Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 16)

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is billed as “a moving tale of post-war friendship, love, and books,”. I’m not into WWII historical fiction as a rule, but the bookish aspect of this one drew my attention.

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This one also has a heart-wrenching authorial story. Mary Ann Shaffer was a 70-year-old former librarian, encouraged by members of her book club to write a book of her own. She was inspired by a visit to the English Channel island of Guernsey, and crafted a story that combined that location with her own lifelong passion for books and literature. Sadly, Shaffer’s health began to decline after she submitted her manuscript to publishers, and her niece Annie Barrows had to take over for final re-writes and edits. Shaffer passed away shortly before The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society was published in 2008, so she never saw her debut novel in print.

But wipe your tears away, we’ve got a book to review! The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel, set in 1946. The action takes place between London, a city still recovering from the Blitz, and the island of Guernsey, which was occupied by Germans from 1940 to liberation in 1945.

32-year-old writer, Juliet Ashton, found fame and financial security (in very lean times) by writing comedic columns as an intrepid and subversive character. As the novel begins, she’s writing to her publisher to say that she’s ready for a change, to write under her own name about weightier topics. She begins casting around for an idea.

Around the same time, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a stranger from the island of Guernsey. A book that had previously belonged to her – The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb – has found its way into his hands, and he writes to her to tell her how much he enjoys it. They begin a correspondence, and Dawsey tells Juliet all about the literary society run by the residents of Guernsey. It began under strange circumstances, as an alibi for being out after the curfew imposed by German occupiers. Juliet is fascinated, and the story sparks an idea…

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a highly readable book, and surprisingly moving. The wide cast of characters is charming and entertaining, and the letter format is used to great effect. Most importantly to me, the war is more than a convenient backdrop – it’s integral to the plot and the characters, and Shaffer neither romanticises it nor exploits its horrors for dramatic effect.

I read an excellent review by Stevie Davies for The Guardian, which I think sums it up beautifully:

Shaffer’s Guernsey characters step from the past radiant with eccentricity and kindly humour, a comic version of the state of grace. They are innocents who have seen and suffered, without allowing evil to penetrate the rind of decency that guards their humanity.

Stevie Davies (“Bright and dark” – Review of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society)

Given how well it flows and gently tugs on heartstrings, it’s no surprise that The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society hit the best-seller list. I’d imagine that book clubs the world over had a field day with it. It was also adapted into a 2018 film (starring Lily James as Juliet), and the trailer looks quite promising.

Overall, this isn’t a challenging or life-changing read, but a perfectly pleasant one – the perfect gift for a casual reader of historical or romantic fiction, or one with which to pass a quiet rainy afternoon yourself.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society:

  • “Read the whole thing, dog conversations and all. Terrible. I was excited by the title and that turned out to be the best part.” – Sharon tonkin
  • “How could they send four to five letters in the same day!!!!! They weren’t texting, they were writing letters! DUMB. And really, can somebody write letters everyday??? That tells me that Juliet didn’t have a life. WEIRD” – SuzieG
  • “WW2 is SUPPOSED to be used as the backdrop and reason for the title, but the disjointed writing could cause a historically inept person to believe WW2 was fabricated by the authors as a convenient cause for secret food gatherings. This book is assanine.” – Siren23
  • “Want to read about a starving Nazi soldier strangling a cat, boiling it and eating it? No? How about starving Nazi soldiers using spoons to scrape the bottom of a boat to pick up any food scraps left over? How about learning that the heroine you’ve been rooting for all along has been killed in prison and won’t return to her beloved island? Neither did I. The charming and romantic parts of which there were plenty were ruined with these graphic parts. It’s like serving a delicious salad with a few rotten boiled eggs and a teaspoon of spoiled salad dressing. It tastes good except for the rotten bits and in the end you are left with a bad taste in your mouth.” – Ivy Jolie

Sense And Sensibility – Jane Austen

Jane Austen novels tend to go in and out of fashion. Of course, they’re all perennially popular by general standards, but within Austen’s oeuvre there’s definite trends. I missed Sense And Sensibility‘s most recent hey-day, the peak that came with Emma Thompson’s 1995 film adaptation, but I think the time is ripe for it to come back around.

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Sense And Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels to come out, published anonymously in 1811 (and it has never been out of print, never not once, since then). The author had been working on it since 1795, as best we can tell from what remains of her other writings. It was originally an epistolary novel, told in a series of letters, and she gave it the working title Elinor and Marianne (for the two main characters) before settling on its final form and title relatively late in the game. You can still trace the novel’s epistolary origins, though, in the gossip-y nature of its plot. A lot of Sense And Sensibility is driven by speculation about what others are thinking and feeling.

