Category Archives: Book Reviews

Dear Sweet Pea – Julie Murphy

Once upon a time these girls would have never been A-listers in their milieu – the Dumplins, Pumpkins and Ramona Blues of this world. But, like Rebel Wilson, Melissa McCarthy; dozens and dozens have shown to the now accepting public that an hour-glass figure or super-coolness doesn’t define beauty, talent or the ability to cut it big. These girls are forces of nature and despite the roadblocks, feisty, with the capability of summoning up the wherewithal to plough right on through. These three aforementioned inhabitants of American writer Julie Murphy’s books, all on the cusp of entering the adult orbit, have been huge hits in the US. One has even made it to the big screen and her tale can be viewed of Netflix. I’m talking about ‘Dumplin’. Here Ms Murphy now gives us a heroine for the younger set.

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Sweet Pea DiMarco is truly as sweet as a spring pea in a pod. She’s a lovely creation and she’s about to graduate from her country’s version of primary school, which terminates with Grade 7. The big school, though, holds some trepidation for her, especially as her final year in the lower grades has been tough. Not only has her bestie, Kiera, moved across to that cool set, but her parents have split. The former couple, though, give some of the best messages in the offering. Not only are they neighbours and their abodes almost identical to ease the possible trauma for their girl, they remain close. The mum seems to have had few issues about giving her spouse the room he needs to be his true self. Sweet Pea’s woes are somewhat assuaged by a friendship with one lovely boy, Oscar, struggling a tad in the gender stakes. As well, on the horizon, there’s a potential relationship, of some description, with a new kid on the block.

Sweet Pea also discovers she has an ability as an agony aunt as the result of an unlikely turn of events, finding the opportunity to put it to work in her community’s daily newspaper. Her advice is sensible when she’s not acting on revenge, but we do not find out her response to one plea for enlightenment– a young lady who does not want to spend a first night with her boyfriend as she is frightened she may fart in her sleep. How would a fella respond to that? Help!

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We fully suspect, from the get-go, that it’ll all work out for Sweet Pea – it’s the way these books work. And they’re nonetheless for that. Finding out how is the joy. Here the pages turn easily, there’s little to challenge the reader but more than enough to keep us interested so it’s a no-brainer to rip on through to the positive resolution. And this hoary old fella enjoyed it immensely. Thanks Kate.

The Author’s website = http://www.imjuliemurphy.com/

Damascus – Christos Tsiolkas

Life of Brian’ ‘Damascus’ most certainly isn’t, but Tsiolkas’ gritty, fleshy, reeking and violent take on the life and times of Saul/Paul and his acolytes kept the Python’s classic seeping back into my mind over and over as I read the author’s latest. It’s a departure for both of us, admittedly, but a welcome one. Unlike the movie, there’s little to laugh about with it. And I suppose, given where you are coming from, we may thank these early spreaders of the word, including Thomas and Timothy, for taking a faith out of the Holy Land, into the Roman Empire and its capital, giving our planet another religion.

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Early Christianity was such a fragile thing. The candle could have been so easily snuffed out by the old religion or under the weight of the Roman gods, but it prevailed. Mostly in the imagining by CT there’s an uneasy co-existence with the non-believers – but, of course, the early purveyors suffered great hardship, privation and on occasions, their beliefs cost them their lives. From the printed page you can almost smell the crowded, unwashed, fornicating, lice-infested bodies emanating from Tsiolkas’ prose in this quite remarkable feat of writing. With this author I can’t imagine anything rivalling that unnerving slice of Australian suburbia that is ‘The Slap’. ‘Barracuda’, for me, didn’t even come close, but I think ‘Damascus’ will truly signal him as being up there with the greats of OzLit.

For this stand out effort the Gospels are referred to, as well as other early Christian sources; fiction being added around the unknowns, to give a fetid picture of how it could possibly have really been. Some of his early references acknowledged Christ minus the crucifixion and resurrection, with that forming an aspect of the narrative. The doubts of these early followers are as fascinating as what they knew to be certain, particularly as time passes away from the actual New Testament events, given the Son of God fails to make another excursion back to Earth to visit and inspire.

