Monday, February 22, 2021


The Survivors, Jane Harper

I enjoyed this new offering by Jane Harper, and thought it was as good as The Dry and The Lost Man. It’s a similar style story, with a historical incident that has shaped a community, and a current crime that has occurred. In this case, Kieran has returned to his childhood home in a coastal Tasmanian town with his girlfriend and infant daughter, where the guilt that he carries resurfaces over the death of two men in a major storm years ago. When a girl is found murdered on the beach, tensions in the town start to rise, as people start to remember the past, and point fingers at each other. Harper is skilled storyteller, with realistic and multi-faceted characters, and a depth of narrative.

The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams 

This wonderful debut novel charts the history of the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary through the eyes of Esme, the young daughter of one of the lexicographers. As a child she spends her time on the floor the scriptorium, where words are sorted and gathered. As the grows up, she realises there are words not included in the dictionary, those considered vulgar but also many that describe the experiences of everyday women. Williams has skilfully interwoven much of the actual history of the dictionary compilation, including the people involved, with the life experience, joys and struggles of Esme over the decades it takes to publish. What I enjoyed about this book is that is wasn’t predictable. There were a couple of points where I thought I could tell she would take the narrative, but it turned another (and in my opinion) better way. An impressive, enjoyable and insightful book.

Becoming, Michelle Obama 

A couple of friends mentioned they enjoyed this and I was pleased to finally get to it. Broken into three
sections, Michelle Obama outlines her childhood (Becoming Me), her relationship with Barack (Becoming Us) and the years as First Lady (Becoming More). I knew very little details about her, for he came to office when I was in the midst of baby years, and it wasn’t really on my radar. She’s given a relatively open and insightful account, with details of her own childhood, loving family and early working years. She shares about their marriage, and the ups and downs of campaigning and life in the White House. It is generally gracious, with overwhelmingly positive comments about all her friends and family. It’s not particularly partisan, although as you might expect there are some digs at Republicans, especially Trump. I enjoyed the insight into life in the White House, and how they tried to care for their girls while living there. I appreciated some of her observations about people and relationships, especially marriage: “I understand now that even a happy marriage can be a vexation, that it’s a contract best renewed and renewed again, even quietly and privately - even alone.” Alongside the story, she weaves in her thoughts on race, gender, poverty, education, politics and numerous other topics. Keeping in mind this is an autobiography rather than an analysis, this is still an interesting and thought-provoking read no matter what side of politics you are on.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Anxious People

Anxious People, Fredrik Backman

Some may recall how much I enjoyed Backman’s writing last year. I was looking forward to reading his new offering, Anxious People. While it took me a while to get into it, it turned out to be enjoyable as well - in a different way.
“This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it's always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you're trying to be a reasonably good human being for."
It starts with a bank robbery that goes awry, then the robber accidentally runs into an apartment with a viewing on, which quickly turns the whole situation into a hostage drama. That sounds dramatic and scary, but it’s not at all, because nothing is quite as it seems.
"The truth is that the bank robber was an adult. There's nothing more revealing about a bank robber’s personality. Because the terrible thing about becoming an adult is being forced to realize that absolutely nobody cares about us, we have to do everything ourselves now, find out how the whole world works… We look around occasionally, at our place of work or at parents’ meetings or out in the street, and realise with horror that everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing. We’re the only one who have to pretend."
There are numerous characters and a couple of timelines in this story and you have pay attention, because Backman doesn’t include things without a reason. So a reference to an event ten years ago and who was present is important, as are all the people in the hostage apartment. You need to keep track. But it’s worth it in the end. All the various threads start to intertwine and he cleverly brings it all together.

Each person is slowly revealed. You form an opinion of them, but then with more information are forced to change what you thought. As with Backman’s other books, he has great insights into life and people and a way of expressing them that just works.
“If you've lived with teenagers, you know they only exist for themselves, and their parents have their hands full dealing with the various horrors of life. Both the teenagers’ and their own. [About their grandmother:] They were pleased she answered the phone when they called on her birthday, but the rest of the time they assumed time stood still for her. She was a nice ornament that they only took out at Christmas and Midsummer."
“‘Grandchildren would make him feel important?’
Anna-Lena smiled weakly.
‘Have you ever held a three-year-old by the hand on the way home from pre-school?’
‘You’re never more important than you are then.’”
One of the lovely things about Backman’s stories is that he gives the full story, extending the telling into the future, so you get a sense of completion about how the characters lives will turn out. He did the same in A Man Called Ove, and the Beartown books, and it made the endings even better.

