness to each other, generosity and a spirit which made me feel overwhelmingly patriotic at times (for an Australian society which no longer exists).

“Darky Gardiner loathed Tiny, thought him a fool and would do anything to keep him alive. Because courage, survival, love–all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.”

The way the Japanese soldiers are portrayed is interesting, in that their cruelty to the POWs is shown to be the only way they can behave and still be Japanese.

“Humans are only one of many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.”

I’m taking a break from reading for a few days because I’m not ready for another story yet, as The Narrow Road to the Deep North still has too strong a hold of my heart and imagination. And yes, I’ll be working my way through other books by Richard Flanagan soon.

*My reading tastes can be quite low-brow, I often enjoy books that critics bag out, and dislike books they praise.

Happy Australia Day, everyone.


Belgravia by Julian Fellowes


I loved Downton Abbey and have been known to swan around my kitchen saying “Oh, golly,” in Lady Mary’s cool style, but I sounded more like a Downton Abbey fan learning there is to be a Downton Abbey movie when I found Belgravia by Julian Fellowes! Woo-hoo!

My edition was large print too, which is brilliant for reading in bed. Obviously I had chocolate, and my pillows were just right. I was uninterrupted and perfectly happy for the first third of the book.

But then, disaster. I became bored with the story.

Belgravia started well. James Trenchard, food supplier to the British military, and his family were in Brussels in 1815, along with the Duke of Wellington, his soldiers and a great many British Society people, many of whom attended the Duchess of Richmond’s ball the evening before the Battle of Waterloo. The comparatively lowly Trenchard family also managed to scrape an invitation to the ball because their daughter Sophia was romantically involved with Lord Bellasis, the Duchess of Richmond’s nephew. A few days later, Lord Bellasis died in battle.

The story then jumps to 1841, 25 years later. Sophia has also been dead nearly 25 years. James, whose business is now building grand homes for the aristocracy and his wife Anne are still scrabbling at the edges of society. When Anne has a chance meeting with Lady Brockenhurst, the late Lord Bellasis’ mother, the future of both families is changed.

It was at this point that the story then fell into a predictable set of family intrigues, schemes and disasters. I didn’t feel emotionally attached to any of the characters apart from those who had already died, so I started skimming through the book, just to satisfy myself that the book would turn out as I had expected. (It did).

I’ll stick with Julian Fellowes’ brilliant screen work in future.






Calamity in Kent by John Rowland


Calamity in Kent by John Rowland is from the British Library Crime Series. For ages I have been getting the ‘wants’ whenever I see a review of one of these, although for the original poster the book cover come from, rather than for the books themselves.

I won’t lie, Calamity in Kent isn’t the best story I have ever read, partly because it hadn’t aged well. However, I also guessed who the murderer was on first appearance, found the story to be flimsy and repetitive, and the dialogue clumsy. Good editing would have improved this book enormously. Had I not been so enamoured of the cover, I would not have finished the book.

The original posters used on the book’s cover are below.

For anyone interested, the story tells of a tabloid newspaper journalist, Jimmy London, on holidays in Broadgate when he meets a man who has just discovered a dead body locked in the lift that takes tourists from the clifftop to the beach. Jimmy investigates the murder, encouraged (!) in his quest to find the murderer by Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard.

My fondness for the covers on the novels of the British Library Crime Series continues, despite my disappointment in this particular story.

Watching You by Michael Robotham


Watching You is another fast and enjoyable read by Michael Robotham, although I wasn’t as tempted to stay up all night reading this as I have been with some of his other books.

The story follows a single mother of two, Marnie Logan, whose husband Daniel mysteriously disappeared a year ago. Marnie is working as an escort to pay off a gambling debt incurred by Daniel before his disappearance. When a gangster who pimps for Marnie dies, she is investigated by the police.

Marnie is a heroine who we like and feel sorry for, and as the story unfolds, become concerned for her wellbeing. She is under the care of a clinical psychologist, Doctor Joe O’Loughlin for depression, but Joe is also interested in learning more about Marnie’s complicated past. Historically, people who have done the wrong thing by Marnie have been punished in extraordinarily vindictive ways although it is unclear if Marnie is the perpetrator, or if someone else is acting on her behalf.

The plot is complicated with plenty of twists. During the first few chapters I suspected someone and something and felt very clever until I realised that the author had been playing me! It turns out that I believed what the author wanted me to all along! When I figured out exactly who to be worried about – once the author was ready for me to know, I then had the worry of watching if everyone would be okay…

Most of Michael Robotham’s earlier books feature Joe and another character, Vincent Ruiz, but I’ve been reading them out of order. Watching You worked as a stand-alone, but I intend to read the rest of the series in order.


Bay of Martyrs by Tony Black and Matt Neal


I have been hanging out to read Bay of Martyrs by Tony Black and Matt Neal, who set their crime-thriller in my old stamping grounds of Warrnambool, Peterborough and Port Fairy, on the south-west coast of Victoria, Australia.

Part of the danger in reading a novel set in a familiar location is that the reader will pick up on inaccuracies or poetic licence to do with the place which might detract from their enjoyment. I struggled with this initially but then settled in and enjoyed the story, deciding that a reader who doesn’t know this part of the world wouldn’t care about the parts which annoyed me.

The story is fast-paced and believable, apart from the crime-rate in Warrnambool. There were heaps of dead people by the end of this story, and even though locals always turn to the death notices in The Standard first to see who they know, it is rare for anyone in town to die of anything other than natural causes.

