Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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

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

Sybil – Flora Rheta Schreiber

Sybil is more famous as the movie of the same name starring Sally Field, but it was originally a book, the true(?) story of a woman with sixteen personalities. I kept coming across it when I was searching for a copy of Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli, so I figured it was a sign from the universe that I should pick it up as well.

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Flora Rheta Schreiber was a journalist with extensive reporting experience in psychology and psychiatry. She was invited to meet Sybil(* a pseudonym, since revealed to be Shirley Ardell Mason) by her psychoanalyst, Dr Wilbur. They requested that Schreiber write a book about Sybil’s case, and granted her unprecedented access to the therapeutic relationship to make it happen. Schreiber goes to great pains to establish her bona fides in the introduction to Sybil, maybe anticipating the shit-storm of controversy that the book would cause.

Sybil was born in 1923, and began seeing Dr Wilbur in 1954, initially for treatment of social anxiety and memory loss. Dr Wilbur was able to establish before long that Sybil was actually experiencing dissociative identity disorder (DID; then called multiple personality disorder). This manifested as sixteen distinct personalities, the most recorded of any DID patient at the time. There was barely any literature or research about DID prior to Sybil entering therapy, so Dr Wilbur had to make it up as she went along. Her files and case notes were destroyed upon her death, so this is really the only complete(?) record of her most famous patient and what transpired in treatment.

Sybil is “a whodunit of the unconscious” (page 104), as Dr Wilbur gradually uncovers the reason for Sybil’s disordered mental state and identifies each of the alternate personalities. The unquestioned goal, once the diagnosis is established, is an “integrated” Sybil, whereby all the selves are merged.

It’s a surprisingly gripping narrative. I made a note as I was reading that it really evoked Truman Capote, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. I later read a New York Times article that says Schreiber idolised Capote, so I guess she was emulating him in some measure. At times, I found myself genuinely frightened, mostly on Sybil’s behalf – her memory loss was completely debilitating, as she had no conscious awareness of anything that happened while one of her other personalities was in control.

Also, Sybil needs a big time trigger warning: the abuses that Sybil’s mother perpetrated against her are truly sickening to read about. I have a strong stomach, but I was deeply disturbed when Dr Wilbur started uncovering the truth of what Sybil had experienced in childhood. There is also instances of Sybil’s suicidality, which are hardly surprising given the impact of the abuse and her disorder on her life, but still warrants a heads-up.

So, ignoring any real-world stuff for a minute: as a book in and of itself, Sybil is pretty good. Some of the language is Of A Time (sure), there’s a lot of outdated commentary and applications of psychotherapy (so don’t take it as any kind of indication of DID treatment today), and I guess I harboured some suspicions that the timeline and Sybil’s progression through therapy seemed a little too neat (ironic, given that confusion and loss of time was her primary complaint).

But we can’t shut out the real world forever: there have been some serious questions raised about Sybil. Her true name and identity were revealed the year she died, 1998, and skepticism of the whole case boomed after that. There seem to be two leading theories: (1) that Dr Wilbur was a quack looking to make a name for herself, and convinced Sybil she had multiple personalities through the power of suggestion; or (2) that Dr Wilbur, Sybil, and Schreiber concocted this story together to turn a profit. There’s mountains of “evidence” on either side – whole books (multiple!) have been written about it – but given that all the major players are now dead and their records destroyed, it’s unlikely we’ll ever establish the “truth”.

Whether it was one conspiracy or another, or completely legit, Sybil had a major real-world impact. The book sold over six million copies, and has since been adapted for film twice. Schreiber is pretty much single-handedly responsible for public awareness of DID and the concept of multiple personalities. The number of DID diagnoses skyrocketed after Sybil hit the best-seller list; whether that’s because of the power of suggestion, or because increased knowledge of the disorder helped doctors to recognise it in patients, the jury’s still out.

So, what we have here is a good book with some minor in-text issues and some major real-world concerns. Whether that sounds like a good thing or a bad thing is up to you!

Monkey Grip – Helen Garner

Helen Garner is an Australian literary icon – but I’m not sure how well she’s known overseas. (If you’re reading from elsewhere in the world, please let me know whether her reputation has made it across the pond!) I’ve read and studied plenty of her non-fiction, but mostly piecemeal, and not her fiction for which she’s equally well-known and respected. So, I decided to start at the beginning with Monkey Grip, her debut novel that came out in 1977.

