Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘fiction’

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells was a surprise to me, mostly because I thought about the things I would do if I was invisible and they were entirely different to what the Invisible Man did.

The joke of it is that as a middle-aged woman I’m reasonably invisible as it is, except when someone else (either at home or at work) wants something from me. But, ignoring that sad truth, if I was truly invisible I would lie around all day eating chocolate and reading novels, or crocheting, painting or drawing, all without being interrupted.

Instead of making the most of his situation though, the Invisible Man, who was filled up with hatred and anger (possibly as a result of poisoning himself with strychnine) went on a reign of terror.

The Invisible Man is described as science fiction but I thought the story could also be shelved in the horror section. The science of the main character becoming invisible was something to do with mirrors, jellyfish and refracting lights something, something, then something happening in a lab with little bottles, (apologies, I don’t do science or math very well) but happily for me the story wasn’t particularly scientific apart from those bits which I skipped over.

The horror was to do with the main character’s personality and how he dealt with the challenges of being invisible, none of which he had considered before experimenting on himself.

The story began with a heavily muffled man arriving at a village inn during a snowstorm and renting a room. The man soon annoyed his landlady by demanding complete privacy but since business was slow, she put up with his increasingly rude and offensive behaviour for some time.

When a strange theft took place in one of the village’s houses it was obvious that the Invisible Man had done the crime, even though no one could understand how he had managed it. After another fight with his landlady he became invisible, then before he could be arrested, took off all of his clothes and escaped.

The Invisible Man had a series of adventures before taking shelter with an old friend, Dr Kemp, to whom he explained how he had learned to become invisible and told him how he had been living. The Invisible Man told his story honestly, with no idea that Kemp would no longer be willing to hide him after he learned just how violently he had behaved towards others (and animals) in order to further his own interests. Not surprisingly, things didn’t end well for the Invisible Man.

I was amused by the reaction of Kemp being particularly horrified by him breaking into another man’s home. I don’t know why this seemed worse to him than any of the other things the Invisible Man did, but think it might be along the lines of an Englishman’s home being his castle. About the only thing Kemp didn’t say was, “It’s just not cricket!”

I’m still surprised that the Invisible Man didn’t spend his time doing fun things instead of feeling hard done by and attempting a Reign of Terror, but we’re all different.

The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan

I had a feeling that I’d already read something by Elizabeth Buchan when I came across The Museum of Broken Promises so searched my blog’s archives and found that I’d previously read The Good Wife Strikes Back. According to my review I enjoyed The Good Wife but thought that I’d forget the plot sooner rather than later.

I also enjoyed The Museum of Broken Promises but think it has more depth than The Good Wife.

The Museum of Broken Promises‘ story is told across three timelines, a style which I’m a little tired of but will say that it worked well for this story. In 1985 the main character Laure Carlyle was a teenager working as a nanny in Prague for a privileged family, by 1996 brief glimpses into Laure’s life show her working as a cultural attache to the British Embassy in Berlin and in the present in Paris, Laure’s creation of a Museum of Broken Promises is a runaway success.

Coming from safe, free England, Laure found Czechoslovakia in 1985 to be drab, but once she fell in with a group of puppeteers and a rock band who were flirting dangerously with political dissidence her life became far more exciting. When Laure fell in love with the band’s lead singer Tomas, they were both exposed to danger.

In present-day Paris, one of Laure’s responsibilities was curating objects for the Museum which were displayed to illustrate stories of broken promises. Some objects represented the failure of government’s promises to their citizens, while others were children’s toys representing broken promises made to the children by their parents. Not surprisingly, items representing failed relationships featured heavily. Several of the displays featured items from Laure’s time in Prague and related to Tomas.

While I enjoyed the story I had to suspend my disbelief over certain plot lines which glossed over some fairly big issues.

I knew very little about Czechoslovakian history prior to reading this story and have since skimmed the surface to read about the Velvet Revolution. I’d love to read a novel set during these times by a Czech writer.

