Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Still Life is a highly regarded and acclaimed novel and after reading it, I can see why.

Beginning in the dying moments of the second world war in Italy, Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier meets Evelyn Skinner a middle-aged art historian on the hunt to salvage paintings from the ruins of the war. This establishes the story of mostly, Ulysses his life after the war and the influence on him by this chance meeting.

There is no real plot but the story is full and rich as we navigate the decades. Ulysses is the pivotal star whose gentle and calm nature holds the crew of other characters together. More importantly it is through his eyes that the reader is seduced to fall for him and his life as we voyeuristically involve ourselves in the everyday detail. The supporting characters are terrific with a full kaleidoscope of humour, sadness, good will and genuine friendship. Who could not love the parrot, Claude? Even the writer, E. M. Skinner turns up. But Peggy and her daughter Alys, were difficult characters and for me Alys belied her years so much that it edged on disbelief.

The other main character is of course, the city of Florence. Who could resist a book about a group of friends living in such a place? I was surprised also to learn of the great flood.  It took me back to my own visit there many years ago when the river, far from a raging torrent was a mere trickle when the city was in severe drought. This book made me wonder what it is that makes a city have heart and soul. Is it the food, the people or the art? I think it’s all of that and Winman showcases it beautifully.

Art by some of the masters portrayed women in a less than favourable light and Winman gave us a lesson about the sexism providing a valuable insight for the reader.

Apart from amazing characters, the book is humorous with elements of fantasy, talking trees no less, with themes of homosexuality, single motherhood and war trauma which serves to make the reader more empathic.

The only down side for me was the last section about Evelyn which seemed out of place, repetitive and serving little purpose. I did want to know more about her, what she had done after the war for example but we got very little. I know this chapter has created some controversy and as you can tell, I wasn’t for it.

Apart from that, the writing is sublime, descriptive and evocative of place; the narrative conversational.  Check this one out if you can.

Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler

It’s been a very long time since I read one of Anne Tylers books and writing about family is one of the  things she does best.

Mercy and Robin marry in 1940 and while Robin works long hours in the father’s plumbing business, Mercy raises the couples three children, Alice, Lily and David.  They manage to go away on their one and only holiday in 1957 with the three children. The novel provides snippets of their lives until 2020 and this is one of the rare novels, I’ve read which talks about living with the pandemic, familiar to so many of us.

Mercy is also an artist and there are no prizes for her style of mothering, as it is at best basic.  Alice picks up where her mother has left off by being the cook and carer of the younger two. The parents fail to see anything wrong with letting Lily, only fifteen, go out with a twenty-one-year-old man and Alice worries for her younger sister. 

The novel skips time after the holiday, spanning such a lot of time that I failed to truly engage with any of the characters. Mercy was self-absorbed in her need for peace and quite as she slowly moved away from Robin to live in a loft above a garage, ostensibly to paint. Robin is left bewildered, isolated, alone and sad. No-one confronts Mercy and the family just seems to know she’s left despite the appearances. But that is how the family operates – nonconfrontational.

There’s a sadness throughout as Robin tries valiantly to hold onto a non-existent marriage too weak to do anything about it. Alice helicopters over her sister, Lily, sitting in judgement about her behaviour while David their brother is so remote that he may as well have been on another planet.

They are more a set of individuals living in their own worlds than a cohesive family unit and I wondered what was the point of it all. While there is no plot, it is a pure character study yet the characters weren’t particularly interesting enough to spend time with and Tyler doesn’t allow us to anyway.  The reader never really gets close enough to anyone other than Mercy yet we still don’t understand her – I didn’t anyway.

The idea that family patterns can repeat is joyfully at odds with David who as an old man, a grandpa himself, gives rise to hope that he has out of them all, created a family whom he loves and is deeply connected to. And, he was surprisingly the one who shone through with hope for the future.

I’m glad I read this one.

Book Review: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

This novel set in the early seventies is an epic character study of the Hildebrandt family and their individual confrontation with the moral dilemma of how to be a good person.

Franzen is highly skilled in dropping the reader into the point of view of each of the family member. We begin with the father Russ, an assistant minister, a weasel of a man, weak and highly unlikeable as he navigates his way out of a long marriage for the lust of a young widow, Frances who cares little for him. Russ takes no responsibility for his moral dilemmas believing it is everyone else’s fault, in particular his wife, Marion.

