Author, Bono, Book review, Books in translation, David Whish-Wilson, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Fremantle Press, historical fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Text

Three Quick Reviews: Bono, Elena Ferrante & David Whish-Wilson

Three weeks into the new year already, and I’m conscious of the fact I still have a few reviews from 2022 to write up. In the interests of expediency — and to alleviate my increasing sense of guilt — here are my quick thoughts on a trio of books I read last year.

They include an Irish memoir, an Italian novella and an Australian historical crime novel. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono

Non-fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson Heinemann; 560 pages; 2022.

As a long-time U2 fan, I have a love/hate relationship with Bono. In fact, I did not expect to like this book at all, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining. The man can certainly write. The text is ripe with metaphors and allegories, and while it is occasionally a little heavy on the spiritual side of things, for the most part, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew the egotistical, sometimes tub-thumping Bono had such a delicious sense of self-deprecating humour!

As the subtitle suggests, the memoir is structured around 40 U2 songs, which allows the author to arrange his story thematically and to write about episodes in his life without the constraint of a chronological narrative (although it is, loosely, chronological).

The bits I liked best? His honesty about his upbringing (his mother died when he was 14) and the complex relationship he had with his father; the way he writes about his wife, Ali, whom he clearly loves and admires (in many ways, the book is a love letter to her); and his funny tales about famous people which often show him in a poor light when he could so easily have told this stories in a boastful manner.

I especially loved his deep dives into his philanthropy and activism, going behind the news headlines to explain what this work fighting against AIDS and extreme poverty means to him, why he does it and what he has learned along the way — not only about himself but about the (long, slow) process of campaigning for political and social change.

If reading more than 500 pages is more than you can bear, I’m told the audiobook, which includes the U2 songs mentioned in the chapter titles, is excellent (Bono narrates it himself). Alternatively, there’s a playlist on Spotify or head to YouTube to watch (multiple) recordings of his promotional book tour, such as this one, at Washington National Cathedral (fast-forward to 10-minute mark to skip the religious stuff). That said, his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is probably the best and his performance of ‘With or Without You’ is stunning.

‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 144 pages; 2015. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Here’s another book I wasn’t expecting to like but found myself completely enamoured by.

I read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the author’s wildly popular Neapolitan tetralogy, many years ago but I didn’t like it enough to follow up with the rest in the series. But this standalone novella, purchased secondhand for the princely sum of $3, was in a class of its own. Indeed, The Lost Daughter was one of my favourite books of 2022.

The story provides a dark glimpse of motherhood and the ties that forever bind women to their children. It is narrated by Leda, a 40-something divorced mother of two adult daughters, who goes on holiday to the Italian coast for the summer. While there she gets drawn into the world of a family whose menacing machinations she doesn’t quite understand. When she steals the doll of a young girl, she sparks off a chain of events that have unforetold repercussions.

The narrative backflips between the escalating tensions of the present day and Leda’s past as a young promising academic struggling to reconcile motherhood with her marriage and career. It’s written in sparse, hypnotic prose yet somehow manages to convey a sense of urgency and danger. I ate it up in a few hours and still think about it. The film adaptation, starring Olivia Colman, is excellent.

‘The Sawdust House’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 304 pages; 2022.

David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House is a vividly entertaining, multi-layered story about convicts, boxing, journalism, identity and reinvention. It is set in 19th-century San Franciso where a specially convened committee is doing its utmost to rid the city of Australian criminals.

Based on a real story, it is framed around Irish-born ex-convict James “Yankee” Sullivan (Wikipedia entry here), a renowned bare-knuckled pugilist, who is being held in prison by the Committee of Vigilance.

The book’s structure is highly original: it tells Yankee’s story using the device of an interview with Thomas Crane, an American newspaperman, in which the journalist’s thoughts and queries alternate with the prisoner’s responses. From this we learn of Yankee’s daring escape from an Australian jail, his trek to America, the great loves of his life — women, boxing, booze — and his dream of opening his own public house, The Sawdust House of the title.

