Tag Archives: Reading

Book Review: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is ideal for a book club as there’s so much in it to discuss.

Thoughtful, as it is thought provoking, Flanagan challenges the reader to think, to feel and to pay attention. What about? Death not just our own, but others, of the planet and our way of life. And the themes are wrapped around aging, displacement, child and elder abuse, trauma and environmental destruction. It’s not a happy book nor is it meant to be.

Flanagan cleverly uses the slow and excruciating demise of Francie, the mother of Anna, Terzi and Tommy. Terzi in particular, and Anna decide that it’s not time for their mother to die and do everything they can to keep her alive, against the wishes of Tommy her carer, as well as Francie. Their brutal decisions have a background story for their motivation.

‘They saved her from death, but only, thought Anna, by infinitely prolonging her dying. ‘

Many of us are facing the dilemma of aging parents and what might be best for them. At the core of this, is listening and respecting our parents’ wishes and not impaling them with our own controlling ideas. Flanagan explores the family dynamics beautifully to bring about a strong emotional and sometimes, uncomfortable response for the reader.

Anna finds parts of herself vanishing starting with her finger and nobody notices. Perhaps a metaphor for the fact that no-one notices the disappearance of animal species and habitat across our planet?  Told from Anna’s point of view we feel her dismay, her displacement and her own disappearing. I wondered whether like so many middle-aged women she also felt ignored, irrelevant and dismissed as if her voice no longer matters.

And there’s the issue of what social media is doing to us. When Anna is confronted by difficulties, she escapes into an alternative life of social media, to ignore and hide from herself, her family and what’s happening around her.

 “Instagram, blessed Novocaine of the soul! Foodholidayssmilinggroupsshopping. She had to get off. She knew it. She had to get off.”

Alongside this story is a commentary of what’s happening in the world from the extinction of the orange- bellied parrot to the destruction of swathes of habitat. Fires raged in Australia destroying more than a million animals. I well recall the devastation, the smoke, the fear last year, and Flanagan brought it all back, making us pay attention to our uncertain future and the fact that we are sitting atop a climate emergency yet no-one is truly taking notice.  

Flanagan has got a lot to say in this book and certainly his words pack a punch in an interesting way. The ending was profound, moving and powerful with a glimmer of hope and goodness inspiring us all to each do our bit. It’s not an easy read but it’s an important one leaving its mark on you.

Book Review: The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

This book is a fascinating look at history spanning fifty years of Victor Dalmau’s life. He was a young doctor in the Spanish Civil War who fled to a concentration camp in France. Together with Roser his brother’s pregnant wife, they take a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda and sail to Chile where they settle.

Although fiction, it is written in a non-fictional style and is rich in true historical events surrounding the main characters of Victor and Roser. The horror of the Spanish Civil War is played out from Victor’s point of view from the brutal conditions of the war zone to the struggle for survival and escape. I knew little of this war and was fascinated to learn more.

‘Hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees were escaping to France, where a campaign of fear and hatred awaited them. Nobody wanted these foreigners – Reds, filthy, deserters, delinquents, as the French press labeled them… No-one imagined that within a few days there would be almost half a million Spaniards, in the last stages of confusion, terror and misery, clamouring for the border.”

The skill of Allende is that she is able to transport us through history, teaching and enlightening us about Spain, Chile and also Venezuela, putting us into the lives of the characters so that we know their fear, their pain and their anxiety. Yet despite the tragedies, there is love. And the love which grows between Victor and Roser is beautifully done.

Other characters such as the Del Solar family reflect the class divide between rich and poor in Chile, a legacy still felt today in this troubled country. Characters such as Ofelia Del Solar who tries to escape her domineering father, Victor’s friend Aitor who helps Roser, Victor’s mother Carme, Juana the nanny; each have their own stories weaved throughout the narrative of Victor and Roser’s life.

Some might be put off by the expositional style of writing but it didn’t bother me in the slightest. It’s easy to read, highly enlightening and sweeps you along. Give it a go.

Book Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.

The novel opens with two young sisters enticed into a car by a man from the beach on the Kamchatka Peninsula on the north eastern part of Russia.  That first chapter was incredibly difficult to read as I implored the girls over and over in my head, not to get into the car.

Subsequent chapters thereafter, take the reader into the lives of various characters who have each been affected in some way by the disappearance and have some small connection with each other. Like a series of short stories, the central characters are women of various ages, ethnicity, wealth and background. They each have their own struggles, hope and dreams.

Each chapter moves along in the subsequent month since the disappearance through a harsh winter to emerge at the end a year later with no leads by the police. It’s very cleverly structured so that the reader immerses themselves in each character’s story revealing the cultural divide between white and native Russians, the Kamchatka Peninsula and its isolation from mainland Russia. More fascinating was the glimpse of the new Russia compared to the old and the yearning from some of the older generations for a time where there was no crime and children didn’t disappear. And where attitudes can still be provincial filled with conservatism, racism and misogyny.

The unwed mother fleeing from her boyfriend only to live with her disapproving parents. The twice widowed woman left in a state of grief, and the new mother suffocating at home. The college student with a controlling boyfriend, the young girl who is rejected by her best friend, the mother of another missing girl who disappearance was never taken seriously.

And then there’s the young woman who tells her friend that she’s broken up with her girlfriend. She didn’t understand what happened these days to girls as innocent as she and Lada had been. They were destroyed for it. Any girl would be. The Golosovskaysa sisters, who, walking alone made themselves vulnerable – that one mistake cost them their lives.

If you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to, if you let your guard down, they will come for you.

