Category Archives: Book Review

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel


I added Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal to my list after reading Fiction Fan’s glowing review of this book last year, but started my own reading of this author with The Life of Pi, and found this to be such an enthralling and unusual story that I still think about the plot and the characters a year after finishing the book.

The High Mountains of Portugal is beautifully written and is in much the same style as The Life of Pi, with strange, impossible things happening throughout. These crazy events seemed perfectly reasonable and believable while I was reading, though.

The story is made up of three quite distinct sections, named ‘Homeless’, ‘Homeward’ and ‘Home’, with each set in different times but overlapping geographically, with each story set at least in part in the High Mountains of Portugal. The central theme of each story is grieving. Each section answers or raises questions for the other sections of the story.

The first section, ‘Homeless’, starts in Lisbon in 1904 with Tomas, a young man who is grieving for his father, his lover and his son, all of whom died within a week of each other. From then on, unless he is running from a dangerous situation, Tomas walks backwards to show God and the world that he objects to everything he loves being taken from him.

Tomas works in a museum and becomes interested in a religious artifact which he believes would redefine history if found. Tomas’ uncle loans him an automobile, teaches him (more or less) to drive and sends him out on his quest.

The second section, ‘Homeward’, tells the story of a pathologist who conducts an autopsy on New Year’s Eve in 1938. The pathologist’s wife visits him at his work and tells him how stories about Jesus Christ were used to instill and spread faith, then likens Agatha Christie’s stories to reading stories about Jesus. (Reading this sentence back makes me wonder why this book made such good sense to me while I was reading, but I assure you, it did. I might have to read it again to understand precisely how this worked, though). Anyway, after the pathologist’s wife left him to finish his work, he carried out an autopsy on a man whose wife was insistent on learning from the autopsy how her husband had lived. The autopsy was extraordinary, completely surreal but also completely believable.

My favourite section was the last, called ‘Home’. ‘Home’ is set in the 1980s and tells of a politician grieving for his dead wife. He moves from Canada to the High Mountains of Portugal with a chimpanzee that he rescued from a research facility.

Readers who are more familiar with Bible stories will probably get more from this book than I did, and readers of Agatha Christie will no doubt enjoy the second section, ‘Homeward’, enormously.

I preferred The Life of Pi, but The High Mountains of Portugal is an extraordinary story.




Filed under Author, Book Review, Martel - Yann

Ludmila and The Lonely by Paul Gallico


I found Ludmila and The Lonely by Paul Gallico to be slightly too soppy for my taste. I loved Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico and overlooked the soppiness in that story because I loved the movie starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs ‘Arris, but this time around the overblown sentimentality made me cringe.

Ludmila is a story about a poor little cow who doesn’t have much milk, who comes good and proves her worth to everyone after a miracle. The blurb on the back says the story is the retelling of “a charming pastoral legend of old Liechtenstein.” At least the story was short and the drawings by Reisie Lonette were sweet. (I know, I know, I’m such a cow for saying this. Moo to you too).

The Lonely is also a short story, and was the most unlikely match for Ludmila that I could have imagined. I expect they were only published together because of the suitability of their length.

The Lonely tells the story of Jerry, a young American man in England during WW2 who was forced by his superior officer to take leave. Jerry asked Patches, who was in the WAAF and who conveniently had leave due to her at the same time, to holiday with him in Scotland. The arrangement was that at the end of their holiday Jerry and Patches would wish each other good luck and go their separate ways, after their couple of weeks of ‘fun.’

This story was more complicated, as Jerry had a fiancé at home in the USA whom he thought of as a goddess. Patches was in love with Jerry, but like a good sport, hid her true feelings from him. In my opinion Jerry was an immature idiot, who needed a few more years to grow up before he launched himself on any woman.

Paul Gallico also wrote The Poseidon Adventure, the movie of which gave me nightmares for years afterwards. The scene where a character jumps and swings from a burning-hot wheel to open or shut something, I forget which, in order to save the other characters before falling into the fire below is something I have never managed to forget.

The Snow Goose is held up to be this author’s best work. I haven’t read this, but plan to some time.



