A slight diversion before I get back onto the subject of our new property Up North. I’ve had a lot of time to read books lately and write. I’ve now had two poems published and one piece of Flash Fiction. The latter I’m particularly proud of because it was selected for publication by two international reviewers whose writing I very much admire.

Would you like to read my two published poems? If so, check them out here. My Flash Fiction piece is here. I currently have four poems out for review and hope at least one of them will be published and I’ve just finished a mentoring course with a well-known NZ poet.

Enough about me – back to today’s post and my reviews for the recent batch of books I’ve been reading.

The Severed Land by Maurice Gee. YA fiction by a well-known New Zealand writer. I’ve not read any books by Gee before. Set in a fantasy world where slavery exists and competing families vie for dominance. Fliss, a black girl, and Kirt (aka Keef) who is from the Despiner family, must rescue The Nightingale as she holds the key to maintaining an invisible wall that keeps a land divided. On one side, you have oligarchic rule, violence and chaos; on the other, you have freedom, Nature, and the old People, who were original inhabitants of the land. The old People created the invisible wall and only the Old One now maintains it through mental thought. The Nightingale has to be rescued to secure the future of the wall.

The male main character, Kirt (aka Keef), irritated me. I found him wishy-washy. Fliss was at least interesting and strong-minded, a worthy heroine. I think the short length of the book worried me too; I wanted more. More world-building; more back-story about the families struggling against each other; a better understanding of how Kirt came to be a drummer boy and what this fall from grace meant for him and his family.

I liked the effortless writing style, although the dialogue didn’t always sound realistic. It has me interested enough to perhaps read Gee’s Salt Trilogy. I believe Maurice Gee is now 85 years old.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. A strong, debut novel. A very absorbing narrative about survivors of the female-only concentration camp, Ravensbruck. It has multiple points-of-views: Caroline Ferriday, a real-life New York socialite; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager working for the Resistance; and Dr.Herta Oberheuser, a real-life Nazi doctor who was stationed at Ravensbruck.

Each chapter tells the story of one of these women and what they were doing in the lead-up to WWII. We learn how Oberheuser applies for a job at a “re-education camp” for women; how Kasia joins the Polish resistance, following her country’s invasion in 1939; and how Caroline becomes a tireless campaigner for war orphans and later demands justice for Holocaust survivors. Good backstory leads to Kasia and Herta’s individual experiences at Ravensbruck. Many Polish prisoners were forced to endure medical experiments and became collectively known as The Rabbits. It was this side of Kelly’s story that I engaged with because it’s a story seldom told – the Nazi experimentation; the psychological trauma; the resilience these people needed to survive.

Following WWII, the novel details how the three main characters cope with “normal life” and how their lives intersect. At over 400 pages, this novel is not for the faint-hearted. I could sense the extraordinary amount of research Kelly undertook to produce a novel that is both gruelling and uplifting. Despite one of the darkest hours of human history, people emerged with strong spirits and the desire to forgive and forget. Whenever I read about the concentration camps, I wonder how I would have coped.

The only criticism I have of this book is Caroline’s obsession with the married French actor, Paul Rodierre. We constantly wonder will she/won’t she get together with him and I felt this sub-plot did not move the narrative forward (despite it being based on a true relationship apparently). Despite this, I would thoroughly recommend this book for its effortless prose.

The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd. This is Glasfurd’s debut novel and is an original look at the French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes, told through the eyes of a 17th Century Dutch maid, Helena Jans van der Strom. Helena and René are lovers and, despite being a maid, Helena can read and write. The imagined narrative is based on scant archival material that suggests a relationship did in fact exist between René Descartes and Helena and that they had two children. The youngest, Francine, died of scarlet fever at the age of five. It is a mystery how Helena learned to both read and write, given the lot of women in that time period.