The story follows two sisters, Elinor (19 years old, as Austen was when she first started working on it) and Marianne (16 years old). They, along with their younger sister and widowed mother, are forced from their family estate by their older half-brother after their father’s death. They settle in Barton Cottage, a comparatively modest home out in the middle of nowhere, on the property of a distant relative. As you’d expect of an Austen novel, the sisters’ only hope for social progression and livelihood is an advantageous marriage.

Are you sensing a duality theme, here? The two key words of the title, the two sisters… Elinor and Marianne represent each half of the title (as Elizabeth and Darcy represented both “pride” and “prejudice”). Elinor is the one with all the sense. She’s reserved, polite to a fault, and very considered in her words and actions. Marianne, on the other hand, is impulsive and emotional, with keen sensibility as demonstrated by her passion for the arts and beauty. Austen is too clever to let it be that simple, of course. Over the course of Sense And Sensibility, you see Elinor’s sensibility and Marianne’s sense come to the fore on various points.

All that said, I really didn’t care that much about the duality and the broader themes and metaphors of Sense And Sensibility – I’m probably only thinking about it, and telling you about it, because I read the Norton edition (which is aimed at an academic audience, with endless footnotes and explanatory essays). It’s all very fascinating for other readers, studious types who are taking it seriously, but that’s not me. What I’m here for is the savagery.

Sense And Sensibility is definitely the cattiest of Austen’s novels. Elinor in particular is a straight-up hater. She might put on a polite front for other characters, but Austen reveals as narrator that she is absolutely murdering everyone around her in her mind. You’ve got to admire a girl who can filter like that!

So, on my reading, that’s the strongest recommendation I have for Sense And Sensibility: pick it up when you want to read a woman destroying people with words. I’m sure there are many other, loftier reasons to enjoy Austen’s first published work, but that’s the reason I loved it and I see no point trying to pretend otherwise.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sense And Sensibility:

  • “I heave read and enjoyed all of Austen’s published works, and decided to try an Audible version for my daily walks. Why an American would be chosen to narrate an English cast of characters I do not know. The narrator has all the charisma of an eggplant and sounds more like a YouTube robot than an animate being.” – VMT
  • “To the end, I was hopeful that Marianne would die, or perhaps become an old maid, but no. This is a *happy* ending.” – Alexander Kobulnicky
  • “People have worse problems to worry about than worrying about the problems the character has. I kept going through the story and saying, “So what? Who cares? Fix your own problems.”… If you have time to actually read this book, I suggest you spend your time doing something worthwhile instead of wasting your life on Sense and Sensibility.” – J. Lin

Heartburn – Nora Ephron

The blurb for Heartburn poses an interesting question: “Is it possible to write a side-splitting novel about the breakup of the perfect marriage?” It would appear that the answer is yes – as long as you’re queen of the ’90s rom-com, Nora Ephron.

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Heartburn is an autobiographical novel about heartbreak, food, marriage, sex, pregnancy, Judaism, therapy, and anger – and it’s only 178 pages long. Ephron based the novel on her marriage to and divorce from her second husband, Carl Berstein. You can thank your lucky stars every day that you’re not Carl – he fucked around, and Ephron made sure that he found out.

If I had to sum up the vibe, I’d say Heartburn is like Julie & Julia meets Olivia Rodrigo’s Get Him Back. The main character, Rachel (Ephron’s avatar), is a Jewish food writer from New York, transplanted to Washington D.C. to support her husband’s career as a political journalist. When the story starts, they have one child and another on the way – and that’s the moment he chooses to kick off an affair, with glamorous socialite Thelma Rice.

Rachel’s first response is to spread a rumour on the Washington grapevine that Thelma has a venereal disease. Good for her!

Her second, once it becomes clear that her husband has no intention of wrapping up the affair and getting on with their lives together, is to take the kid and the bun in the oven and run back to New York. She goes back to group therapy, she reflects on her favourite recipes, she flirts with the idea of finding a new lover. Her behaviour is a little unhinged but, honestly, who could blame her?

Reading Heartburn, I instantly recognised some iconic Ephron lines that made their way into her film (one of my favourites) When Harry Met Sally. “Pesto is the quiche of the seventies,” for instance, and “What did she look like? / Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.” I respect that Ephron clearly knew when she’d struck gold and had no compunction about recycling content.

It’s impossible to separate Heartburn from Ephron’s real-life experience of being cheated on while heavily pregnant – and she wouldn’t want us to. It’s an explicit act of literary revenge, catharsis through thinly-veiled fiction. The fact that she doesn’t try to hide it or deny it is what makes it work.

One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.