Filed under Author, Gallico - Paul

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout


Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout was so interesting to me that I could not put the book down. The story uses characters from the novel My Name is Lucy Barton to create a world where the character’s stories connect and entwine with each others’ in surprising and interesting ways.

Funny, because I didn’t enjoy My Name is Lucy Barton at all. I felt as if that story was too subtle, with nothing much happening to the characters in terms of their emotional growth. Anything is Possible was the exact opposite. So much happened that it was if a whole new world had opened up to me.

Anything is Possible is set in Amgash, Illinois, where Lucy Barton grew up, dirt poor and rejected by her peers. The characters are all loosely connected with Lucy in some way, although she only appears in one of the chapters. Some of these characters are happy, innocent and good, while others are sordid and depraved, with the rest falling somewhere in between.

Each of the chapters could almost be read as a short story, but the constant connections between the protagonist of each chapter add together until all of the parts together made a novel.

The opportunity to get to know Lucy Barton through the other character’s eyes was wonderful to me. She was variously shown as a poverty-stricken abused child, a sister, a successful author, a cousin, and as a shining light for a teenage relative to emulate. There was the same sense of wonder for me in getting to know each of the other characters too.

Amongst my favourite characters were Tommy, who was the janitor at Lucy’s school when she was a child hiding in classrooms to avoid going home, and Lucy’s brother Pete, who was emotionally undeveloped for the same reasons as Lucy but who was still a good, loving man.

I had no respect for a character who supported her wealthy husband’s immoral behaviour so that her lifestyle was not compromised, and disliked her and her morals intensely. The remaining characters fell somewhere in between being good, honest and true, and being nasty, rude and as earlier mentioned, depraved.

When I read My Name is Lucy Barton, I struggled to believe that Lucy was a writer. In My Name is Lucy Barton, we got to know Lucy as she recovered from a serious illness with her mother by her side. In this story, we learned that Lucy had written several short stories, followed by a best-selling memoir. The conversations Lucy had with her mother and other characters in this novel did not give me the sense that she was capable of writing well. In Anything is Possible, I enjoyed the chapter where Lucy actually appeared and interacted closely with other characters, but again her conversation left me with the same sense of disbelief that she was a good and capable writer.

I’m thinking of re-reading My Name is Lucy Barton, because after reading Anything is Possible, I’m wondering I missed the point in the first novel.

Anything is Possible is probably best read after reading My Name is Lucy Barton, although it does work as a stand-alone novel. Elizabeth Strout fans will enjoy this book.


Filed under Author, Strout - Elizabeth

Annabel by Kathleen Winter


Annabel by Kathleen Winter is a debut novel, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2011.

The story starts with Wayne Blake being born in 1968 during a home birth in Labrador, in a remote part of Canada. One of the women attending the birth was a neighbour of the Blake family, Thomasina Montague, whose husband and daughter, Annabel, were recently drowned in a tragic accident. When Wayne was born, Thomasina noticed a physical anomaly and quickly wrapped the baby up before handing the baby to his mother.

Wayne was born a hermaphrodite (now called intersex), meaning he had both male and female reproductive organs. Wayne’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, made the decision to bring Wayne up as a boy and had him operated on to remove the physical ambiguity. When Wayne was baptised, Thomasina, who was Wayne’s godmother, also quietly christened him ‘Annabel’ after her daughter.

Treadway struggled to cope with the emotional confusion of Wayne’s condition and insisted on bringing Wayne up in a very masculine way, teaching him things that he believed boys need to know at an early age. Jacinta however, mourned for the lost daughter who she could see inside Wayne. Wayne’s condition was known only to Thomasina amongst their community.

Wayne became ill as a teenager, and was medicated, although he didn’t know what for or why. The character of Wayne is delightful, he is kind and generous, and seemed to me to exhibit the best qualities of boys and girls. His dearest friend was a girl and he continued to love her his whole life.

In the beginning of the book, I was looking for clues for dominant characteristics of Wayne being more of one sex or the other, but by about half way through I had stopped and was seeing Wayne simply as a person.