This book has good reviews but I wasn’t as engaged with it as I thought I would be. Glasfurd did exceptionally well in portraying life in the Netherlands of the 1600s, and highlighting the inequality in power and relationship between Descartes and Helena. I did like Glasfurd’s characterisation of Helena as a strong, determined young woman (despite her irritating habit of calling Rene “Monsieur” all the time). Helena constantly seeks knowledge and makes ink out of beetroot in her attempts to write. Glasfurd really allowed us to get into Helena’s head.

I think it is Descartes’ character that worried me – I found him capricious and the love affair not so believable. But I remember studying Descartes at University – his quest for reason; his Discourse on Method – and I imagine he was no ordinary character for the time period. He probably was an enigmatic and elusive sort, prone to flights of fancy. It would also have been very difficult for Descartes to carry on a relationship with someone from a different class, so reputation was everything. Given this, I understand the characterisation.

At times, I found the dialogue to be a bit melodramatic. But I think it was the quietness of the novel that ultimately I didn’t engage with. By this I mean, nothing much really seemed to happen. Even when Helena was beaten by Daan, (a minor male character) or when Francine succumbed to scarlet fever, Glasfurd’s writing style remained quiet, steady and even.  However, it’s a good read; just not one of my favourites.

As an aside, it did inspire me to write a poem I’ve called Discourse on Magpie (yes, it’s about a magpie).

Longbourn by Jo Baker. I was introduced to Baker’s effortless prose via her latest novel, A Country Road, A Tree, which I reviewed here. Longbourn has been sitting on my bookshelf for some time and I thought let’s get around to reading it. This is an outstanding novel from a very accomplished writer.

Inspired by Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), Longbourn is the untold story of the servants, their relationship with the Bennet family, their reaction to all the family dramas and how the servants maneuver their way through the lives of the upper class. Some of Austen’s characters appear – Mr. Darcy; Mr. Collins; Mr. Bingley – along with new characters imagined by Baker such as James, the footman. Reading this book, you have to keep in mind that it is inspired by P&P. It is not a prequel or a narrative that snuggly fits into the Bennet’s timeline.

Baker is a powerful writer, blessed with an ability to use the perfect word or words to describe an emotion or scene. We get an intimate glimpse into the servant world of the Georgian period, in particular the daily hardships and poverty. What I found most impressive was Baker’s knowledge of the social etiquette and housekeeping rituals of the time – right down to what was served for breakfasts and dinners. This novel is historical fiction and, as a lover of history, I expect and cherish all these little details.

I’m glad that Baker did not try to mimic Austen’s style. When I picked up the book, I feared that she might try a variation on Austen’s famous opening line: “”It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gentlewoman in need of a husband is also in need of a good servant.” Thankfully, she didn’t.

I liked the growth of the main character, Sarah, who toils long hours but imagines that there is a life for her beyond being a servant at Longbourn. Enter the character of James and you have a novel that vividly portrays the vulnerable life of a woman in the Georgian era – whether you are Elizabeth Bennet or Sarah, your economic future depended on a successful marriage. In this way, it was the same life whether you were a servant or a member of the upper class.

Baker also delves deeply into the Napoleonic Wars via the backstory of James, which I enjoyed. I can imagine though that die-hard Austen fans might have their feathers ruffled a bit by this novel. It isn’t a novel about the romance and high society of the Regency period; our hearts are not fluttering over Mr. Darcy. This is the world of smelly chamber pots and lugging water on freezing cold mornings.

If you read this book and P&P together, you have a perfect glimpse into the Georgian period, warts and all. My only criticism? The ending was a little rushed.

The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly. My introduction to this author was via the YA novel, These Shallow Graves, which I enjoyed and reviewed here. So I was pretty confident it would be a good book as Donnelly is a strong writer. The Tea Rose is the first book in her Rose Trilogy. There was commonalities with her YA novel – strong female character who falls in love with someone not in her social class and New York in the 1800s. But….I felt this book was nowhere near as good as These Shallow Graves.

