Category Archives: Author

Mrs Osmond by John Banville

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Despite the Viking (Pengiun) edition of Mrs Osmond by John Banville being one of the most physically beautiful books I have ever seen, with green marbling decorating the inside covers and signed by the author to boot, I would not have borrowed this book from my local library had I realised Mrs Osmond is the story of what happens next to Henry James’ characters from The Portrait of a Lady, which I haven’t read.

I struggled with this book because Mrs Osmond required more of the character’s histories to be told for the story to work as a stand-alone novel. In Henry James’ style, John Banville didn’t leave any conversation or event until it has been fully told, and I very often caught myself wishing the author would hurry up and get on with telling the story…

Mrs Osmond begins with Isabel Archer having been married to Gilbert Osmond long enough to have realised her mistake. Gilbert Osmond has shown himself to be an unpleasant man and Isabel has learned that he married her for her money. Most shockingly of all, he has passed his daughter Pansy off to Isabel and the rest of the world as his late wife’s child, when in fact, the sleekly unpleasant Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

Having learned the shocking facts of Pansy’s parentage, Isabel intends to separate from her husband, but she also wants an ‘accounting’ or a ‘reckoning’ from him and from Madame Merle. Isabel spends most of the book travelling back to Italy on her way to the showdown with her husband, planning how best to extricate herself (and her money) from his clutches.

Possibly fans of The Portrait of a Lady will go mad for Mrs Osmond but this book was wasted on me. To make matters worse, I’ve enjoyed other stories by Henry James but have no intention now of ever reading The Portrait of a Lady. I probably wouldn’t even watch the movie!

I will read more by John Banville but will look for a stand-alone story next time.

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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I was so enraptured by the beauty of the language in Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson that I picked up Gilead just a few weeks later. In the past I’ve been disappointed when I’ve read an author’s other works in such quick succession (and should know better than to continue doing this), but happily, reading Gilead added to my appreciation of Marilynne Robinson’s work.

Gilead is a small prairie town in Iowa and the hometown of the Reverend John Ames. The story is set in 1956 and is told as a letter from the elderly Reverend Ames to his seven-year old son. Aware that he will not live for much longer, he writes in his letter what he wants his son to learn as he becomes a man. Reverend Ames’ love for his son shows in every word he writes.

You and your mother were making sandwiches with peanut butter and apple butter on raisin bread. I consider such a sandwich a great delicacy, as you are clearly aware, because you made me stay on the porch until everything was ready, the milk poured and so on. Children seem to think every pleasant thing has to be a surprise.

The letter also describes how the Reverend Ames fell in love his son’s mother even though he was old and she was young, and the couple’s life experiences and education were vastly different from each others’. It also tells the story of the Reverend Ames own father and grandfather, both of whom were preachers, one a pacifist and one who “preached men into the Civil War.” The letter also tells the story of the Reverend Ames’ namesake, John Ames Boughton, the troubled adult son of Reverend Ames’s dearest friend, Reverend Boughton.

Reverend Ames’ first wife, Louisa died, along with their baby, in childbirth. Reverend Ames was hurt and offended when one of the Reverend Boughton’s enormous, healthy family was named after him. Reverend Ames and John Ames Boughton have an uneasy relationship from the boy’s childhood and Reverend Ames’ mistrust worsens when John Ames Boughton becomes friends with Reverend Ames’ wife Lila and is kind to their son.

Reverend Ames’ life work was preaching, and he leaves behind him every sermon he ever preached. He is a loved and respected member of his community although he admits he struggles with his temper. This fault is not evident in the letter he writes, rather it is a fault which he owns up to and cautions his son to be aware of in himself.

Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.

Reverend Ames is humanised by stories and pranks from his youth, such as putting a hay wagon on top of the Gilead courthouse roof with his friends one night.

Sinners are not all dishonorable people, not by any means. But those who are dishonorable never really repent and never really reform. Now, I may be wrong here. No such distinction appears in Scripture. And repentance and reformation are matters of the soul which only the Lord can judge. But, in my experience, dishonor is recalcitrant. When I see it, my heart sinks, because I feel I have no help to offer a dishonorable person. I know the deficiency may be my own altogether.

