Dog angels!!! I say no more.

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The answer to my question is NO. I don’t read enough Kiwi fiction. I have read most of Fiona Kidman’s novels and poetry collections. I’ve read Janet Frame, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Park, CK Stead, and Maurice Gee. I’m sure I’ve read a few more Kiwi authors along the way, but honestly not enough.

I was only thinking the other day I need to read more NZ fiction, and what did I see? I was cruising by the local used books shop and saw they had bundles of books for five dollars. Three books to a bundle, bargain! Of course, I had to stop and my eye went straight to the cover of Featherstone by Kirsty Gunn.

On close inspection the bundle turned out to be three NZ novels, so I snapped them up. I confess I have not heard of Dorothy Fowler or Stephanie Johnson (or Kirsty Gunn for that matter), but I plan to spend the rest of 2018 reading as much NZ fiction as I can.

Any authors you’d recommend?

 

A busy last week or so, but this week is a little more settled. El Hubs had his birthday on Monday. I whipped up a Mozambican prawn curry for him. Very tasty I must say.

I’d love to lay claim to baking his chocolate birthday cake, but nope. It’s from our local chocolate boutique. We have a well-known chocolate cafe and factory nearby. I have to steer clear of it to be honest – too many tempting treats.

I rarely eat sugar these days. Anything that is sweet must have less than 5mg of sugar. I’d say one slice of the birthday cake had mega grams of sugar, it was SO sweet. I could only do the smallest of slices, so the rest was left to El Hubs who made his way through it.

It’s now three weeks until Spring starts here in New Zealand. Almost here!! Our seasons (like Australia) are: 1st September is Spring; 1st December is Summer; 1st March is Autumn; and 1st June is Winter. But officially, Spring starts on 22nd September, in line with the Northern Hemisphere’s start of Autumn/Fall on the same date.

I prefer to view the start of a month as the beginning of a new season. So, for me, 1st September will be the start of Spring. Yeehah!!

 

I know I just posted some book reviews, but it’s the end of July and I have to get on with other posts. I did a ton of reading during July. Part 1 of my book reviews is here. Knock yourself out 🙂

The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill. Sci-fi time travel thriller and published in 2013. The back cover sounded intriguing; the sort of stuff I like – parallel timelines, time travel. But I had to do a DNF on this book. I reached page 83 and thought nope, can’t keep going. Why? Already it was a sounding like a ridiculous plot and then there was the over-the-top evil character – 80 year old Charles Yates, who invented a time machine (called The Machine – very original). This machine kept some sort of evil creature in a dark tank. This was sniffing like a B-grade movie to me.

The MC could have been intriguing – Takahiro O’Leary, a half-Japanese, half-Irish time explorer. But for someone dealing with serious issues like whether our timeline could be wiped out and replaced with another one, O’Leary seemed to joke his way through the pages. I found the levity irritating and I couldn’t connect with O’Leary. I also found the writer used odd similes at times. Then there was his crazy girlfriend, Samira Moheb, who is Iranian and, following three tours of duty in Afghanistan, was suffering from PTSD. I think this was handled quite well from the bit I did read and possibly she was a well-rounded character.

Then we have the structural issues. I am no expert in time travel LOL but I’ve read enough fiction to spot that the plot would have benefited from some serious research. Some ideas were just illogical.

Maybe I should have soldiered on, but I couldn’t.

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. I have not read this novel before even though I’m a great du Maurier fan. Published in 1969, it is yet another example of her flawless plotting and attention to slowly building up the pace.

The story is set in Cornwall and the landscape is very much a character, which is something du Maurier does so very well (Manderley in Rebecca was also a character in its own right). I would call this book Gothic suspense, because we have a stately home (Kilmarth) and a strong supernatural element weaving through the narrative. Although I’ve seen it referred to as science fiction because of the time travel element. And it’s also historical fiction. A mashup really.