It’s a rollicking great story, written in the vernacular of the time, and one that has a ring of authenticity about it.

David is a local writer, so ‘The Sawdust House’ qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

Australia, Author, Book review, Brooke Davis, Fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Lost & Found’ by Brooke Davis


Fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson; 320 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Advance warning: Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found is going to be everywhere and you are going to have trouble avoiding it. And with good reason: this is a lovely feel-good novel. It’s quirky and sweet. It’s funny and joyful. It’s tender, poignant and heart-rending.

The book has already garnered lots of attention in the author’s native Australia, where it has been a best-seller since its release last year. And it sparked a bidder’s war at the London Book Fair, suggesting that the publishers knew a good thing when they saw it. It has since been sold into 25 countries and translated into 20 languages.

I cracked it open last weekend not quite knowing what to expect and then I went on a wonderful little journey with a trio of remarkable characters that were a pleasure to spend time with. I felt sad when I came to the end of the story, not because the ending was sad (it’s not) but because I had to say goodbye to seven-year-old Millie and her two older chums, octogenarians Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist.

Obsessed by death

When the book opens we meet Millie, who is obsessed with death and dead things. She’s recently lost her pet dog Rambo and then, more tragically, her father. By page six she’s “lost” her mother — in the literal sense, not the euphemistic sense — when she’s told to wait in a department store’s “Ginormous Womens Underwear” section, while her mum disappears into the distance — never to be seen again.

Millie will carry this around with her from now on, this picture of her mum getting smaller and smaller and smaller. It will reappear behind her eyes at different times throughout the course of her life.

An overnight stay ensues, hidden under the giant undies, and then she meets Karl the Touch Typist, an 87-year-old man who has escaped his nursing home and is living in the department store without anyone’s knowledge. The pair form an unlikely friendship.

Later, when Millie makes her way home alone, thwarting the best efforts of the police and social services, she meets her neighbour, 82-year-old Agatha Pantha, who hasn’t left her house since her husband died. Instead, she spends her time shouting insults through the window at passing strangers, earning a reputation as the neighbourhood’s “crazy lady”.

Together the trio set off to find Millie’s mum. What follows is an exciting — and somewhat manic — cross-country road trip involving buses, trains, a stolen car — and a department store mannequin.

A kooky cast of characters

What I loved most about this book is the characters. They really get under the skin and feel real: Agatha with her tendency to shout inappropriate Tourettes-like “sound bites” at all and sundry, Karl who constantly taps, taps, taps his fingers in memory of his life as a typist, and Millie with her dogged determination to avoid the police and find her mum.

While 80 years separates the oldest from the youngest, the three have one thing in common: they are all grieving: Millie for her dad (and her mum), Karl for his beloved wife Evie, and Agatha for her husband Ron. Interestingly, Brooke Davis wrote Lost & Found as a way to deal with her own grief after the sudden death of her mother seven years ago, and with this knowledge in mind, the reader can’t help but see Millie’s sense of abandonment as a reflection of the author’s.

It’s important to have your mum. Mums bring you jackets and turn on your electric blanket before you get into bed and always know what you want better than you do. And they sometimes let you sit on their lap and play with the rings on their fingers while Deal or No Deal is on.

But while the novel is about grief and death, it’s also about the joy of living and posits the idea that you’re never too old to do new things or start again. Yes, it is moving in places, but there’s an undercurrent of mischievous delight and black humour that stops it from being sentimental or emotionally manipulative. And Davis reigns in the “cutesy” factor so that it never succumbs to schmaltz, either.

Lost & Found  might be whimsical and comic, but to dismiss it as a “frothy” read would miss the point: this is a novel that has deeper philosophical meaning, one that will make you feel good about the possibilities that life offers when you grab it with both hands — no matter how young or old you might be.