I’m not religious but knew that the name of the town where this story is set, Gilead, has Christian connotations, so investigated and found that one of the meanings of Gilead is ‘hill of testimony.’ The aptness of this carefully chosen name is reflective of this author’s work, every single word is considered, with no other word so meaningful or suitable in its place. The story is told slowly too, and I read Gilead slowly and carefully in order not to miss anything by skimming or racing ahead. I felt worried about various character’s motives and morals during some parts of this book, but was ultimately left with a feeling of hope and the sense that life is indeed a gift, regardless of any religious overtones. Non-religious types reading Gilead should be able to suspend disbelief as they would when reading science-fiction, as this is Reverend Ames’ story, and his own faith is an enormous part of his story.

Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005, is followed by Home, which I intend reading soon. The third book in the trilogy is Lila, which I believe is the story of Reverend Ames’ wife.

 

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Wimmera by Mark Brandi

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Wimmera is the debut novel of Australian author Mark Brandi, who won the 2016 Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger Award for this novel.

To begin with, for non-Australian readers, the Wimmera is a district in the north-west of Victoria. It is mostly flat, except for the Grampians mountain range, with a handful of remote small towns. Summers in the Wimmera are harsh and these days the towns are dying as they become less viable in their farming communities.

Wimmera is the story of two primary school-aged boys, Ben and Fab, who were friends growing up during the late 1980s in Stawell, one of the larger towns in the Wimmera district.

There is a strong sense of unease around the normality in this town. A girl from Ben’s street suicides by hanging herself on the clothesline in the backyard, and very soon after a creepy bloke who likes Ben a bit too much moves in to her old house. Fab is bullied at school, and although Ben is able to protect him at school, he is unable to help Fab at home when his father belts him and his mother.

I’m not all that familiar with teenage boys, and it is a long time since I was a teenage girl who thought teenage boys were great, but I found the portrayal of Ben’s growing sexuality to be sordid and confused, and the shadow over him left me feeling unhappy and disturbed.

Ben and Fab grow up and go their separate ways, but when a body is found years later their paths cross again. There are two time-lines in this story, the first of the boys as children and the second of Fab as an adult, trapped in Stawell but dreaming of a better life.

The story brought back a lot of memories for me from the 1980s, from watching The Wonder Years on television to the prestige which came from owning certain types of sneakers, although these happier memories didn’t make up for the terrible things that some of the adult characters did to the children. While the violence and cruelty is not explicit, Wimmera is not a story for those who cannot stomach cruelty done to children by evil men.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Mark Brandi’s works in the future, but would prefer him to write a more palatable class of crime.

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The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes

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The Woman Who Stole My Life is Marian Keyes’ latest housebrick of a novel. I’ve read and enjoyed all of her novels, but did not connect with this story as well as I have with others.

This story starts with the heroine, Stella, a married mother of two falling ill with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare condition which causes her to be completely paralysed and only able to communicate by blinking.

Stella’s neurologist, Mannix, devises a way to communicate with her and writes down everything she says (in blinks), which include a number of pithy and inspirational sayings. Mannix, who has a six-pack and is married to a model, falls in love with Stella (!) and removes himself from her case, but arranges to have Stella’s sayings published for her by a Vanity Press. When Stella recovers, a celebrity is seen reading her book and all at once she is a best selling author, has left her husband and is living with Mannix in New York after he gave up his career and his wife to become Stella’s manager. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

While I love Marian Keyes style and voice, the plot of this book was too over-the-top, even for me. I wasn’t all that mad about the characters either. Stella didn’t have a great deal of substance, her husband loved himself to bits, her son was a pain in the proverbial and Mannix was too good to be true. I just couldn’t believe in their romance.

What I did enjoy was reading about was the behind the scenes stuff about publishing. The wheeling and dealing was intense and the travelling and promoting of the book was gruelling. When Stella’s book failed to sell as well as expected, she was dumped in about three seconds flat. I had a far more romantic view of publishing before reading The Woman Who Stole My Life.

