Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘fiction’

Normal People by Sally Rooney

It wasn’t all that long ago that every second book reviewer on WordPress was recommending Normal People by Sally Rooney which made me keen to read the story for myself. I’d already read Conversations with Friends and thought it very good.

Normal People, for the other three people left in the world who haven’t already read this book, follows the story of Connell and Marianne who went to school together in a small town in Ireland where Connell was in the popular group and Marianne was a loner who was bullied by everyone, including Connell’s friends. Connell and Marianne got to know each other as Connell’s mother cleaned Marianne’s mother’s house.

Connell and Marianne eventually started a physical relationship which Connell was very keen to hide from his friends. They also connected emotionally but Connell disappointed Marianne when he invited another girl to the school’s social event of the year, the Debs. To say that Connell’s mother was also disappointed by his behaviour towards Marianne was an understatement.

The story continued by jumping ahead to Connell and Marianne meeting again at university. At Trinity their social status was reversed as Marianne, who was well off, had made friends but Connell was struggling socially.

Over the next few years Connell and Marianne were sometimes involved with each other romantically but at other times they were just friends, supporting each other through their complicated relationships with other partners. At all times their friendship remained intense.

Connell and Marianne were complicated people, separately and as a couple. Marianne had been bullied by her peers as a schoolgirl, but also by her family for whom violence was normal. As a result Marianne’s preference was to be a ‘submissive’ in her relationships. This scared Connell as he was all too aware that Marianne would allow him to do anything he wanted to her.

Superficially Connell fitted in wherever he went but privately he struggled with anxiety and depression. Both Connell and Marianne felt they were more like themselves together than they were with anyone else but their misunderstandings and anxiety constantly got in the way of their love affair.

The story was told alternately from Connell and Marianne’s point of view. Their feelings of being unworthy of each other, themselves and others was a constant problem, but although their story was often sad, it was also hopeful in that there was the sense that Connell and Marianne would always be there for each other.

Generally I dislike reading about characters in their late teens or early twenties because I’m not interested in the usual whingy, self-absorbed stuff that dominate characters of this age, but although their story was frustrating to read, I found Connell and Marianne’s characters to be likeable and real.

My only complaint was the lack of punctuation used for dialogue. I might be old-fashioned, but I prefer quotation marks to be used. I recall feeling irritated by this lack in Conversations with Friends too.

So, my question to those of you who have read Normal People, tell me what you think is normal. For me, I think everything and nothing is normal, but Connell and Marianne’s version of normal was interesting.

The Friends We Keep by Jane Green

If I was writing a school report for Jane Green after she handed in The Friends We Keep my comment would be “Could do better.”

I was bored with the story well before I’d finished the first 100 pages. I only skimmed through to the end to confirm my suspicion that nothing much of interest would happen.

Evvie, Maggie and Topher met in university and became friends. Later their lives went in different directions and they drifted apart. Thirty years later they found each other again and the secrets of why they really drifted apart came out.

I thought the story was unoriginal, I didn’t feel particularly connected to any of the characters, wasn’t inspired by the locations, and thought the writing was somewhat lazy and the dialogue dull.

I’ve enjoyed Jane Green’s more recent books so am hoping The Friends We Keep was just a blip.

The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

Miss S gave me The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly as a gift. I’ve never previously read anything by this author and would probably not have chosen to read this book but to my surprise I enjoyed the story so much that I read it almost straight through then backed it up by watching the film.

The story is written in the first person and because I knew that Matthew McConaughey played the main character, I was able to imagine his voice narrating the story. (Swoon. That man could read me the phone book).

The main character is Mickey Haller, a fast-talking lawyer who works out of his Lincoln sedan as his driver ferries him between various courthouses around Los Angeles where Haller deals with the scum of society’s problems.

Haller’s lucky break came when a new client specifically requested his services. The new client was a young real estate agent from a wealthy family who was accused of bashing a woman. The client, Louis Roullet, said he was set up by the woman so she could sue him. When he took on the case Haller was hopeful that Roullet’s case would pay his bills for some time to come.