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Real or false news, the notion of the goodness that Jesus of Nazareth has given us all is one of undeniable purity – but it’s a goodness we repeatedly trash with our collective actions. That shines up from the oft hellish world the author creates. But for this unbeliever (with the wordsmith himself admitting he is not sold either) I was drawn into fecund mire with all the multiple protagonists. We can only think of what might have been and recoil had it been otherwise.

The Author’s Website = http://christostsiolkas.com.au/

The Body – Bill Bryson

Consider this the next time you are contemplating a deep, deep pash with your dearest one – ‘Passionate kissing alone, according to one study, results in the transfer of up to a billion bacteria from one mouth to another, along with about 0.7 milligrams of protein, 0.45 milligrams of salt, 0.7 micrograms of fat and 0.2 micrograms of miscellaneous organic compounds (ie, bits of food).’

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Bill Bryson was only getting started with ‘The Body’ when he thrust at us the above information. There’s much more hair-curling stuff to contend with as one reads on in the tome. In here, for instance, you will be illuminated on how the daily activities of double-decker bus conductors and drivers in London gave rise to the present urgings for each and every one of us to exercise daily. It is fascinating to think that our best guess is that, sometime between 1900 and 1912, a random patient with a random disease for the first time could visit a random doctor and have a fifty-fifty chance of profiting from that encounter. Nowadays, to be healthy, as one would expect, it helps if you are part of the population of the western world. You receive added benefits, of course, if you are wealthy. But even the rich, if they are born in the good ol’ US of A, can expect to have a much lower life expectancy that those of us residing any other developed country. The causes for this include the dire state of their health system, obesity, gun culture, accident rates, drug abuse and the list goes on. A sufferer of cystic fibrosis in Canada will, on average, live ten years longer than some poor soul, with the identical affliction. living south of its border with the US I wonder if Trump, with his ‘Make America Great Again’ has devoted any of his immense intellect to those facts. He’d probably label it under ‘fake news’ in any case.

In the pages of this book you will also meet the heroes, many unsung till Bryson came along, who paved the way for the great medical discoveries of history; get a taste of some of the excruciating surgical practises of the past (early mastectomies being particularly gruesome) and meet the charlatans who were believed by many, to the world’s detriment. One odious character was Barnard Davis who became obsessed with the so-called discipline of craniology. His collusion with George Augustus Robinson’s widow to plunder the graves of our island’s first peoples, to add to his skull collection, the globe’s biggest at the time, makes for hard reading.

Overall ‘The Body’ is quite the revelation. And it is, at times, not exactly comforting what we find out about its workings, especially as I am in possession of an increasingly ageing one. He doesn’t stint on what can take you away in the end either.

Bryson mostly places it all in lingo the layman can readily comprehend, with the turn of phrase he is noted for, topped by dollops of humour. He’s no spring chicken himself, Mr Bryson, but long may he have the ability to pursue his wide range of interests and to transport them into print for our enlightenment. With this publication he takes a lens to every facet of the human being in a thoroughly readable and forthright manner. He is a gem of a wordsmith.

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And in the end, at the end, it’s good to know that, ‘In 2011, an interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time more people, globally, died of non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combines. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle.’ – or is it? What’s that news I hear coming out of China?

More on Bill here = https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/1017933/bill-bryson.html

Scrublands – Chris Hammer

What do Gillian Flynn, Minette Walters, Patricia Cornwall and Chris Hammer all have in common. Some might even ask ‘Chris who?’. But the novice Australian ‘whodunnit’ writer joins that elite company by winning the UK’s Dagger Award last year for a debut crime novel. And, as tilts go, even I, a non officiendo of the genre, till recent times, can see it’s a mighty effort first up.