I’ll definitely read Marian Keyes’ next offering but would recommend other of her books over this one.

 

 

 

 

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A Cure For All Diseases by Reginald Hill

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Reginald Hill’s A Cure For All Diseases went to the top of my TBR after I reviewed Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady last year, and was advised by FictionFan that A Cure For All Diseases was a modern retelling of Sanditon as crime fiction, of all things! The only thing was, A Cure For All Diseases is the 21st book in the Dalziel and Pascoe series of novels – so of course I skipped the first 20 books featuring the famous British Police duo and started reading the one I was interested in.

I’m sure fellow Janeite’s will agree with me that A Cure For All Diseases is brilliant. The story is set at Sandytown… Get it? Sanditon! Most of Jane Austen’s characters from Sanditon are in A Cure For All Diseases with their personalities untouched, albeit modernised.

The story begins with the Parker family suffering a car accident on the Heywood’s property and meeting Charlotte (Charley) Heywood and her family. The two families become friendly and Charley is invited to accompany the Parkers to their home in Sandytown, where Tom Parker is creating a health resort with the assistance of Lady Daphne Denham. Tom is keen on alternative therapies and altruistically wants everyone in the world to benefit from an association with Sandytown, but Lady Denham, true to Jane Austen’s character, is in it for the money.

Charley tells her part of the story in a series of emails to her sister in Africa and she doesn’t leave much out. She meets Lady Denham’s nephew, the hunky Sir Edward Denham and his snarky sister Esther, Lady Denham’s mysterious companion, Clara, and most of the other townspeople. Eventually, Tom Parker’s brother Sydney turns up in Sandytown too and he turns out to be another hunk for Charley to gush over in her emails to her sister.

Superintendent Andy Dalziel is also in Sandytown, convalescing at the Avalon Foundation after being seriously injured in a work incident. As part of his therapy, Andy tells his story to a tape recorder he has named Mildred, which we read as he speaks.

Once Pascoe, Wield and other characters from the police enter the story, after Lady Denham is spectacularly murdered and found roasting in a spit-like contraption at her own hog-roast, an omniscient narrator also appears.

I loved the references to Jane Austen’s Sanditon, the setting was gorgeous, the characters were alive and the story brilliant, but for me, Andy’s narrative voice was the highlight of the book. He was rude, politically incorrect, swore constantly, spoke in a Yorkshire dialect (generally I hate reading dialects) and he rubbed most people up the wrong way, but Andy was also funny, clever and kind. He and Charley, a student psychologist, got along like a house on fire.

Andy’s description of Doctor Lester Feldenhammer, who he calls ‘Festerwhanger” was the first thing that made me laugh aloud;

“I could tell he were a Yank as soon as he opened his gob. Not the accent but the teeth! It were like looking down an old-fashioned bog, all vitreous china gleaming white. Bet he gargles with Harpic twice a day.”

Readers familiar with the regular characters from the books or television series Dalziel and Pascoe would have enjoyed the following description of meeting up with Andy again.

“Mebbe Pete’s smile were a bit strained, and it’s hard to tell if Wieldy’s grinning or passing a hard turd, but I swear young Bowler had tears in his eyes and Ivor Novello even gave me a hug!”

I thought I had a good idea of who murdered Lady Daphne and why, but it turns out I didn’t. I was left feeling pleased with myself for picking a couple of twists which were revealed at the book’s conclusion.

My only complaint was that Charley’s emails to her sister were too contrived, with excessive description and detail, but for the purposes of telling the story in a way that honoured Sanditon, they worked.

Being unfamiliar with the books and the television series didn’t affect my enjoyment of A Cure For All Diseases, which I felt worked as a stand-alone story. I enjoyed A Cure For All Diseases so much that I would be delighted to learn that this author has written alternate versions of any other Jane Austen novels he chose to. (I can almost imagine Emma murdering someone and Dalziel sizing her up… As Jane Austen once suggested, I don’t much like Emma…)

I don’t know why I’ve never read anything by Reginald Hill before, but this year now looks as if it will be dedicated to my reading the Dalziel and Pascoe series from beginning to end, and anything else Reginald Hill has ever written.