It’s set in East London in the 1880s and New York in the 1890s. The central character is Irish lass, Fiona Finnegan, who starts life as a tea factory worker and ends up being a wealthy tea merchant in New York. Her love interest is Joe Bristow, a costermonger’s son, who also ends up a wealthy man in London. Basically, Joe marries another woman and Fiona sets off for New York to forget her sorrow. She must also flee London because she is being chased by a dastardly character who may or may not be Jack the Ripper.

I did wonder at times if I was reading a Mills & Boon novel. The romance between Fiona and Joe was too melodramatic but what I found really hard to engage with was this – Fiona, who is around 19 years old, meets William McClane, a super-wealthy American tycoon who is 45 years old. Despite her being from the working class, McClane falls madly in love and escorts her to high-society events and fashionable restaurants. Nah, didn’t buy it for one minute.

Then we have Fiona basically saving the world – she loses her father and mother in London (her mother to Jack the Ripper and her father was murdered by the very tea merchant Fiona worked for). She spends 10 years plotting revenge and returns to London to take over Burton Tea and ends up confronting the owner, William Burton, who is a deeply shady character. Along the way, she marries a gay guy, Nick, who just happens to be a Viscount and dripping with money, so she becomes a Viscountess. And, oh joy, Nick just happens to have shares in Burton Tea, which Fiona has been buying over the years so she can gain control of the company.

Fiona met Nick as she was trying to find a ship embarking for America. Here’s where the book really fell over for me. Nick suggests Fiona (and her young brother, Seamus) pretend to be his wife and son. All because Fiona didn’t know you needed a ticket to get on a ship. Nick rushes her off to get good clothes (how did he hide the Cockney accent I ask?) and, when they disembark in New York, they part company. Has anyone heard of Ellis Island? There were legal and medical inspections even for First Class passengers. Donnelly ignores this.

The characters were either good or evil. Nothing in between. There were so many unbelievable moments in this book but Donnelly is a good writer, so I stuck with the 600+ pages. I could see the ending coming; no surprises really. There was far too much clinging, cloying romance and sex scenes in this book for me. I am half-tempted to read the other two in the trilogy but wondering if I should waste my time.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. A short, debut book at around 114 pages. How to review this unusual piece of magical realism? It’s part-poetry, part-mythology, a meditation on grief and a black comedy. The title references Emily Dickinson’s poem, Hope Is The Thing With Feathers.

It’s the story of a father and his two young sons who are grappling with the sudden death of the wife and mother. The father is visited by a metafictional crow, which is a reference to Ted Hughes who the father is writing a book about. (Ted Hughes was an English poet and was married to the American poet, Sylvia Plath. He wrote the literary masterpiece, Crow). The crow plays therapist and guides the family towards recovery. He promises that he will not leave until the family no longer needs him (a bit like Nanny McPhee!).

The story is told from three viewpoints: the crow, the father and the boys. I found the crow a bit difficult to get my head around at times (I need to go back and read Hughes’ poem) but I loved it when the crow said that he only found humans interesting in times of grief.

There’s a lot of word play in this book, something Porter obviously excels at. There are plenty of lovely stories in this book and many lines that stop you in your tracks because they are insights to ponder over.

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin. One word to describe this book – breathtaking. This is Pipkin’s second novel and I’ve already ordered his first from Book Depository (Woodsburner). What an astounding, accomplished writer. And where to start with a review?

It’s a novel about obsession, scientific enquiry and political/social reformation. Set in Ireland in the late 18th Century, it is the narrative of amateur astronomer, Arthur Ainsworth, and his obsession with finding a planet he calls Theodosia. His daughter, Caroline, joins him in his search of the heavens. At the same time, another Caroline is helping her brother, German astronomer William Herschel, as he discovers Uranus. Arthur is jealous of Herschel’s success and stares directly at the sun in his fevered attempts to find his elusive planet.

Following his blindness and death, Caroline Ainsworth leaves for London to forget her love for Finnegan O’Siodha, a blacksmith who was helping her father build a telescope larger than that of his rival, Herschel. She returns to Ireland to deal with her father’s telescopes just as Ireland is swept up by rebellion (Irish Rebellion of 1798). She is fleetingly reunited with Finnegan amidst the turmoil and violence. I enjoyed reading about this part of Ireland’s history.