As a small child, Thomasina had secretly called Wayne ‘Annabel’, and as he grew up, he felt as if he had a secret female self who he thought of as Annabel, although he was still unaware that he had been born both male and female.

I loved the first part of this book which showed Wayne as a small child, but felt as if the story went flat in the second half as Wayne grew up and he and the other characters seemed to drift aimlessly. There were no questions from Wayne when he eventually learned the truth about his sex, just a graceful acceptance. In my opinion, if Wayne truly had elements of both a teenage boy and a girl in him when he learned such momentous news, there would have been far more drama.

Treadway was an interesting character, silent and self-reliant. He spent as much time as he could out on his trapline, hunting animals for their fur. Jacinta and Wayne, like the other women and children in their community, spent months alone while the men were away working.

The landscape and the depiction of the traditional values and ways of life are an important element in Annabel and for me were the highlight. The language is beautiful and carefully chosen. Had the characters been less subtle and more passionate, I think I would have enjoyed this story better.



Filed under Author, Book Review, Winter - Kathleen

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins


I felt let-down by The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. This book has been everywhere over the past year or so and my expectations were high.

The first half of the story was intriguing. I was caught up in the mystery, wondering what, if anything, had happened and trying to figure out which character I should believe and why. But then the story went off the rails with a series of unbelievable events and characters acting uncharacteristically. Not quite a train wreck, more of a failure to arrive.

The story is told alternately in the first person by three women, Rachel, Anna and Megan, in segments which go back and forwards in time. The girl on the train is Rachel. She takes the train to and from her place of work daily, looking out of the window at houses and imagining the lives of the people who live in them. On her evening train, she drinks all of the way home.

One day on the train Rachel sees something unusual happening in the backyard of a house she has become familiar with, and later, when a murder is reported in the household, she contacts the police to tell them what she saw.

Anna and Megan, who are connected in various ways with Rachel, also take turns at telling the story, but it is Rachel who tells most of the story. As an alcoholic who suffers blackouts though, Rachel’s version of any story is not always credible.

The story is a fast read. None of the characters are particularly likeable and their faults are worse than what most people would tolerate in a friend. Despite my disappointment with the plot, I intend to see the movie sometime and hope The Girl on the Train is a better movie than it was a book.


Filed under Author, Book Review, Hawkins - Paula

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John


I would have passed over The Women in Black by Australian author Madeleine St John had not Orange Pekoe Reviews called this book “a perfect novel” in her recent review.

Who would have thought that hiding behind this cover is a novel by a nearly forgotten author which deserves to be shelved with the very best of Australian literature? Not me.

The Women in Black is set in Sydney in the 1950s and tells the stories of four women who work together at Goode’s, Sydney’s most prestigious department store. Goode’s is fictional, and is most likely based on David Jones, which would have been the place to shop in Sydney during this time if you were a woman with discretionary money to spend. The women working in DJ’s also wear black and are frighteningly elegant.

Patty has been married for Frank for over ten years without any sign of a baby coming along to put an end to her employment with Goode’s, but a black lace nightie may change that. Her husband Frank is described as “a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel not violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.” Sounds to me like the definition of most Australian man from any era. Personally, I quite like them.

Fay has been swept off her feet by unsuitable men too many times to count. She “never seemed to meet the sort of man she dreamed of: someone who would respect her as well as desiring her; someone who would love her and wish to marry her.” An invitation to a New Year’s Eve party from a workmate opens Faye’s eyes to possibilities other than the usual men she meets.

Young Lisa is on the cusp of becoming a woman, and dreams of becoming a poet, while Magda, who runs the ‘Model Gowns’ section in Goode’s is an elegant ‘New Australian’. Together, the four women work in the Ladies Frocks Department, providing the women of Sydney with beautiful dresses during the lead up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The story is told by an all-seeing narrator who tells the story as it unfolds, and who is not above giving the reader a wink from time to time.

The story is deceptively simple, touching and funny. The characters’ voices are as Australian as all get-out, and the phrases used are things which adults used to say when I was a child. Australia’s population has changed so much that these voices have mostly been lost and reading The Women in Black made me nostalgic to hear them again.