I was surprised and happy to learn that Haller had a heart. He had two ex-wives, both of whom he loved and respected and his former wives felt the same way about him. Haller and his first wife, who was still the love of his life, broke up because their values clashed (she was a prosecutor). They also had a young daughter together. Many of his colleagues were also disgusted by Haller’s clients but he justified his work by describing the justice system as a machine that sucked up people and money and himself as a mechanic servicing the machine.

Haller also represented a number of clients for free who included drug addicts and prostitutes. He did his best for these people and showed genuine care and affection for some of them. Haller’s biggest fear was that he wouldn’t recognise an innocent client.

When one of Haller’s colleagues was murdered while carrying out an investigation for Haller on the Roullet case, Haller’s hopes for a big payout ended. Instead, he found himself working to save his own life and protect his family. Haller was a master manipulator but so was the bad guy and the story had multiple twists and turns which I didn’t see coming. Well before the end I was trying to read faster and faster to see how everything would turn out.

The film was slightly different to the book but I enjoyed it too. The film had the added benefit of Matthew McConaughey being in it.

I didn’t think I was a crime fiction fan but it turns out I am. I’m definitely jumping on the Michael Connelly bandwagon. This book is part of a series featuring Mickey Haller and I’m sure I’ll read more of them.

The Lost Girls by Jennifer Spence

The Lost Girls by Australian author Jennifer Spence’s main character Stella dozed off on a bus on her way home from a day shopping in Sydney and woke up twenty years in the past.

Dazed, Stella returned to her old home where confusingly, she met her younger self, her husband, son and daughter. On the spur of the moment Stella told her family that she was their Aunt Linda who had gone missing years ago so she would have somewhere to stay. Stella/Linda slotted uneasily back into her family home and eventually began meddling in family events to try and change her and her family’s futures.

Stella/Linda began by encouraging her son Julian to break up with his girlfriend. She also encouraged her daughter Claire not to get involved with particular friends as she knew they would later introduce her daughter to drugs with tragic results. After these changes occurred Stella/Linda’s ‘memory’ of the future also changed, but unfortunately the future did not always turn out to be better.

When Stella/Linda visited her mother, who in her future had since died, her mother knew the woman in front of her was not her long-lost sister Linda but she could not believe either that she was a future version of Stella. To convince her mother she was telling the truth Stella/Linda ‘predicted’ the death of Princess Diana and a series of other world events.

As well as meddling in the events of the past, Stella/Linda also tried to find out what actually happened to her mother’s sister Linda, who had mysteriously disappeared many years ago while still a teenager.

I liked the story and the setting. I also liked that Stella/Linda wasn’t able to create a perfect ending for herself or her family and that for every action she took, there was a reaction. I think a Sydney reader would enjoy the present-day and 1997 Sydney settings of The Lost Girls.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The last page of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie hit me like a punch in the stomach. I actually had a physical reaction to the story’s ending that left me doubled over.

The story is told in five sections and follows three siblings, Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz.

It begins with Isma missing a plane because of a lengthy and intensive interrogation by airport authorities who knew that her deceased father had been a Jihadi terrorist. After her mother’s death Isma had given up her regular life to bring up her younger brother and sister in London but once they were grown, was eager to recommence her studies in the USA.

Once in the USA Isma met and befriended Eamonn, despite recognising him as the son of the present British Home Secretary. Much to the disgust of the Muslim community in London, Eamonn’s father had renounced his religion for political success.

Isma had been on the verge of falling in love with Eamonn when they had a falling out over his father’s politics and although their friendship survived, Isma was disappointed to learn that Eamonn did not return her feelings.

In a gesture of kindness, Eamonn took Isma’s gift of M&Ms for her aunt back to the UK with him when he returned but instead of mailing them, Eamonn delivered the gift himself, unexpectedly meeting Isma’s beautiful younger sister Aneeka. They instantly fell in love, although their romance was not all it seemed.

Unbeknownst to Eamonn, Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz had been recruited by ISIS and was in Syria. The story showed Parvaiz being groomed and although I cannot condone his actions, this went a long way towards showing me how vulnerable people can be preyed upon and manipulated to become part of something terrible. Parvaiz soon realised he had made a terrible mistake and wanted to return home to the UK, Eamonn’s father had taken a very public and committed stance to deny British assistance to Parvaiz and other British Nationals who had become involved with ISIS, even after their deaths.