Each character is caught up with their own obsession and a quest for knowledge or the unknown. Finnegan, for example, becomes entranced with animal magnetism and revivification. This leads him to design a mechanical device for Caroline’s withered arm (from a childhood accident).

Let me give you a taste of Pipkin’s extraordinary writing ability. After her father’s death, Caroline continues with her own celestial observations: “the quiet excitement of casting her eye into corners of the sky where few have gone before, this gentle trespass and the familiar yearning . . . to know something more, something new and wondrous and seemingly impossible.”

Pipkin has an ability to create strong, vibrant characters and these characters orbited around what is essentially the core of the narrative: astronomy. And this narrative occurred at a time when there was a sense of awe about the heavens. I think we’ve largely lost that sense of wonderment. John Pipkin is up there for me as writer, along with Anthony Doerr and Jo Baker. Highly recommend this book.

 

Have you noticed the name change for the blog yet? Can’t change the URL but I thought it was time to pick a new name. So the Daily Oxford is now Up North.

In this post, I’ll give you a first look at our (rather large) property. We decided to downsize. We had 30 acres down South and we shifted to….wait for it….47 acres. Yep. We simply fell in love with the property and that was that.

We arrived on April 3 and went immediately to the property and let Zeph and Zsa Zsa run wild and free. This was before going to the pet-friendly accommodation! I promised the dogs that they could sniff and explore their new home as soon as we made it up North.

We will be living temporarily in a shed, which I refer to as The Shed. Next post, I’ll show you what it looks like. It is a serious downsize – from a two-storey home to a shed.

The Shed was not quite ready for our arrival. We started the build around November of last year not knowing when we’d actually sell our house. We have no power or water on the property, so we have to install solar panels, a composting toilet and get a phone line put in. This has taken a bit more time than we had hoped because it was hard to organise things whilst still living in the South Island.

We’ve been at the pet-friendly accommodation for two weeks now and I think one more week to go before we can move into The Shed. But we take the dogs to the property every day so they feel right at home there already. El Hubs is now project managing the build so things are moving faster.

The best part of the property for Zeph and Zsa Zsa I think is two places. The first area I call The Forest. No idea what the trees are but they are massive, tall trees and underneath them is a lovely shady area with mossy rocks and a small stream. The second place is a part of the stream. We actually have two streams that merge into one. Near The Shed is a gorgeous spot – shallow pools of water with green ferns.

When Zeph first saw the water he was a bit scared. He gingerly put one paw into the water and drew it out immediately. Two weeks down the track, he runs through the stream and uses the mossy rocks in the water as a bridge to get to the embankment on the other side. This embankment is a bit steep and Zeph and Zsa Zsa found it tough the first few days. You could see they were worried about their footing. But now they are like a couple of mountain goats.

These photos show you just how happy they are to be on their new property.

Three days in the car with the dogs! We were originally going to send them up to the North Island by pet bus. In the end though, we felt they would be safe and secure with us. I wouldn’t want to do this road trip again though. But I’ve noticed that Zeph is a lot less worried about noises now. Before when a car zoomed by, he would get a fright. No more. And especially after surviving the ferry to the North Island with all its loud noises, he’s pretty well bomb-proof LOL.

We stopped every two or three hours to exercise the dogs. There were a few pet-friendly cafes along the way where Zeph and Zsa Zsa could sit with us.

Because I was an anxious mother, I didn’t take a lot of photos along the road. But here are a few to whet the appetite!

For some reason, Zeph decided to steal Zsa Zsa’s pink blanket to make himself comfortable in the car.

I took this in Picton. We stayed there the first night so we could catch the inter-island ferry early the next morning. I have a strong liking for Picton. My Dad, who was from Wellington, wanted to retire to Picton but never got the chance.

