Book reviews

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Munich by Robert Harris

My knowledge of the lead-up to World War Two could be described as being somewhere between patchy and non-existent, but some time ago Fiction Fan reviewed Munich by Robert Harris and this book ended up on my list, despite my lack of interest in the subject. Munich has left me wanting to know more about this time in history and has introduced me to an author whose back-catalogue I now plan to read.

https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/11/munich-by-robert-harris/

Munich begins in September, 1938. The story alternately followed two fictional characters who were immersed into the actual build up to the Munich Agreement, where British Prime Mininster Neville Chamberlain, the French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini signed an agreement on behalf of their governments along with Adolf Hitler who represented Nazi Germany in a last-minute attempt to prevent Hitler from going to war to force the annexure Sudenten, a territory in Czechoslovakia to Germany.

The story alternately followed Englishman Hugh Legat, a private secretary to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Paul von Hartmann, a staff member with the German Foreign Office. The two men met at Oxford and became friends but had not been in contact for some time. Ironically, the last time they had met was in Munich six years ago.

In the first part of the story in London, Chamberlain did everything he could to prevent war. England had only recently returned to prosperity after World War One and was not prepared for war, but most importantly, Chamberlain knew that all they would be fighting for is the rule of law, and preferred to try to appease Hitler rather than sacrifice human life in numbers which he knew would be far in excess even than of World War One. Government Departments scrambled to prepare for the worst, while working towards a peaceful outcome.

Germany, on the other hand, was prepared for war and the story showed Hitler doing his best to bring it about. As a translator, Paul’s position gave him access to important people, documents and therefore, knowledge. Paul was also part of a secret anti-Hitler resistance group and were prepared to betray Germany to prevent what they recognised as an evil regime carrying out far worse atrocities than what were already occurring.

When it became known that the leaders of the various countries would meet in Munich to try to resolve the Sudenten issue, Paul was able to engineer for Hugh to also attend, in an attempt to pass on important information to the British Prime Minister. Paul and his group hoped this information would cause other events to happen which would lead to Hitler’s downfall.

I feel an enormous respect for Neville Chamberlain after having read this book. He may not have been the best Prime Minister to lead his country during a war, but he certainly did everything he could to prevent one. This book also made me feel a frightening responsibility to stand up for those who are being treated unfairly on any scale, lest small things lead to bigger injustices. Frightening because I’m not particularly brave and overwhelming because there are so many things which are unfair. How and where does one person start? How does anyone know which battles to fight?

Munich was fascinating and I’ll be going back to this author’s first book, Fatherland next.

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The Perfect Hope by Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts is one of my favourite go-to authors when I want a hit of romance and The Perfect Hope delivered. It is the third book in the Inn Boonsboro Trilogy and while I haven’t read the second book in this series, that didn’t matter. The first book, The Next Always, set me up beautifully.

https://rosereadsnovels.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/the-next-always-by-nora-roberts/

The Perfect Hope tells the story of Hope Beaumont, the inn-keeper of the Boonsboro Inn, who gets together with surly but good-looking Ryder Montgomery. These two have nothing in common but lust for each other, but in a romance novel, that’s enough to tell a story. I even enjoyed the story of a ghost who haunts the Inn.

Characters from The Next Always wandered in and out of the story and I loved reading about the Boonsboro Inn itself, which I was thrilled to learn some time ago is a real place in Maryland, USA. I decided then that if I’m ever in Boonsboro I’m going to book in to either the Elizabeth and Darcy Room or the Buttercup and Westley Room, I can’t decide which. In The Next Always the building was being renovated after having become derelict, but by the time The Perfect Hope got going, the Inn was a thriving business.

I wasn’t as crazy about Ryder as I have been about other of Nora Roberts’ romantic heroes, as he was too rude, grumpy and uncommunicative for my taste, but apparently some people like that in a man… I was also slightly thrown by Ryder’s mother’s extraordinarily open attitude to sex and her discussions about the same with Hope, her son’s girlfriend, but again, each to their own. I usually skim the sex scenes anyway.