The book’s blurb advises that Home Fires is a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, however I am not familiar with that story and can only base this review on my own reactions to the contemporary story. Home Fires raised some difficult questions about what it is to be Muslim in a western society and highlighted the issue of all Muslims having been overshadowed in the public’s opinions by the actions of terrorists. The story lagged a little through the middle but the ending was extraordinarily powerful. I intend to look out for Kamila Shamsie’s previous novels and for whatever she writes in future.

Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky

Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky was a fast, fun read about a handful of characters who were making messes of their lives.

The story began with Rachel Klein seducing Zahid who at the time was her creative-writing professor. Things became complicated when Rachel invited Zahid to stay with at her family home for the summer and he fell in love with her mother, Becca.

The story jumped continually between Rachel, Zahid, Becca, two friends of Zahid named Khloe and Kristi, plus a number of other characters who appeared to have been randomly brought together but whose lives turned out to be entwined in the most surprising ways.

Zahid’s character was the link between the others. As well as being a teacher he was a writer who had tossed off his first well-received novel without much effort, but having spent all of the money he earned was enjoying being housed and fed for free in Becca’s lovely home in Connecticut while writing his second novel (while romancing Becca and fobbing off Rachel).

There is a streak of meanness running through this story which gives it some bite. Not surprisingly, most of the characters are thoughtless, selfish and spoiled. Some of the events which took place were absurd and I thought the story’s ending was ludicrous, but found Very Nice to be a good summer holiday read.

Well-Behaved Women by Emily Paull

Well-Behaved Women by Australian author Emily Paull came to my attention after I read Whispering Gums’ review of this collection of short stories. You can read WG’s review here:

I didn’t think there were any weak links in this collection and can honestly say that I enjoyed and appreciated each story. They all featured contemporary Australian characters, most of whom were living in Western Australia. There was something in each story that resonated with me.

Miss Lovegrove is the story of a young, would-be actor and her relationship with the director of a play she is performing in. The director is a bitter former soap star who bullied her cast well past the point of abuse, who when challenged claimed that her actions would make the young woman the best future actor she could be.

Crying in Public tells the story of a woman whose grandmother inspired her to move on from the end of a relationship. While I felt sympathetic towards the narrator whose heart had been broken, I wanted to be the fearless grandmother who led by example.

Sister Madly Deeply is the story of a woman whose sister was dying of cancer. While this is a sad story it also allows the reader to feel hope, inspired by the character’s courage and to be reminded that mistakes can be rectified.

Dora contains the important information that “a diet can never make you as happy as a piece of blueberry cheesecake.” Now that’s a mantra I like.

A Thousand Words and Down South struck me as being particularly Western Australian, more so than any of the other stories in the collection possibly because both were set south of Perth in the Bunbury and Margaret River area.

The Woman at the Writer’s Festival and Picnic at Green’s Pool are mysteries with unreliable narrators. Both stories left me wondering what really happened.

My favourite story in the collection was The Things We Rescued. As the narrator and her husband fled a bushfire with a random assortment of possessions they stopped to collect a homeless woman, who, after being persuaded to flee with them, abandoned her own possessions because they were just junk.

The book title, Well-Behaved Women, is explained by a sentence on the book’s covering suggesting that well-behaved women rarely make history. Maybe not, but well-behaved or otherwise, women’s stories are worth telling and hearing, just the same. This book is a terrific debut from an author who I’ll be glad to read more of.

My purchase of Well-Behaved Women by Emily Paull completed my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (December). I enjoyed this resolution so much that I intend to do this again throughout 2021.

Dubliners by James Joyce

I was too frightened to read anything by James Joyce after unsuccessfully attempting the first page of Ulysses years ago, but in a fit of bravery I added Dubliners to my Classics Club challenge. The first sentence filled me with hope that I could manage this time as that sentence was short and the intention clear. As I read on I found that I was delighted by the book.

Dubliners is a collection of short stories. While each story alone has only a very slight plot, capturing a character during a particular moment in an ordinary day, together the collection created a full picture of a community. The first stories in the collection are told by children and as the stories continue the age of the main characters age too.