I also liked the idea of a museum devoted to broken promises although in the story many of the visitors found themselves grieving in front of objects that triggered their memories. In real life I would probably prefer a museum devoted to reminding me of the joys of life. I will probably read more fiction by Elizabeth Buchan eventually.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

M.L. Stedman’s debut novel The Light Between Oceans became a New York Times bestseller and was loved by readers all over the world.

After World War One, war hero Tom Sherbourne became a lighthouse-keeper, eventually working his way up to a posting on isolated Janus Island where he managed the (fictional) lighthouse station. On a trip ashore to the south-west corner of Western Australia Tom met Isabel Graysmark, the two fell in love and eventually married, despite Tom’s misgivings about how Isabel would adapt to life on the island.

At first, Isabel thrived but after she suffered multiple miscarriages over a period of several years it seemed unlikely that she and Tom would ever have a child of their own. When a boat washed ashore carrying a baby sheltered beneath a dead man, presumably the baby’s father, Isabel convinced Tom not to report the event so they could keep the baby for their own. Almost against his will Tom agreed, buried the man and set the boat adrift again.

Although Tom’s conscience bothered him, Isabel was convinced the baby they had named Lucy was an orphan.

During a trip ashore for Lucy’s christening, Tom and Isabel learned that the baby’s heartbroken mother lived nearby.

Isabel somehow convinced Tom that Lucy was better off with them than with her mother and they returned to the island. Lucy grew up to be a happy and inquisitive child but Tom, who knew they had done the wrong thing, eventually contacted Lucy’s real mother anonymously to let her know her child was safe and well.

Eventually their secret came out, leaving everyone’s lives upended again.

While I found the plot to be slightly predictable, I loved reading about the main character’s lives on the island, the town on the mainland and the characters who lived there. I especially enjoyed the wonderful descriptions of how lighthouses work, which obviously led me to daydreaming about living on a deserted island, with or without a lighthouse.

The Light Between Oceans wasn’t really for me, but I can see why so many people loved it.

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

I’ve been enjoying working my way through William Boyd’s novels but although I enjoyed Waiting for Sunrise, I wouldn’t include this story amongst his best works.

The story starts with Lysander Reif, a “young, almost conventionally handsome man” visiting a psychologist in Vienna in 1913 for a sexual problem.

Lysander was quickly cured by an experimental treatment which the doctor called ‘Parallelism’. The treatment consisted of Lysander writing down his thoughts and memories, which then formed part of the narration. After discussing Lysander’s writings with him the doctor then hypnotised Lysander to create new memories which displaced various upsetting events in his past. I thought that Lysander’s heady affair with an attractive and sexually adventurous woman, Hettie Bull, may have effected his cure rather than Parallelism, but who knows?

Lysander’s romance with Hettie ended when her common-law husband discovered she was pregnant, at which point Hettie accused Lysander of rape rather than own up to the affair. An acquaintance from the British Embassy put up bail for Lysander on the proviso he was confined to the consulate, then helped him to escape and return to England.

Lysander’s escape came with a price, and as he was unable his bill from the Embassy, he was recruited to find a high-level traitor to Great Britain when World War One broke out to repay his debt. Lysander found himself waiting for sunrise in no man’s land hoping not to be shot at by his own country, England’s allies or the enemy. At other times he carried out mind-numbingly boring audits of war offices while trying to work out who the traitor was and who was bluffing who.

Spy novels, war stories or thrillers aren’t my preferred genre, so even though I enjoyed Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms which was also a thriller very much, I’ll probably avoid anything else Boyd writes in these genres. I’m hoping to read Brazzaville Beach next.

Kokomo by Victoria Hannan

I bought Kokomo by Australian author Victoria Hannan despite the cover, which I didn’t like at all. After reading the story and discovering the main themes are unfulfilled wants and desires, I realised why this image and colour scheme were chosen, though and believe they suit the story.

Kokomo was told in two halves. The first half followed Mina, a hardworking copy editor living in London who was hopeful of receiving a much-deserved promotion at work. Mina was also on the brink of starting a love affair with her colleague Jack, when her best friend Kira phoned with the news that Mina’s mother, who had not left her home since the death of Mina’s father many years ago, had unexpectedly left her house in Melbourne.

