Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘fiction’

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Reginald Hill so far, but The Woodcutter was a stand-out for me from this author. During my recent summer holiday I ignored the spring cleaning I’d saved up to do over my break along with several other good intentions and instead sat in the sun reading this psychological thriller. The spring cleaning will just have to wait until next spring…

The Woodcutter is a stand-alone story from the author who is probably best known for his Dalziel and Pascoe novels. I do intend to work my way through those eventually but want to start at the beginning of the series and haven’t yet come across A Clubbable Woman yet.

This story of The Woodcutter belongs to Sir Wilfred Hadda, who is called Wolf. He was the son of a Cumbrian wood cutter who, despite his wildness, somehow got into the heart of most of the people he met. Despite his low background, Wolf became an extremely wealthy businessman who married his teenage sweetheart, an upper-class woman whose aristocratic family had opposed their marriage.

Wolf’s empire failed when he was charged with both fraud and being involved in a paedophile ring. He was hit by a bus trying to escape from the police and when he woke up, he had lost an eye, several fingers and was lame. Not only that, but is wife had divorced him to marry his former lawyer and their daughter had died from a drug overdose.

The action begins with Wolf in a maximum security prison undergoing psychiatric sessions with Dr Alva Ozigbo. Wolf tells her his story and after eventually having accepted his guilt and showing remorse for his actions, was released from prison and returned to the woods of Cumbria where he set about exacting revenge on everyone who has contributed to his downfall, including his former business partners, police, criminals and his wife.

The descriptions of the rugged, hard Cumbrian landscapes suited the main character in this story perfectly. I liked the minor characters and the humour, too. I had no inkling of how the story would finish until I read the last few pages.

The Woodcutter was also the perfect book for holiday reading as the hardback edition I read would have been far too heavy to read cofortably on the train, then carry in a backpack from the train station to my workplace. (I know, I know, first world problems…)

So, highly recommended by me and I’ll continue to search for early Dalziel and Pascoe novels.

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

When my fellow bloggers, FictionFan and Sandra from A Corner of Cornwall and I recently chose The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley for a Classics Club spin which didn’t come up, we decided to read the book anyway and publish our reviews on the same day (links to FictionFan and Sandra’s blogs below). I’m really looking forward to comparing our reactions to this book!

The Go-Between was my first experience of L.P. Hartley’s writing. I got a thrill when I read and recognised the first line, which I hadn’t realised came from this novel.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

The story begins with an elderly man looking through his boyhood treasures, prompting him to remember the events of a particular summer during his childhood. Leo had suppressed the memories stemming from an incident occurring on his thirteenth birthday his whole life, affecting his emotional development and ability to pursue relationships. After Leo found and read the diary he kept during that fateful year, his returning memories became the story.

In 1900 Leo was at school, recording his school’s daily events in his diary. After gaining popularity amongst his schoolmates by injuring two bullies with a curse, Leo was invited to spend the summer holiday with Marcus, a schoolfriend at Brandham Hall in Norfolk.

The Maudsley family were richer and moved in a higher circle of society than Leo was used to, but he quickly became the particular pet of Marcus’ older sister Marian. When Marcus fell ill, Leo became a messenger for Marian, delivering letters between her and a local farmer, Ted Burgess, who were having a secret affair.

Leo also delivered messages to Marian from another houseguest, Lord Trimingham, who also loved Marian and wanted to marry her. Leo idolised Lord Trimingham and was delighted when asked to call him ‘Hugh’.

Leo idolised both Ted and Hugh, who represented different things to him. Hugh was a disfigured war hero, the Archer from Leo’s Zodiac diary, while Ted, a strong, manly farmer was the Water-Carrier. Leo saw Marian as the Virgin, a focus of attention, affection and the recipient of other zodiac symbol’s gallantry.

Leo was unaware of the nature of the messages he delivered for Marian and Ted, but when their affair was exposed he took the blame for the subsequent fall-out, despite the terrible shock he suffered on being exposed to the scandal.

The manipulation of Leo by selfish adults, leading to the loss of his self-esteem and innocence was tragic. Leo seemed to be to be a typical child, sometimes puffed up with his own importance and at other times ridiculously naïve and The Go-Between brought back uncomfortable memories of being twelve or thirteen years old myself, no longer a child, yet not quite a teenager and a long way from being an adult. I remember wanting to know more about subjects which mystified Leo and being unable to understand why adults behaved as they did. I also remember feeling confused, self-conscious and awkward much of the time.

