The Blackbird Sings at Dusk by Linda Olsson, who is a Swedish author living in New Zealand. This is a haunting story of a Swedish woman, Elizabeth, who lives in an apartment building. Her neighbours, Elias (an artist) and an older man, Otto, are intrigued by her. Elizabeth has an unhappy past and through friendship and love between the three characters, this past is confronted.

The tension is provided by the Green Woman, who is an imaginary figure in Elizabeth’s life and acts as a vehicle to help her choose between happiness and love or the darkness of a disturbed mind and perhaps death. Frankly, I’m not sure the Green Woman was needed as the story itself is strong enough. Elizabeth’s character for me was a bit sketchy and might have been stronger had the Green Woman not existed.

I loved Otto’s character. I could visualise him and Olsson brought him to life. I favour the writing style, which is sparse but elegant. Olsson is a very atmospheric writer – wonderful descriptions of the sky, weather, light, Stockholm and the Swedish Midsummer’s Eve.

It’s a very evenly-paced novel and I loved the symbolic use of the blackbird. It is the national bird of Sweden and also an analogy for Elizabeth – a woman broken by the betrayal of love. The blackbird appears in Spring as the weather gets warmer and the days longer. It symbolises an awakening, just as Elizabeth is awakened by the surprising friendship and love between herself, Elias and Otto. There’s a very ambiguous ending – does Elizabeth commit suicide or not? This novel has stayed with me, which is always the sign of good fiction, and I’ve bought another two of Olsson’s novels as I like her writing so much.

The Pearl-Shell Diver by Kay Crabbe. YA historical fiction. Australian author. Set in 1898, this is the story of a young islander, Sario, who wants to be a pump (or deep sea) diver. His father has been coerced into joining a white trader on a pearl lugger and Sario is left to take care of his ill mother, Apu, and his sister, Leilani. Later, Sario also joins the crew of a pearl lugger and is taken advantage of by the white captain and an Indian trader.

This book raises issues of how children were treated in the late 19th Century and colonial Australian treatment of indigenous peoples. It also touches on Australian Federation and the White Australia Policy – and so it would be a very good teaching resource. It’s very simply written. I didn’t think the tension between Sario (13 years) and Hiroshi, a Japanese boy, worked and the sudden move to friendship wasn’t convincing.

I do think Crabbe described deep sea diving very well (at a time when the bends were not really known) and island life. Although I bought it largely for the cover art, I enjoyed this book.  There was too much telling going on for me – nothing was left to the imagination and the ending was a bit “off into the sunset”.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. This is a dazzling novel and so very well executed. A writer with great confidence and command of a cast of characters. Essentially, it’s about a person having many alternative, possible lives. The main character is Ursula Todd, born on 11 February, 1910 in England. In one version of her life she is strangled by the umbilical cord; in another version she is married to a German and living in Nazi Germany; in yet another version, she experiences the blitz in London during WWII and is part of a rescue unit.

This book could have gone horribly wrong as the structure means that we continually loop back to February 1910, but I never found it confusing or irritating. Ursula eventually realises that her sense of deja vu means she has lived before and she attempts to change the course of history. Since this history mainly involves WWII, you can guess what Ursula might do.

Atkinson has a strong, very descriptive writing style. Ursula’s parallel existences take us through decades of social history – from WWI, through to WWII and the 1960s. What I really enjoyed was Atkinson’s ability to detail the fashion and fads of the times. There are rapid chronological shifts in this novel but Atkinson anchors us with each chapter dated by month and year.

One of the last chapters seems to suggest (to me anyway) that Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, has the same ability as Ursula – to relive a life and know the outcome. Because this time, in February 1910, when Ursula is born yet again and with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, Sylvie is ready with a pair of surgical scissors. There is also a fleeting reference to Ursula seeing her mother on the arm of another man, coming out of a London hotel – Atkinson never picks this up again in the novel. So I wonder – did Ursula see her mother in one of her alternative lives? Intriguing thought. There were also clever devices in this book: dogs keep appearing in the book, dog after dog.

It’s not a light read but Atkinson injects humour here and there to lighten things up. Highly recommend this book.

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernard Schlink. The premise is enticing: a missing painting (of a nude woman descending stairs), a mysterious woman, her husband and her lover. I just didn’t connect with this book and I think it’s because of the writing style, which I found very stilted. Possibly it’s because it’s been translated from German. I also didn’t connect with the main character.

The narrator is a German lawyer who is on business in Sydney when he comes across the painting in an Art Gallery. He becomes determined to track down the owner of the painting and the whereabouts of the woman of the painting he loved and lost 40 years ago. It could have been a good legal thriller (given that the author is a Professor of Law) but, for me, it became bogged down.

