Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘novel’

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

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William Boyd is an author who I’ve been working up to for some time. I started with Ordinary Thunderstorms for the simple reason that this was the book my library had on the shelf.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller which I found so exciting that I didn’t want to put the book down. I read on the train to and from work, and this is one of those books that I could have stayed on the train with, travelling all over Melbourne until I finished the story instead of getting off at Flinders Street and heading into work, had I not been the diligent, hard-working person that I am.*

The story starts with the main character, Adam Kindred walking along the bank of the Thames River in London. Adam is a climatologist who has just had a job interview, (which went well, by the way), when he gets hungry and drops in to a neighbourhood restaurant in Chelsea. During his meal, Adam speaks with another man, a fellow scientist who is dining alone. After the other man left the restaurant, Adam realises the other man left a folder of paperwork under his table. Adam picks the folder up, finds the other man’s name and phone number inside and phones him. The man is Dr Philip Wang, and he gratefully invites Adam for a drink in his apartment when he returns the folder. When Adam turns up, Philip is lying on his bed with a knife in his chest. Philip is still alive and convinces Adam to pull the knife out, but when Adam does, Philip dies.** At this point Adam hears somebody outside on Philip’s balcony, so he takes the folder and bolts.

Instead of going straight to the police Adam returns to his accommodation where he has a lucky escape from the person who was on Philip’s balcony, then realising that he might not be safe with the police, goes on the run and disappears in London.

Adam is being hunted by the police for Philip’s murder and is also being hunted by the person who killed Philip, presumably because he has Philip’s folder. Adam makes enquiries and learns that Philip was trialling an asthma treatment for children in London hospitals called Zembla-4, which is being funded by a large pharmaceutical company.

The story of how Adam managed to disappear was fascinating. By not using his phone, passport or bank cards Adam became invisible, but the social ties he made as time went on (both wanted and unwanted) were dangerous to his ongoing anonymity. Adam turns out to be a sucker for women though, which is why he was in London looking for a new job in the first place. One woman Adam meets along the way provides him with shelter and her affection, although for a price. Rita, a policewoman who works on the Thames River, seems likely to catch Adam in his campout on the riverbank at any moment.

For a thriller, this story meanders along, constantly delving into fascinating asides such as how homeless and people in terribly low socio-economic circumstances live, cult religions, the ethics (or lack of them) in big business, policing on the Thames River and work options for former SAS soldiers. There were a few sections of the story that made me squeamish and other sections that I delighted in.

From time to time I became irritated with Adam. For a scientist he didn’t always think clearly, but I was always on his side, hoping against overwhelming odds that the bad guys would be exposed and punished and the good guys would win.***

I’m keen to read more books by William Boyd but don’t want to spoil these for myself by reading others too soon. Waiting to read another is going to be a little like being on a diet, but knowing there is chocolate out there somewhere. Highly recommended.

*If this last sentence sounds a bit sucky, it is because my boss occasionally reads my reviews…

**My First Aid Certificate is well out of date, but I do remember learning that if somebody has been stabbed or impaled in any way, First Aiders are supposed to wrap the implement so it doesn’t get bumped and call an ambulance, rather than trying to remove it, which can cause as much damage as sticking it in.

***You don’t always get what you want. Not saying whether things work out okay for Adam or not, read Ordinary Thunderstorms and find out for yourself.

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Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook

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Wake in Fright was Australian author Kenneth Cook’s first novel. I read Eliza Fraser by this author at a very young age, not sure I was old enough for the story then but the only books which were forbidden to me on my parent’s bookshelves were a set of gruesome Crime and Punishment books because Mum said they would give me nightmares. Thank goodness Wake in Fright wasn’t on Mum and Dad’s shelves, because I would definitely have had nightmares had I read it then.

John Grant, the main character of Wake in Fright, is a school teacher in a one-room school at Tiboonda, a place with a school, a pub and a railway station in the back of beyond. When school breaks up for summer, John hops on the train to Bundayabba, from where he intends to catch the plane to Sydney to spend six glorious weeks at the beach chasing after the lovely Robyn. John in indentured to the Department of Education and owes them another year in the heat and dust of Tiboonda before he is free to get a job teaching back on the coast.