I was surprised by the plot (pleasantly). The MC is Richard Young who is an old university friend of biophysicist Magnus Lane. Richard has a powerful connection to Kilmarth (Lane’s home) and Lane’s parents who have passed on. Professor Lane allows Richard to stay at Kilmarth as he’s between jobs, and Richard agrees to be a guinea pig for an experimental drug that Lane has developed.

This drug allows Richard to travel back in time to the 14th century. He witnesses the local life of Cornwall in the 1300s, but he cannot interact with people or events. He is like a ghost in the landscape. Only his mind travels back in time; his body stays in the present.

Richard becomes attached (if not attracted) to Isolde Carminowe, who is having an adulterous affair with Sir Otto Bodrugan. Watching over the tangled lives of that time period is the estate steward Roger Kylmerth, who is secretly in love with Isolde. Richard is often standing at the side of Roger, watching events unfold.

What makes this narrative fascinating is that each time Richard returns to contemporary times, there is more overlapping between the past and the present. Richard is often confused and becomes increasingly obsessed with Roger and finding out what happens to Isolde. He witnesses a murder and starts to bring that event into the present time. The author suggests that time is not linear and that the past could very well be existing even now.

Richard’s travels back in time are referred to as trips, and I love how this language reflects the psychedelic trips of the hippies of the 1960s.

Richard starts to unravel because the drug affects the central nervous system. He has muscle paralysis, nausea, profuse sweating. His American wife, Vita, and his two step-sons travel to Kilmarth for an unwanted visit. Richard is unhappy with the monotony of married life and longs for the 14th century world he comes to know. He takes the drug several times and each time learns more about Isolde, Roger and the cast of characters who lived in the Cornish area Richard knows so well. On one level, this is a novel about addiction because Richard is prepared to risk everything in order to find out what happens to Isolde, and he is increasingly dependent on the drug.

Daphne du Maurier is so very skillful with the unreliable narrator (as employed in My Cousin Rachel also). Richard has a seeming dislike for Vita – she wants him to take a job in America; he sees her as interfering in his friendship with Magnus; asking too many questions about why Richard is distant and withdrawn. But when the narrative is seen through Vita’s eyes, her actions seem perfectly reasonable.

Since du Maurier was writing this novel in 1969, she could more openly allude to homosexuality. Richard (in my view) is  bisexual and infatuated with Magnus, the older scientific genius. It is probable that they had a sexual relationship when they were university students. There are also references to the sexy deviations of the 14th century monks who inhabit the past landscape Richard engages with. I believe that du Maurier was also bisexual.

The ending is suitably ambiguous – we don’t quite know what happens with Richard. The last scene is Richard picking up the phone, but he cannot grip it. Has the drug left him permanently paralysed? And we don’t ever really know if Richard actually travelled back in time, or if the drug was mind-altering and he suffered hallucinations.

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories. Edited by Rowan Routh and published in 2017. What a brilliant idea – ask eight contemporary writers to spend the night in an historical English Heritage property and write a ghost story. Each writer could choose the property they wished to stay at. And what a stunning line-up of writers – Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent, which I reviewed here); Mark Haddon; Jeanette Winterson; Andrew Michael Hurley; Stuart Evers; Kamila Shamsie; Kate Clanchy; and Max Porter (of Grief is The Thing with Feathers fame, reviewed here).

All eight stories were fabulous but, if I had to pick the stars, there would be two – Max Porter’s wonderful tale called Mrs Charbury At Eltham. Really chilling! And Mr Lanyard’s Last Case by Andrew Michael Hurley was equally as exceptional and it was the only historical ghost story in the collection (his story was set in the mid-18th Century).

The Foreword gave a fascinating account of the various English Heritage sites and the ghostly sightings that have taken place at those sites over the years.

I borrowed this collection from the local library, but think I will purchase it as they’re the kind of stories I’d like to reread regularly.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Science fiction biopunk novel, published in 2009. I’m trying to get more into sci-fi and this novel has good reviews. Yeah, not sure. I thought the premise was really interesting. It’s set in Bangkok in the 23rd century and because I’ve spent a lot of time in that city, it immediately appealed. It’s also set in a dystopian future, so that also had me hooked. Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, fossil fuels are depleted and people have to rely on springs that store energy and are cranked by hand or genetically-modified animals called megadonts (like elephants). I did wonder why wind power wouldn’t have been used in this world.