Nora Ephron on Heartburn

As good as Heartburn is, though, I can concede that Ephron’s novels weren’t her strongest work. Her comedy and insight into the human condition translates best on the big screen, in classic screenplays like the aforementioned When Harry Met Sally (and, indeed, the adaptation of Heartburn itself). Ephron didn’t write another novel after Heartburn, and while nothing she could have written could have possibly been bad, I’m glad she directed her energies to where they were most needed and appreciated.

This is definitely the best novel to buy for your bestie who’s going through a bad break-up; either they’ll find it hilariously relatable, or it will simply remind them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and, someday, they’ll look back on it all and laugh.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Heartburn:

  • “This book is TERRIBLE! The main character rolls around in self pity while trying to cook the weirdest things.” – Big Mama
  • “I read about 50 pages before deciding to put myself out of this books misery.” – R. Peterson
  • “Waste of time. All about her divorce, a real downer.” – Swissneva
  • “Lots of whining, with recipes.” T. B.
  • “Back then it was like ‘wow’ she really wrote this? Reading it now, it is embarrassing and not politically correct. The book doesn’t hold up over the years. Kind of like Nora Ephron’s neck.” J. C.

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Even though We Need To Talk About Kevin is fictional, its stark portrayal of a woman reeling after her son’s violent killing spree at his high-school has become a kind of cultural shorthand since its initial publication in 2003. I’d say that reading it is “timely”, but sadly, with the state of gun laws in the U.S., it’s never not.

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In We Need To Talk About Kevin, a regretful mother resents her own child, and fears him despite his father’s insistence that he’s a “normal” boy. After he kills several of his classmates and staff at his school, she writes to her absent husband about what happened and where it all went wrong with Kevin.

None of this constitutes a “spoiler”, by the way – it’s all in the blurb.

The first letter is dated 8 November 2000, one year and eight months after the massacre (that the narrator, Eva, calls Thursday, lacking any better nomenclature). She tells the story of Kevin’s upbringing in roughly chronological order, with occasional shifts in timeline to better emphasise a given point. She was reluctant to step back from her flourishing career to birth and raise Kevin, and suspected from the start that something was “off” about her son. Her husband, Franklin, denied anything amiss, however, and insisted that the problems were all Eva’s, stemming from her own ambivalence about motherhood.

Shriver up-ends the ever-popular “Oh, I just couldn’t believe it, he’s the last one you’d expect would do something like this!” narrative. Kevin is never a sympathetic character, not even as an infant. Neither is his mother, come to that. It’s no surprise at all to the reader that he would do something terrible. Though Eva didn’t foresee his homicidal attack on his school, she can see in retrospect that it was entirely predictable. The “signs” were all there. But could she have done anything to prevent it?

And there we have the question at the heart of We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Eva’s letters to Franklin. Were Kevin’s actions inevitable? Was he “born this way”? How much of his murderous rage was innate, and how much was fostered by Eva’s parenting? It’s nature versus nurture, with the highest stakes.

It makes We Need To Talk About Kevin a truly chilling read. Not horror-movie jump-scare scary, but can’t-look-away feel-it-in-your-bones unnerving. I found myself totally gripped by it, even though the ending was a foregone conclusion. I “just-one-more-chapter”ed myself past bed-time more than once.

That speaks to Shriver’s unquestionable talent and mastery of the form. To have a story play out exactly as you’d expect, and yet still keep you on the edge of your seat? Incredible. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a very weighty and cerebral book, and yet it’s still highly readable, compelling to the very last.

The only parts that really jarred for me were some casual slurs and ugly points of view that I couldn’t be 100% sure were attributable only to Eva’s character. I really got the impression that Shriver’s own fatphobia and ableism seeped into the narrative without her realising, rather than her inserting it as a character trait to be read critically. This suspicion was backed up when, in the additional material in my edition of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver referred to one of her earlier less-popular novels as her “r***rd child”. Yuck. Shriver has expressed some problematic views in the past, so just be wary and read with a weather eye.

But back to the book: there are no neat answers in this story, not even when the denouement is over and Eva finally demands an explanation from Kevin. The ambiguity of the novel, coupled with the high-stakes subject matter, makes We Need To Talk About Kevin perfect for book club debates – with trigger warnings, naturally.

Oh, speaking of which: heads up for a truly sickening description of a horribly cruel and violent dog death, not quite halfway through. I had to put the book down and play with happy, healthy Fyodor Dogstoyevsky for a while to clear it from my mind.

I can only hope it’s been excluded from the film adaptation, which I’m eager to watch. Having read We Need To Talk About Kevin, I can see that Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller were perfectly cast in their roles as Eva and Kevin respectively. It’s a story that doesn’t lose anything from already knowing how it ends, and can only be enriched by compelling performances on screen, I suspect.