John has spent his school holidays at The Yabba as he hasn’t been able to afford to go back to Sydney, but on this visit, with 22 pounds in cash and a cheque for another 140 pounds, representing his year’s work less expenses (beer is expensive in Tiboonda, but at least it’s cold), he’s almost counting the minutes until he gets on the plane the next morning.

John books a room in a hotel for the night, then heads out to get a meal. From here, things go pear-shaped. John starts drinking with a copper (police officer) who takes him to The Game, an illegal gambling den where Two-Up is played. John plays and wins, then imagines himself winning enough to not have to go back to Tiboonda, and tries again. In a single toss of the pennies, he loses everything.

John wakes up hung-over and broke, facing six weeks in The Yabba with no money, no friends and no hope of getting to Sydney. He falls in with a bunch of drunken miners who share their beer and take him spot-lighting (shooting kangaroos). Reading about these idiots bouncing along a dirt track in the dark, all of them drunk and with their weapons loaded made me shudder. How none of them shot themselves or each other was a miracle.

I felt annoyed with John quite often, he had no common-sense at all and every time he had to make a decision, he made the wrong one, probably because he was mostly either drunk or so hung-over he would rather have been dead.

Wake in Fright was written in 1961 and is a fast, exciting read, although bloke-y and occasionally vicious. There were only two female characters, one a whore and the other, Robyn, an ideal, rather than an actual person. This isn’t a book for those who can’t stomach animal cruelty, there is also casual racism which was in keeping with times. The story is quite dark, too. Regardless of all of the reasons why I shouldn’t have liked this book though, I couldn’t put it down. I’ve never been to Broken Hill, which The Yabba is based on, and now, I’m not sure I ever will.

 

 

 

 

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

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Sleeping Beauties was co-written by Stephen King and his son, Owen King.

The story is set in the present in a small American town where most of the townspeople work in a nearby women’s prison. An epidemic which becomes known as the Aurora Virus sweeps the world, causing all women who go to sleep to become wrapped in a cocoon. If woken, the sleeping women are so violent they kill the person who woke them before going back to sleep (huh? Isn’t that normal behaviour?)

Most women fall asleep eventually, despite their attempts to resist. A handful of women stay awake right through the story because they are insomniacs, or because they have access to drugs.

I fell asleep.

Sleeping Beauties was too long, had too many boring bits and went down too many rabbit holes.

I struggled to stay interested, even though the sleeping women went to another world with no men, no wars and with none of the drama that men have historically created. The real world, with men now running the show, wasn’t anywhere I would want to live, as with no women left, no one ironed, cooked or cleaned, while other men took the opportunity to burn sleeping women to death. A supernatural element in the story didn’t improve things.

I was disappointed such a long book by Stephen King could have told so much more of a story. I skipped the last 200 pages to read the last few pages and wasn’t at all surprised by how things worked out. Yawn.

Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott

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It’s been a long time since I’ve read (or re-read) Little Women or Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, but as a child I read these stories over and over. The cover is falling off my copy of Little Women and the feel of the book in my hands is familiar. I don’t think I could recite the actual words but the stories are deeply embedded in my memory.

I found Jo’s Boys at the library and opened it up out of nostalgia, only to realise I couldn’t remember what happened in this continuation of the March family, probably because I never owned a copy of this book myself.

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t like the picture on the cover of the edition I read (pictured above) because, although Impressionism was in its’ heyday when Jo’s Boys was published, the painting seems too pale and gentle to me to truly reflect characters who live their lives to the fullest, adventuring and frolicking and finding their way in the world.

The story begins by bringing us up to date with Mrs Jo and her Professor, Laurie and Mrs Amy, Mrs Meg and their families, as well as the boys who grew up at Plumfield. Tommy Bangs is still unsuccessfully chasing Nan, wild Dan has not been tamed, beautiful Bess is now a budding artist, Daisy sews and knits, Nat fiddles and Demi writes. Franz has returned to Germany to take a bride and Emil has gone to sea. Josie, who I couldn’t remember at all, is a budding actress. Young Rob and Teddy, Jo and Professor Bhaer’s sons, are loved by all. Some of the smaller characters from previous books make short appearances too, but this story concentrates on the better-loved characters from Little Men.