I loved this book so much that I went to my favourite bookshop, Hill of Content in Melbourne, and bought my own copy. I would love to find Madeleine St John’s other books too but was told they are now out of print, so I will be scrounging around second-hand bookshops and op-shops until I can get my hands on them. Australian director Bruce Beresford optioned this book to make into a movie and I wish he would hurry up and make the movie.




Filed under Australian Author, Author, Book Review, St John - Madeleine

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett


I’ve never read any fiction by Ann Patchett, so had no particular reason for picking up This is the Story of a Happy Marriage except that I liked the title. As it turned out, I liked the author’s voice in this collection of memoirs and essays so much that I have already found a novel by this author to read.

The stories and essays tell of events which shaped the author’s life and career. Most have appeared in magazines or other publications.

I particularly enjoyed reading how the author honed her craft writing for Seventeen, bridal magazines, Vogue, the New York Tes Magazine and Gourmet, travelling or writing about particular experiences up to a particular word count on demand, then ruthlessly editing to suit a number of task-masters. The Getaway Car advises would-be writers sit down at their desk for two hours every day for two weeks, writing, (or trying to), without using the internet, reading or becoming distracted by tasks around the house. If would-be writers can’t manage this, then Ann Patchett suggests that writing is not for them.

One of the ideas which struck me was hearing that the author struggled to find work which left her with enough mental energy to write for herself, she tried teaching, worked in restaurants and took on other jobs before realising that she could get paid for writing, which fuelled her creativity and output rather than supressing it. This makes sense to me, as I’m only good for doing the dishes after a day at work followed by a long commute, which is why I write my book reviews early in the morning.

There are stories about the type of people who turn up to ‘Meet the Author’ events and I was surprised, (although on reflection, I don’t know why) to learn that they are the readers of the book prior to the one currently being promoted. There are also stories about friends, husbands, family members and dogs. The story about the author’s beloved dog, Dog Without End touched me most of all.

The Sacrament of Divorce reminds readers that we don’t have to stay in the wrong marriage until death do us part. The Best Seat in the House describes the author’s love affair with opera, which she discovered while doing research for her novel, Bel Canto. My Road to Hell was Paved was written for Outside magazine, and was intended as an expose on grey nomads endlessly on the move in their Winnebagos in their often ridiculed way of life, but the author confides that she ended up loving the lifestyle after a junket to Yellowstone National Park. The Mercies is a lovely story about the author assisting and becoming friends with the now-elderly nuns who taught her in school.

The title story, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is the story of the author’s parents and grandparent’s marriages, happy and unhappy, as well as her own first marriage to the wrong person and her second, happier marriage. The author’s advice for picking the right person to marry came from a friend;

“Does your husband make you a better person?” Edra asked.

“Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?”

“That’s all there is: Does he make you better and do you make him better?”

Ann Patchett has a meticulous voice which made me feel conscious of reading her stories more carefully than I usually read. She does not always paint herself in the best possible light and her honesty is likeable. This made every word of every story ring true.

I’m looking forwarding to working through Ann Patchett’s novels, starting with Bel Canto.


Filed under Author, Book Review, Patchett - Ann

The Dry by Jane Harper


The Dry by Australian author Jane Harper came to my attention via a review by Fiction Fan, who often bears the responsibility for adding to my list of ‘want to reads,’ but over the past months I’ve seen this book everywhere; people are reading it on the train, there are displays in bookshops and interviews with the author in the newspapers. Most excitingly, when I picked up the Dymocks Top 101 booklist for 2017, I spotted the title at #17.

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a fictional Victorian farming community. My guess is that Kiewarra is based on a Mallee district, maybe Kerang, or Ouyen, where the bakery is famous for their Vanilla Slice. Families up that way have owned their land for generations and they do it tough during droughts. In this story, the whole community is struggling financially and emotionally because of drought.

The Dry starts with the tragic death of three people in a family. On the surface, it appears that Luke Hadler shot his wife and primary school aged son before shooting himself because he couldn’t cope with the prospect of losing of the family farm. Luke’s baby daughter was spared and later found in the house, howling her little head off.