Prior to striking it big with the mega-selling ‘Scrublands’, Hammer was best known as a SBS journalist. He, in this capacity, reported on the Millennial Drought for the network, afterwards producing a well-received non-fiction tome, ‘The River’, on what he discovered. As is their wont, of course, those in power in Canberra ignored his warnings, as well as those of all the other doomsayers – so therefore we have our present day situation.

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Our continent’s barrenness and aridity has played out in much recent fiction, some outstanding, including Harper’s ‘The Dry’ and Winton’s superb ‘Shepherd’s Hut’. In my view Hammer has a way to go before he reaches their exalted levels, but if we are in the midst of a golden age of Aussie crime writing, then this fellow would seem to be well at its core.

Now what would cause a well-liked local priest to take a gun out and calmly open fire on his congregation as they made their way to worship at his church? He killed five before being fatally shot himself. On the first anniversary of that event that, not only rocked the small parched community of Riversend, but the whole nation, the Fairfax Press sends ace reporter, Martin Scarsdale, to write a piece on the lasting effects of the tragedy. In doing so he soon encounters anomalies in the original investigation’s take on what made a church official inflict such trauma on his flock. There are yet more deaths, including that of two German backpackers. Can they be linked to the priest – and just how many local women has God’s representative bedded? Of course, Scarsdale also has his own demons to work his way through, perhaps with the assistance of a comely cafe-keeper.

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It is a marvellously convoluted plot that Hammer has pieced together in his mind and placed on the pages before us. The only issue for this reader is that there’s not the wordsmithery to match. On the back cover blurb Hammer is described as ‘Winton-like’ and ‘reminiscent of Jane Harper’. I think that’s overstating it. For my money he’s still a way off that…but give him time. There’s potential, so we’ll see.

The author’s website = https://chrishammerauthor.com/ =

Three Women – Lisa Taddeo

The court case where Maggie finally legally confronts her tormentor, Knodel, is the best/worst part of Lisa Taddeo’s ‘Three Women’. The subsequent playing out of the facts, supposedly involved, proceeds to be a riveting/appalling affair making for engrossing reading. The odds were stacked against the woman from the get-go but, in the spirit of #MeToo, she knew she had, for her own well-being, to give it a go. But he was a successful man with all the forces such a man can muster ranged against her. What chance did she have? Knodel, just confirmed as his state’s teacher of the year, is a slimy toe-rag of a man who grooms and stalks his not entirely unwilling, but acutely naive, student into intimate activities with him. In profile he is no Ailles or Weinstein, but the trial attracts some attention. Before ‘Three Women’ it was just a ripple. I suspect that’s different now. Knodel’s ducks were lined up expertly so Maggie was crushed. Has the book changed all that?

There are reminders in Maggie’s tale of the excellent ‘Unbelievable’ that appeared on our small screens during the course of 2019. This is also based on fact. Another teen is not taken seriously, is forced to recant her allegations and then is arrested for wasting police time. It takes two determined female police officers to finally give her some redemption. It was one of the best offerings of the year. With Taddeo, has Maggie finally garnered the same? It is interesting to go on-line to check out the images of Maggie and the odious Knodel, taken during the course of the trial, as well as to read the contemporary newspaper reports of the case.

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For many this title has been one of the books of the year. The women, real figures whom Taddeo, after having the notion to write the publication, chose, after an extensive search, for their honesty and openness. And the tome is nothing if not frank.

It’s quite compelling to peruse. Apart from Maggie there are also Lina and Sloane. The former was sexually assaulted in a horrid way while still at school, suffered through a loveless marriage and is trying to reconnect with an old boyfriend. Sloane, after suffering bulimia in her younger years, is now, with her partner, experimenting with threesomes.