Following a get-together at Plumfield, which is now a thriving college after a bequest from Mr Lawrence senior, the young men scatter around the world to gain the experiences which will turn them into the people they will be for the rest of their lives.

I found Jo’s Boys preachier and more sentimental than I remembered. Characters constantly lectured other characters about their faults in an attempt to improve the other person, while others freely admitted and rued their failings. Sinners were forgiven and lessons learned and all went on with the intention of doing better in future. The moral lessons in Jo’s Boys were given with a much heavier-hand than in Little Women.

I enjoyed finding out what happened to everyone, but Jo’s Boys will never replace Little Women in my heart.

 

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

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Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman is a love story that will stay with me forever.

The summer Elio is 17, his family host Oliver, an American student in their home on the Italian Riviera. Every year the family have a young academic stay with them who spend a few hours day assisting Elio’s father, a professor, with his work, after which they are free to revise their own manuscript, improve their Italian, go to the beach or in Oliver’s case, charm Elio, his family, their extended household and community.

The story is narrated by Elio and he tells the reader everything of his joys and hopes, and of his failures, shame and embarrassment. He is precocious, a musical prodigy wise beyond his years after having been exposed to people from all walks of life as a result of his parent’s open door policy. Precocious or not, though, Elio is also 17 and at the mercy of his hormones. He has a girlfriend, Marzia and is sexually experienced (with girls), but as Oliver’s six week visit continues, Elio find himself more and more attracted to Oliver.

Elio is a typical 17 year old. His emotions swing and sway between joy and despair in reaction to a single word and his hopes and dreams are bigger than his reality. His behaviour is sometimes playful, sometimes petulant. He doesn’t know what he wants but he knows he wants Oliver.¬†Oliver is 24 and seemingly has no idea of Elio’s infatuation.

Elio believes Oliver has four personalities which are in alignment with his four bathing suits, wearing red when he is adult, abrupt and ill-tempered, yellow for his funny and buoyant tempers, green when he is sunny and eager to learn from Elio, and blue only occasionally, but Elio notes Oliver’s kindness when he wears his blue swimming trunks. At first, Elio wants Oliver to be ‘green’ all of the time.

Eventually Elio tells Oliver how he feels and at first, Oliver, although kind, tells him they cannot act on his feelings. Despite Oliver’s words, he and Elio kiss while overlooking a local lookout to the sea called Monet’s Berm. Their kiss is followed by their feet touching under the dinner table, and in no time at all Elio and Oliver’s physical relationship ramps to match their desire.

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When I said Elio doesn’t leave anything out of his narration, I meant that he doesn’t leave anything out. There were moments that made me cringe and sections that depict their sexual relationship so frankly that in the hands of a lesser writer I would not have finished this book. But not leaving anything out means that Elio shares all of his feelings of confusion and desire and joy and sadness and curiosity and hope. He lives in the moment and his first romance is as intense as most teenagers’ first love.

Call Me By Your Name made me remember (briefly, thank goodness) what it was to be a teenager and at the mercy of emotions I didn’t understand and couldn’t control. I remember several short-lived crushes on wildly inappropriate people who didn’t know I existed, slamming doors at home to show my frustration with my family and lots of wishing I was someone else, older, more sophisticated, more something without knowing what the something was.

Elio’s 17th summer had almost a fairy tale quality in that the person he loved also loved him, his parents were understanding and urged him to feel his sadness after the affair ended and he had a bright and happy future ahead.

The writing in Call Me By Your Name is beautiful and the story deserves a slow read in order to appreciate the story and language. My one criticism of the story is that the barely six-weeks becomes Elio’s defining relationship for the rest of his life. I appreciate that this was Elio’s first adult love affair, but to continue loving that person more than anyone who came after seems to me to be a tragedy.

Call Me By Your Name could be called a coming of age novel, although it seemed bigger than that to me. I rate this story of first love as one of the most beautiful and unforgettable romances I’ve read.