Irene (the woman in the painting) disappears and is found living in some remote cottage in a cove up North from Sydney. Decades earlier, the lawyer handled a case involving Irene and her powerful husband (Gundlach) and her lover, the painter Schwind. They both fight over the painting and her. Meanwhile, the lawyer becomes infatuated, throws caution to the wind and helps her in a plan to steal the painting and disappear together. Irene outwits the lot of them and she disappears with the painting.

Forty years after this painting heist and the disappearance of Irene, Gundlach and Schwind drop in by helicopter and by boat – I was waiting for this reunion with Irene to be full of shocks and secrets, but nah. She declares she was a muse to one man and a trophy to the other; and so she escaped with the painting to East Germany. The narrator is a very dull character but that is the point I guess. His life is boring, predictable and we do see his transformation towards the end of the novel. Irene is very sick and he cares for her until she dies during a bushfire.

In Part Two, where all the characters assemble to argue over the painting, I found the prose clunky and wooden. I have not read Schlink’s earlier novel, The Reader. Perhaps I should do that to see if it’s a better read.

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith, who is an Australian author living in Texas. I quite liked this book, although I didn’t find it a page turner. Wonderful, effortless writing style.

It’s the story of a 17th-century Dutch painting, the link to its 20th-century American owner and the forgery of this painting by a twenty-something year old art student. What I liked about this book was its quietness and very steady pace, although I must say I’m getting a bit tired of novels about paintings (e.g. The Improbability of Love, The Woman on the Stairs).

There are three interconnected narratives linked by the (fictional) painting At the Edge of the Wood. Of the three main characters, I did think the Dutch painter, Sara, was crafted very well. In fact, I thought her narrative was extremely touching – she lost her 7 year old daughter to the plague and her last painting (which depicts a young girl) was her way of grieving. Structurally, it’s quite a complex novel and I think Smith’s fluid writing style allowed him to produce a novel of great skill. It also has the best opening line for a novel I’ve read in some time: “The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space”. Really enjoyed this book.

The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Middle Grade/YA fiction, magical realism. The story of a young girl, Isabella, who lives on an island called Joya, which is ruled by the malevolent Governor Adori. Her father is a cartographer and everything on the island is affected by malevolence.

Songbirds have been driven out by ravens and the island is split in two, with the Forgotten Territories being a zone no person is allowed to enter. Then a young girl goes missing and Isabella joins the rescue mission. They journey through a magical and mythical world of huge fire dogs and a fire demon. A thousand year old legend inspires Isabella to save Joya by consulting ink maps (which sometimes alter) and using her knowledge of the stars to navigate.

This is the debut novel for Hargrave, who has published poetry and so the prose is eloquent. I would have liked more world-building but action is the focal point. I did enjoy the alternate universe feel of the book but it wasn’t a page turner for me. However, Isabella is a very strong female heroine and the book itself has an equally strong message – have courage in life and follow your beliefs.  I believe it will be called The Cartographer’s Daughter in the US, which is a shame as I think The Girl of Ink and Stars is a far better title as it captures the essence of Isabella.

 

 

 

Poor Zeph. He’s hurt is paw yet again. This has been an ongoing thing over the years. He jumps up on the side of the hay barn to bark at pesky pigeons and hurts himself.

The hay barn is clad (with corrugated iron) and so the impact on his paw can be harsh if he launches himself at the wall. Actually, it’s one of his toes according to the vet. The vet says the long-term solution is to amputate the toe but we prefer to use Metacam (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory) for 3 or 4 days and put him on couch rest. This always works.

In fact, he hasn’t hurt his paw for at least a year now. Fingers crossed he’s learnt his lesson for another year or two!!

img_0359

Save

Loyal readers (anyone?) will know that every year, I wait for the cherry blossom to bloom in our front yard. It is usually in full bloom by October 22 and it didn’t fail me this year.

I started to see tiny buds around October 14 or so and, for some reason, this always signals the start of the Spring/Summer season for me. The daffodils bloom earlier, as do other cherry blossoms on the property (which are much smaller trees). But I always anticipate the awakening of this soft pink cherry blossom.

The garden is looking very lush and green right now. Zeph and Zsa Zsa are enjoying time in the sun, snoozing on their pet beds.

It’s a lovely time of year.

img_0114img_0247

Save

I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult Fiction novels lately. I sometimes find them a more satisfying read than adult fiction. So here’s what I’ve been reading.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. This is YA fiction/historical fiction and what a page turner. Set in Victorian-era New York (a refreshing change from Victorian London), it’s the story of Josephine Montfort, who is from a wealthy New York family and investigates the death of her father. There’s a bit of romance with a young reporter, Eddie Gallagher, who provides the tension: he comes from the street gangs of New York.