We rarely eat out but when we do!!! This was a yummy hamburger with waffle-cut chips. At a cafe on the Picton waterfront.

Getting a glimpse of the Kapiti Coast, just outside of Wellington. This was the area we were very keen on but there is a major fault line around here. My Dad always said that when Wellington goes, it will be pretty bad. We also felt the Coast is a little crowded.

This was a great pet-friendly cafe. I didn’t get the name of it, sorry. I think it was somewhere between Matamata and Lake Taupo. Zeph and Zsa Zsa loved it and the girls serving us coffee loved the dogs and spent time patting them.

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What a schlepp dear reader! It took us three days’ road travel to get to our new home in the Far North of NZ. My biggest fear was the dogs – I was worried that they would not travel well. But they did just fine and were such good dogs.

The worst part was the ferry ride across the Cook Strait. You can book a dog kennel but the kennels are right next to the door where they load and offload vehicles. You can imagine how much noise there was and how scared Zeph and Zsa Zsa were. No-one is allowed in the cargo hold area, so we could not check on them for 3.5 hours. All sorts of things went through my mind!

Staff on the ferry though were great. They allowed us to go immediately down to the kennels, after the ferry turned and headed towards the Wellington dock. They were both sitting in their kennel and barked and jumped up when they saw us. We gave them their pet beds and blankets to sit on and I think that helped them feel a bit safer.

We had three nights’ accommodation and had to find pet-friendly places along the way. Let me give a shout out to Spirits Creek Cottage in Picton. We stayed there on the first night. Lovely cottage and a very understanding owner with her own dogs and miniature horses. She allowed us to shut the gate so Zeph and Zsa Zsa could roam around the yard.

Our next night was in Lake Taupo. I will not name the accommodation as I’d be up for defamation. Horrid 1960’s era motel that has seen better days and an owner who carried on about no pet hair to be left behind. We did not feel welcome and we hardly slept. So we did an hasta la vista outta there and left at 5.45am.

Our third and subsequent nights were at Kerigold Chalets. Great accommodation! Zeph and Zsa Zsa had a welcoming bowl of water and the owner put up a childproof gate so Zeph could sit on the balcony and watch the world go by. The chalets are located in gorgeous sub-tropical gardens.

In my next update, I’ll show you our temporary accommodation. We bought bare land. No power; no water. Well, we have a beautiful stream that runs through the property. We will be living in a shed on our property whilst we build the Dream Home. But…we have to get solar power and water tanks for the shed.

I must say people up in the North Island are a lot friendlier than down South. The weather is also warmer. So far, I’m not complaining!

Here’s a photo of Zeph on Day 1 of our road trip to the North Island. We decked out the back of the car with lots of cushions and blankets to make them both comfortable.

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Into our last week here now. I’m a bit sad as I really like the property, but I’m looking forward to a new adventure up North. It’s been raining a bit and getting crisp in the mornings and evenings – you can feel Winter’s approach.

I intend to blog our move as much as possible. Pretty sure I’ll be without an internet connection from late March to around April 25 or so. That will be interesting. I really do want to spend less time online and more time on writing. We don’t watch a lot of TV but I’d like to dispense with the TV too.

I’ve decided to raise Monarch butterflies up North. Yes, really. It’s something I’ve always been interested in and I’ve found out that a Monarch expert lives very near to where we’ll be living. And I can do an online course to learn all about how to provide a safe Monarch habitat. Doubt I’ll get around to this until early next year but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, I accidentally shut Zeph and Zsa Zsa out of the house the other day. Zeph was not impressed at all. I really like this photo of Zeph – you can see he is not amused.

 

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As you know, dear reader, we are on the move. I’ve been talking about it for a couple of years and now the time is here! 2.5 weeks until we make our way up to the North Island. I’m actually quite excited about the change. I haven’t minded the cold weather in the South Island but El Hubs is over it. I’m not sure how mild the winters are up North but I have visions of wearing T-shirts. We’ll see.