The collection began with The Sisters, which told of a young boy learning of the death of a priest. Although the boy and the priest were friends the boy was careful not to let his family see his emotions on learning of the priest’s death. The boy took his emotional cues from his community, with no one about him showing any surprise or grief at the news.

An Encounter is the story of two schoolboys who wagged school to roam around Dublin. During their day out they met a man who hinted at nasty conversations and actions, although the boys couldn’t be certain that the man was actually trying to take advantage of them. I felt much uneasier than the boys seemed to, although happily for them they soon sensed that the man was a creep and left for home.

A young man fell in love with his friend’s sister in Araby. He planned to go to a bazaar to buy her a present but couldn’t get there before it closed in a reminder that life can be full of disappointments such as this.

Eveline told of a young woman who had the opportunity to leave Ireland with her lover, a sailor, but she changed her mind at the last minute. I was left wondering how things turned out for her and what might have been had she found the courage to leave.

After the Race was the story of a young man who had fallen in with a rich, glamourous, international crowd. The young man’s father was a butcher who would have been proud of his son had he known he was drinking and gambling with the likes of these people on a private yacht, despite the hangover coming his son’s way, or the huge amount of money he lost playing cards.

In Two Gallants, a pair of young men hoped that a young woman who one of them was having an affair with, would assist them to steal from her employer.

I saw the funny side of The Boarding House, which depicts a woman maneuvering a young male boarder in her home to marry her daughter. This was the first story in the collection to be told from a female character’s point of view.

A Little Cloud is the story of a man who realises his dreams were lost. The man had wanted to be a poet but was stuck in a drudgy job and worse, disappointed to learn he had been replaced in his wife’s affections by his baby son.

Counterparts is the story of a man whose drinking was a problem for himself, his career, his finances and for his suffering family.

In Clay, an old nurse visits her former charge, who is now a grown-up man with a family of his own. During a Halloween party game the woman chose an object which symbolised her upcoming death. I was struck in this story by the genuine kindness the family showed to their elderly visitor.

A Painful Case told the story of a man who turned down a woman’s romantic overtures only to learn some years later that his actions had led to her dying a sad and lonely death.

I was grateful for the notes in the edition of Dubliners that I read, because I would not have realised the significance of the politics discussed on Ivy Day in the Committee Room without them.

A Mother follows a another woman who is doing her best for her daughter, this time by attempting to gain her daughter a starring position playing piano in a series of concerts.

Grace tells the story of a man whose friends tried to get him to take religion seriously after he fell down the stairs and injured himself.

The last story, The Dead, is the longest story in the collection. The main character’s wife reveals to her husband at a New Year’s Eve party that she once loved a young man who died. Prior to his wife’s revelation the man had been the life of the party, carving the goose, flattering his aunts and arguing with an antagonistic woman whose opinions were at odds to his own. The Dead is an extraordinarily moving story and was probably my favourite of the collection.

I feel as if I would like to read the short stories in Dubliners again and again. I also feel inspired to write my own version that tells the stories of the people in the community where I grew up. Mine would include stories about the old women who gathered weekly to cackle over afternoon tea at each other’s homes, farmers who worked hard, raised families and brought their daughters up to know they could do anything, eccentric fishermen, lonely local children who looked forward all year to the arrival of playmates in summer, a handful of mad artists, a school teacher who took drugs and fell into a chest freezer, one or two blow-ins who resented anyone whose family had been in the area for generations and in summer, the horde of upper-class holiday makers who sun-bathed together, played golf together and drank together at the golf club without ever noticing a local. No doubt what I would like to do and what I will do will be reminiscent of the main character in A Little Cloud, but who knows? If I ever manage this, I’ll credit James Joyce with inspiring me.

Dubliners was book twenty four in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery

In need of comfort during Melbourne’s seemingly endless Covid lockdown*, I turned to Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery, which was a favourite book of mine from childhood. Anne-fans won’t be at all surprised to learn that I began smiling again almost immediately.

Anne of Avonlea follows on directly from Anne of Green Gables. The chapters tell of Anne Shirley’s day to day pleasures, the challenges she faces and her growth as a very young school teacher at the Avonlea school. In this day and age the thought of a sixteen-year old teaching school seems unthinkable, but when this book was written it must have been commonplace, as several of Anne’s schoolfriends were also teaching at various schools on Prince Edward Island throughout this story.

