Book reviews

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Ideal by Ayn Rand

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The edition of Ideal by Ayn Rand which I read included the previously unpublished novel followed by the play. I read them one after the other.

The story tells of a beautiful, tormented and elusive Hollywood actress, Kay Gonda, whose character was inspired by Greta Garbo. Kay Gonda is presumed to be a murderess (I’m using the term ‘murderess’ because the story was written in the 1930s) after a man with whom she dined was found dead and she couldn’t be found. While the police, studio bosses. movie producers, scriptwriters, publicists and journalists are looking for her, Kay Gonda visits six fans who have written a fan letter to her. Each of the letters writers tell Kay Gonda that she represents an ideal to them.

The first fan, George S. Perkins is a middle-aged married man willing to hide Kay Gonda until his wife tells him that she will pack her bags and take the children if George doesn’t tell the actress to get out of their home. George complies with his wife and Kay Gonda leaves.

In the second fan letter, Jeremiah Sliney tells Kay Gonda that he and his wife wish she was their daughter and they willingly offer her shelter when she arrives at their home. The Slineys are about to lose their home because they can’t pay their mortgage and when Kay Gonda hears them whispering that they would earn a monetary reward if they were to turn her in to the police, she sneaks out of their home.

The third fan is an artist who recreates Kay Gonda’s face and figure in every artwork he creates, but he does not recognise her when she comes to him in person. He turns her away when she asks him for help.

The fourth fan is a failed minister of religion who tries to convince Kay Gonda to turn herself in, knowing that the glory of her seeing the error of her ways will reflect well on him.

The fifth fan is a playboy, a failed dreamer who says he will protect her, then tries to rape her.

The sixth fan is Johnnie Dawes. He is the only fan whose behaviour is true to his fan letter to Kay Gonda. Johnnie believes he has a purpose in life, but he does not know what it is, but realises it when he believes Kay Gonda is in danger and he acts to protect her.

Ideal is a terribly cynical story. I couldn’t understand why Kay Gonda’s fans both loved and hated her, and since this idea is so central to the book, felt that another rewrite or two might have made a massive difference to the story.

The play is different to the novel in that several of the character’s storylines were altered or condensed. Reading them together was interesting. I haven’t read anything else yet by this author, but if it turns out that I love her better-known works, I won’t have to come back to Ideal and be disappointed…

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Force of Nature by Jane Harper

 

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Force of Nature is the second novel by Australian author Jane Harper featuring likeable good guy Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, who was introduced to readers in her first book, The Dry.

Aaron become involved in the story of Force of Nature after a whistleblower, Alice Russell, failed to return from a team-building exercise hiking with work colleagues through the rugged and isolated Giralang Ranges. Before going missing, Alice had been surreptitiously collecting information for Aaron’s case against the firm she worked for.

Alice and four other women, including the company’s CEO, went into the bush Friday afternoon. They carried with them their tents, sleeping bags and a limited amount of food and water. One of the women had a compass. They were supposed to surrender their mobile phones before they went into the bush, but Alice, an aggressive and argumentative rule-breaker, kept hers. At some point over the weekend the women’s group became lost and Alice tried to phone Aaron, although because of the remote location and poor signal, all he received was part of a voice message asking for help. After the women’s group got lost Alice become separated from the group, for reasons that made me feel anxious for her wellbeing.

A men’s group from the company did a similar hike along a different route over the same weekend but reached the finish safely. The difference between the dynamics within the two groups was obvious, with tensions within the women’s group playing a part in them being unable to effectively work together to find their way out of the bush.

The story flicks back and forward between the women’s time on the hike and while they are lost in the bush, as well as afterwards as searchers look for Alice. Aaron and his partner, Carmen Cooper, assist with the search but are also required back in Melbourne when they learn that Alice’s teenage daughter’s boyfriend has released sexually explicit footage of her onto the internet.

I’m grateful that my company stick with barefoot lawn bowls*, city scavenger hunts and other relatively safe events for our end-of-year parties and team building exercises, instead of sending us to trek through the bush, kayaking through rapids or jumping out of perfectly good aeroplanes.

The idea of spending a weekend hiking with my workmates doesn’t appeal to me and I’m sure it wouldn’t appeal to many of them either. Being lost in the bush is a particularly Australian fear, as most of us would have experienced school camps in similar locations to Force of Nature‘s fictional Giralang Ranges, or day or weekend hikes through national and state parks that are bigger than some European countries. There are often news stories about lost hikers, some of whom are found and some who are not. In the bush there are snakes, bushfires, extreme heat or cold just to name a few of the factors hikers contend with. In Force of Nature, the characters were also in an area known for its links to a serial killer reminiscent of Ivan Milat, who was responsible for the deaths of at least seven people later found buried in the Belanglo State Forest in NSW.