About Marion, Russ says, “if she hadn’t been so supportive of his failings, he might have made peace long ago. Frances had restored him to his courage, his edge, by believing he was capable of more.”

Learning what’s behind Marion’s self-loathing and remoteness, she deserves our pity which serves to enhance the reader’s disgust towards Russ. Her support has elevated him in the community and within the family despite hiding a traumatic secret of who she truly is. And we wonder at her power to be someone she’s not for so long.

The oldest son, Clem sees his father for what he is. Away at college he is naively drawn into his first relationship with a woman who is not his younger sister, Bec. He seems too innocent to be true but confronts a dilemma about studying instead of fighting in the Vietnam war.

His younger sister, Bec, a typical teenager, cool and beautiful, looks for guidance not from her self-absorbed parents but from hip youth leader Ambrose, Russ’s arch enemy. The younger son, Perry is the one who most needs help who finds solace only through drugs.

This is a curious family with an underlying belief in God as an excuse for their behaviour yet the older children have been allowed to neglect their religion practice. Russ, out of all the characters, is the one deeply flawed character I disliked the most which of course makes him the most interesting.

Marian despite our sympathies about her earlier life, cruelly dumps what she believes is a hereditary mental health problem onto fifteen-year-old Perry who is the most ill-equipped to be able to handle it. He is the character, I felt most sorry for. Severely let down by his parents, the only shining light is his sister who tries inadequately to help until she was drawn into her own problems. The only mature one, out of them all was eight-year-old Judson who is a delight.

Finding God is a vehicle of action and a solution for each of the characters woes, which is probably something that might be true for many people.

‘Dear God, she prayed, if this is the final test, I accept the test. If my time has come, I’ll die rejoicing in you… If it’s your will that I live, I promise I will always serve you.’

This indeed is a dysfunctional family and Franzen portrays them and the small town they live in, beautifully. Strong themes of religion run through it, quite heavily at times, as well as current issues of the Vietnam war, drugs and mental health.

This is a very lengthy novel, beautifully written but overly long with dumps of religious messaging which was too laboured for me. Yet, the characters are what kept me completely compelled. Give it a go.

Book Review: The Good Mother by Rae Cairns

Whew, just closed the last page of this debut mystery thriller and am still trying to recover.

Sarah Calhoun, a Sydney divorced mum of three is living her life, arguing with her children, making the school lunches and working. She gets along with her ex-husband and negotiating their family life in two separate households. Along comes a detective who pops into her life digging up her past, a past in Ireland when she worked as a youth worker during the nineties.

The detective wants her to testify against a man who has become a leader of the IRA, and he is not about to let her forget the terrifying past when she dodged bullets and grenades. To complicate matters she sixteen-year-old son has won a trip to play soccer in Ireland.

That same IRA leader finds her whereabouts and threatening her family, he directs her to return to Ireland. Trusting no-one, she reluctantly turns to her estranged father for help. Having no choice she and her father leave Australia, leaving her two daughters in the care of her ex. The detective assures her safety and her father protects her son but she doesn’t reckon on what the IRA leader will do to her.

This debut novel is simply astounding. It sets a cracking pace of tension and edge-of-your-seat page-turning action. I found myself screaming (in my head of course) for Sarah not to make the decisions and action she chose. But having no idea what else she should do, you just know you’d probably do the same to save and protect your children no matter what the cost.

Cairns has captured the very essence of the mother lion in all of us and thankfully, is very rarely tested in the circumstances that Sarah faces. Yes, there’s some violence, a lot of tension and even a bit of romance. It’s well-written and there’s a lot to learn about the battles between Protestants and Catholics during the 1990’s. It’s also about resilience and learning to trust.

If this one isn’t a movie soon, then it really should be. Calling all movie producers! Get this one made. Move over Jack Reacher for Sarah Calhoun. In the meantime, go out,  buy this one and prepare to read it quickly.

Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

A delightful idea done extremely well, this novel sets you thinking about your own life and mindset wondering if it can be the best it can be.

It opens with the main character, Nora Seed whose life spirals from a pivotal point in her primary school years when her library teacher Mrs Elm breaks the news of her father’s sudden death.

Nineteen years later, Nora’s life is a mess and she convinces herself that her life is not worth living. Instead, she finds herself in a place between life and death in a library where the shelves are filled with the opportunity to try another life in order to see what might have happened if she’d made different choices. Her old library teacher, Mrs Elm is there to guide her through the many regrets Nora has about her life. She takes the opportunity to discover what she could have become but more importantly to view the consequences of those choices on others around her. She learns about herself as she journey’s though the various lives.