And – I’ve left this point until the very last paragraph, because I suppose it could be a kind of “spoiler”, so turn away now if you want – I need a moment to boast. As soon as Kevin’s little sister, Celia, was introduced, I had a sneaking suspicion that she and Franklin were dead at the time of Eva writing these letters. I totally called it! That almost never happens, so I’m very proud. Time to reward myself with another book!

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Need To Talk About Kevin:

  • “Save your money and your time:
    1. Kevin is bad.
    2. It’s his parents’ fault.” – trav86
  • “She writes a good sentence, but only a masochist would read the whole thing.” – A reader in Berkeley
  • “The mother is a narcissistic, immature, spoiled, cold, unmaternal, whiny, completely unlikable hag. No wonder her child is a psychopath.” – Am
  • “I was excited to read this after seeing all the reviews about how well written it is. Apparently well written just means the author owns a thesaurus.” – Pamela

The Dry – Jane Harper

I was feeling increasingly ridiculous being an Australian reader who had not read a single Jane Harper novel. She’s one of our biggest authorial exports of recent years, up there with Liane Moriarty. Her novels are crime thrillers set in regional areas – real “small town with a dark secret” stuff – and they’ve won more awards than you can poke a stick at. I decided to start with The Dry, her debut novel first published back in 2016, which went on to sell over a million copies.

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The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a fictional town five hours’ drive from Melbourne. It’s an El Niño summer (like the one we’re predicted to have later this year), and severe drought has hit the town hard. A farmer, Luke Hadler, shot his wife and son in cold blood, before turning the gun on himself – or so it seems. Most of the townspeople are happy to assume that it was the last desperate act of a depressed man driven to the brink, but Luke’s parents think something more sinister might be afoot. After all, why would Luke leave his 13-month-old daughter unscathed?

They call in Aaron Falk, Luke’s childhood friend, who now works as a financial crimes cop in the big smoke. Falk’s not overjoyed to be returning to his hometown, after he left amid scandal as a teenager. He thinks he’s just going to attend the Hadler family funeral, shake a few hands, and be on his way. Of course, they reel him back in, and he finds himself working with the local cop to find out the truth of the Hadler deaths.

All of this suggests that The Dry is a quintessentially Australian story. There have, after all, been several tragic murder-suicides along these lines in regional communities over recent years, and anyone who’s spent more than a minute in a drought-affected area can tell you that it’s thoroughly believable.

You can understand, then, why I was a bit put off by Harper referring to a Hill’s hoist as a “rotary line” in the Prologue. I have never, in my whole life, heard an Australian call it anything other than a Hill’s hoist. What the fuck is she playing at? There were also flies eating the freshly-shot corpses of the Hadley family, but honestly I found that less disturbing than the patois fail.

Aside from a few qualms like that one, The Dry is remarkably well written. The prose is taut and evocative, a step above Liane Moriarty in my view (though it would certainly appeal to readers who like her books). Take, for instance, the way that Falk is lured back to Kiewarra – he receives a note from Luke’s father that reads “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” In context, it struck just the right ominous note, compelling you to read on without over-egging the pudding (as first-time thriller writers are wont to do).

I will concede, though, that most of the plot twists were very predictable. At one point, I literally shook my copy of The Dry and said – out loud – “ISN’T IT OBVIOUS?! HE’S GAY!” as the obtuse characters stumbled around, stymied by their own terrible gaydar. Given that Harper has nailed the “voice” for her thrillers, I’d imagine she’ll come around to better plotting with time.

(Because this is My Thing now, I will give a trigger warning for a dog death: it’s just a mention, a sad one, but very brief and the dog doesn’t actually feature as a character.)

I can totally see why they cast Eric Bana as the lead in the film adaptation of The Dry. He’s the perfect Aaron Falk, exactly as you’d picture him. I’ll definitely be watching it, as soon as I get a chance, now that I’ve read the book. When it was finally released (after COVID-19 delays) in 2021, it broke box office records, becoming one of the highest-grossing Australian film opening weekends ever. If I’m honest, I’m more excited for movie night than I am seeking out any more of Harper’s books. The Dry was good, mostly, but not so good that I simply must read more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dry:

  • “I do not like to read about the shooting of rabbits and all kinds of cruelty to other animals. I know the people in the town it takes place in do it to survive and feed their families but I still don’t want to read about it. The villain was no surprise either. I guessed it was him by about the second time his character was introduced. No, I am not that smart. It was just obvious.” – Sabrina
  • “Found this dry all around. Main character dry. Supporting characters dry. The weather was dry…but I only felt it when it was directly mentioned.” – thom coco edwards
  • “It was a laborious read and I forced myself to get to the end. The mist “gratifying” part of the book was deleting it from my kindle.” – An Avid Reader
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