Very strong characterisation, with great character growth, although I did think the introduction of Eddie’s sister was unnecessary (the plot was strong enough). I was not keen on the voice of Grandma and found some of her utterances a bit silly (e.g. “Fine set of hips on that girl too. She’ll breed as easily as an Ayrshire heifer.”). An insane asylum also features in this book and I think Donnelly amped up the thrill level when Josephine’s uncle has her committed. Thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Thousandth Floor by Katherine McGee. YA dystopian fiction (although I’m not sure what the dystopian part was all about). I simply couldn’t finish it and found it pretty dull (I think I reached page 200 of 400+ pages).The futuristic setting had me intrigued: Manhattan 2118 and a thousand storey apartment complex. The book started off with the death of a young girl, as she falls from the roof of the complex. This was the only interesting part of the book for me.

I read that there are shades of Gossip Girl in this novel but I’ve never watched that TV series. I found it to be a pointless, slow-paced plot about rich kids living high up in the mega-tower (I really had to put aside any architectural worries about a thousand floors). The characters were flat and I didn’t care about any of them. Some were cliched: for example – Avery, rich, blonde hair, beautiful, genetically engineered. I also had a problem with Avery lusting after her own brother (albeit adopted). Just didn’t sit well with me.

This is McGee’s debut novel and I think this is the first book of some series. I was half-tempted to skip to the end and find out who was plastered all over the pavement and whodunnit, but….couldn’t be bothered.

My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter. YA historical fiction. This is a book that had a slow start for me but rapidly picked up. Set in the Deep South during the American Civil War, it’s the story of a young orphan, 13-year-old Samuel, who is tricked into slavery. At first, I thought: yeah, heard this before but I think the strong voice of Samuel (whose slave name is Friday) created a very engaging character.

There was just enough accented speech of the time period to lend authenticity without being annoying. The story is told in the first person and you certainly become immersed in the narrative as Samuel works as a slave, then flees the oncoming Yankee soldiers. The scene where a black plantation manager is whipped by the white plantation owner’s wife is harrowing.

What I liked was the intimate glimpse into the relationship between slave and master. The young son of the plantation owner, Gerald, strikes up a friendship with Samuel and this I see as a vehicle for the author to drive the point home about equality.

There are any number of themes to ponder – the role of religion, colonialism, the meaning of family, loyalty and freedom – to name a few.

The author has an effortless writing style. After the darkness of the Civil War, I loved the final line in the book: “Some time soon I’ll stand in sunshine.’ I think this book should be required reading in high school History classes. It’s a story that will stay with you, that’s for sure.

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton. YA fiction/fantasy. You can see I’ve been reading a lot of YA books! This is the first book in a trilogy that Hamilton is writing and is a debut novel. I didn’t really like this book as I found it a very weird combination of gunslinging Wild West and Arabian desert folklore and magic with some X-Men references thrown in. I think it would have worked better if the Western references were ditched. I think the author’s world-building was strong enough to let the book be set in an Arabian setting.

It’s the story of a smart-talking, sharp-shooting 16-year-old girl, Amani Al’Hiza, who is determined to get out of her hometown called Dustwalk (I would too with a name like that). Hamilton paints an alternative universe and, since I’m not much of a fantasy genre reader, I found it a little difficult. There are creatures called Skinwalkers and the Demdjii (mythical horses).

Amani lives in a land occupied by a foreign ruler/Sultan and she meets up with Jin, who turns out to be the love interest and something else (won’t reveal in case you want to read the book).

Here are my issues: (1) writing style – the first half of the book employed an annoying over-use of similes and I found the wise-cracking Amani a bit too wise-cracking; (2) the strong world-building seems to die off in the second half of the book; and (3) the plot was entirely predictable. But I did hang in there to the end.

Sons of the Blood by Robyn Young. Historical fiction. This is Book 1 of the New World Rising series and I really enjoyed this book. It has a strong plot – set in 1483 during the War of the Roses, it’s the story of Jack Wynter, the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Vaughan. Jack is sent by his father to Spain with instructions to protect a secret document: a map. Following his father’s death, Jack returns to England and all hell breaks loose – rogue Catholic priests, mysterious organisations, people chasing around London for the map and a very interesting view on what happened to the Princes in the Tower (Edward and Richard).

A well-written book that never lost pace or focus. I’ll certainly read Book 2.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L.Stedman. What a stunning debut novel by an Australian author. The author is female and has done an outstanding job writing through the point of view of a male character. When I first read a synopsis of the plot, I thought how boring – set in 1926, WWI veteran, Tom Sherbourne who clearly has PTSD, is the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an island off the Australian coast. His wife, Isabel, is desperate for a baby. So desperate that the couple make a decision that will affect their lives. Basically, it’s a story about bad things that happen to good people.