Aaron Falk was Luke’s friend when they were growing up and he returns to Kiewarra from Melbourne for the funeral. Falk is now an investigator with the Australian Federal Police, but as a teenager, he and his father were forced to leave town after the death of a girl whom he and Luke had been friends with.

When Falk is asked by Luke’s parents to investigate the murder-suicide he agrees reluctantly. Most of the people of Kiewarra remember him and the circumstances of him leaving town, and he is harassed and threatened by many of the townspeople, including the girl’s father and cousin.

Despite the harassment, Falk sticks around and teams up with the local copper, Sergeant Raco, who has also been poking about on the Hadler farm. Raco is a good bloke, happily married with a baby on the way and he is smart enough to have noticed irregularities in the case. Raco is also an outsider in Kiewarra but he knows enough about the dynamics of small towns to make the locals toe the line.

As Falk and Raco investigate the deaths, further mysteries arise about the death of the girl all of those years ago, particularly about Luke’s possible involvement.

The language in this book is spot-on, although Australians swear a lot more than this book would suggest. The evocative details which gave the story an Australian feel were also beautifully done, although I could have done without the image of the huntsman crawling around Falk’s hotel room; as an arachnophobe, I would have killed the spider with my shoe on its first appearance.

The country-town atmosphere also felt rang true. Everyone in Kiewarra knew most of their neighbours’ business and were quick to judge each other. They ignored issues which should have been addressed when they were afraid of their own livelihoods being harmed, but they also rallied around each other in ways which doesn’t happen in the city, where a person or family can be as anonymous as they want to be.

I have to admit that I had a feeling about how this story would end and was very excited when I was proved right. This did not spoil my enjoyment of the story in any way and I strongly recommend The Dry to others.

Force of Nature is the next book by this author featuring Aaron Falk and I cannot wait to read it.


Filed under Australian Author, Author, Book Review, Harper - Jane

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy


I didn’t think I would ever actually get around to reading The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. My edition has The Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let in a single volume of 724 pages and I had been saving the book up in case I ever broke my leg and couldn’t get to the library. The book has been hiding in the stash of books inside my bedside table for about 25 years,* and only came out when I was watching the television news a few weeks ago (sigh) and thinking about the things I would regret not having done if the world came to a sudden end.

Then, once I actually started reading The Forsyte Saga, I didn’t think I would ever get through the book. I seemed to be reading it day and night; on the train, in the lunchroom at work, in bed, while I was stirring things on the stove and not making so much as a dent in the pages. But the story was enthralling, and I kept reading and reading, and eventually my bookmark was sitting around the middle of the book. Mysteriously, I flew through the last half, in the same way that the fuel indicator gauge in my car sits on ‘full’ for 500 kilometres, then all of a sudden drops to halfway and then, less than thirty kilometres later, the ’empty’ light is flashing and I’m no way near a service station…

At this rate, my review of The Forsyte Saga is going to be about as long as the book, but that isn’t entirely incongruous as the story goes into a lot of detail about the Forsyte family of London, their lives and loves and their values.

The Man of Property starts off with an ‘At Home’ at Old Jolyon Forsyte’s house in London one summer afternoon in 1886, with a gathering of the Forsyte clan to celebrate the engagement of one of Jolyon’s grand-daughters to an architect called Bosinney. The Foryste family are upper-middle class and financially successful. As individuals, they are characteristically self-important.

Soames Forsyte is the main character in The Man of Property. He is extraordinarily interested in real estate (this is true of most of the Forsytes) and as such, includes his beautiful wife Irene amongst his property. Soames is desperate for Irene to love him and cannot understand why she is repelled by him. When Irene agreed to marry Soames, following a relentless campaign which took him years, he agreed to set her free if she ever asked, but Soames dismissed her request for freedom when it came.

Soames engages Bosinney to build a mansion in the country where he intends for Irene to live in isolation, hoping this will force her to love him. During the building of the mansion, Irene and Bosinney fall in love. When Bosinney dies, Irene leaves Soames, leaving them in limbo as Soames continues to love Irene and does not want to expose his private life to the scrutiny of the media should they divorce.

