Review: The Good People

I normally enjoy historical fiction: knowing what’s going to happen and wondering how the author will take you there. This one was a little different: it was predictable, and it moved slowly to the expected destination. The Good People, written by Hannah Kent, was very well written, which to begin with helped the slow moving tale. But it didn’t keep my attention – while I finished the book, it was tough going.

Set in the 1820s, the story commences with bad luck hitting a small Irish village: hens not laying, cows not milking, men dropping dead in the field, and women unable to have children. The main character is Nora Leahy, the Widow Leahy after her husband Martin is the one to drop dead. Martin was able to handle their grandson, Micheal, who is brought to them by his father after his mother is ‘swept’ – taken by fairies (The Good People). Nora hires a maid (Mary) for help with her grandson who she describes as ‘delicate’. Micheal is suffering from some ailment/illness which has rendered him a cripple and speechless – a “cretin”.  After seeking assistance from the doctor as well as the priest to fix Micheal, who both say nothing can be done for him, Nora feels she has no other option but to ask the old woman, Nance, for help. Nance has the knowledge of the good people, knowing in the old ways, and says she can help cure Micheal and banish the ‘faery’ that has turned Nora’s grandson into a changeling.

I felt sorry for Mary, a child herself, who had stood in the marketplace to trade the only thing she could sell: herself. She cared for Micheal when his grieving grandmother, couldn’t overcome the burden of being a husbandless woman. Sleep deprived and at their wit’s end, the women sought help and were turned away by the men in their town.

Nance was a great character, and without any spoilers, you know women of that kind always find their own way.

This story reminded me of how grateful I am to be a woman of the late 20th/early 21st century. Being educated, being able to choose my own path, not being held to religion or superstition.

Rating: 2.5 stars (check my book review scale) – March 2017 Book Group book

Review: The Eye of the Sheep

I suggested this book to my book group for our annual selection and I’m so glad I did. It was the winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, granting a $60,000 prize which “shall be awarded for the Novel for the year which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian Life in any of its phases….”

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna is just a delight. Yes, I was completely swayed by the cute doggie on the front cover who looks a lot like my Stella Bella. Yes, I wanted to read about Jimmy, the little boy who could only be handled and understood by his mum – as a single mum, it sometimes feels like there’s no one else who understands (even though I know I have a fabulous village supporting me raise my son).

The Eye of the Sheep is set in the mid-1980s in my home town of Melbourne, Australia. Altona to be precise; the dad in the story works at the refinery you can still see today when you cross the West Gate Bridge. The memories of the 80s and how they were presented definitely showed the Australian way of life.

Jimmy Flick is child on the spectrum (not diagnosed nearly as often back then: kids were just “special” or “a bit of a handful”). The way he connects his world to the real world is wonderful: more precisely, the way the author writes and describes these connections is just breathtaking.  His dad’s job at the refinery, describing how it’s his job to clean the rust blocking the pipes (literally) was carried through to his mum’s asthma of dust blocking her pipes (lungs). The way the author describes how Jimmy HAS to run leaves you feeling just as breathless as him.

The story touches on so many topics that faced suburban Australian, then and now: the working class, alcoholism, redundancy, domestic violence, single parenting, family. Every character is flawed, but you love them all anyway.

The language and the way the story is told is amazing.  There is light and dark, ups and downs, happy and sad. I thought the tragedy described in the blurb would have happened earlier in the book, and it made the second half seem much shorter than the first, but the writing and character development easily carried this.

This was one of those books that I had six pages to go when I reached my train stop. I was one of ‘those people’ walking down the street with my head in a REAL BOOK because I HAD to finish it. And I would have happily started reading it again straight away, if not for work and the whole needing to earn a living malarky.

Rating: 5 stars (check my book review scale) Book Club book February 2017

Review: Mr Loverman

My first thought when I finished this book was ‘good things happen to not so good people’.  