Although this is story takes place during summer, an English summer is so different to an Australian summer that the time of year was as ‘other’ to me as the setting in Norfolk and the historic time of when this book was set, 1900. Times have changed, as the adult Leo noted during the sections of the story told in the present time. We have different ideas now about love affairs and we also have phones and other devices which lovers can use to contact each other directly, so ‘go-betweens’ are no longer required. People falling in love with the wrong person and selfish, manipulative behaviour will never disappear, though.

The writing in The Go-Between is beautiful. Every event is meaningful and is in the story for a reason. The individual words give the sense of having been particularly chosen for their inclusion. The plot is thrilling, even though the style of the story-telling is gentle.

I believe The Go-Between is a story that will remain with me for some time and one that I will re-read in future. I’m also looking forward to watching the movie of the book starring Julie Christie.

Please read Sandra and FictionFan’s reviews to see what they thought of The Go-Between.

The Go-Between was book fifteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham

The Year of the Farmer is by Australian author Rosalie Ham and will be enjoyed by readers who appreciate dark humour in a novel. Ham’s previous novels, The Dressmaker, Summer at Mount Hope and There Should Be More Dancing share this trait.

The Year of the Farmer is a contemporary story of life on the land featuring Mitch Bishop, whose drought-stricken farm somewhere up in the Riverina has been in his family for generations. Mitch is married to Mandy, who used to be the town bike. No one likes Mandy, not even Mitch.

Mitch should have married his school sweetheart Neralie, but she left town to make a go of it in the city and left to his own devices, he succumbed to Mandy’s attentions. Mandy suckered Mitch into getting married by telling him that she was pregnant, but as everyone else in town knew, she couldn’t have fallen pregnant as she’d had “an infection.”

When Neralie returned to town to run the only pub in the area for 100 miles, Mitch and everyone else’s lives were turned upside-down.

Not only was Mitch’s marriage a mess, but the drought had been going on for years. Most punishing of all for him and other local farmers was their battle with the Water Authority Board to get enough water from the river to irrigate their land. To make things worse, a pack of townie’s dogs were killing sheep, rain at the wrong time was threatening to ruin the crops and Mandy’s constant need to make other people unhappy was adding considerably to the town’s woes.

There are multiple factions in the district, all with a different opinion about what was best for the river (and themselves). Corrupt politicians and townies were trying to make money from selling the water, developers wanted to siphon water into a man-made lake overlooked by a new apartment building and even the farmers had different volume requirements depending on what they were farming. The farmers weren’t in agreement with each other on other matters, either. Some were using chemicals which were detrimental to the river while others didn’t use chemicals on their crops when they should have which caused weeds to infiltrate their neighbours’ properties. I appreciated everyone’s point of view but think if I had to take a side I’d go with the Riparians, who had the health of the river at heart.

For those readers who struggle with cruelty towards animals that farmer’s consider to be vermin, be warned that a cull was required to set things right.

Not only is the humour in the Year of the Farmer dark, but it is mean. I really enjoyed it.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman by Anna Burns won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. I started reading Milkman in the build-up to Christmas, but had to put it aside until there were less demands on my attention as it was clear from the very first page that this story required my total concentration.

Milkman is told in the first-person by Middle sister. She is a teenager in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the 1970s, although the time or place of the story are not spelled out for the reader. Despite the ornate words and lengthy sentences used by all of the characters, nothing in this story is spelled out, either for the characters or the readers.

The language is extraordinary. It is used in a way I’ve never seen before and I think the distinct style and character’s manner of speaking must have been refined over and over by the author to create the world the characters exist in.

Middle sister has to contend with the difficulties of her relationship with maybe-boyfriend, as well as the unwanted attentions of a much older man known only as the Milkman, also her mother trying to marry her off, along with the violence which surrounds her family and community and above all, the gossip surrounding her which comes from every direction.

Very few characters are named. There is first-brother-in-law, wee sisters, longest friend and Somebody McSomebody. Longest friend warns Middle sister that her habit of reading 19th-century fiction while walking is making her a target for the gossips, alienating her from everyone and marking her out as different, beyond-the-pale, the one thing that nobody in this community wants to be. Middle sister reads 19th-century fiction to escape the reality of her own time.

Waiting until I had the time and patience to read Milkman was the right decision. The story requires concentration to take it in properly.

The Blue Guitar by John Banville

I’ve been looking forward to reading more books by John Banville since thoroughly enjoying Ancient Light, so picked up The Blue Guitar with the expectation of a few happy days of reading.