Anne might be a little older but she is as impulsive as ever and the story begins with her accidently selling a cantankerous new neighbour’s cow instead of her own, after said cow broke into the neighbour’s paddock and ate his oats. A beautifully iced cake and Anne’s most sincere apology left her and the new neighbour as friends. The theme of friendship runs through the remainder of this book.

In this story, Anne’s school friends Diana, Gilbert, Jane and the other young people of Avonlea form the Avonlea Village Improvement Society. Some of the townspeople are convinced that it is the people themselves who are to be improved and are resistant to the idea, although they can usually find improvements to be made amongst their neighbours. Other curmudgeons are convinced that the society is a cover for the young people to go courting. The AVIS experienced a discouraging setback when after fundraising to paint the Avonlea Hall it was painted the wrong colour, an ugly bright blue usually seen on wheelbarrows. Regardless of this, they succeeded admirably in prettying-up Avonlea by planting trees and flowers along the town’s roadways.

There are several new faces in Avonlea, including the delightful Miss Lavender, who Anne befriended and helped to escape her enchanted castle after returning Miss Lavender’s prince to her. There were also a horde of school children who Anne taught at the Avonlea school, including Anthony Pye, whose heart she couldn’t seem to win.

At Green Gables things livened up with the arrival of six-year old twins, Davy and Dora, who were adopted by Marilla after the death of their parents. I don’t think I’ve read this book in at least thirty years and this time around I struggled with Davy and Dora’s characters. Marilla and Anne openly admitted to loving naughty Davy better than his well-behaved, dull sister, which I believe is something that a person might think privately but would never say. With more life experience of my own since I last read this book, I also thought that the death of the twin’s mother was glossed over and I particularly struggled with the children’s easy acceptance of their loss.

I was also surprised to discover that Anne and other characters were racist towards French people, who were definitely second class amongst their community.

The story ends with Anne on the verge of adulthood and about to leave Avonlea for Redmond College.

I enjoyed Anne of Avonlea despite the areas of plot that don’t stand up to the values of today.

*It has been over a month since I wrote this review and since then, things in Melbourne have changed enormously. There have been no Covid cases in over a month and lockdown has lifted, although some minor restrictions remain. Right now the sun is shining and life is good!

The Old Lie by Claire G. Coleman

I have mixed feelings about The Old Lie by Australian author Claire G Coleman. The story is an allegory which informs readers about the worst components of Australian history using what I found to be an unsettling scenario.

The cons:

I probably wouldn’t have read this story if there had been an indication on the cover or in the blurb that the story was science fiction as I’m not a big fan of this genre.

The writing itself was not as good as it could have been. I thought the dialogue was particularly clunky.

The many plot lines were initially confusing although they all tied together at the end of the story.

The pros:

Despite my dislike of the genre, the creative plot was well suited to being told as science fiction.

There are good and bad lessons to be learned in the story with sexism and homophobia appearing to have been eradicated while racism continued to exist on a larger scale than ever before – at an inter-galactic level.

The Old Lie follows various indigenous Australian characters after Earth became embroiled in an inter-galactic war. The story began with one character fighting a war in barbed wire and mud, as people residing in outback Australia were becoming ill for no apparent reason while others were refugees on space stations at the other end of the universe, trying to find their way back to Earth by whatever means they could. One character was a prisoner being experimented on by scientists while others had left their homes and families to fight with the Federation after the Conglomeration tried to take over the Earth.

Disturbingly, the Federation valued humans as fighters with a higher aptitude for violence than other species in the entire universe.

I suffered through the first half of this book without taking much interest in the many descriptions of space ship battles or in the human character’s encounters with alien species but the story came together in the last third of the book to deliver a message about how indigenous Australians have been treated since the time of the First Fleet of British ships landing at Botany Bay which I thought was worth reading. The parallels with the nuclear bombs set off at Maralinga were frightening and the idea that all humans could be treated by other species the way other humans have treated and continue to treat indigenous populations was distressing. I think a reading group would find themselves with plenty to discuss after selecting this book as my review has only skimmed over the issues the story raised.

My purchase of The Old Lie by Claire G. Coleman goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (November).

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