Mina dropped everything to fly home to Melbourne but when she arrived, found her mother to be uncommunicative and resentful of Mina’s presence.

Mina attempted to reconnect with her old friends but apart from Kira, struggled as most had married and settled down into family life, living very different lives to hers.

Although Mina desperately wanted to be back in London at her job and with Jack, she fell back into the lifestyle she had left ten years ago, going out, getting drunk and making stupid choices about sex with people who she didn’t really want or like.

Her friendship with Kira seemed to be the truest relationship Mina had. Kira’s family and Mina’s were neighbours and they had supported Mina and her mother Elaine after Mina’s father death when Mina was just a teenager. Valerie, Kira’s mother, had continued to look after Elaine after Mina moved to London.

The second half of Kokomo told Elaine’s story and explained the closeness of the relationship between the two families. Elaine’s and Mina’s characters were unexpectedly similar in that their longings shaped their lives.

I found much of Mina and Elaine’s personal behaviour to be incomprehensible and somewhat unlikely, but appreciated the contemporary issues the story raised. These ranged from mental health issues to sexism in the workplace and dealing with toxic relationships, as well as portraying friendships, family relationships, in particular children learning that there is more to their parents than their relationships with their children.

In a warning to my fellow prudes, the first chapter nearly put me off reading the book completely since I had far less interest in the physical description of Jack’s penis than what Mina apparently had. If this level of detail isn’t to your taste either, my suggestion is to read the back cover then skip straight to Chapter Two.

I enjoyed the contemporary Melbourne setting and recognised many of the places Mina visited.

My purchase of Kokomo by Victoria Hannan continues to satisfy my New Year’s resolution for 2021 which is to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (March).

White Fang by Jack London

I added White Fang by Jack London to my list of Classics Club books without any idea of what the story would be about. If I’d had to guess, I would have said it was a coming of age story about a boy and his dog, which turned out to be so far from the actual plot as to be laughable.

White Fang is the story of a ferocious wild wolfdog (half wolf, half dog) living in the Yukon Territory of Canada. The story began with two men returning a coffined corpse to civilisation using dog sleds, who are being tracked by a pack of starving wolves. Each night the dogs were being picked off one by one by the wolves, until the terrified men were themselves in mortal danger.

The story then moved to follow Kiche, a female dog who had been running with the wolves and was responsible for luring the sled dogs to their deaths. After the wolf pack’s famine was broken when they killed a moose, the pack broke apart and Kiche ran with two male wolves until the older wolf, One-Eye, killed his younger rival. In due course Kiche had a litter of wolfdog pups, of which White Fang was the only survivor. As a puppy White Fang explored his world, made his first kill for food and was learning how to protect himself from danger when he and Kiche stumbled into a camp of Native Americans.

Grey Beaver recognised Kiche as having formerly belonged to his dead brother and claimed her and White Fang for his own. White Fang wanted to return to the wild but Kiche settled in to camp life and eventually the two were separated.

White Fang’s life in the camp was hard as he was tormented by the other dogs and treated brutally by Grey Beaver, so he grew up to be a savage, angry animal who was used by his master as a fighting dog. Grey Beaver eventually sold White Fang to an even worse master, ‘Beauty’ Smith, who pitted White Fang in fights against other dogs, wolves and even a lynx.

White Fang was on the brink of losing his life in a fight against a bulldog when a young man happened across the dog fight and saved White Fang from death, calling out Beauty Smith and the crowd for their beastly behaviour. White Fang then became Weedon Scott’s dog, learning to trust and love him. Eventually White Fang left the Yukon to live in Weedon Scott’s family home in California where he learned to live peacefully with other dogs, animals and people.

Up until the young man happened across the dog fight, there was little morality in the story. White Fang’s world was harsh and only the strongest and most brutal animals survived. Animals who weren’t eating other animals were being eaten themselves. The author made it clear that the wolves and wolfdogs had no sense of right or wrong, and that particularly in the wild, their only purpose was to eat and survive.