The bio-terrorism aspect of this novel is really interesting. Natural foodstuffs have largely disappeared, replaced by GM crops. The world is run by agricultural companies and they release plagues and diseases to kill the crops of rival companies. Bangkok is also a city on the cusp of civil war and there’s corruption and political maneuvering aplenty.

There’s a whole host of characters but I would say the MC is Anderson Lake, an American who is employed by one of the agricultural companies. He suspects the Thais have a seed bank because he stumbles onto a natural fruit (rambutan) in one of Bangkok’s street markets. This seed bank is worth its weight in gold because it contains blight-resistant seeds. His character starts out as pretty rough and tough but then he meets the windup girl, Emiko  – an artificial human created by the Japanese to serve humans and reminiscent of a geisha.

Lake becomes obsessed with Emiko and I really liked the character development. By the end of the novel, Lake had softened and had started to care for Emiko. The windup girl was also a fascinating character – I liked how she struggled with her artificiality. People find her repellent and use her in horrendous ways (the author certainly didn’t shy away from sordid sex scenes). Emiko’s character showcased the potential future issues for genetically-modified people.

I think the world-building in this novel was very good. Bacigalupi creates an ugly, brutal future.

But there is something about this novel that didn’t grab me and I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it’s the over-500 pages – I found the narrative a bit slow at times or bogged down in detail. The sex scenes felt gratuitous at times. As much as I thought Lake grew in character, I didn’t really engage with him. The reader was dumped into a dystopian world that wasn’t explained very well and led to some confusing moments (but did reveal themselves as the narrative unfolded). Possibly there were too many characters in this novel. You have to work hard at keeping track.

I might try reading The Water Knife by the same author and see how I get on with it.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I’m late to the party with this book, which Barack Obama listed as a favourite on his 2017 reading list.

Where to start? This exquisitely-written novel is right up there with my favourites (must do a post on my fav books). It is the story of a Russian aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced in 1922 by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel. As an aside, I visited Russia when it was still the Soviet Union and again in the early 1990s. I have stepped foot in the Metropol, so it was lovely to read a novel set in this grand dame of a hotel. It’s located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi.

Rostov is viewed as a Former Person by the new Soviet Government and spends decades literally being the luckiest person in Moscow. As the new Russia makes itself known – with queues for bread, the KGB tailing foreigners and families forced to share apartments and bathrooms in Stalinist architecture buildings – Rostov lives the charming life of a gentleman complete with the elegant manners of a time period long gone.

As another aside, I saw those bread queues in Moscow and I stayed in an apartment building in Moscow. Each time I came back to the apartment block I got lost. All the buildings looked the same (known as Stalinist architecture). I had a hard time finding the right one. Although I was learning Russian at the time, I naturally stood out as a foreigner and people were suspicious of me. Two men even visited the apartment I was staying in and asked me to hand over my passport. I refused and I’m certain they were KGB. I’m sure I was tailed when I took the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. But I digress…

Rostov lives his life on the sixth floor of the hotel, in an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. But he faces his reduced circumstances in good spirits. Ever the gentleman.

The narrative spans four decades and we come to know the many engaging characters in the hotel – Chef Zhukovsky; Marina the seamstress; Maitre d’ Duras – and Sophia, a young girl adopted by Rostov.

What I found masterful was the author’s ability to describe what was going on in Moscow without making politics or social upheaval a main component. We meet Nikita Khrushchev, for example, at a state dinner held at the hotel in 1954, and we find out that Rostov’s boyhood friend is shipped off to Siberia. Examples are deftly woven into the narrative.

There are funny moments and yet the novel is deeply philosophical. For it asks (in my view): what do we make of life? How do we deal with the challenges given to us? And do we look back on life and realise that everything happened the way it did because it was meant to?