Together their stories are shared with the reader as Taddeo attempts to get to the bottom of what makes her subjects tick and what spurs them on. They are all flawed, as are most of us. Life is not necessarily full of happy endings and at times the author allows us in on some intensely moving scenarios. At one stage Maggie tells her all too fragile parents how Knodel took away her youth. Her dad retreats to bis garage. ‘She found him crying under the rafters. She hates herself…He doesn’t say a word but opens his arms to his daughter and she runs into them. They are, after all, the best arms in the world. They cry together till he stops, and then she does.’ That got to me. Later we find life does indeed become too much for him. Maggie sings ‘Blackbird’ to him as he lies in his coffin.

I know there are far more good men out there than there are bad – far more highly professional and respectable male teachers than there are repulsive Knodels in this world. But gee, as a male, this was tough going at times.

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I hope all three of the main figures can sit easily, in hindsight, now that their most intimate natures have been made naked to the world. It is brave writing, but nothing compares to the courage of being one of the author’s trio. I trust the book and its success has finally crushed Knodel. It would be hard to imagine it could be otherwise after its revelations – but who knows in the land that gives us a leader such as Trump.

The author’s website = https://www.lisataddeo.com/

Islands – Peggy Frew

Recently my lovely lady started to watch ‘Yellowstone’ on Netflix. It had positive reviews and possessed a fine cast headed by Kevin Costner. What would be not to like? Leigh enjoyed the introductory movie-length first episode, but once she proceeded into the regular series, she found it too fractured – the timelines were all over the place, so much so she hadn’t much idea what was going on. I’m not sure she persevered with it.

It was like that for this reader with Peggy Frew’s ‘Islands’ – only I carried on till the end. Her earlier publications – ‘House of Sticks’ and ‘Hope Farm’ were exceptionally good but, as with Leigh and ‘Yellowstone’, despite the book’s positive reviews with the critics I consulted, I struggled.

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That Ms Frew is not a fine practitioner was not the problem – her wordsmithery excels. What one reviewer described as her succeeding with ‘…an uncomfortable and disorientating narrative’, I found just such tough going. I struggled to get a handle on what was going on in this tale of a dysfunctional family unit coming to grips with the disappearance of one of its number.

The island of the title is Victoria’s Phillip Island; home of little penguins, glorious seascapes and a tourist destination of repute. It provided a holiday escape for the family in question, as it has for the forty-something author in her own life. She has stated she has been working on the manuscript for this book since her twenties.

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Islands’ centres on two sisters, Junie and Anna, with the latter being the missing mystery figure. Did she simply run away or was there something more sinister involved? She was a wild child so all options were open. We approach the story from events occurring in all decades, it seems, since the sixties, but not presented in an exactly straightforward manner. One thing the novel does do, along with some very fine television I have been watching of late (‘A Confession’ being one example), is to convey the utter devastation a missing child can cause. Just awful, especially if no closure is gained.

The author’s FB page = https://www.facebook.com/Peggy-Frew-199324223461911/

Electric Hotel – Dominic Smith

Vamp. What has the world done to deserve your European contempt and mockery? How we let you into this country is beyond a thinking man’s sense. You should go back to your homeland where they eat babies and drown in sexual vice.’

Sabine Montrose, you represent perhaps the greatest threat to civil society. In regards to your recent film ‘The Electric Hotel’ I am writing to tell you that Christian married women everywhere will mull your name alongside the devil’s, for it is in his company that you belong. An archangel seductress and a Vampyre ripped from Poe.’

So, if you think trolls are are a modern-day phenomenon, think again. They existed in the early decades of the C20th too. I suspect they’ve always existed, just in differing forms. Back then they spread their toxic vitriol via snail mail – the only difference being to our digital age that it therefore occurred at a more languid pace. The greats of the silver screen have always had their fan mail from the adoring multitudes, but the post was also a vehicle to communicate the bile of the haters. In ‘The Electric Hotel’, by Australian-American writer Dominic Smith, the fictional Marilyn Monroe of the era he set his tome in, Sabine Montrose, is, in part, forced to retire from making the earliest of movies by the strong criticism she received for her role in the book’s eponymous film. What also defeated her was the result of the stranglehold various trusts (read monopolies) had over various industries, despite the best efforts of Presidents Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson to curtail the damage they were doing. The villain of the piece here was Thomas Alva Edison. He controlled the early film industry with an iron fist. He was in no mood for compromise if an upstart indie tried to take a slither of his turf.