The two groups were underprepared for the hike, but as the manager of the company who ran the exercise constantly reiterated, they’d never lost anyone before… In hindsight, providing flares to groups along with compasses and tents would probably have been a good idea.

I suspected nearly every character in the book of having a hand in Alice’s disappearance and of course, was completely wrong about what actually happened. I loved watching Aaron’s character develop and I liked his relationship with his partner, Carmen, who I hope returns in future books. I enjoyed Force of Nature even better than The Dry, and that’s saying something.

*Although, let’s be honest, barefoot lawn bowls and alcohol probably shouldn’t be mixed. An Escape Room, anyone?

 

The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green

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The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green is exactly the book I always hope for from this author.

Likeable characters? Tick.

Interesting trials and tribulations? Tick.

Satisfying resolutions? Tick.

Ronni Sunshine was a famous Hollywood actress who had three daughters, serious, I-can-cope-with-anything Nell, anxious, bury-my-head-in-the-sand Meredith and indulged, get-out-of-my-way Lizzie. Ronnie’s career was more important to her than her children, whom she bullied, ignored and eventually alienated. By the time they were adults the sisters had lost touch with each other. Nell, Meredith and Lizzie told themselves they didn’t really care, but later, when Ronnie learned she was dying, she summoned her daughters to her and they came.

Each of the sisters had problems which could be traced back to their upbringing. Nell was a hardworking single mother, unwilling to allow herself to love anyone other than her child. Meredith had supressed her artistic nature and was about to marry a controlling, pompous bore. Beautiful Lizzie was busy repeating her mother’s mistakes.

I was reasonably sure the sisters would resolve their differences and come to terms with their own character flaws by the end of the story, but happily read on to make sure…

Perfect beach read? Tick.

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

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My goodness, other people live such interesting lives don’t they? Australian author Sarah Krasnostein’s biography of Sandra Pankhurst, The Trauma Cleaner, was a fascinating read.

The subject, Sandra, was working as a funeral director in Melbourne when she noticed a gap in the market and opened a business as a trauma cleaner. Trauma cleaning includes murder and accident scenes, but the business she started and continues to run also includes cleaning up deceased estates (this includes the specialised cleaning required when a person dies and is not found for some time), cleaning up drug labs after busts and crime scenes. A large part of Sandra’s business is cleaning and clearing out the homes of hoarders.

Various stories of Sandra’s clients are woven into the telling of her personal story, and while reading about people with mental illnesses so terrible that they cannot throw anything out is fascinating, Sandra’s personal story is even more interesting. She was born a boy, adopted as a baby and brought up in a violent and difficult home, then as a young man married and became a father. Eventually she discovered Melbourne’s gay scene and left her wife and children, eventually having gender-reassignment surgery to become a woman. She worked as a prostitute before becoming a funeral director, then married a much older man. Now, Sandra runs her own business where the physical work she does is equally as important as the emotional assistance she provides to her clients.

The Trauma Cleaner has been all over the news in Australia all of this year, having been nominated for and winning a swag of prizes, although my feeling is that the prizes were won because of the strength of the subject matter rather than because of the writing. Sandra’s personal stories are balanced with her work stories, both of which are interesting enough to have stood alone. The author lets us know that Sandra is an unreliable narrator, but she clearly feels affection and respect for her subject. On occasion, she brushes over Sandra’s version of events which I felt could have been questioned more closely, but as the story of a life, this one is certainly more interesting than most.

 

 

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

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I was frustrated reading Transcription by Kate Atkinson, because I want everything she writes to be as brilliant as Life After Life. Transcription was good but not great, although, to be fair, I might have been better satisfied with Transcription if I hadn’t known she was capable of so much more.

Transcription is the story of Juliet Armstrong, who was an 18 year-old orphan in 1940 when she was recruited by M15 to transcribe the recordings of meetings held between M15’s spies and traitors who believe they are aiding England’s enemies.

Juliet is an intelligent young woman who is bored by the vapid conversations she transcribes, but still naïve enough to imagine herself to be in love with her boss, who is happy to take advantage of her feelings. Eventually Juliet becomes a spy too and is directed to infiltrate a social group whose members a British Fascist sympathiser who is believed to have a copy of the ‘Red Book’.

After the war ended, Juliet worked for the BBC producing educational radio programs for children, alongside several of her former M15 colleagues. When she receives a threatening letter telling her she will pay for what she did, Juliet believes it may have be from someone she spied on during the war. Juliet was still working occasionally for M15 by providing a safe house for people being surreptitiously shuffled around the world.

Juliet is an interesting and likeable character with a sense of humour that read well, although I didn’t connect with her emotionally. The story itself though was slow and at times I had trouble keeping track of all of the characters. There was a twist at the end that I guessed at about half way through the story. As already mentioned, I was hoping for much more.

Kate Atkinson remains one of my favourite authors, so perhaps my expectations of Transcription were too high.

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

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Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers could also have been titled ‘The Body in the Bath.’