We will drive up slowly with Zeph and Zsa Zsa. We were sending them by pet bus but have decided to keep them with us. Especially because Zeph gets a bit anxious in a car. The vet has provided a very mild anti-anxiety medication and we have purchased from iTunes calming music especially for dogs.

The Cook Strait ferry that sails from Picton to Wellington has crates for dogs and we have booked two of them. We’ll be taking their fleecy blankets so they will have them in the crate. On the drive up, we have found accommodation that allows pets to be indoors with you.

So we’re hoping we have this move covered! I do know that I won’t have Internet connection for maybe three weeks. That will give me an opportunity to hunker down and write.

I’ve just finished four mentoring sessions with a fantastic New Zealand poet. I have revised three of my poems under her guidance and will be submitting them soon to various poetry journals.

Meanwhile, Autumn (or Fall) has arrived in NZ and this week had a sudden cold snap. Zeph decided to steal Zsa’s Zsa’s moose blanket and have a snooze. Just look at that elegant paw!

 

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I’ve been powering my way through books over the last month or so.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. You need staying power for this novel as it’s over 500 pages. It’s the story of Cyril Avery, a man born in Ireland in 1945 to sixteen-year old girl Catherine, who is kicked out of her family, church and the village of Goleen. She must make her own way in Dublin but ultimately gives Cyril up for adoption to a rather flamboyant couple (Charles, a banker; and Maude who becomes one of Ireland’s best-loved novelists). At the age of seven, Cyril meets Julian who will have a lifelong influence on him and keeps a secret from him that will ultimately wreck their friendship.

Cyril’s journey through life is filled with mistakes, inflicting suffering on others but, ultimately, he finds happiness. It’s a intimate look into Ireland from the 1940s, its societal prejudices and the role of the Catholic Church. Boyne is a masterful storyteller and I enjoyed this book.

The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey. New Zealand author. This is Chidgey’s fourth novel – I confess I have not heard of her. But…I plan to read her previous books, such is the power of her writing. The Wish Child is the German story of WWII, through the eyes of two children: Erich Kröning and Sieglinde Heilmann. We follow the children and their families as Hitler’s warped ideology grips Germany. The attention to detail is outstanding as we take a glimpse into the ordinary lives of the German people, who were promised the world but ended up scavenging for food and informing on each other.

The brutality and pointlessness of war is front and centre as the children see dead bodies on the streets and Sieglinde is raped by Russian soldiers as they advance on Berlin in 1945.

The story is told by an unknown narrator, which I initially found a tad annoying, but when I discovered the identity of this narrator it all made perfect sense and really tugged at the heart (I can’t say more as I’ll give the game away).

Chidgey is a wonderful writer – her prose is lyrical and haunting. This is a political novel without it being smack in your face. It forces one to question how we view our leaders, how ideologies can take root and how a populace can react. It’s also a novel about the power of language. Sieglinde’s father worked for the National Socialist government as a censor, cutting out words from books and letters. The novel presents some of these words: promise, God, pity, sorrow, Versailles, surrender, defeat, love, exterminate – but who decides whether these words should be censored? Chidgey invites us to reflect on this.

When the parents are killed during bombing raids, Sieglinde and Erich spend days hiding out in a theatre as Berlin collapses around them. We then follow their separate lives post-WWII with Erich behind The Iron Curtain and Sieglinde an archivist. They eventually meet again in the 1990s. A remarkable novel that I will read again.

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken. YA fiction. Time travel novel and the first in a new series. First time I have read any of Bracken’s books. I liked it but…….couldn’t really connect with the main character, Etta. I found her a bit inconsistent – at times very feisty whilst, at other times, dazzled by her pirate love, Nicholas. And speaking of Nicholas, who was from the 18thC, I found him a bit too ardent and over-the-top in his love for Etta. The pacing throughout the novel was also a bit slow and inconsistent for me.

