Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘novel’

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.

The Dressmaker’s Secret by Rosalie Ham

I enjoyed reading The Dressmaker by Australian author Rosalie Ham, and adored the film starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving and Liam Hemsworth, so was excited to learn that The Dressmaker’s Secret continued Tilly Dunnage’s story.

For women in Melbourne in 1953, wearing a beautiful dress to a ball to celebrate the queen’s coronation was the only thing that mattered. Tilly Dunnage had left Dungatar for Melbourne where she was working as a dressmaker for a would-be fashion house in the Paris-end of Collins Street.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Tilly’s secret was that she had a baby who she named Joe after the death of Teddy (played by Liam Hemsworth in the movie). As Tilly was a single mother Joe had been taken to a children’s home where Tilly visited him every Sunday. Sergeant Farrat, who had also left Dungatar for Melbourne, gallantly offered to marry Tilly in a marriage of convenience so she could bring Joe home but on their wedding day, he fell in love with another woman. Tilly encouraged Sergeant Farrat and Julie’s romance and in an unusual twist, he spent his wedding night with Julie.

As Sergeant Farrat and Julie’s romance blossomed, Tilly continued to battle the Child Welfare Officer, her small-minded employer and most of the residents of Dungatar who hated her because she was no longer around to make them dresses (and because that she had burnt the town down when she left).

The story jumped around between Tilly, Sergeant Farrat and Julie, plus other new characters and a cast of thousands from Dungatar. Although I remembered some of the Dungatar characters from The Dressmaker, I couldn’t recall all of them and felt confused about where some of them fitted into the story.

The Dressmaker’s Secret was completely over the top but did not have as strong a sense of fun and black humour as The Dressmaker. I would have preferred the sequel to have left the characters from Dungatar behind and followed Tilly in her fight for Joe and her career, plus better conditions for her fellow workers at Salon Mystique.

I think The Dressmaker’s Secret will only appeal (and possibly make sense) to reader who have read The Dressmaker.

If this book is also made into a film, I’ll definitely see it. I can’t wait to see the dresses!

My purchase of The Dressmaker’s Secret by Rosalie Ham 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 (February).

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is Booker Prize winning author Richard Flanagan’s latest novel.

The story is set in Tasmania and follows Anna as she and her two brothers, Tommy and Terzo, intervene to prevent their ill and elderly mother from dying. The story was set between the middle of 2019 and the end of last summer, January 2020, when Australia burned.

When 87-year old Francie had a brain bleed she was sent to a Hobart hospital from where she and her children could hear cruise ships playing The Love Boat theme as they departed Hobart. Francie felt as if she was ready to die and Tommy, who was the kindest of the siblings and who had been caring for his mother for some years supported her wishes, but Terzo and Anna, who had ganged up on Tommy since their childhood, weren’t ready to let go of their mother and pushed for her to have life-saving surgery.

Francie survived the surgery but as often happens there were no better days ahead for her, and her health continued to decline despite being propped up by dialysis and a succession of medical interventions which destroyed her quality of life.

Anna and Terzo’s continued struggle to force their mother to live was not intended to be cruel, yet it was. As Francie turned into a living skeleton, Tommy’s stutter worsened, Terzo became more aggressive and Anna’s body parts began to vanish, first a finger, then her knee and so on. Anna noticed other people’s body parts disappearing also, much like the Orange-bellied Parrots whose story of impending extinction was woven into the story along with other examples of climate changes affecting the ecology.

Looking back, I think I glossed over the disappearing body parts plot line, as did Anna and the other characters, even though it was their parts that were disappearing. Anna was concerned about her missing parts and tried to talk about the problem with other people including medical professionals, all of whom downplayed or ignored her worries when she sought their advice. The missing body parts plot line made me feel uncomfortable so I generally ignored it, just like most of us do with climate change and other issues so big and seemingly insurmountable that we don’t even know where to start.

The family story also occasionally overwhelmed me in that I connected a little too much with the plot. Over the past few years my family have had the heartache of watching parents and grandparents die after suffering similar health issues to Francie. The only difference is, we didn’t try to hold on to them, having watched a previous generation of the family do this and cause further pain and suffering for the person who was dying.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams serves to heighten awareness of enormous issues, including family power battles, ageing, grief and drug abuse, to climate change, suicide as a result of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the use of social media and work as a prop to hide from the reality of our personal lives. Although there was a lot going on the story allowed each point to be fully absorbed and thought about by the reader, including another level of thinking and connecting because of the magic realism (missing body parts).

I also felt a connection to the story because the Orange-bellied Parrots are known to have fed in wetlands near to where I live, although I don’t believe any have been seen locally in several years. Orange-bellied Parrots are critically endangered.