White Fang recognised humans in the story as ‘Gods’ but even then he noted that the Gods’ powers varied, sometimes as a result of their race. He also recognised that there were ‘Laws’, but only because the Gods would hurt him if he didn’t obey these Laws.

As already mentioned, when I started to read White Fang I had expected a very different book and when I realised this was the animal’s own story, I expected White Fang to think and speak and moralise like a human would, but other than feeling certain emotions which were generally angry and unhappy, White Fang retained a wildness throughout his reasoning that was fascinating.

I was also surprised that although I found much of the human and animal behaviour to be abhorrent, from the cruelty shown to White Fang by Grey Beaver and the other dogs to the graphic descriptions of the dog fights, I never felt sickened or as if the events were being sensationalised for the reader’s titillation, instead I felt engaged by the story and enjoyed this unusual look at a world and environment which I know nothing about.

I did have major reservations about the plotline of Weedon Scott bringing a vicious wolfdog who often bit people and killed other animals into his home, and especially of him trusting White Fang with his own small children. I’ve been bitten by dogs twice, once in a public space by a stranger’s pit bull terrier, which are a banned dog breed in Australia and another time in a residential street by a part dog, part dingo which had escaped it’s owner’s yard. On both occasions I hadn’t even been aware of the dog’s presence until after I was bitten. To be brutally honest, if I had owned White Fang, I would put the animal down rather than have risk my child’s safety.

I struggled to find a cover picture for this book that suited the ferociousness of White Fang as most of the covers showed wolfdogs that looked as if they would be happy to be hugged when White Fang’s temperament was the exact opposite.

White Fang was book twenty six in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023. The Call of the Wild is on my list too and I will probably read this next.

When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall

I’ve read several books by Clare Morrall with clever and interesting plots, so was pleased to find a copy of When the Floods Came.

The story is set in Birmingham in England sometime in the near future, however the future has not turned out to be as we would hope. Climate change has caused the weather to swing violently with England experiencing torrential rain and devastating floods. To further complicate life, twenty years before the story began a virus called Hoffman’s wiped out most of the population and left most survivors infertile.

The main character is twenty-two year old Roza Polanski, who with her family, lived on their own in a housing tower complex which previously housed thousands of people. The Polanski family consisted of Roza’ mother and father, her brother Boris, sister Delphine and adopted little sister Lucia, who was found alone after her parents seemingly died in a flood several years before the story began. The Polanski family rarely met anyone else in person, but Roza and Boris worked online for the Chinese (it wasn’t clear what their work actually was) and all of the older children had strong online social connections. When the story began, Roza was preparing to meet Hector, a man from Brighton whom she had met online and planned to marry. Most of England’s population lived in Brighton as it was the only place in England that had been made flood-proof.

I was fascinated to read how Roza’s family used items foraged from other apartments for their own needs, had chickens and a goat living on the tower’s roof and harvested vegetables from nearby farms which were run by machines. Several times a year they received food and other items from drone drops from the Americans. Roza’s father was particularly handy and spent much of his time creating art and repairing the machinery which maintained their lives throughout the cycles of intense heat, cold, rain and floods.

During a family game where the Polanski’s raced through the entire housing tower they were shocked to find a young man living in an apartment. Although Aashay hadn’t been there long the Polanski family felt frightened and angry because they hadn’t been aware of his presence, and they were horrified to learn he had been watching them and knew a lot about them. Despite Aashay’s charm, Roza and her family were suspicious of his intentions towards them. Most people who had survived Hoffman’s lived in Brighton under strict government rules, but it was clear that Aashay lived outside of the rules. While the Polanski’s were also living outside of Brighton it was because the government were allowing them this freedom, with the understanding that when the children turned twenty-five they would move to Brighton where they would marry and have children to ensure the continuation of the human race.