And the mother of the girls, Marina, “tallied the results of this last year; her girls abducted. Her home empty. Her simple job, chosen for the ease with which she could care for her family around it, now pointless, and her top desk drawer stocked with tranquilising tablets.

Disappearing Earth is structured like a puzzle where the reader works to tie the characters together, remembering where and how they fit in. Fortunately, there is a page outlining all the principal characters, although I forgot to refer to it until the end but it’s useful although not essential. What ties all the characters together is the disappearance of the world they live in.

And then there is the last two chapters which propel the reader, heart racing to a climactic ending. This is quite a remarkable book beautifully written and entirely atmospheric, cast in a backdrop of a thrilling mystery.

Book Review: The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth

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Do we ever really know what goes on behind our neighbours doors? It’s an intriguing question and one which I’ve often thought about.

This story centres on four women who live in suburban Sandringham in Melbourne, a suburb I know well. They live in a court and Fran and Essie have similar aged children, while Angie has two older boys. They aren’t particularly close but when the single Isabelle moves in, things start to get interesting.

There are many secrets and the first half of the book concentrates on understanding these women and their stories. Then things move into the next gear fairly rapidly and the second half of the book is a nail biter with an unexpected twist. Which is just as well as I was beginning to lose interest in these women.

They almost seemed very similar and to be honest quite bland with little to differentiate from each other and I think that’s why I was beginning to lose interest.

I’m glad I persevered though because the second half was well paced and kept me completely interested so much so that I kept reading until the end.

Another Sally Hepworth book to consider although not quite as good as The Mother-in-Law, nevertheless an easy one to read.

Book Review: A Room Full of Leaves by Kate Grenville

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Oh, what a story Kate Grenville has put together.

I’d read about Elizabeth Macarthur in the incredible non-fiction work by Michelle Scott Tucker (see my earlier review https://sckarakaltsas.com/2020/05/22/book-review-elizabeth-macarthur-a-life-at-the-edge-of-the-world-by-michelle-scott-tucker/ ) where she brought Elizabeth out from behind her famous husband John Macarthur. And it was a glimpse behind the façade of a woman who perhaps should have been given more credit for Australia riding on the back of sheep instead of her notorious husband.

In this book, we are asked to imagine that Elizabeth has kept a secret memoir from her time before she comes to Australia on the second fleet. It conveys her inner most thoughts and feelings and Kate Grenville brings us a story of what might have really been going on in this famous marriage. It’s fascinating.

Grenville as always, beautifully captured the colonial settlement, the struggles and deprivations from Elizabeth’s point of view. Importantly it also gave a voice to how women had to carefully navigate their lives around who they should marry. One wrong decision meant the difference between happiness and sadness, poverty or respectability. In Elizabeth’s case she made the wrong choice in marrying a man like John yet the conclusion that she would have made the best of it is entirely believable.

It’s an easy read and beautifully written and I couldn’t get enough of it. Then the last few pages drew her story to an abrupt close and I wondered why the rest of her life couldn’t have been explored like I wanted it to. It would have made for a huge volume of pages, that’s true, but perhaps the author felt that she had explored the more important parts of her life. We don’t get to see how Elizabeth managed the farm and brought about prosperity for her and her family. After the birth of her third child, the rest of her pregnancies are summed up in barely a sentence. Perhaps had I not read the comprehensive work of Tucker I may not felt a little cheated. Or perhaps I’m just greedy for more.

Highly entertaining and if you read this book then I’d suggest following it up with Michelle Scott Tucker’s work.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney


I’ve read Normal People and had heard that Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends was even better. I wasn’t bowled over by Normal People although I like it well enough. See my earlier review. ( https://sckarakaltsas.com/2019/12/14/book-review-normal-people-by-sally-rooney/.)  But I was intrigued about this young author.

The story is about two friends who become caught up in the world of a married couple. Twenty-one-year-old student Frances is a highly intelligent aspiring writer. Together with her best friend Bobbi they perform spoken word poetry where they meet Melissa a journalist. They’re quickly drawn into Melissa’s well-to-do circle and are  invited to her home where they meet Nick, her handsome actor husband. Here Frances is faced with the dilemmas of class as well as the awkward challenges of her new and old relationships.

This is a beautifully written book, with no quotation marks, so beware. It’s not descriptive or flowery in its language and there is probably more tell than show. It seems almost simplistic in style yet is cleverly crafted.

Frances is a complex character who struggles to find her emotional self and almost appears aloof to everything that goes on around her. She is probably not the sort of person I would like yet I’d admired her intelligence and her ideals. I also felt for her in her relationship with Nick who seemed quite vacuous.

It’s not the sort of book I would normally read but I did enjoy it and thought it was better than Normal People.

Book Review: The Wife and The Widow by Christian White



If you want a page-turning mystery, this one might just be for you.

This story set on a fictitious island off the Bellarine Peninsula and those of us from Melbourne will be familiar with some of the landmarks mentioned. It is told from two points of view, There is the widow, Kate whose husband is missing. When he fails to arrive home from an international conference, and is instead discovered dead on the island, Kate tries to navigate around her grief to find out what happened and instead unravels her husband’s secrets. The other point of view is the wife, Abby, a local who lives on the island and is forced to face the possibility that her husband could be a murderer.

The blurb itself is surely already intriguing enough to capture your interest and if you’ve read The Nowhere Child, you’ll understand that not all is what it seems. Indeed, I didn’t see the twist coming and when it came, I confess to scratching my head trying to work out what happened. It is quite brilliant.

Both female characters are well developed and the reader feels for them. The author weaves in themes of family, grief, and secrets and has us wondering how well one person can know another.

Give this whodunnit  a go.