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Monkey Grip is famously based on Garner’s own life experiences and the diaries she kept around that time. She lived in share-houses around Melbourne while raising her young daughter in the ’70s, as her narrator does, and had tumultuous romantic relationships that mirror her characters’ too (more on those in a second). I remember Garner saying in an interview somewhere at some point that she later burned all the diaries she kept during that period, so Monkey Grip is the only real record of it that remains.

The story follows Nora, a single mother who falls in love with a heroin addict – while dealing with all the usual drama that comes with share-house living and young parenthood. You can tell from page one that Monkey Grip is going to be very sex-drugs-rock’n’roll. It’s all very bohemian, and not even in the annoyingly Instagrammable way that so many Melbourne polycules live today. There’s no self-consciousness about the way Nora and her cohort are living; they’re just hoping to find a better way to live than the rigid rules their parents and grandparents lived by, figuring it all out as they stumble along.

The characters are a little hard to follow, mostly because they drift in and out (of the share-houses, and Nora’s life in general) without much to anchor them or make them distinct in the reader’s mind. The only one who really sticks out is Javo, the “junkie” (Garner’s term, not mine) that steals Nora’s heart. Naturally, loving someone who lives with addiction – one they’re in no hurry to kick, by the way – is fraught with peril, especially when you factor children into the mix… not that Nora seems too worried about that.

Yeah, if Monkey Grip were released today, I daresay there’d be a lot of concern for Garner’s own child, given the autobiographical nature of the novel. Gracie, the fictional kid, bounces around a lot of very rough stuff, and seems to always exist on the very edge of neglect. Nothing terrible happens to her, she goes to school and seems well-fed, but it’s not the most stable environment. Surely, in today’s climate, some well-meaning self-righteous wowser would call protective services on Garner, but I guess people were a bit more live-and-let-live fifty years ago (thank goodness).

The narrative is a bit directionless, and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. The main “point” seems to be an account of addiction: to heroin, on Javo’s part, and to romantic entanglement on Nora’s. Both of them recognise that their addictions are destructive, but lack the will or motivation to push back against them.

Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference? They can both kill you.

Monkey Grip (Page 106)

Nora simply narrates the highs and withdrawals – and her dreams. Oh, so many dreams. Recorded always with the same level of care and attention as she narrates real events. That’s when Monkey Grip really feels like a diary, where one might record their dreams from the night before.

So, without any real plot or drive, Monkey Grip didn’t blow me away – but there are many moments of beautiful prose, like little glimpses of Garner’s greatness to come. It might not be the best one of hers to start with if you’re new to her work, but if you’re already hooked and want to see where it all began, give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Monkey Grip:

  • “They say that a woman’s mind is like a bucket of crabs, with one thought rising to the lip of the bucket, only to be pulled back down by the next random thought. That is what this book is like. It goes nowhere, presents nothing, and has no substance.” – Neal Ames
  • “A pointless book about pointless people doing pointless things.” – Sir Readalot
  • “My mother hated this book. More than enough reason to love it.” – Barb

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Power is a science-fiction utopia… or dystopia, depending on your point of view. Either way, it’s a novel for the #MeToo/Time’s Up era. This is Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel, developed after a period of mentorship with feminist literary icon Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s influence is abundantly clear in the story – it’s almost an homage.

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So, here’s the conceit: in The Power, teenage girls develop the ability to release an electric charge from their bodies. Thanks to a long-dormant organ in their collarbones, women are “awakened” to this new power, and suddenly have the capacity to fight back against the patriarchal oppression that has ruled their lives thus far.

They understood their strength, all at once.

The Power (Page 56)

But that’s not all! The Power is also a book within a book, framed as a historical novel written by a man in an alternate future, after the actual events take place. Approximately five thousand years after the power emerges, a male historian writes this story – imagining the experiences of fictional women – to present the radical notion that women weren’t always the dominant sex.

So, yeah. You see what Alderman’s doing there? How it’s a utopian idea – that women develop new strength, that they’re stronger together, using their power strategically to rebel against subjugation – but a dystopian one at the same time. It turns out, unequal distribution of physical strength fucks up all societal structures, regardless of which gender is on top (according to Alderman’s novel, anyway).