The following photo shows the old Werribee water tower, which had a mural painted on it last year which features Orange-bellied Parrots. The water tower was painted by Hayden Dewar and forms parts of the Australian Silo Art Trail.

The Summer Deal by Jill Shalvis

Despite The Summer Deal by Jill Shalvis being one of the most predictable stories I have ever read I enjoyed reading this contemporary, breezy romance on a Sunday afternoon. The sun was shining, the phone didn’t ring and I ate a pineapple-coconut ice-cream. Bliss!

The main character, Brynn had been duped out of all of her money by her former boyfriend when she returned home to her family in Wildstone, a beach town in California. It didn’t take Brynn long to realise that she couldn’t live with her Mums because they would drive her crazy, so she moved in to a share house with Eli who, as it happened, Brynn had had a crush on as a teenager.

Eli was a nice guy, but unfortunately for Brynn he was also best friends with her worst enemy from childhood, the bad-tempered and prickly Kinsey. Unbeknownst to Brynn before she moved in to the share house, Kinsey was also one of Eli’s house-mates.

Kinsey was equally unhappy about Brynn moving in, but for a far more dramatic reason.

While Kinsey’s mother had been married to her father, one of Brynn’s mothers had been inseminated with his sperm donation (although I don’t know why is it called a donation when he was paid for his deposit. If you do know, please don’t tell me why as I don’t really want to know. I was only making a comment). Kinsey knew (and Brynn didn’t) that she and Brynn were half-sisters.

Here the plot thickened even thicker. Kinsey had a kidney disease and desperately needed a replacement kidney but was determined not to accept a one from a living donor after her previous kidney donor died from complications.

Brynn and Eli started a relationship but when she found out that Kinsey and her were half-sisters and that Eli already knew, Brynn suspected she was being groomed as a possible kidney donor for Kinsey.

Guess what happened next. Go on.

Do you think the characters became a real family (with a kidney donation included) or did they go their separate ways, never to speak to each other again?

I don’t feel bad about outlining most of the plot because it was clear to me from the first couple of chapters how the story would unfold and how things would work out. Happily ever after. Obviously.

I had never heard of Jill Shalvis before reading The Summer Deal and was surprised to find an extremely long list of books by her listed on an inside front page. Despite enjoying my afternoon in the sun I probably won’t read more of this author but would recommend this book for those looking for a fun summer holiday read.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I’m going to re-read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf one day as I don’t think I ‘got’ the story during this first read.

I liked the first few sentences and was hopeful that Virginia Woolf and I would get along, but then came a long sentence which included six commas, two semicolons and two question marks. For the next thirty pages I was too distracted and intimidated by the author’s perfect use of punctuation to attend to the actual story. On reflection, I probably should have put the book aside and returned to it at a later date.

The story revolved around an English woman, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway and at various times followed her, several members of her family and various friends, as well as a couple who she did not know and never met over the course of a day. It began with Clarissa, whose hair had recently turned white after an illness which also affected her heart (her illness is said to have been the Spanish flu as the story was set in the early 1920s), going out to buy flowers for a party she was giving that night. Clarissa believed her life’s work was to host parties where people connected.

Clarissa was visited in the morning by an old friend, Peter Walsh, who had wanted to marry her when they were young. After she spurned him in favour of Richard Dalloway, Peter went to India and at the start of the book had only just returned to England to investigate how the woman he wanted to marry could divorce her present husband. Another character later commented that Peter was always in trouble one way or another with women.

The Dalloway’s beautiful but passive daughter Elizabeth had a friendship with her tutor which Clarissa resented, and in turn Miss Kilmore, an angry, poverty struck middle-aged woman disliked Clarissa because of her comfortable, easy life, which was facilitated by what Miss Kilmore perceived as Clarissa’s unearned social class and wealth.

Another set of characters, Septimus and Lucrezia Smith floated around the story throughout the day. Septimus had been a soldier during World War One and had been experiencing disturbing hallucinations about a friend he had loved who died during the war. During the afternoon Sir William Bradshaw, who had so badly underestimated Septimus’ condition that he seemed incompetent, committed Septimus to a psychiatric institution at which time Septimus suicided by jumping out of a window onto railings below.

Clarissa came to learn of Septimus’ suicide during a conversation with Sir William’s wife that night at her party. Although Clarissa did not know Septimus she empathised with him and felt he had acted truly by suiciding.

Other attendees at Clarissa’s party included the Prime Minister, Peter Walsh and the former wild-child but now sedate Sally Seton, who Clarissa had been in love with when they were girls.

All of these characters, plus a few others who I have not mentioned, had their turn at narrating this story at some point during the day. All of the characters were either generally dissatisfied with their lives, anxious, resentful or in the case of Septimus Smith, desperately troubled. Regardless of their social status or wealth, none of them knew perfect happiness. Even Clarissa, who superficially appeared to have everything she wanted, had given up Sally to become Mrs Dalloway.