Spoilers ahead

A story about an elderly Caribbean gay man – Mr Barrington Jedidiah Walker Esq (I have no idea what the esq was about since he was a retired machinist or similar, not a lawyer) – who had been married to Carmel since he was about 20, but secretly in love with Morris all that time.  He and Morris were decreet enough to keep their secret hidden from Carmel, but she was about the only one who didn’t know. Carmel (who late in the book we find out had an affair with a work colleague 10 years earlier) had to return home to attend to her father’s funeral and Barry barely surviving on his own, decided he was going to divorce her when she returned.  When he ‘came out’ to his grandson in a drunken haze, his second daughter (single, about to turn 40) embraced his lifestyle choice and took him out to gay bars. Carmel returned from Antigia a new women, had reunited with a high school flame and was going to return for good after she divorced Barry, which she started proceedings immediately.

Would Barry have actually left her if Carmel hadn’t left him? I doubt it. He was the centre of his own universe, he could come and go as he pleased. He had a maid wife to take care of the domestic things.  He built a property empire (I have no idea how) and lent property or money to those who needed it, particularly his second daughter who he raised and subsequently favoured, after Carmel suffered horrible PND.  He was frightened  about coming out and for good reason – he’d been on the receiving end of a beating or two over the years. But he also didn’t like change, still dressing as the gent on the front cover of the book, still loving Carmel’s cooking in the old way.

We found out a lot about Barry, as the narrator, and a fair bit about Carmel, who had her own chapters. These were written without punctuation, a free flowing of her thoughts, as it were. This style was very distracting – No wonder Barry was always running away from her. The other characters where underdeveloped. Morris was the love of his life for more than 60 years, but we didn’t really get any insights into why (other than being buff in his early 70s).  The daughters were only just beginning to be explored when the book finished: 300 pages, you can’t fit a lot of character development in.) The language in the book was as if an elderly West Indian man was speaking to you, which took a lot of getting used to. There were some references that I didn’t understand.

But everyone seemed to live happily ever after – I guess is never too late for happiness and to be your true self.

Rating: 3 stars (check my book review scale) Book Club book January 2017 (Not withstanding that every time I thought of the title, Shaggy’s Mr Boombastic ear-wormed its way in… “Mr Lover Lover” even if it was in reference to Shabba’s Mr Loverman)

Review – The Sibling Effect: What the bonds among brothers and sisters reveal about us

I’ve always been fascinated by birth order and how our siblings influence us. I was drawn to this book not only from the perspective of my original family (consisting of myself, one brother and one sister), but also for my son who for all intents and purposes is an only child (he has adult half-siblings).

The author is the second of four brothers, plus twin half-siblings (another brother and a sister) who we are introduced to late in the book (as they weren’t introduced to each other in real life until adulthood). He also had two step-sisters from his mother’s 15-month long second marriage, who are not part of his life after the marriage ended. The sharing of his childhood experiences mixed with research on the topic of siblings was excellent. Breaking down the chapters of the book to different life stages allowed us to follow their development and interactions from childhood, teenage years, and adulthood.

For me, as the first-born, it’s nice to know I’m ‘normal’ and fit squarely into this role. My siblings – with my brother as the middle child and sister as the baby – also carry out their stereotypical roles very well!

The gender balance between different sibling interactions is very interesting, particularly from the author’s upbringing with all-male siblings. Some of the research about what happens in-utero to twins, as well as gay and lesbians, was new information to me and I found logical and well presented.

The chapter on singletons was obviously a focus for me. As my son is a day-care kid, as well as having frequent contact with his cousins, he hopefully will avoid some of the behavioural problems sometimes experienced by only children.

With the author not finding out until he was in his 20s that he has half-siblings was very interesting. He had an immediate bond with his half-siblings: one that wasn’t there with his step-sisters. The research suggests, on a biological level (most likely smell), we know who our blood relatives are. We humans are such interesting creatures!

Our longest-lasting relationships are with our siblings. They are with us from the start, they are part of our earliest memories, and will be with us longer than parents, spouses, and most friends. When I finished this book, I immediately wanted to talk to both my siblings and share all this new information about us. So to my two siblings, here’s to a great journey!

Rating: 4 stars  (check my book review scale)

Review – Lost and Found

I thoroughly enjoyed Lost and Found, by Tom Winter.