I can’t rave enough about this book. I will read it again but, meanwhile, I want to read Towles’ novel, Rules of Civility.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m trying to get a walk-around video of the house build. Whenever I’m ready, it’s raining. I asked El Hubs if we’d be in the house by Christmas. I didn’t get a yes; but I didn’t get a no, either.

My great Aussie mate announced last week that she is coming to NZ with my God-niece in October. She’s fed up waiting for me to get back to Sydney. I’m very excited they are coming over. Emily will be seven in November and I’m really looking forward to getting to know her better.

There’s so much to do up here in the Far North of New Zealand, so I’m busy planning what to do and where to take them. This is why I was hoping the house might be finished so they could stay with us. But they’ll be staying at a lodge we stayed in a few times on our trips up here, when we were searching for property.

We’ve been living here for nearly 1.5 years (can’t believe that!) and have not visited Russell yet. It’s about half an hour away from us.

Russell was the original capital of New Zealand – at least a few kilometres south of Russell was. It was called Old Russell or Okiato. It’s now a holiday spot stuffed with cafes, white picket fences and boutique shops. Kororareka is the Māori name for Russell and I think means sweet penguin.

No idea why we haven’t visited Russell. My excuse would be we’ve been too busy simply settling into our new property. But I’m excited to visit because the American author, Zane Grey, visited Russell and the Bay of Islands in the early 20th century for fishing. I’m currently writing a poem about Zane Grey.

You get to Russell by passenger ferry from Paihia or car ferry from Opua wharf. I’m sure Emily will love it and I can’t wait for all the photo opportunities.

Speaking of which – Zsa Zsa is riding high on Instagram with a ton of photos. Follow her antics here.

 

Last week was pretty good weather and so there’s been progress with the house build. I’ll show you in a post soon. We now have the beginnings of a carport.

Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying walking around the property. Walking has always been my preferred form of exercise. When I lived and worked in Rome, it was not unusual for me to set off at 9.00am on Saturday and walk around Rome until 6.00pm. Can’t go wrong really – stop off and check out a piece of Roman history, then get a cappuccino, walk a bit more and visit a church or two, another cappuccino. You get the idea.

I walk a minimum of 4km a day. It all depends on the weather and if I’m deep into writing some poem or short story. I always take my iPhone with me so I can snap a shot of the magnificent trees we have in the North Island or catch the Z Team in action.

So I thought I’d post some recent snaps. Click on any photo to enlarge and enjoy.

Zeph getting out of the car and taking his time about it. He always senses a photo opp!

Peek-a-boo Zsa Zsa.

We get such beautiful skies at dusk in the North Island.

I’ve been reading a ton of books during July, so will need to break my book reviews into two parts. Here goes for part one.

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlisch. US author. This is the second book by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed his debut Tomorrow and Tomorrow which I reviewed here. The Gone World is a mashup of sci-fi and crime thriller. I was hooked from the start because it has to do with the multiverse, but you do need staying-power for this novel.

The main character is NCIS Special Agent Shannon Moss, who investigates the gruesome murder of a Navy SEAL in 1997. Turns out the victim was part of an NCIS secret programme called Deep Waters and it involves time travel. Shannon must travel to possible futures to try and solve the case, and she finds that there are infinite paths and possibilities for the future.

Looming over all the characters is the Terminus, a pretty horrifying alien life form that hitches a ride on a Naval Space Command space ship called Libra. The Terminus will bring about the end of humanity unless it’s stopped. There’s a whole host of nasty characters who were sailors onboard the Libra, and who are now involved in the Terminus and a series of murders.

I say you need staying power for this book because it’s quite intricate. The timeline jumps back and forth, from 1997 to 2015 and to alternate futures/realities. There is no one assured future but many possibilities and the Terminus cuts across all possibilities. The 1997 setting is different from the 1997 in our world – it has pre-crime warrants and ability to travel to the future. There are a lot of characters to keep up with but wow, what a wild ride.

Sweterlisch takes on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the question of whether a future “you” can travel back to your own time period – would that person be “you” or a ghost of you (known as an echo in the book)?