Mrs Dalloway revolved around Clarissa, but the story was also about each of the main characters who appeared in it. I will re-read this book in future in order to learn what I missed on my first read.

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

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

My copy of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens stated on the cover that the book was a Sunday Times bestseller with over five million copies sold worldwide. I might be the only person on earth who didn’t love it.

Around Barkley Cove, Kya Clark was known derogatively as ‘the Marsh girl’. Abandoned at six-years old by her mother and elder siblings, she was left to fend for herself in a remote shack in North Carolina without running water or electricity with just her alcoholic, abusive father to take care of her. He left little Kya alone for days on end and eventually left for good.

The good people of Barkley Cove were more concerned that their own children didn’t catch fleas from Kya than they were in helping her. Kya muddled along without them and although she didn’t go to school she grew up to be self-reliant and strong, with assistance from a poor black man who occasionally provided her with food and clothing and from Tate, an older boy who also lived in the marsh who taught her to read.

Kya and Tate fell in love as teenagers but he eventually abandoned her after gaining an opportunity to study science at university. Kya, who was also a self-taught expert on the natural world of the marsh was left bereft after Tate left. Eventually she met Chase, another boy from the town and started an affair with him, although Chase didn’t want anyone to know that they were seeing each other (always a bad sign). Kya eventually learned that Chase was planning to marry someone else.

While I enjoyed reading about the marsh, the paths through the waterways, birds, shells and the grasses, I struggled to find Kya’s life, self-education and romances to be believable. The thought of an abandoned six-year old girl bringing herself up alone in a remote marsh was also too far-fetched for me, let alone the idea of her becoming a successful author, poet and self-educated scientist.

I also disliked the dialogue which was awkward and overly filled with ‘git’ as in “We better git the sheriff” and abbreviated words such as ‘ain’t’ and ‘movin.’ I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I dislike dialect in novels to the point where it influences how I feel about a book.

Anyhow, I reckon y’all can prob’bly guess at whether I’ll be recommendin’ Where the Crawdad’s Sing or not without my spellin’ it out.

Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Honeybee is the latest novel by Australian author Craig Silvery, who is known for the fantastic Jasper Jones.

Jasper Jones was likened by many readers to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in that it is an important coming of age story, albeit for Australians. Like Jasper Jones, Honeybee also featured a young main character going through very difficult times. I believe it is best suited to the Young Adult market, although think adults will also appreciate the story.

The story begins with fourteen-year old Sam Watson about to throw himself off an overpass in Perth when he noticed an elderly man at the other end of the bridge who was seemingly also about to jump. Instead of jumping, Vic drove Sam back into the city. A few days later Sam returned to the bridge, hoping Vic would come along again and he did.

The pair formed an unlikely friendship. Sam had had a much harder life than most. His mother was an alcoholic who was disowned by her family when she fell pregnant at a young age. Sam and his mother moved frequently and were often homeless and from a very young age, Sam had assisted his mother in a variety of scams to steal food, money and other items. More recently Sam and his mother had been living with her latest boyfriend Steve, a violent and abusive criminal.

Vic was a widower who was in pain, physically and emotionally. He desperately missed his wife, Edie and had only carried on living after her death because he had promised her he would look after her dog. By the time the dog eventually died Vic was very ill himself and in enormous physical pain.

For a variety of sordid and unhappy reasons Sam was unable to return to his mother and Steve’s home, so he ended up staying with Vic, cooking Vic fabulous meals that he had learned from watching Julia Childs on television and making friends with a girl who lived down the road. Most importantly, Vic encouraged Sam to be himself, which led to him wearing Edie’s clothes and eventually attending a drag show with Vic, where he met and befriended the fabulous Fella Bitzgerald, who would play an important role in helping Sam to understand what it was to be transgender and that she, Sam, wasn’t alone, or the only person in the world who felt that she had been born in the wrong body.

Reading back over what I’ve written, I noticed that I’ve started by calling Sam a boy then changed to calling her a girl as she realised who she wanted to be. I dithered over the pronoun (political correctness can be a minefield) but have gone with my initial choice as I felt the change in Sam’s pronoun as the story developed reflected her decision to be the person who she wanted to be.

Unfortunately some of the plot devices were both predictable and unlikely, such as Sam becoming an extraordinarily capable chef simply by watching Julia Childs’ videos and some characters are ridiculously over the top, such as Sam’s friend Aggie who is a particularly enthusiastic conversationalist and Steve’s depiction as a violent crim, but I still sat up late over two nights to finish reading Honeybee. I was left feeling hopeful for Sam’s future and will be happy to read Craig Silvey’s next book, whenever that might be.

My purchase of Honeybee by Craig Silvey begins my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2021 (January).

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.

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