While The Perfect Hope probably isn’t the best romance novel I’ve ever read, I loved the familiarity of the characters and the setting, and Nora Roberts’ inclusive style, which makes me feel as if I could wander into one of her books, perhaps as a paying guest at the Boonsboro Inn which she owns in real life. Now to convince He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers…

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train was Patricia Highsmith’s first novel. I read this during my commute to and from work on the train, and I have to admit, I occasionally looked around at my fellow passengers wondering who, if any of them had murder in their hearts. I’m particularly suspicious of people jammed into the aisle in our over-full train who is looking at anyone who is seated.

Strangers on a Train follows Guy Haines, a young architect at the beginning of his career. Guy wants to marry the woman he loves, but unfortunately is already married to Miriam, who is pregnant with another man’s child. When the story began, Guy was on a train on his way to his home town in Texas, to discuss a divorce with Miriam.

During the journey a drunken stranger, Charles Bruno, forced his company on Guy, and over dinner proposed to Guy that they swap murders, that is, Charles would murder Guy’s wife and in return, Guy would murder Charles’ rich father, which would free up Charles’ inheritance. Guy was appalled by the conversation but would have forgotten all about it, except that Miriam was murdered by an unknown person several weeks later.

Instead of going to the police like a normal person and dobbing Charles in for the murder, Guy was worried that he would somehow be implicated and instead, kept quiet and carried on with his normal life. Guy suffered somewhat from a guilty conscience, but without the threat of adverse publicity from a divorce, his career took off and he and Anne, the love of his life, planned to marry. All would have continued happily had not Charles re-entered Guy’s life and harangued him into carrying out his part of their supposed bargain.

I was more than a little amused by the idea of a train journey where two passengers could enjoy a private conversation, since my train line is one of the most crowded in Melbourne and very often looks more like this recent photo from the Herald-Sun newspaper:

Understandably in these circumstances, thinking about murdering someone is fair enough, even if there is no privacy for my fellow commuters and I to be able to discuss who to get rid of first, although obviously the person who is going to get murdered first will be yelling into their mobile phone. Consider yourselves warned, loud people…

The plot of Strangers on a Train is intriguing, but the story dragged on a little. Charles’ character was overly forceful and over-the-top, while Guy’s was overly weak. I preferred The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith however still found much to enjoy in Strangers on a Train. Not only that, I’ve got the movie of the same name, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock to look forward to.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

I loved Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty! I’ve been a bit hit and miss with this author’s books in the past, as I’ve loved the contemporary Australian settings and characters of her stories, but have disliked her story-telling technique her characters all knowing something which the reader doesn’t, and not telling. Nine Perfect Strangers tells the story without harking back to anything and I found this a far more enjoyable read.

The story follows nine people who meet at a health and wellness retreat in a remote location in Australia.

The main characters include Frances, a middle-aged, overweight author, whose most recent romance novel has been rejected by her publisher, Ben and Jessica, whose marriage is failing after they won millions of dollars in the lottery, Tony, a former AFL star and Carmel, whose husband recently dumped her for a younger woman. More minor characters included a bereaved family of three and an extraordinarily handsome man who regularly holidays at health retreats.

The retreat at Tranquillum House began with massages, mindful (?) walks in the bush and a diet tailored to each of the guest’s needs, along with a five-day period of silence, however things went pear-shaped when the retreat’s director used illegal and unconventional treatments on her guests without their awareness or consent.

Top moments for me included a section where Frances found herself in an imaginary conversation with dead friend and insisted that she was a fictional character, and the protagonist, no less. I laughed out loud.

I also found myself smiling when divorced mother-of-four Carmel realised that in exchange for her husband, she’d got herself an upgrade, because his new wife wanted to be involved in the children’s lives and was mad to take the girls to their ballet lessons and all that that entailed. For those of you who have never experienced children’s dance schools, trust me, you’ve had a lucky escape. Parents are expected to sew costumes, gather wispy strands of baby-fine hair into buns, put make-up on children without making them look like clowns then sit through endless performances of tiny children wandering aimlessly around on stage before their own child finally gets to perform in their own blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. And take it from me, when your own child finally makes it on to the stage, you won’t be able see them anyway became they will be hidden behind some other kid who is the size of a truck… Or you’ll be asleep.

Nine Perfect Strangers is a funny book with an over-the-top plot and great characters, The story is light and enjoyable and would make a great beach read.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Is it wrong of me to have chosen The Pearl by John Steinbeck for my list of fifty books to read for The Classics Club because it is short?