Her book of regrets includes such things as not becoming an Olympic swimmer, a glaciologist, Dan’s wife, a mother, the lead singer of the Labyrinths, or just a good person. These and many regrets reflect how lost she was during her life. I couldn’t see her as a glaciologist or philosopher or an Olympic swimmer and neither could she. And this is the brilliance by Haig in casting that uncertainty and for the reader to cheer for Nora.

This novel is not all gloom. There are some truly moments of hilarity as Nora is dropped into the middle of situations where she must adapt and bluff her way through. And when she realises it’s not the life for her after all she finds herself back in the Midnight Library. At times the book became a little moralistic delving into various philosophers such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Thoreau. There was even some quantum physics thrown into the mix which at times, lost me yet somehow seemed quite profound.

Nora in one of her lives tells a person, ‘There was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness. And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You can’t have one without the other.’

It’s a beautifully written and crafted novel and for some, could be quite impactful, and divisive for others.  The author makes you think and reflect. The only down side is that I did begin to tire of the lives as it became a little repetitive, but not for long.

I enjoyed this easy-to-read book.

Book Review: The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth

As with many of Sally Hepworth’s books this is a  page turning novel full of intrigue and suspicion.

The book opens at a wedding and while out the back during the signing, someone is injured. Then we meet Stephen Aston, a highly respected heart surgeon and his daughters, Tilly and Rachel. It seems a happy family but we soon realise that not all is quite right with Tilly, whose middle-class lifestyle is falling apart, when her husband loses the family fortune and she turns to shoplifting to cope. Her sister, Rachel is a baker-extraordinaire who hasn’t been with a man since she was sixteen.

Sound interesting? Well then, there’s more when we meet Stephen’s new young fiancé, Heather, an interior designer whom he met while she was designing Stephen’s house for him and his wife.  How’s that for a bit of drama as the reader is taken on a guessing game of intrigue. What happened to the wife?

The story flicks in and out of Tilly, Rachel and Heather’s point of view and their characters are well drawn as we see their perspective about each other as well as their growing awareness of who their father really is. Not to mention that we are sporadically taken back to the church by an unknown character.

There were a lot of clues along the way and I could see what was coming fairly easily which merely pushed me to see if the three women could work it out too. I quite like that technique of letting the reader know first, yet teasing us along as well.

Overall, a quick and easy read – very enjoyable.

Book Review: Beautiful World, where are you? By Sally Rooney

This is an angst-ridden novel about four people, two couples actually, in their late twenties, still trying to work through what they want out of life and love.

 Alice, a well-known novelist meets Felix, a storeman in a warehouse in a small beachside town. She invites him to come along on her book tour in Italy and a relationship form between these two unlikely people. Her best friend Eileen has just come out of a relationship and is flirting with their mutual friend Simon. 

This is the third Sally Rooney novel I’ve read and I picked this one up because I primarily like her writing. The writing, however, in this novel left me a little cold as I found it quite monotone and mechanical.

‘At twenty past twelve on a Wednesday afternoon, a woman sat behind a desk in a shared office in Dublin city centre, scrolling through a text document… At one o’clock she told her colleagues she was going to lunch, and they smiled and waved to her from behind their monitors.’

Large sections of the novel were relentlessly like this, sometimes with one-page paragraphs and no dialogue tags. I don’t mind that so much but it was what was in those paragraphs which turned me off.  The only relief was the dialogue and email exchanges in first person between Alice and Eileen.

Eileen is unhappy and has loved Simon since she was a teenager. He loves her too but there is a lot of heartache as we wonder why these two just can’t seem to get together.

Felix is a curious character often inadequate in the company of the other three but difficult to get a handle on. I found myself wondering why Alice was with him and the relationship between them just didn’t ring quite true as we never seemed to get right into remote and wooden character of Alice.

I wasn’t actually compelled by Alice and Felix’s characters and would have put this one down yet somehow, I plodded on hoping for some resolution or character development or even plot, perhaps. The sex scenes became repetitive serving little purpose in driving the relationships forward. The philosophical and opinionated discussions on the world, climate change, the bronze age and so on offered up little to make me feel anything for the characters.  I was curious about Alice’s mental health but it skirted the discussions.

 I just couldn’t connect with this one.