Ho-hum. But wait!! It’s such a beautifully written narrative; so poignant. The author excels at presenting the reader with a gut-wrenching moral dilemma. I think this book will resonant with Australian readers particularly – we understand the jargon, the Aussie language of the time period, the remoteness of parts of Australia, the weather and landscape.

Tom is a very believable character; Isabel not so much. There were times when I couldn’t quite believe that Tom would go along with Isabel; that his decision was so out of character for a WWI hero. But perhaps that is the point. I also thought there was a bit of awkward information dumping – scenes relating to the workings of a lighthouse.

I did see the ending coming. It was predictable but handled with great skill. I loved this book!

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I’ve been helping the 15-year-old daughter of a friend of mine and homeschooling her three times a week. For her NCEA Level 1 English exam, I assigned her this classic book. In New Zealand, students can sit the exam and focus on whatever book they wish.

I think this is the fourth time I’ve read this outstanding book. I thought I knew it very well but discovered new things, thanks to our discussions in homeschool. For example: last year’s exam asked a question around symbolism and I hadn’t given this any thought before. The scene in the book where a rapid dog walks into the township is a symbol of the madness that Atticus Finch faces as he defends Tom Robinson.

We also watched the 1962 film together and the first comment was “this film is black and white”. So that was a great teaching point as well – why was the film shot in black and white?

If you haven’t read this book, do yourself a favour and get onto it.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope. A quiet, haunting book that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is the story of two mental patients, Irishman John and Ella, and it is a wonderful insight into the treatment of mental health in the Edwardian era. In the asylum is a ballroom and well-behaved patients can attend a dance there on Friday nights for social interaction and music therapy. John and Ella form a touching relationship that is threatened by Dr.Fuller, who provides the conflict in the novel. Fuller is fascinated with eugenics and struggles with his latent homosexuality – this creates a great character.

The author’s great-great grandfather was the inspiration for this novel – he was a patient in the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum (in the UK) from 1905 until his death in 1918.

There are shades of Anthony Doerr in her writing – both describe the weather in breathtaking ways. I spotted the ending easily but I thought it was a fitting end. A very well-paced and well-written novel.

All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman. A Kiwi writer at the height of her talent. This book is 14 interconnected stories that follow the fortunes of a New Zealand family from the 1950s through to 2015.  It starts in the oppressive 1950s, when women were constrained by social and sexual mores of the time period. I wouldn’t say it’s a page-turner but you are invested in the characters, all related to the family matriarch, Irene Sandle. It is like watching a movie – 14 chapters that take you through 55 years of social and cultural history.

Being Australian, this was the interesting part for me – learning about the New Zealand of an earlier time period. Kidman also excels at creating vivid, in-depth characters that generate a reaction within the reader (either good or bad). I’m currently reading Kidman’s latest collection of poetry, This Change in the Light.

 

How good is Karma looking?! I visited her today at Fat Boot Camp. She’s been there six weeks now and will probably stay a few more weeks. She is ridden at least four times a week and reports are that she is a very well-behaved girl.

She was happy to see me and neighed when I said goodbye. I’ll visit again next weekend. Meanwhile, Miss Rosie and the Shire stallion are acting like an old married couple. We might know in the next three weeks if she is infoal or not.

img_0257

You can see I’ve lost weight, right?

Save

I don’t know Dear Reader: where does the time go? I have been busy writing poetry and, this week, we had a pretty nasty earthquake. All good here but still, not pleasant.

Zeph has been busy around the property hunting rabbits. We seem to have a lot this year. But he was confused in the kitchen. He heard a sound and thought aha, pesky rabbit…but it was the coffee machine heating up. Too funny. Love this photo of him.

 

 

Save

Save

I don’t know what’s going on but this year we have grass – and I mean GRASS. Everywhere. Lush, long grass; short, Spring grass. With horses, particularly ponies, you have to worry about the Spring and Autumn (Fall) grass. It’s low in fibre, high in calories and protein, and is full of sugars. Horses can experience rapid weight gain and end up insulin resistant.

Normally, I put The Mares in the race, which is basically dirt and feed out hay twice a day. But this year, for whatever reason, the grass grew a lot in the race and, by the time we reached Spring, it was lush.

So I’ve sent Karma off to Fat Boot Camp. I really need to manage her weight and I have her grazing at a friend’s property. She’s eating dirt basically. Poor Karma: but she has lost weight.

I visited her yesterday. She seems happy and is certainly looking less voluptuous LOL. I think she’ll be there for 6-8 weeks. Saffy may be joining her soon.

I have three of my friend’s Shires grazing with me and one warmblood. They eat and eat but don’t seem to gain much weight. Karma would be VERY jealous.

img_9952

I think I’m looking slimmer – what do you think?

Save