In my defence, having struggled through The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden when I was far too young to appreciate either, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to such a long story by this author again.

The Pearl is the story of what happens to a poor young Mexican couple, Kino and Juana, after their baby is stung by a scorpion. They rushed the baby off to a doctor, who refused to see them because all Kino could offer in payment for his services were a handful of oddly-shaped, and nearly worthless seed pearls.

On returning home, Kino, a fisherman, went diving for oysters in the hope of finding a pearl of sufficient value to pay the doctor for the baby’s treatment. He found a pearl so big and beautiful that by the time news of the find reached the doctor, it had become known as ‘The Pearl of the World.’

Perhaps not surprisingly, Kino’s find brought out the very worst of human nature. Initially Kino dreamed of sending his child to school and marrying Juana with the money from the pearl’s sale, but it didn’t take long for his dreams to expand significantly. Worse, the actions caused by other people’s greed for the pearl changed Kino and his family’s lives forever.

I found The Pearl to be a sad story, but well told. While it is a very short story, the length is also exactly right, as any more would have been padding and any less would have meant that important components of the story weren’t told. I’m fairly sure I’ll read more of Steinbeck’s short stories in future and who knows? I might even work my way up to re-reading his larger novels eventually.

The Pearl was book eleven in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I chose to read I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist because I love Airstream caravans and there was one on the cover… which turned out to be a silly reason to waste a few days of precious reading time on a book I didn’t enjoy or understand.

The inside cover reviews described this story as horror and similar to Stephen King’s style, but they were lying.

The story tells of four groups of caravanners, who wake up to find themselves, their caravans and their vehicles, relocated to a field which seems to stretch out endlessly. The sky is a lovely clear blue but there is no sun. There is no one else in sight.

Several of the characters are horrible people, some are lovely, some of them go mad in the trying circumstances, one of the characters is a dog and another is a cat, and one of the children is probably a demon. After a while unexplained visitors started showing up in the campsite. Blood and guts? Tick. Monsters? Tick. Weird, unexplainable stuff? Tick. Yawn.

The story was translated from Swedish, but I don’t think the fault was with the translation, although the writing did have that ‘other’ quality that translated stories often have. The characters were believable and I felt interested in them and their histories, particularly in an older woman who had imaginary conversations with James Stewart. I think the fault was with the plot itself, which was dull and didn’t make sense. Unfortunately, the ending didn’t clear any of the mysteries up.

I believe I Am Behind You is the first book of a trilogy, but I won’t be reading the second and third books, even if there are two or even three Airstreams on the cover.

My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry

I chose My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry because I was intrigued by the title. Clever, isn’t it? I wondered did it refer to the narrator herself, or an ex-wife of the narrator, or the present wife of the narrator’s former husband, or even a present wife of the narrator’s husband, which would make the husband either a bigamist or a member of a religion where men can have more than one wife, although why anyone would want that is more than I can understand… For me, though, the title was the best part of this book.

The story is alternately told by two women, Lily and Carla, starting when Lily was a newly-married lawyer working to have a murderer released from prison using new evidence and Carla was the child of a neighbour who Ed, Lily’s husband, uses as a model in a series of portraits he painted.

Lily’s story was told in the first person. She won the murderer’s case, only to learn he was in fact guilty of the crime he was originally found guilty of. Despite learning that she had been fooled into helping a murderer go free, Lily formed too close a relationship with him which affected events later in the story.

Carla’s story was told in the third person. Her mother had an affair with a married man throughout Carla’s childhood and when she grew up, Carla lived her life according to the values she learned as a child, scamming Lily and Ed before starting an affair with him.

I felt as if I was supposed to be on Lily’s side, but I found her character hard to empathise with. Carla and her bodgy values were even more unlikeable. I didn’t particularly enjoy the storyline, either, and thought many parts of the plot were ridiculous.

I thought the writing style was poor, and the dialogue, particularly Carla’s, awkward and unconvincing. I should have given this book up on page 127, which was where I got up to on on my train trip to and from work, but didn’t, because 127 pages felt as if I’d made a commitment. Plus, there was that great title.

My mistake. Never mind, there are plenty more books in the stacks.

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