Parts of the book are stomach-lurching – it’s a dark novel. Because it is such a complex book, I thought Sweterlisch excelled at keeping the prose simple. This provided an anchor for the reader as the story wove its way through multiple layers and twists. Characterisation of Shannon Moss was brilliant. I really engaged with her.

I believe that The Gone World is being adapted for film. I can’t imagine how the director/screenwriters will bring this story to the screen. But so many elements of the story will transfer really well to cinematic form.

Can’t wait for Sweterlisch’s third novel. Both of his books are original and refreshing.

The Treasure Hunters by Warren Dean. I stumbled onto this novella while browsing Amazon, and it’s the first in a series I believe. Published in 2014. The main characters are modern-day treasure hunters, Patrick and Molly, who are looking for a 17th-century Spanish galleon that is rumoured to have treasure. Patrick finds the galleon known as Christina de la Fuego, but apparently so did some Nazis back in WWII. He finds a missing u-boat resting in a trench near the galleon. The Nazis were on a secret mission when their u-boat was intercepted by something mysterious.

We then go back to the 1600s and the captain of the galleon and his hunt for the fabled city, El Dorado. He doesn’t find it, but he certainly finds something else. Something that an alien entity from 578 BC wants to keep hidden and guarded.

This novella is a sci-fi adventure thriller. I wouldn’t say it drew me in, but I thought the writer did a pretty good job of managing shifting timelines and keeping a smooth flow to the story. The problem is that when you deal with Nazis and some sort of mysterious treasure or object, you get the Indiana Jones comparison. Whilst I liked this novella, it wasn’t a page turner for me and I didn’t connect with any of the characters. I doubt I’ll be rushing off to get the next installment (Return of the Treasure Hunters) but The Treasure Hunters was an easy read on a rainy afternoon.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. Canadian author. Post-apocalyptic novel and published in 2014. LOVED this very quiet, beautiful novel. A virulent flu pandemic (called the Georgian Flu) wipes out 99% of the world’s population. The story moves between the world as we know it and the post-catastrophe world where survivors walk roads looking for food and other survivors, inhabit airports and hotels, and deal with roving bands of people out to steal or murder.

We follow The Travelling Symphony – a group of actors who perform Shakespeare – and who walk from town to town. The main setting is Year Twenty or twenty years after the pandemic. Kirsten is one of the actors and was onstage with Arthur Leader in King Lear just a week or so before the flu struck. Arthur (famous Hollywood actor) dies on stage from a heart attack and we then follow the fortunes of those whose lives he touched – his ex-wives, Kirsten, his son Tyler, his childhood friend Clark, and a paramedic who was in the audience.

It’s a story of memory as each character remembers the “old world” and what has been lost. Many items that trigger memories are preserved in the Museum of Civilization, which Clark starts at an airport. He was on a plane that was grounded and forced to remain at the airport with other passengers as the flu spread. In his museum he collects iPads, cell phones, newspapers, an Amex card, passports.

The novel reminds us to cherish the everyday and the ordinary in our paper-thin world. What we take for granted – the ease of buying a bottle of milk, going out for dinner, turning on a light, buying clothes – could all be gone in one moment. I loved how Mandel referred to items of beauty, such as a pigeon walking in circles displaying its iridescent neck. Or dappled leaves in the sunlight. Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world is not necessarily one to fear.

The only thing I wasn’t too keen on was the character The Prophet. I’m not sure he was needed, although it’s likely that an apocalypse would give rise to a prophet seeking to explain why things unfolded the way they did. Aside from this, I engaged with all the characters and thought Mandel did a superb job of weaving two timelines and two very different worlds.

The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce. American author; debut novel published in 2018. This is a subtle novel that reads very much like a memoir in places. Essentially, it’s a novel about the afterlife – is there one? Or are there infinite afterlives?

The MC is Jim Byrd, a 30-something year old man who suffers cardiac arrest. He is fitted with a defibrillator and an app called HeartNet that monitors his heart and will alert him to problems. I loved the way the app alert is described:  “three delicate chimes, like a call to meditation in a Buddhist temple”.