The Power is grittier, darker than I expected. I’ve seen it billed as a young adult novel, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Even though a lot of the characters are teenage girls, at least initially, the themes and content are quite mature and might require a bit of perspective to fully grasp. Trigger warning for violence (obviously), sexual abuse, and sexual assault.

Alderman weaves in organised religion in interesting ways. The power of women takes on a spiritual aspect almost straight away. There are characters who have “visions”, characters who invoke powerful religious symbolism to solidify their new position – it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of the story.

I think Alderman goes a bit too far, though, in trying to explain the origins of the power. The narrative goes off on a bit of a tangent, about a “Guardian Angel” chemical that was supposedly added to the water supply during WWII to protect against nerve gas attacks. That somehow stimulated these organs that already existed? Or caused them to grow outsized? Or something? There’s quite a bit of extraneous detail about it, either way, and it just feels distracting. As readers, we don’t really need to know the ins and outs of the whys and hows – Alderman should have trusted us to go along with her.

As much as I enjoyed The Power, I will warn you that it’s not subtle. It’s the risk that any writer of feminist utopian/dystopian fiction takes, the “oh, women would be just as bad as men in a matriarchal society” argument that’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away from a MRA slogan. She really hammers home the point, unnecessarily at times (e.g., the novel closes with a female author writing to the male author of the historical fiction book-within-a-book, suggesting that he publish under a woman’s name, in order to be taken seriously).

But you can see why it’s such a tempting idea, and why The Power has been so popular with readers. In June 2017, Alderman won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction, and it was named one of the 10 Best Books Of The Year by The New York Times. Barack Obama also included it in his list of favourite books for that year, which always guarantees a sales bump. I haven’t seen the Amazon Prime adaptation yet, but critics fairly panned it – and I think I got what I needed from the story in the book, as it is.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Power here:

  • “Needs More male empowerment.” – William
  • “Feels like this might be for someone with a vocal fry or someone who says like a lot…. lol idk … Smh” – Mannie
  • “As a duty to my fellow book club members, I ground through it, but if you’re considering it for your book club, do not believe the hype. It’s puke on a page, pretending to be relevant, meaningful, serious art.” – Bookster

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

We all know the booklover who won’t watch the film adaptation of their favourite book because it couldn’t possibly live up to their hopes. But did you know it also happens in reverse? The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favourite films, and I put off reading the book on which it was based for a long, long time. Until now, in fact.

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Before it was a masterpiece staring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, The Time Traveler’s Wife was Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel, first published back in 2003. That makes this year twenty years since its release, high time I got over myself and gave it a go, wouldn’t you say?

It’s basically a Mobius strip romance, with some science fiction and fantasy mixed in. Henry is a librarian with an unsettling genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time at random. The titular wife, Clare, is an artist who lives through time in a linear way, like the rest of us. Henry meets Clare at the beginning of the novel, and he has never seen her before – but she’s seen him many times. In fact, she’s already in love with him.

How? Well, bear with me, because this gets a bit complicated. Future Henry has been travelling back through time since Clare was a little girl. He often finds himself in her backyard, where they talk and eat picnics. Henry has told Clare that, in the future, they’re in love – in fact, she’s his wife. But Present Henry hasn’t started doing that yet, when he first meets Clare, so… who’s to say where the love story really “begins”?

I gave up on trying to keep track of the timeline of their interactions (and I’d suggest you do the same). I focused instead on how old each of the relevant parties were for each encounter – Niffenegger helpfully provides that information at the beginning of each chapter. If it helps going in, The Time Traveler’s Wife seems to roughly follow Clare’s linear experience, living from childhood to old age with no deviations, as most of us do. Henry comes and goes as the plot sees fit.

I probably shouldn’t spend too much time delving into all the logistics of time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife – otherwise what would be the point in reading the book? But I will say this: I am so, so glad to read a time travel book that finally addresses the Clothes Issue. Henry can’t take anything with him when he travels through time, so he shows up wherever he’s going naked as the day he was born. It makes for a lot of interesting fodder for the novel, and Henry’s main motivation almost anywhere he goes is finding clothes, food, and somewhere safe to hide.