 

The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton

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The Life of Houses is Australian author Lisa Gorton’s first novel for adults. She is best known for her poetry and essays.

The Life of Houses is the story of a mother and her teenage daughter who struggle to connect with each other. Anna, the mother, is a successful and well known art gallery owner in Melbourne. Anna’s daughter, Kit, holds herself apart from her mother as a punishment, in the way that teenage girls know how to do so well…

Anna is married, but her husband is in England and she is having an affair with Peter. He has left his wife and wants to have an honest relationship with Anna, but she hasn’t told her husband yet and so seems to me uncommitted to Peter.

Anna sends Kit to stay with her grandparents and aunt for a week at her family home, a grand old house at an unnamed town at the beach. Strange as this may seem, Kit did not know her grandparents or aunt prior to this visit, having only visited them once when she was a baby. Other than this one visit, Anna has not visited her own parents since she returned from England.

Kit’s aunt is relatively normal, but her grandparents are also difficult to know. Dementia and ill health are taking their toll on both. Kit’s grandfather burdens her by telling her that one day the house and all of their belongings will be hers.

I found the characters in The Life of Houses to be too cold and dispassionate for me to care about any of them. Anna and Kit held themselves too far apart from each other, and from me for me to care about them. Anna’s sophistication was off-putting to me too, if she were real she would never see me and I would not be interested in her either.

The language and writing style was so careful and considered that it seemed to me that emotion was missing from the story.

I didn’t feel a strong connection to the Australian-ness of the book either. These characters weren’t people I know and I didn’t feel a strong sense of place. The book is set alternatively in Melbourne and in a beach town not far from Melbourne, and I kept hoping to recognise something that could make this story mine in some way.

I found The Life of Houses to be frustrating aloof, but wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that more serious readers than me loved the story.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

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Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good book, however I loved Bel Canto by this author so much that I can’t quite forgive Commonwealth for not being as good. My problem, not the book’s. I should have waited another year before reading it.

Commonwealth tells the story of the children of a blended family with six children over a fifty year period. The story starts at the christening of the youngest girl, Franny, when her mother is kissed by an uninvited guest who brought a bottle of gin to the party. This was in the 1960s, so having the words ‘christening’ and ‘gin’ in the same sentence wasn’t as odd as it would be now.

The two adults, Beverly and Bert fell in love and dissolved their families to start a new one with her two children, and his four. The story then follows the children as they grow up together, running wild all summer. Six children are too many for Beverly to manage and Bert takes no responsibility for them at all and tragically, the lack of supervision leads to the death of the eldest boy, Cal.

The children make it clear that their parents fell in love with the idea of escaping their real lives (and for Bert particularly, the responsibility of his children) as much as they fell in love with each other. Their marriage didn’t last either, as Bert eventually played around on Beverly too. They divorced and both went on to third marriages.

As interesting as I found the adult’s story, though, the story of Commonwealth belongs to the children. Beverly’s daughters are Caroline, the aggressive, bossy older sister who leads the pack, and Franny, who floats along, letting life take her where it will. As a twenty-something, Franny falls into a relationship with a much older celebrated author, who hears the story of her childhood and uses it to write a successful novel. Franny tells most of the story, although occasionally the point of view switches to another character. The story isn’t told chronologically, probably because if it had been there would have been nothing for the characters left to discover about themselves later on.

Bert’s children are Cal, who died as a teenager, Holly, who abandons life in the USA to spend her days meditating in Switzerland, Jeanette, who everyone thought was mentally deficient as a child but who turned out to be the most well-adjusted of them all and Albie, the youngest boy whose story was in some ways the saddest of all. Albie was such a painful child that no one could bear to be around him.

Two characters I would like to know more about were Father Joe Mike and Beverly’s sister Bonnie, but I suspect I never will. They go together like gin at a christening.

Ann Patchett’s writing has a feel of Jane Austen to me, in that she (or rather her narrator), is amused by her characters and their lives. I like this style enormously. I liked Commonwealth enormously too, but am going to wait longer before reading another book by this author so that I can enjoy it without comparison to Commonwealth or Bel Canto.

 

 

 

 

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