This is definitely an author I have come to appreciate.

Monday, February 8, 2021

A. J. Mackinnon

I discovered A.J. Mackinnon’s travel writing this holidays and loved both of his books. Mackinnon is an Australian high school teacher, mainly in English I think - I imagine if you had him as a teacher, you’d love whatever he taught. He had some of his childhood in Adelaide and is currently a teacher in the Victorian highlands. His writing is beautifully lyrical and descriptive as well as enjoyable and great fun.

The Well at the World’s End (2014) 

This enjoyable true diary is of Mackinnon’s travels from Australia to the Well at the World’s End on a remote Scottish Island around 1990. He decides to travel with virtually no plans and avoiding all air travel. So by yacht, train, bus, car, ship and ferry, he goes to New Zealand, back to Australia, up through Indonesia into Asia and onwards to Europe. He has a similar humorous and self deprecating style to Bill Bryson, but with more a lyrical, fantasy feel, and fewer reflections on culture. It’s a funny and enjoyable read, especially if you happen to have been to any of the numerous destinations he visits.

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow (2002)

This one charts Mackinnon’s decision to sail a small dinghy from the English / Welsh border down to Bristol in 1998. Of course, the excitement and joy of the whole exercise, plus the encouragement of others, leads him to go back up the Bath River across the canals of England to London. Not satisfied with traversing that country, he crosses the English Channel, and heads across France, Germany and finally ends up in the Black Sea. It’s fantastic. This one I read with Google Maps open in satellite view next to me so I could see exactly where he had gone, not knowing enough specific geography of the area to manage without. 

Both are treasures to read — enjoyable, clever, insightful and just plain fun.

If you just want a taste, it’s worth listening to his two part interview on the podcast “Life in Flux” from Nov 2018. There are a few different details there, as well as some additional pondering on humanity and the impact of great literature. He is a big fan of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Swallows and Amazons and Dr Doolittle, and all of these have impacted his views of life and his travels.

Monday, February 1, 2021


Phoebe, Paula Gooder

This is a wonderful book that is a delight to read. New Testament scholar Gooder has brought to life, through an imagined story, Phoebe the church deacon referenced in Romans 16:1. Phoebe has just arrived in Rome, carrying Paul’s letter to the churches there, and quickly meets Prisca and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia, Herodion and others mentioned in Romans 16.

In doing so, she brings together facts from the bible, weaves in knowledge of early church life and the Roman world, and then creates a possible story around it all.

Gooder attempts to answer possible questions like: Who was Phoebe? Why was she so keen to come to Rome to start preparations for Paul’s planned trip to Spain? How do the Christians in Rome react to Paul’s letter? And what is life like for the average Roman, Christian, slave, and merchant?

Of course, much is imagined and needs to be read that way. However, it is also well researched and explained. In fact, one third of the book is Gooder’s extensive notes collated by chapter. These are excellent and give further explanation to references in the book. She explains what she has done and why, giving both biblical and doctrinal notes, and historical evidence about the time. I read the relevant notes after each chapter and it seemed a good way to balance the information she explained.

While it is an imagining, it is an encouraging one. People are converted, changed by the message of Jesus and the writings of Paul. You get an insight into what conversion meant in a society that cared about status - both for slaves and also for nobles. Peter makes an appearance, as does Timothy. Followers recount their memories of Jesus. The church meets, prays and cares for the needy.

Much of what concerns me about biblically anchored fiction is the way it draws the reader into a dramatic narrative based around bible characters, extending what we actually know into a drama. But the way Gooder has done this avoids all that: there is no intrigue, no arch enemies and no impossible love stories. As such Gooder has written a biblical fiction I am much more comfortable with, even while knowing it is is still fiction.

An encouraging and enjoyable book.