There was a lot of travelling (through time travel passages) between different time periods to retrieve an astrolabe that can control the historical timeline. I think this had a lot of promise but more time was spent on the romance than there was on action. Etta and Nicholas spend a lot of time pondering whether they should act on their feelings, at the expense of getting on with the job of finding the astrolabe. I also didn’t find them convincing as a couple.

Etta travels from Bhutan 1910; to New York in 1776; WWII London; 1685 Angkor; Paris 1880; and Damascus in 1599. That’s a whole lot of places and time periods and I’m not sure she captured the historical essence of each period.

A long read at 400+ pages but it does end with a reasonably good cliff hanger. I did find the novel picked up towards the end but seemed rushed (given the slow pace throughout) and there seemed a fair bit of information dumping going on (in order to set up the sequel). Racism is a theme in this book (Nicholas is black) and I think Bracken handled this well, although coming across a little preachy at times. Wayfarer is the next book in this series and I might give it a go.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter. A really quirky book by a Canadian author that is partly narrated by ghosts from the late 19th Century. The main character is Jane Standen, a London archivist with a troubled past. She is obsessed with two disappearances: the 1877 disappearance of an anonymous girl in the northern English countryside; and Lily, a 5 year-old child who went missing in the very same woods when Jane was her 15 year-old babysitter.

Thrown into this mix is a 19th Century asylum (Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics); the personal museum of curiosities owned by Edmund Chester (an Industrial age textile merchant); and the Inglewood estate, a magnificent private home within walking distance of Whitmore.

Essentially, this book is about life, death and memory. The squabbling ghosts, most of whom inhabited Whitmore, follow Jane around, waiting for clues as to their identity. This means that the narrative point of view shifts between third person and first-person-plural, which I occasionally found irritating and I’m not sure if Jane was as well-rounded a character because of this constant movement between third and first. I don’t feel that I gained a sense of Jane resolving her past and coming to terms with her feelings for William Elliot (Lily’s father).

I enjoyed learning about the identity of the ghosts – a schoolmaster, a servant, inmates of Whitmore – and the idea that people who have passed remain with us in another form.

Hunter is an exceptionally strong writer. The metaphors are sometimes a tad overdone but her prose is lyrical. My favourite line from the novel occurs when the ghosts are watching Jane: “some of us feel the shape our hearts once took hang like pendulums in the hourless clocks of our chests”.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon. Australian writer. I read an advance reading copy. I don’t know – I didn’t really connect with this book. I liked its premise: being connected to land along the spectrum of past, present and future. Set in the Illawarra region of New South Wales. I didn’t find the characters compelling nor the writing style.

The novel starts in 1796, with a young cabin boy (Will Martin) who goes on a voyage of discovery in the Tom Thumb with Matthew Flinders and Mr Bass. We then have five interlinking stories, with five different narrators, spanning a time period of 400 years or so. There is the story of ex-convict, Hawker, who murders an Aboriginal woman; Lola, who runs a dairy farm in 1900 with her brother and sister, and they are suspected of a crime they did not commit; Bel, a young girl who goes on a rafting adventure with her friends in 1998 and is caught up in violent events; and in 2033, the story of Nada whose memories hint at an ecologically-driven apocalypse.

All the characters are connected: via blood, the landscape, place of living. I believe this is called a translit novel where narratives shift in time (aka time hopping) and geography. Storyland starts in the future and then ebbs and flows, like a wave, between past and future. Given the clues to an ecologically-driven apocalypse, I did find the book’s anchoring in Nature compelling. There are a lot of birds flying around, and rivers, streams and trees are focal points throughout the novel. You do gain a good sense of how a landscape changes over time due to population growth, building activities and so on. And you end up feeling that our present time is very disconnected from Nature.

I did find this book very reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2003) but obviously in an Australian setting. I will give this book another go as I think I might have missed deeper layers.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. YA fantasy. There’s a strong premise for this book – a dystopian world ruled by the Silvers, people with silver blood and astonishing God-like powers (such as reading minds and manipulating actions; hands that turn into electricity or melt iron). The Silvers rule over the Reds, who are normal humans. One Red girl (Mare) has the power to throw electrical balls of fire. She is a hybrid of Silver and Red, a new breed. Mare finds herself working at the Silver palace and, ultimately, discovers her powers, which could destroy the Silvers.