Jim was dead for several minutes and he becomes a tad obsessed with what lies beyond, because he did not experience a thing. No white lights, no tunnels with relatives beckoning or angels greeting him. He’s pretty disappointed.

He goes on to marry his childhood sweetheart, Annie, and fills his days with his job in a bank. He is asked to approve a loan for a restaurant owner and visits the former house now turned into a TexMex. And here he discovers the stairs – a place where people experience odd sensations and sightings of lights and ghosts. Jim becomes involved in the mystery of Robert and Clara Lennox who lived in the house in the 1930s. We learn a lot about what went on between Robert and Clara – theirs was not a happy marriage and the stairs feature in this parallel narrative. In fact, I enjoyed this narrative so much I found myself wanting to know more about Robert and Clara.

Initially, I thought I was dealing with a ghost story but Afterlives is more than this. It’s part sci-fi because it’s set in a not-too-distant future when holograms of people are fairly commonplace, taking over human jobs and walking through city streets. The company who manufactures HeartNet is hacked. Chinese and Russian hackers explode random hearts and Jim wonders if he will be next.

There are some hilarious moments – Jim joins the Church of Search, a new age church that is a mashup of TED talks and Billy Graham or Joel Osteen. One of the talks is given by the hologram of a quantum physicist, Sally Zinker, and she has developed a machine she says is capable of communicating with the dead (the Reunion Machine). This machine seeks to prove that life does not end with the physical body. Sally cautions Jim that his heart monitor might give him a totally different experience with the afterlife, it might even kill him. But Jim goes ahead and the climactic part of the novel is what he sees and learns in the afterlife. Or is this afterlife merely a dream or a flood of forgotten memories?

There are shades of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life in this novel (which I reviewed), particularly towards the end when Clara relives what happened on the stairs over and over, stuck in a loop.

Pierce has a very fluid writing style, so it’s easy to miss the gems of philosophical and spiritual contemplation in this novel. For example: “I was here and then I wasn’t.” This line is in the context of his cardiac arrest, but it can also spark questions and deep thought about life after death. I also found the use of holograms very clever – as Jim grapples with reality after his near-death experience and ponders other forms of reality, the holograms present the question of what it means to be intelligent or what is human and what is not. The holograms are so realistic that Jim (and other characters) don’t realise they are conversing with technology.

I liked all the characters, especially Jim’s father. This is the sort of book that requires a re-read. Really enjoyed it.

Dark Asylum by ES Thomson. Gothic suspense/murder mystery set in 1850’s London and published in 2017. This is the second in a series that features the character of Jem Flockhart, a young apothecary and part-time detective. I have not read the first book (Beloved Poison) but this second novel seems to stand alone. Jem’s characterisation is interesting – she was born a woman but lives life as a man. I felt this really highlighted how women were marginalised in the 19th century.

The story opens with the grizzly murder of Dr Rutherford, who was on staff at the insane asylum known as Angel Meadow (wonderful name!). There are many people out to get Dr Rutherford and Jem follows the trail through seamy London in the Victorian era. There’s a whole cast of hidden identities in this novel.

I particularly liked the attention to detail when it came to descriptions of prisons and factories – London was very much a character in this novel. The author also excelled at making the asylum a character in its own right. I felt claustrophobic just imagining the dank corridors and patients’ treatment. Thomson has a PhD in the history of medicine and painstaking research was really apparent.

The themes explored were very intriguing – the fine line between sanity and insanity; the medical treatment of those with mental illnesses in the 19th century; experimentation in the early days of medical science; the role of women in that time period.

I was perplexed by two aspects though and possibly I need to read the first book in the series. The second MC is Will Quartermain, who is Jem’s room mate (she lives above the apothecary). He is a draftsman and seems to be the sidekick in the Jem Flockhart series, but I am not sure of their relationship. Does he realise Jem is a woman? I also felt the sex scene between Jem and Miss Mothersole a bit unnecessary; didn’t move the story forward and I felt was thrown in for LGBQT purposes.

On the whole, a good read and should I find Beloved Poison on the shelves of the local library, I might read it.