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As a read ‘The Electric Hotel’ was full of interest but had the potential to be so much better. It deals with a fascinating time as the movie business starts to show signs of what it would become – ie today’s behemoth – in the eyes of the public. If a reader is interested in this era there is much to relish. As we know, at the moment archivists all over the world are struggling to restore the windows on a bygone world before reels of disintegrating footage in canisters, stored for a century or more, turn to mush. If the publication had of stuck to those exciting times, this would have been a more successful tale. When it leaves, as war approaches, it continues on and loses its sheen.

Claude Ballard, the central protagonist, paid his dues in Europe, working for the Lumiere Brothers at the birth of modern cinema. Later, in New York State, teaming up with producer Hal Bender, Australia stuntman Chip and the redoubtable Sabine, they set about making an early Gothic horror epic, seemingly unaware of the legal implications of trying to compete with Edison and his cronies. Claude is completely infatuated with the ageing but intensely mercurial Montrose. Earlier he had filmed her in the altogether taking a bath, as well as his own sister’s untimely death. Both shorts certainly caused the Edwardian Age to sit up and take notice of the new medium. One got the men folk very hot and bothered indeed.

As for what was, at the time, a forerunner to a full length feature, Edison scarpered the completed product well and truly, sending the careers of the filmmakers and the star into debt and personal nosedives from which they all struggled to recover. But the book opens and closes decades later with a more modern day film student seeking out the now elderly Ballard. He’s living in a seedy NYC hotel with his ancient completed film stored under his bed. It had only managed one public showing back in the day of the silent screen. The student resolves to make right the earlier travesty and present a restored copy to a modern audience.

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There are pleasures to be had with Smith’s rendering of his fictional account, but as some reviewers have also stated, they come in fits and starts. It’s impact is distilled as it becomes yet another war story for much of its length. Its descriptions, though, of early film making, before health and safety concerns prevented caution being thrown to the wind, are enthralling. Stuntmen defied death even if disguised as women, dirigibles aflame fell from the skies and women with womanly desires had yet to be excised by the Hays Code. A beauty such as Sabine could cause a public meltdown the nature of which is hard to imagine in our flesh saturated world.

The author’s website = http://www.dominicsmith.net/

Good Girl, Bad Girl – Michael Robotham

It’s been hard yakka with some of the books I’ve chosen to read this calendar year. Dense, in some cases pompous prose – it’s been a struggle to find positives with some of them and only my stubbornness kept me going to their end. And that seemed to take forever as I never relished returning to plough on.

The new Michael Robotham was next on my list. He’s a favourite from recent times (‘The Secrets She Keeps’, ‘The Other Wife’) after I had persevered with favourites from times past. Would he let me down too with ‘Good Girl. Bad Girl’? Not on your Nelly. He grabs you in and holds you. There’s no frippery with his wordsmithery. He’d never be in line for the Booker. But, he tells a terrific yarn, in a no-nonsense style and there’s always twists and turns, as well as few red herrings thrown in for good measure.

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Composing this, a fortnight after I turned the last page, for the life of me I can’t remember whodunnit – who murdered the young aspiring figure skater. I do remember it was a convoluted, but thoroughly enjoyable, process getting there – so it matters little. This didn’t quite reach the classiness of the two aforementioned titles, but there was immense pleasure in returning to it – so in contrast to many that went before. I was through it in very few sittings – or in my case, usually, lyings down. This turned out to be quite the salve for this reader who was starting to get just a touch jaded.