Author, Book review, chick-lit, Fiction, Hutchinson, Margot Berwin, Mexico, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Hot House Flower’ by Margot Berwin


Fiction – paperback; Hutchinson; 288 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Having read Susan Orlean’s classic non-fiction title, The Orchid Thief, and Eric Hansen’s similarly acclaimed Orchid Fever, I had high hopes that this fictionalised account of a woman hunting for rare plants in the tropics of Mexico would be something I’d really enjoy. And while it ticked all the botanical boxes, I’m afraid Hot House Flower was slightly too girlie for me. In fact, the cover image and the cursive font should probably have served as a big warning: this is chick lit and I should read at my peril!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have no objection to chick lit. If it gets people reading and makes people excited about books, then it can only be a good thing. But it’s not a genre I enjoy, for a whole host of reasons. And while Hot House Flower may dish up something slightly more exotic than a girl meets boy romance, when you get right down to it, it is essentially a cosy story about a 32-year-old divorcee looking to find a new man.

Bearing that in mind, it is imminently readable, and I consumed it in two sittings, so eager was I to follow Lila Nova’s journey from high-flying advertising executive in Manhattan to her reinvention as a flower hunter in the luscious rainforest of the Yucatan peninsula.

The first-person narrative is easy to follow and there’s plenty of adventure and thrills and spills to keep you entertained, along with a dash of romance and a bit of magic and witchcraft thrown in for good measure. It’s a fun, light-hearted read and definitely won’t sap the brain power.

However, the magic realism, highly reminiscent of Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells, means you need to suspend belief for much of the story, but especially the latter-third which involves Huichol shamans and herbalists working their supernatural powers. It’s fascinating, if slightly too far-fetched for my liking, but if you’re looking for some sheer escapism this summer, Hot House Flower will fit the bill perfectly.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hutchinson, London, New York, Publisher, Robert Harris, Setting, USA

‘The Ghost’ by Robert Harris


Fiction – paperback; Hutchinson; 310 pages; 2007.

My very short relationship with British author Robert Harris has been a bit of a hit and miss affair: I absolutely loved the compulsively readable Fatherland (1993) but struggled to finish the dull and plodding Enigma (1996), and so I’ve not been inclined to read his other novels — Archangel, Pompeii, Imperium — for fear of wasting my time. But his latest book, The Ghost, has received so much press attention and been lavished with equal amounts of praise that I admit to being intrigued enough to give the man a second shot.

The Ghost was published last September among a flurry of reports that it was based on Harris’s one-time friend, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie. This is a claim that Harris denies.

But reading this book it’s difficult not to think of the the two main characters —  Adam Lang and his controlling wife Ruth — as thinly veiled versions of Tony and Cherie. The difference is that in this novel the couple are immersed in an extremely wicked plot that even the conspiracy theorists would have a hard time dreaming up!

The basic premise of The Ghost is this: an unlikely (and unnamed) ghostwriter, who specialises in celebrity biographies and knows nothing about politics, is employed to write the memoirs of ex-British PM Adam Lang for £250,000. A previous ghostwriter — a loyal colleague of Lang’s — has already died in mysterious circumstances while working on the project.

The “catch” is that he must fly to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang is holed up with his wife, and write the book in under a month. The manuscript must not leave Lang’s house and no copies are allowed to be made. Rigorous security procedures are put in place to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

As work on the revised memoir gets under way, Lang is accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Instead of returning to Britain to face his now unpopular public, he flees to Washington and protests his innocence. And then things start unravelling with deadly consequences…

This is a wonderfully compulsive read, even if the plot is slightly absurd and surreal in places (there’s a couple of holes in it too). But Harris has delivered such a thoroughly modern thriller, it feels timely enough to be “real”. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine such a book being written less than eight years ago, when the War on Terror, suicide bombers in London, and Britain’s “special” relationship with the current American administration simply did not exist.

The narrator’s voice rings true and there’s enough intrigue to keep the reader turning the page to find out what happens next. I read this book in two longish sittings, because I absolutely had to find out how everything ended. I’m not going to give the game away, but the denouement is not only surprising, but satisfying and very clever.

I’m glad I gave Robert Harris a second try. The Ghost delivers such an entertaining read, I’m not sure why I doubted him in the first place.