The story starts with the body of a young woman found dead at the Bay of Martyrs, a Peterborough beach. Local police write off her death as misadventure and fail to investigate further. A stereotypical hard-drinking, smoking, drug-using journalist, Clayton Moloney, thinks there is more going on and starts poking around. Luckily Clay is mates with a cop or two, knows plenty of drug-dealers and regularly shags someone who is able to provide him with a copy of the dead woman’s autopsy report.

Clay teams up with an Irish photographer who is new to town and together they follow a number of stories, including the expansion of the airport (although as locals point out, they would prefer money to be spent on better roads) and a few human-interest stories such as people turning 100, although things become more interesting when another woman dies in mysterious circumstances.

When Clay is beaten up by a couple of thugs in The Warrnambool Hotel, Clay realises he is closer to finding out what supposedly doesn’t exist and of course, being beaten up makes him keener than ever to find out what is going on so he can get the story onto the front page of the paper.

The story resolved satisfactorily although there were no big surprises about who the bad guys were or how the story unfolded.

I haven’t read many co-authored books but didn’t notice differences in style. I believe Matt Neal is a journo at The Standard and Tony Black has written a number of well-received crime novels. The characters are worthy of a series but in reality, not that much happens in Warrnambool…




The photo below is of the Bay of Islands from the top of the track which leads down to the Bay of Martyrs beach. Not dark and gloomy enough to go on the cover of a crime novel, but in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places on earth.


bay of


Each time I tried to buy Bay of Martyrs in Warrnambool the book was sold out and book-sellers were waiting on more stock, so clearly I’m not the only one who enjoyed reading a story set in a familiar location.




Passing by Nella Larsen


Although Passing by Nella Larsen is a novella and a reasonably fast read, the story left me with a lot to think about. My edition was the Penguin Classics edition pictured above. If, like me, this is the first time you’ve read this work, skip the introduction which contains spoilers and read the actual story first. You can always go back to the introduction later.

This story was added to my TBR list after being reviewed by FictionFan a few years back. (I take so many reading recommendations from FictionFan that I’m thinking of starting a new category on my blog, ‘FictionFan’s Recommendations’).

Passing is a three-part story set in Chicago and New York during the 1920s.

The story begins with Irene Redfield receiving a letter from a childhood friend, Clare. Irene and Clare lost touch during their teens after Clare’s alcoholic father died and she went to live with her aunts. The two woman met again by chance while having afternoon tea at a hotel in Chicago.

When they met, both were ‘passing’ as white women, Irene temporarily, so she could have afternoon tea in the hotel where she would otherwise have been unwelcome. (Irene and Clare were light-skinned women of African-American descent). Once they started talking, Irene learned that Clare was ‘passing’ permanently and living as a white woman. Not even Clare’s husband knew she was black.

Clare expressed a desire to spend time with her old friends again and against Irene’s will, pushed her way into a social engagement with Irene and another woman who, while not ‘passing,’ was not obviously black either. Clare’s husband unexpectedly arrived and offended Irene by calling Clare ‘Nig,’ short for ‘Nigger’ as he had noticed her skin darkening as she aged, and by telling the women in the strongest terms how much he hated Negroes. Irene could not have been more offended, but was unable to respond to his insults because of the risk to Clare’s situation.

Irene decided not to see Clare any more, but Clare continued to push her way to become part of Irene and her husband’s social lives. Irene became distraught to realise that her husband had been seduced by Irene and the story ended with a tragedy which seemed inevitable.

Irene’s character was respectable and conservative, while Clare was a risk-taker, daring and seductive. Irene described Clare as having a ‘having’ nature, an expression I have not heard before but which summed up Clare’s personality succinctly. Clare was always going to bring trouble on herself by wanting more and more, to be white, to have a white husband while secretly enjoying her black heritage, all of which she should have been able to have but couldn’t because of the predominant beliefs of the time. Clare was also perceived by Irene as ‘wanting’ in that she wanted everybody to love or desire her, which was shown when she behaved seductively towards a waiter, to Irene’s husband, and to some degree, to Irene herself.

Passing is a well-written, powerful book. I’m hoping to find a copy of Nella Larsen’s only other novel, Quicksand sometime soon.





Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson


Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s first book, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The story is told by Ruthie, who with her sister Lucille, is being brought up by relatives in a town called Fingerbone in Idaho.

Fingerbone’s location, on a lake which occasionally floods the town and which has been the scene of several tragedies, sets the uneasy tone of the book. Ruthie and Lucille’s mother dropped her daughters off at their grandmother’s house, then drove into the lake at Fingerbone and drowned herself. Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather also died in the lake when the train he was travelling on derailed and disappeared into the lake, never to be seen again.

Ruthie and Lucille are taken care of by their grandmother until her death, then by two elderly great-aunts who are terrified by the responsibility of two young girls. Later, Ruthie and Lucille’s Aunt Sylvie comes to take charge of the girls, although she is a drifter who does not want to be tied down to Fingerbone or to any other place.

The characters sometimes say and do funny things but the story itself is sad. The themes include family, loss, suicide and depression, small town values, itinerancy, abandonment and community.

The author’s choice of words and the style is beautiful. I could choose any sentence at random from the book to illustrate this, although I’ve chosen the following from the first few pages of the book, when the train wreck which killed Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather occurs.

“Though it was reported in newspapers as far away as Denver and St. Paul, it was not, strictly speaking, spectacular, because no one saw it happen. The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.”

Housekeeping is an incredible first novel. I intend to make my way chronologically through Marilynne Robinson’s books.


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