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Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Fresh Complaint is a book of short stories by the author of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides.

The theme of Fresh Complaint is men behaving badly, although to be fair, some of the men were coerced into behaving as they did. Not all of the stories feature male main characters, but in these cases, the men’s behaviour impacts the female characters, causing a problem.

Complainers tells of two aging female friends as the eldest of the two becomes unable to look after herself due to poor health and dementia. The women share the love of a good book;

“They didn’t consider themselves intellectuals but they knew good writing from bad. Most of all, they liked a good story.”

Baster is the funniest of the stories in the collection and was my favourite. Tomasina is desperate to fall pregnant and although her ex-boyfriend Wally still loves her and is keen to be a father himself, Tomasina chooses someone else to provide the raw material… The outcome of this story made me surprisingly happy, despite my qualms about the characters’ behaviour.

Great Experiment is the story of an employee looking for a better deal from his employer. I felt sorry for the main character in this story, even though he should have listened to his conscience. (Isn’t that always the way?)

The title story, Fresh Complaint is the story of a Physics Professor who meets a young Indian woman desperate to avoid an arranged marriage. Another set of characters who should have listened to their consciences before making stupid choices.

Air Mail is the story of a young man travelling on the hippie trail who contracts a tummy bug. In my opinion he would have been better served by antibiotics than by searching for a spiritual remedy for his diarrhoea…

Each of the stories in Fresh Complaint were the perfect length to dip in and out of when my available reading time was short. I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, but as I’ve come to expect from this author, the plot of each was varied, unpredictable and interesting.

 

 

 

 

 

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Aunt Dimity & the Wishing Well by Nancy Atherton

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I came across the Aunt Dimity series after reading Ami at luvtoread’s delightful review of Aunt Dimity & the Next of Kin by Nancy Atherton. Ami’s review suggested that readers who are new to the Aunt Dimity books start at the beginning of the series, but as most of my reading matter comes from the local library, I am a slave to what they have, so started with number 19, Aunt Dimity & the Wishing Well. 

Book Review: Aunt Dimity and the Next of Kin by Nancy Atherton (An Aunt Dimity Mystery #10)

Aunt Dimity & the Wishing Well was a fun read which featured a light mystery. The story follows the heroine, Lori Shepherd as she and her neighbours welcome a newcomer to their English village in the Cotswalds. The newcomer is Jack MacBride, who hails from… wait for it… Malua Bay in New South Wales. You won’t believe this, but I lived at Malua Bay for many years, so nearly fell out of my Acapulco Chair in my haste to show the relevant page to He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers! Nancy Atherton must have visited Malua Bay at some point as Jack described it as a slice of paradise. See the photo below for proof…

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Coincidences aside, Jack MacBride is a tall, handsome, gorgeous Aussie (aren’t they all?) who set female hearts a-flutter when he arrived just in time for his Uncle Hector’s funeral. A few people suspect Jack of being someone other than who he says he is, but others, including Lori, jump at the chance to help him clear the garden around his Uncle Hector’s cottage in order for him to put it up for sale. When a wishing well is discovered in the garden, Lori makes a wish which comes true. Soon, everyone for miles around is visiting the garden to make their own wishes.

Other people’s wishes also start coming true, which became a problem when their wishes started impacting other people’s happiness. Lori, in an attempt to get to the bottom of what is going on with the wishing well, discusses matters with her Aunt Dimity who helps her to work out what is going on.

It is no secret that the character of Aunt Dimity is a ghost, who Lori communicates with by writing in a book with magical ink. I accepted this without hesitation, but struggled with the idea of a wishing well which delivered all sorts of wishes. I might have been less skeptical if a character had wished for a never-ending supply of chocolate, but obviously we all want different things…

Aunt Dimity & the Wishing Well was a quick read, fun and frothy and I enjoyed it enormously. Highly recommended as a cheerful, light read.

 

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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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.

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Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Calamity in Kent by John Rowland

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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.

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