I can’t quite put my finger on it but something about this novel didn’t work for me. I read it to the end but it was fairly obvious who the “bad guy” was despite a few twists and turns thrown into the mix to get the reader off the scent. The plucky main character, Mare Barrow, is a 17 year old girl. I found her characterisation inconsistent. She’s involved in a love triangle with two brothers but there’s another guy as well, so make that a love square.

Her two love interests are brothers, Cal and Maven. Cal, the older brother and heir to the throne was like a piece of cardboard in my view; Maven (who I could spot a mile away as not what he claimed to be) ended up being a stereotypical evil dude, complete with twisting smile and creepy laughter.

The premise of the book also reminded a lot of Red Rising by Pierce Brown (where the world is divided into Reds and Golds, who are the powerful ruling elite).

For me, there was too much love triangle going on and too little about the world the characters inhabited and the war going on between the Silvers and the Reds. I never felt I had a grip on why the war had been blazing away for 100 years.  I had no sense of the backstory. You also had the oh-so-predictable character of Evangeline. She hated Mare on sight and wanted to duel it out.

The book is a mixture of everything out there really – the Hunger Games, X-Men, Divergent, Game of Thrones. It’s written well and the pacing was okay, it kept my interest (despite getting sick of the unbelievable love triangle). So I liked the book but didn’t love it. It’s one of those books I’ll forget about in the coming months.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney. Historical fiction published in 2006 by Scottish author, Stef Penney. It was her debut novel and won the Costa Book of the Year award. Set in the frozen wilderness of Canada and the community of Dove River in 1867, I read somewhere that Penney did all her research in the British Library and never stepped foot on Canadian soil. Remarkable really because the writing is so detailed when it comes to describing the Canadian landscape, you’d swear the author had been there.

It’s a complex murder mystery. A French trapper, Laurent Jammet, is found brutally murdered in his remote cabin and a young boy (Francis Ross) is an immediate suspect because he flees the area. His mother sets off after him and is accompanied by another Indian trapper, who is also a suspect for Jammet’s murder.

But there’s a deeper layer to this novel. It’s the journey of the characters as we come to understand their true natures, their fears and aspirations, their relationship to family and loved ones.

I do think there were too many characters in the book and I had to work at remembering who was who. The reader would also benefit from a map because the characters went on so many journeys, criss-crossing the frozen Canadian landscape.

A section of the book involves Francis Ross being found near death and then cared for by a Norwegian religious community. This introduced the female character, Line, who I found very unconvincing. Line took off with her two children and someone’s husband. They all ended up being lost in the snow and, frankly, these characters went nowhere and distracted from the main story. They weren’t necessary to the story and I think Penney could have edited them out. In fact, the whole Norwegian community aspect could be edited out in my view. Penney did not really give the reader much information or backstory about the Norwegians – why they were living there, where they obtained their food from etc.

Penney’s writing style is atmospheric with a lot of references to wintry landscapes, spindly trees, bitter cold and blinding white snow.

The characters I most enjoyed were Mrs. Ross – the plucky mother of Francis who sets off into the wilderness to find her son – and William Parker, the “half-breed” tracker and murder suspect. Penney portrayed these characters with an amazing strength and left a lot unsaid. You end up wondering about the relationship between Mrs. Ross and Angus (her husband) and what exactly is going on between her and Parker as the roam the frozen Canadian territories.

I also thought a sub-plot about the decade-old mystery of two missing sisters, which was woven throughout the book, was very cleverly done.

One thing I didn’t like was the constant shift between first person point of view (when Mrs. Ross narrated as the protagonist) and the third person perspectives of the other characters.

The ending gets exciting but I did wonder why it took so very long to arrive at this point. Despite this, I found it a haunting novel that I will not easily forget.