Roza’s family had been quarantined and forbidden from visiting nearby Birmingham or anywhere else since Hoffman’s had struck twenty years previously, but despite these places having been being abandoned and destroyed they still weren’t allowed to visit them, however soon after Aashay’s arrival Roza surreptitiously travelled to Birmingham to visit the Museum and Art Gallery where she discovered Sir Jacob Epstein’s statue of Lucifer in the water damaged building.

At this point, I stopped reading and went online to see Lucifer and the round, domed gallery for myself. By this point the story was so real to me that I felt relieved to see that the gallery and art works were undamaged.

Aashay told the Polanski’s about an upcoming fair in a town nearby they were amazed to learn that so many other people lived outside Brighton, and they decided to attend. On arrival they felt overwhelmed by the vast crowd of approximately 100 people and found the noise they made to be deafening. The children received such an inordinate amount of attention that the family were terrified someone would kidnap Lucia to fulfil a yearning for a child of their own.

When the Floods Came had a Garden of Eden-type of plot, in that the story began with an innocent family living in paradise before the arrival of the serpent and an ending featuring the changes which came with knowledge. I enjoyed the story enormously but felt let down by the ending which felt unresolved. I was also left wondering what was happening in the rest of the world. I had the same problem with The Roundabout Man in that I loved the idea and the plot but ultimately wanted more from the story and the ending.

Out of Time by Steve Hawke

Out of Time by Australia author Steve Hawke was a thought-provoking, moving account of a man in his late middle-age who realised he was suffering early onset dementia and as a result, planned how he would continue to live and how he would die.

Joe was an architect, married to Anne, a high school teacher who lived in Perth. Joe and Anne felt as if they were living the best part of their lives. They had successful careers, their daughter Claire was married and beginning her own family (although they didn’t like her husband much) and they were planning dream trips for their retirement which included fishing for Joe and bird watching for Anne, when a strange loss of memory frightened Joe.

He had hurriedly parked his car in the city before attending an important work meeting but after the meeting couldn’t remember where he had left his car. Joe reported the loss to the police and his car eventually turned up after having been towed as it had been left on a clearway, but soon after this event he realised he had been suffering other memory losses.

Joe’s worries were made worse by having recently watched his Uncle George’s health and quality of life deteriorate as a result of dementia, so he was certain of his own condition long before he was actually diagnosed. He hid his worries from Anne for a long time but when he did tell her, he also provided his own solution, which was to suicide before his own quality of life worsened to the point where his and Anne’s life were impacted.

Watching Joe and Anne, their daughter and friends come to terms with his condition and his solution was difficult, but the story was also heart-warming and well told. Joe and Anne were well educated, affluent, likeable and completely relatable. The character’s voices were very Australian and they swore a lot, which might put off some readers, but in the situation they found themselves in I felt that their swearing was understandable.

I expect that readers who know Western Australia and Perth will particularly enjoy the setting, but think this book would be a very hard read for anyone who had experienced a loved one going through a similar situation.

I haven’t heard of Steve Hawke before and have not read much from Fremantle Press, but was impressed by the quality of the writing and the story.

Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon

I pounced on Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon from the British Library Crime Classics series when I came across this book in the large print section of my local library.

As always for a book from this series, the cover art is beautiful. In my opinion the team who create these covers always get them exactly right. Golden Age crime novels are well suited to art-deco artwork and I can imagine that some people probably collect these books for their covers.

The story was introduced by Martin Edwards who teases the reader with a brief description of the plot before providing an interesting biography of the author, Joseph Jefferson Farjeon, which included the details that Farjeon’s greatest worry was that he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family financially. This fear spurred Farjeon to write prolifically.

Seven Dead started off with one of the most intriguing first chapters I’ve ever read. The first line, ‘This is not Ted Lyte’s story’ introduced a petty criminal who broke into Haven House on the coast of England with the intention of stealing silverware only to find seven dead people in a locked room.

When Lyte ran out of the house in terror, dropping spoons as he went, he was chased by a passer-by until he ran smack-bang into a policeman who, as expected, asked “What’s all this?” The passer-by was Thomas Hazeldean, a yachtsman and reporter who had moored his yacht in a creek near Haven House. Hazeldean accompanied Detective Inspector Kendall back to Haven House to discover what had frightened the thief. At Haven House, they found the seven dead bodies but could not discover who had killed the victims or why they had been killed.