Yep, time travel ain’t all beer and skittles, but Henry and Clare find ways to make it work for them. For instance, they play the lottery and the stock-market, and make enough for Clare to live comfortably as an artist while Henry’s barely hanging onto a low-paid library job. Thankfully, Niffenegger spares us all the tiresome hand-wringing about the morality of it, too. It’s a good idea, it makes sense to game the system, and there’s too much going on in The Time Traveler’s Wife to worry about the protagonists getting just desserts.

There are a lot of rapid shifts in The Time Traveler’s Wife – in time (duh) but also in tone. One minute, a thirty-something Henry is living in domestic bliss with age-appropriate Clare. Next, he’s helping an adolescent Clare assault the man who tried to rape her on a date. Then, he’s trying to convince a doctor that his time travel is real, not just a schizophrenic delusion. And presto, he’s engaging in a bit of mutual masturbation with his teen self. It’s at times erotic, ridiculous, philosophical, emotive, gross, sweet, poetic, violent – Niffenegger really threw everything at the wall.

If I had to try to distill it, I’d say the two big Problems in The Time Travellers Wife are: (1) the issue of free will, and whether Clare had any choice in their romance, and (2) Clare’s difficulties getting pregnant as a result of Henry’s disorder. Content warning for miscarriage and baby loss – Clare loses pregnancies over and over because the foetuses inherit Henry’s genetic code, causing them to time travel out of her womb. So, yeah, it’s heavy – as well as being sweet and romantic. I told you! Tone shifts!

So, if you’re looking closely at the latter, The Time Traveler’s Wife can be read as a metaphor for the ways in which women have suffered in the patriarchal institution of marriage. Niffenegger said that she wrote the book as an allegory about failed relationships, but I think you could read just about anything into this book if you squint.

I did take a couple of issues with the novel, ones that didn’t seem to pop up in the film. First, there’s this weird side plot about Henry’s ex-lover Ingrid, and her friend Celia. They pop up from time to time, but don’t really seem to do anything to advance the plot…? I have no idea why Niffenegger stuck them in there; maybe she’d promised a couple of besties she’d name characters after them, or something.

Second, Henry and Clare are quite snooty and pretentious, but – and this is key – simultaneously not progressive at all in their politics. They make some noise towards the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife about Marxism and a worker’s rights revolution, but then seem to forget all about it. Plus, they casually drop slurs (not That One, but still) and engage in some pretty harmful stereotyping behaviour. Here’s this bohemian artist and her time-travelling partner who read poetry and go to punk concerts, but there’s absolutely nothing deeper to it than aesthetic. I’m not sure if that was intentional on Niffenegger’s part or not.

Those issues didn’t stop The Time Traveler’s Wife going on to become a best-seller (perhaps I’m the only one who noticed). It got a big boost from Niffenegger’s buddy Scott Turow giving the book a shout-out on NBC’s Today, and then organically from a selection on Richard & Judy’s Book Club in the UK. It was named Amazon’s Book Of The Year in 2003.

In the end, I think the main problem with The Time Traveler’s Wife is exactly what I predicted, and exactly why I resisted reading it: I love the film. It’s like I looked for problems while reading the book because it couldn’t possibly be as good as the movie. The story is just so much smoother on screen, and those tone shifts are evened out, and as a result, the impact is far greater and more devastating. Plus, the ending is better – far less twee! So, read the book if you must, it’s pretty good… but watch the movie if you know what’s good for you.

P.S. No, I haven’t watched the TV series. I probably will, at some point, but see above – I’ll just end up poking holes in it for not being a frame-for-frame recreation of the film.

P.P.S. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming – Niffenegger said on Twitter that it’s called The Other Husband and it’ll be out sometime this year. Stay tuned!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Time Traveler’s Wife:

  • “I dreaded every minute until I finally had enough and time traveled to another book selection!” – Kay Kay H.
  • “Clare grows up knowing she will one day marry Henry because grown up Harry from the future told her. Then she meets Henry in his present and tells him they are going to fall in love and get married. That’s it. If it wasn’t for the time travel device, they would be the most boring couple to have an entire novel written about their relationship.” – beth
  • “If you like pretentious, poorly plotted soft porn with shallow, unlikable characters and a touch of pedophilia, this is the book for you. Otherwise give it a pass.” – Lyn Craven
  • “If Lolita met The Notebook, this novel would be the outcome. And that’s not a compliment.” – Carolyn
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