The story introduces Lord Peter Wimsey, a well-to-do aristocrat who solves crimes as a hobby. Lord Peter’s habit of droppin’ the endin’ off his words had become annoyin’ well before the end of the story. Another character’s ‘abit (sorry, habit) of dropping ‘is (sorry, his) ‘aitches (sorry, haitches) irritated me too.*

The story begins with Lord Peter’s mother telling him about a murder case she has just heard of, where a dead body has been found in the bath of an acquaintance. The body is unidentified and the mystery unusual enough that the Dowager Duchess knows that Lord Peter will be interested enough to make enquiries.

Lord Peter sets off to take a look at the body and realises that the body has been disguised, although Inspector Sugg, who does not like or approve of Lord Peter, is fooled, and believes the body to be that of a missing businessman, Sir Rueben Levy. Inspector Sugg arrests the owner of the house and a maid for the murder.

Luckily, Lord Peter had friends in high places and was able to continue his investigation with the assistance of his ‘man’ Bunter and his friend Inspector Charles Parker, working out who the corpse is and why he was found dead in the bath disguised as the missing man, what happened to the missing man and of course, who really did it and why.

Unfortunately, so did I.

The story is dated and the anti-Semitism is rampant. The reader is supposed to like Lord Peter but I couldn’t, mostly because of his blathering conversational style. He regularly quotes from random books or sings a few lines of something or other that nobody has ever heard of during his speeches and of course, his dropped word endings drove me mad. Once in a while the story got bogged down in some scene or other which had no relevance to the story.

I believe there are quite a few Lord Peter Wimsey stories which followed Whose Body? so it seems as if the things that bothered me didn’t bother audiences of the times, but I found myself wishing I’d stuck with Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse for a good dose of the 1920’s.

*I’m easily irritated these days…

Watership Down by Richard Adams

 

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I’ve been resisting reading Watership Down by Richard Adams for nearly forty years, telling myself that I don’t like books about animals despite blubbering through Black Beauty as a child, remembering what I learned my whole life after studying Animal Farm in school, and more recently, having discovered the delights of The Wind in the Willows.

When I joined The Classics Club, I needed to create a list of fifty books and in a ‘Why not?” attitude, included Watership Down on the list, then borrowed the book from the library before I could change my mind.

It turns out that I do like stories about animals. At least, I felt anxious and concerned about the welfare of Hazel, Fiver and their daring band of rabbits as they lived their lives, felt relieved for them when their adventures turned out well, and cried over them at the end of the story. Hmm.

The story was written for children but it isn’t a childish read. The rabbits have their own language, morals, proverbs and myths. The story is an adventure story and the rabbits are the heroes.

Watership Down begins with a rabbit called Fiver warning his brother Hazel about an imminent danger to their warren. Fiver doesn’t know what the danger is but Hazel heeds Fiver’s warning as previously, Fiver has inexplicably known when something bad was about to happen. Hazel and Fiver attempted to warn their Chief Rabbit, but when he didn’t listen they escaped the warren themselves along with a handful of other rabbits including Bigwig, a physically and mentally strong rabbit with soldier-like characteristics and experiences, Dandelion, who is a story-teller, little Pipkin, Speedwell, Buckthorn, brainy Blackberry, Holly and Silver, each of whom have their own distinguishing characteristics.

Fiver has a vision of where they should go, but Hazel is their leader, although he is not the biggest or the cleverest amongst them. Along their journey they run into rabbits from another warren who invite them to join their warren. This turned out to be a mistake, and a lesson to readers as well, in a ‘not to settle for the devil that you know’ type of way.

They eventually made their way to Watership Down, a safe, grassy area on top of a hill where they are relatively safe from predators and they build a warren of their own there. For a while they are safe and happy, but soon they realise their days are numbered as they have no does, and so no continuity for their warren.

The group devise a plan to bring does back to their warren, but put themselves into enormous danger in doing so. I was delighted to read that the rabbits weren’t romantic, but saw their need to repopulate as a practical necessity. The does felt exactly the same way about romance and repopulating.

In between the main story, Dandelion tells the other rabbits myths about Frith who made the world and their Prince Rabbit, the daring and tricky El-ahrairah, whose ways they try to emulate as they find their way in the world, and the Black Rabbit.

There is not a day or night that a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain: what is, is what must be.

Threats to Hazel, Fiver and their group included foxes, stoat, birds and other wild animals, but also humans, dogs, cats and farm animals. Other threats to the rabbits survival were also indirectly caused by humans.

In Australia, rabbits are a pest and are cursed and eradicated accordingly, but Watership Down has changed my thinking. I expect it will be some time before I see a wild rabbit without thinking of Hazel’s courage, Bigwig’s strength, Fiver’s foreknowledge, Blackberry’s brains, Dandelion’s stories and the others in their group as a generous and happy little community.

Watership Down was book four for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

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