In her review for the ‘NY Journal of Books’, Charlotte Mendel describes Robotham’s tome as ‘…an impeccable thriller that encompasses murder, incest, drugs, abuse, sex – you name it, the book has it.’Good Girl, Bad Girl’ will uproot your preconceptions about the meaning of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and scatter them to the winds.’

That might be over-egging it somewhat. Sure the novel features all those human frailties, but they don’t dominate. It’s more about the relationship between forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven (and we’re promised that future books will feature him some more, as has one past publication) and troubled teen Evie Cormac. He comes across her whilst investigating the slaying of the young sportswoman.

Cyrus isn’t quite, yet, the compelling character the ‘The Other Wife’s’ Joe O’Loughlin, the clinical psychologist who has featured in a whole swag of his previous oeuvre, is. He’s obviously down pat – Cyrus perhaps needs a little polishing up. Ms Cormac, who can be both very good and very odious, has a special talent. She is able to ascertain whether one is fibbing or telling the truth – a portable human lie detector. It’d be a great skill for a poker player to have, wouldn’t it? Nonetheless, it hasn’t made her pathway to adulthood any the easier, but a bond or sorts develops between her and the psychologist, so much so that he convinces some very liberal judge to make her his ward. Silly move Cyrus. It’s inevitable that she becomes entangled in the investigation of the cruel cutting off of a talented young person’s life. Inevitably Haven soon has a range of suspects lined up, including some dodgy members of the figure skater’s own nearest and supposedly dearest. All very intriguing and compelling.

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Now here’s the rub. Such is his excellence I’ve been tempted into Robotham’s back catalogue. As if there isn’t enough to read with new releases alone. It’s something that I promised myself, for common sense sake, that I’d never do, but MR has me well and truly in awe. At least I know I am certain of a great ride. I’ve gone back to his beginnings as a published author. There’s ten more. Oh dear!

The crime author’s website – http://www.michaelrobotham.com/ =

The Carer – Deborah Moggach

There was a time when I consumed all UK writer Deborah Moggach could produce – lapped her up back last century, I did. But, for some reason I stopped – stopped before her mega-hits ‘Tulip Fever’ and ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. Then, when I saw her latest severely discounted at K-Mart recently I snapped it up, forking out just a few bucks for. I’d been burnt before going back to favoured authors from past decades, but with the price of ‘The Carer’ it didn’t really matter if it was rubbish. I was also hoping that it would provide some lighter fare after the few heavier tomes that I’d been reading of late; ones that proved, ultimately, somewhat disappointing.

And yes, the novel certainly did that. As a bonus, it also wasn’t half bad. In fact I relished getting back to it and had it read in a few sittings. She hadn’t lost the touch that so appealed to me way back when.

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The narrative is interestingly structured, but at its core are two tetchy siblings, Phoebe and Robert. They’re approaching sixty, living lives not totally to their satisfaction. Their widowed father is now demanding more of their attention – something they give, but with some reluctance. At 85 Dad’s starting to cease being capable of looking after himself, so they employ a live-in carer, Mandy. She quickly makes herself indispensable, becoming his companion and giving the old fellow a modicum of happiness. Initially the brother and sister are thankful; it eases the pressure. When they discover, though, that James has revisited his will, suspicions start to arise – and we start to think we know where this is going. After all, we hear all the time of oldies being duped out of the wealth, by unscrupulous minders, that would otherwise have gone to family.

Moggach has other ideas though. We’re introduced to the first of several surprises as we start to become privy to some back stories later in the tale. Apart from one, they are hardly shocking, just unexpected. With the exception the author perhaps over-eggs it all a tad; it being the only quibble I have with ‘The Carer’.

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In all it’s a lovely, lovely read as the author quietly illuminates problems associated with ageing sons and daughters coping with one or more parents living in challenging circumstances. She doesn’t shy away from the nitty-gritty involved with this, but delivers with warmth and humour. Ms Moggach has won me back.