Carol, a woman in her late thirties,  is assessing her happiness. She wants to make changes but is fearful. Her best friend suggests she writes a letter to the universe, asking for what she really wants. She posts the letter, with no destination or return address, so it ends up in the dead letters office. Alfred, a near-retired postman is assigned the dead letter office (the irony not lost on him) and he reads Carol’s letters.

The first letter isn’t written until about page 70 but the story doesn’t drag or wane. The characters were all familiar and as I’m a similar age to the main character, am seeing similar challenges in my own and friends’ lives. The first divorces are happening, the first serious illnesses, first parents dying, and the questions that come with this stage of life. All of this is happening to/around me right now, and it was reassuring to know others – even fictional characters – are dealing with the same issues.

Late in the book, Carol is driving her husband to a medical appointment and wonders aloud what everyone is doing and whether they are just going through the motions or are embarking on their own journeys. That we are surrounded by so many people but are more alone than ever.

The author’s writing took my own thoughts and turned them into something special. They way he described Carol’s disintegrating marriage was delightful:

“It’s sort of like… like being on a plane. My love for him is definitely not up in First Class with a glass of champagne and a good book. It’s not even in an exit row in Economy (though I can see that the imagery might be appropriate). My love for him is actually in the middle of a cramped row at the very back of the plane, right next to the toilets. But at least it’s on-board. That’s surely all that matters.

So it’s odd.. although I don’t love LOVE him (in that first-class, leather-seats sort of way) the cancer has reminded me of the things I do love about him.  It’s like we’ve sailed through a massive storm together and we somehow survived (Am I confusing you with all this talk of planes and ships? I’m confusing myself) Let’s just say our marriage was a very, very long flight and now the plane has crashed. The fact that I regretted getting on the plane, hated most of the journey, and now find myself in a place I don’t want to be doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

Though I suppose this metaphor doesn’t really make sense because he doesn’t even know the plane’s crashed. As far as he’s concerned,we’ve just hit a spot of turbulence but by tomorrow morning we’ll be having breakfast on the beach. I know everything in life is subjective, but it would be hard for two people on the same flight to experience it THAT differently: one of them buzzing along at 40,000 feet while the other stumbles through smoking wreckage.

Other paragraphs really resonated (What is creativity? What is our obligation in life?) and I literally was capturing images of the pages (as highlighting library books isn’t the done thing).

LF_Dinner and creativity

obligation

I genuinely liked all the characters. Alfred’s transformation was brilliant and it seemed the universe answered not only Carol’s letter but those in her sphere.

Rating: 4 stars (check my book review scale)

Book club book October 2016

 

Review: The Other Side of the World

This will be a short review of The other side of the world by Stephanie Bishop. Mainly because I only read a third of the book. 

Again, the book started in the future, telling you when and where the two main characters are. We then backtrack three years, to a young family, wanting to make a new start. The husband decides (as was their responsibility in the 1960s) they will move from England to Australia.  They arrive in Perth in March in scorching heat. He has a new job and she says at home, looking after two young children. 

The loneliness of motherhood is a key theme of this book and potentially hit too close to home. As I left the book, she was getting too close to the wrong person. 

The racism experienced by the husband was disappointing and disheartening that we STILL have these backdated attitudes in 2016 (we’ve really learnt nothing in 50 years). This combined with a child the same age as the kids in the book, didn’t make it a pleasant book for me to read. Along with the frustration of the style of books I’ve read this year (where nearly all of them have started with the end), I abandoned this one. 

Rating: 2 stars (check my book review scale)

Book club book September 2016

Review: The Kitchen House

Spoilers

I appreciated the author’s craft but didn’t enjoy the story. 

This is the third book this year I’ve read that starts with the end and the story builds up to what you already know. I think it would have had greater impact to not know one of the main characters is hanged. Not far into the story, it was quite clear who the killer would be and it was the choice of two loved characters that would be killed. 

After the climax (which you already know) the story wraps up very quickly. Loose ends are tied up nice and neatly – in vast contrast to the rest of the story. 

I don’t know much of American slave history and this seems an accurate depiction from the little I do know. A stark reminder of the appalling way humans have treated others throughout time.

Rating: 2 stars. (see my book review scale)
Book group book May 2016