The story is narrated by Oliver Otway Orme, who was middle-aged, short and stout, or when he was being brutally honest with himself, owned up to being fat, with a big head and tiny feet. (Olly was much more honest with himself than I am when I look in the mirror, which put me against him from the beginning). He also had curly red hair, freckled, pale skin, so when Olly began an affair with his best friend’s wife, Polly, it was clear that her attraction to him was for his wit and charm.

Adding to Olly’s appeal for Polly was that he was a successful painter, although at the time he told the story of this most recent love affair, he was no longer painting.

“In love! Again!”

Olly’s defining characteristic was petty thievery. Some of the items he stole were valuable, but most were not. Stealing things gave Olly more pleasure than anything else in his life and he recounted the provenance of each stolen item with a sense of the trait making him who he was as a person. Olly also described his affair with Polly as a theft.

Despite my dislike of Olly (I didn’t like Polly, or Olly or Polly’s spouses either) the saving grace for me in this book was the beautiful language, which is descriptive, patterned and completely enticing. I didn’t know a lot of words used in this book (and still don’t, as I didn’t look up any of the words I didn’t know as I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the story) but they sounded good. I expect that listening to The Blue Guitar being read aloud by someone with a beautiful voice would be a delightful experience.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

I swear I had forgotten who killed Mr Shaitana during his own dinner party in Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie before I’d finished reading the last page.

It didn’t matter to me, as I find the joy of an Agatha Christie book is in the characters and how the author portrays social groups, rather than in the actual murder and unravelling the clues to learn who the murderer is (although of course these elements are enjoyable, too).

This particular group included two of my favourite Agatha Christie characters, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and English crime-fiction writer, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, who attended a dinner party hosted by the aforesaid, soon to-be-murdered Mr Shaitana, along with four people whom he believed had previously gotten away with a murder. Hercule Poirot and Mrs Oliver were partnered with two more people who normally worked to catch criminals. After dinner, the eight guests played bridge while Mr Shaitana dozed in front of the fire. As it turned out, Mr Shaitana wasn’t dozing….

I was delighted by Agatha Christie putting a little of herself into the character of the charming Mrs Oliver. When Superintendent Battle told her that he enjoyed her last book, the “one where all of the Chief Constables were shot simultaneously” she declined his offer of assistance for her future books with policing details as she wasn’t interested in accuracy and neither were her readers. Later Mrs Oliver said she regretted making the detective in her novels a Finn as she knew nothing about Finns and was always receiving letters from Finns complaining about faults in his character. I also enjoyed Mrs Oliver telling a fan of her books that writing was hard work and that thinking through and planning plots was a bore and of course, wondered if Agatha Christie had felt this way herself.

There was a level of racism in the book which surprised me. Major Despard voiced his dislike for his host due to his race, as according to him Mr Shaitana was “too well-dressed – he wore his hair too long – and he smelled of scent,” along with “No one knew where he was from, Argentina, Portugal, Greece or somewhere else” or if Mr Shaitana was “some other nationality rightly despised by the insular, Brition, nobody knew.” Funnily enough, his race didn’t stop any of Mr Shaitana’s guests from attending his parties or dinners.

As always, Agatha Christie tells a good story and the joy of forgetting who the murderer was means that I’ll be able to enjoy this story again in future.

A Private Performance by Helen Halstead

A Private Performance by Helen Halstead is a continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen fan fiction can be a bit hit and miss, however I enjoyed this story very much.

A Private Performance began with Lizzie’s mother blabbing the news of Lizzie’s engagement to Mr Darcy all over the place and Lady Catherine de Bourgh continuing to offer her opposition to the match. Despite their trials, Lizzie and Darcy married and blissfully happy, left Longbourne for Pemberley.

New characters were introduced and known characters had their stories expanded. Lizzie’s challenge was to negotiate London society, while Darcy found that Lady Catherine had enough power over his family and friends to create difficulties socially for him and Lizzie.

Despite Lady Catherine’s influence Lizzie found success amongst London society with her wit and charm. Darcy encouraged his wife to mix with important people but became jealous of Lizzie’s new friends and their influence on her opinions. Lizzie managed Darcy’s ill-humour with her usual style.

Jane and Bingley were delightful, Georgiana grew up before our very eyes, Mary was dreadful and Lydia and Wickham’s behaviour was as obnoxious as ever. Kitty was the biggest surprise, as she was hilarious and had the most growth of all of the characters. I was surprised to find myself becoming teary during some of the sadder scenes.

My only criticism of the story is that there are so many new characters that I lost track of who was who and what they were doing in the story although perhaps not surprisingly, most of the new characters were jockeying for Lady Catherine’s attention and favours.

I would be pleased to read another book by this author.

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