The author’s website = https://www.deborahmoggach.com/

Douglas’ Big Books

Douglas Kennedy – ‘The Moment’, ‘The Great Wide Open’

Before Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins there was Douglas Kennedy, the original maestro of of ‘family noir’. For the past two decades Kennedy has been entertaining readers with barrelling novels in which a parent, sibling or spouse is often the devil in disguise.’ (Christian House ‘The Guardian’)

As I scribe this the first steps are being taken to impeach Trump. Towards the end of Kennedy’s ‘The Great Wide Open’ our heroine, Alice Burns, by now building a glittering career in NYC publishing, encounters the 1980’s version of the Great Buffoon. ‘I’m a writer too,’ Trump told Peter, then shifted his gaze toward me, looking me up and down, rating me on his Babe Meter (which I took to be a compliment). ‘In fact I’m writing a book that’s gonna make a ton of money – because everyone’s gonna want to read how I’ve made a ton of money. You should offer me a contract on the spot.’ At the end of the conversation that follows he boasts ‘I’m gonna be president one day.’ Let’s just see how long he lasts in that position now. We can only hope.

The Great Wide Open’ is a big canvas, big enough for Trump even. Approaching some 600 pages it sure took some reading. Big doesn’t make for better, but it doesn’t necessarily make for bad either.

Before I tackled this opus, as a prelude I made my way through the author’s 2011 effort, ‘The Moment’. It had been sitting on my shelves for a while. In truth this was better written, albeit a less ambitious product. Instead of family noir here we have a writer receiving a blast from the past in the form of a package arriving at his remote Maine hideaway. This takes Thomas Nesbitt back to his days in Cold War Berlin where, as a journalist, he was attempting to get a handle on life over on the other side of the Wall. Aiding him in this is his mysterious translator Petra, a refugee from the East with a shocking past, trying to rebuild her life in the West. But is she all she seems as Thomas quickly becomes smitten? Soon he’s headlong into the world of the Stasi on one side and his own spooks on the other. Kennedy handles the convoluted events that follow with aplomb, although he’s no Le Carré.

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Was DK attempting to write ‘…nothing less than a fictional overview of our times; a statement of what it means to be American in the postwar world’? Alice’s brother, Peter, after his first taste of literary success, offers these pretentious words – they are as bombastic as most of the language in this, well, I guess, sloppy novel from Kennedy. ‘The Great Wide Open’ is a far cry from the tomes that first bought him notice earlier in his career; books I thoroughly enjoyed.

There’s no doubt that this could have been so much better and as it was, I had no problem ploughing through it. I always wanted to see what came next. It remains a readable yarn. But it’s almost wrecked with his breathless, ‘Days of Our Lives’, overheated prose. He’s certainly no TC Boyle in his command of language – he works too hard to impress with his linguistic wordsmithery. The story can speak for itself with a less frenetic, fraught approach. It’s as if he’s trying to win gold at the linguistic Olympics.

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Ms Burns takes us, initially, to the coast of Connecticut and her college days, highlighted by homophobia and the disappearance of one of her bosom buddies. That’s followed by some time in Dublin, dodging IRA bombs, not entirely successfully. Meanwhile, her father and two brothers have become involved in the business in Chile, on either side of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, after the coup. Alice, fleeing the trauma of Ireland, spends some time in a backwater teaching. Of course she is fabulous at that – so empowering of her students. Then she falls into publishing in the ‘Greed is Good’ era. Inevitably she’s a godsend with that too. In between there’s several lovers and estrangements with family members, each of whom seem to have a love/hate relationship with the other. There’s always much, much angst. ‘Days of Our Lives’ indeed.

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Hopefully the Great American Novel is now out of Douglas’ system and he is in a place where he can go back to a smaller scale, recapturing the tone of earlier successes such as ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, ‘The Job’ and ‘The Big Picture’, Far, far worthier places to commence for a reader than either of these titles.

More about Douglas Kennedy = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Kennedy_(writer)