Hazeldean was intrigued by both the mystery and by a portrait in the house of a young girl which had been pierced by a bullet that had seemingly come from the room with the dead bodies and on learning that the girl in the portrait was Dora Fenner, the neice of the owner of Haven House, Hazeldean set off in his yacht Spray across the channel to France to find and protect her, while Kendall carried on in England.

In France, all was not as it seemed. Hazeldean found Dora and realised she was being guarded by the mysterious occupants of the household where she and her uncle, John Fenner, were staying. Not only that, Fenner was acting strangely.

Unfortunately at this point, I lost some enthusiasm for the story. To begin with, the characters sometimes spoke French and since I couldn’t even guess at what they were saying I lost the gist of what was happening. The writing itself was very good, clear and descriptive enough for me to be able to imagine the characters, the place and to get a feel for the atmosphere, but the plot’s twists and turns once Hazeldean went to France became overly complicated and far-fetched. Not only that, I also found the idea of Hazeldean falling in love with Dora’s portrait from childhood to be creepy. When he met her in real life and she turned out to be someone who fainted constantly from nerves, I couldn’t understand what he saw in her. I guess some people just want to be the ‘protector’ in a relationship.

I had been reading the story with the intention of solving the case, but there was no way I could have done this and to be fair, Seven Dead wasn’t that kind of story. Instead, the murderer’s identity and motive became clear as the story continued. Despite my criticism, I would definitely read another book by this author based on the quality of his writing and that fantastic first chapter.

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

I was intrigued by the idea of the main character in Jodi Picoult’s The Book of Two Ways having the opportunity to live two versions of her life in parallel.

In the beginning of both versions of her life, Dawn was a death doula and married to Brian, a quantum physicist. Together they had a daughter, Meret. As a death doula Dawn took on clients who were dying, assisting them and their families to tidy up their loose ends before their death. The loose ends were often practical, such as arranging a funeral or helping them to finish a task they had their heart set on, but other times they were to fulfill a more emotional need, such as finding someone the dying person had lost contact with or helping them to make peace with their impending death. Before her marriage, Dawn was a graduate student Egyptologist.

For Dawn, a man called Wyatt was the one who got away in both versions of her life. She had left him fifteen years before the story began, when he was on the brink of a major archaeological discovery in Egypt.

In one of the storylines Dawn survived a plane crash and when her life flashed before her eyes she saw Wyatt. She had recently lost trust in Brian and their marriage and when the airline offered her a plane ticket to anywhere in the world she impulsively decided on Egypt and travelled to the archaeological burial site where she had left Wyatt fifteen years previously. Dawn’s intention was to reconnect with Wyatt and complete her degree.

Dawn’s theory was that the artwork which was on, in and around the ancient coffins in the burial sites she was working on were a guidebook for the ancient Egyptians’ afterlives, or The Book of Two Ways. The descriptions of the tombs, their art and artifacts, the coffins and even the mummies themselves featured heavily in this story.

In Dawn’s parallel life she stayed with Brian and instead of her travelling to Egypt to complete her work, the story followed her life with her family in Boston and her work as a death doula, which I found to be more interesting than her Egyptian parallel life. Dawn’s backstory with Wyatt and her reasons for leaving him were addressed differently in this version of her life to the ‘Egypt’ version.

The Book of Two Ways reminded me a little of the movie Sliding Doors, where after an accident Gwyneth Paltrow’s character lived her life in parallel with both stories meeting towards the end.

I felt the story was bogged down by too many stories about Egyptian mythology. At first I found them fascinating but there were so many that I became overwhelmed and eventually lost interest, skimming past them to get back to the actual story, which was what was going on with Dawn. Funnily enough, Dawn’s character glazed over whenever her husband started talking about quantum physics!

I generally enjoy Jodi Picoult’s stories so am hoping for one I like better next time.

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