While I was sympathetic to Irene, there weren’t many pages I turned without wondering why on earth she had married Soames and brought all of this trouble on all of them. This question was eventually answered to my satisfaction, and the answer was certainly in keeping with the Victoria and Edwardian times of when the story was written.

In Chancery has Soames and Irene having been separated for 12 years. Soames still wants Irene, but he also recognises that he now wants a son too, and he has been spending time with a beautiful French woman 20 years his junior, with the intention of marrying her if Irene won’t have him.

Young Jolyon, Soames’ cousin, has been acting as Irene’s financial trustee and becomes Irene’s protector when Soames tries to force Irene to live as his wife again. Irene and Young Jolyon fall in love and when Soames divorces Irene, Irene and Young Jolyon marry and have a son, Jon. Soames marries the young French woman and they have a daughter, Fleur.

The last part is To Let, by which time Fleur and Jon are young adults, and unaware of their parent’s history, they meet for the first time and fall in love. Obviously Irene and Soames are unhappy about their children’s relationship.

There are a cast of thousands in the Forsyte family, and each of them have their own stories, trials and tribulations, but it is Irene, Young Jolyon and Soames who the reader spends the most time with and has the most sympathy for.

The family’s interest in real estate, particularly in Man of Property, is similar to the mindset of middle class Australians now. We talk endlessly about the price of real estate, we are mad about renovating, and we worry about new home buyers’ inability to save up for a house deposit in a rising market (the suggestion that young Australians give up their weekend smashed avocado brunches at fashionable cafes or their regular overseas holidays has been howled down as being unrealistic, fuddy-duddy advice) and we watch television shows promoting home ownership and renovations.

I nearly fell over when I realised there are another 463 (or some other equally ridiculous amount) of sequels to The Forsyte Saga, but once I got over the shock I found a copy of the next book to hide in the bedside table stash in case I ever get an infectious disease which prevents me from getting to the library.**

I believe there is also a movie, or an old television series based on The Forsyte Saga, but I don’t have time to watch it at the moment. Eventually, maybe, but at the moment I’m addicted to watching Beachfront Bargain Hunt and The Block.

*I have to hide my book purchases, because He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers thinks I have too many books already, and he shakes his head in a disappointed way when I come home with more. At least with The Forsyte Saga, I was able to say with perfect truthfulness, “Oh this old thing! I’ve had this for years!”

**Next to my super-secret stash of chocolate. You are all under strict instruction never to tell He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers about this hiding place.


Filed under Author, Book Review, Galsworthy - John

American Housewife by Helen Ellis


I finished reading American Housewife by Helen Ellis about three days ago and when I sat down to write my review realised that I couldn’t remember a thing about the book. Not a good sign, although I did like the book well enough while I was reading it. I love the cover though, with the classic red, white and blue colour combination, the stars and stripes and the winking housewife with her glamorous 1940’s rolled hairstyle.

Flicking back through the book reminded me that American Housewife was a collection of short stories. They were all fast reads, clever enough and entertaining at the time, but not one of them left me with a new idea or a moral ambiguity to ponder on later.

The back page said that the author has one of those wildly successful Twitter things, called @WhatIDoAllDay, which I’ve never seen or heard of because I don’t ‘do’ those Twitter things.

My understanding of those Twitter things is that you pass a comment in text about whatever you are thinking when you think it, exactly as you would to someone you were actually with, then, 4000 people read your comment and immediately say something back to you in text. In real life you would need to spend a large proportion of the day answering each of the people who answered your initial remark until one of you was able to bring the conversation to a polite close, but I don’t believe that happens in those Twitter things, instead, you say your thing and forget all about it, ignoring whatever everyone else says in return.

Come to think of it, I expect this Twitter thing was invented by a housewife somewhere whose husband never listens because he is watching football or a car show on the television and not listening to whatever she was ‘twittering’ on about… (Don’t tell me if I’m wrong, I like my version of the invention of Twitter better).




Filed under Author, Book Review, Ellis - Helen