I’ve had a busy June and July with writing and some poems being published. And…..I won a writing contest. Yeah to me!!

The story that won is part of a novella that I’m writing. Well, I’m still researching it but have written a couple of short stories based on two main characters. One of these stories won the writing contest.

I plan to participate in Nanowrimo this year (November) as that will give me the hot poker I need to really get going.

I’ve had the two characters in mind since 2011 when I was working and living in Rome. I thought that I would write a novella-in-flash (basically each chapter being a piece of flash fiction up to 1000 words in length). It’s set in Italy during the 1930s and 1940s and so it involves the rise of Fascism and the Italian experience during WWII.

But (there’s always a but in life hahaha!), the second story I submitted to the contest was longlisted and one of the judges said to me that an aspect of it really intrigued her – not so much the story itself as it’s kind of been told. Frankly, this was VERY valuable advice.

That has had me thinking over the last two weeks and so I’ve changed direction with my novella, which is turning out to be more of a traditional novel, although I plan to approach it as a series of linked short stories.

I’m more comfortable with the whole concept now that I’ve rethought it. Two members of my writing group are also writing novels and we meet once a month. They are used to me saying oh, I’ve changed direction so it will be no surprise to them when I talk about my new concept in our August meeting.

I plan to spend August, September and October doing more research then – wham! – Nanowrimo in November. My two writing pals will also be participating in Nanowrimo.

While doing all this, I have to continue writing my travel articles and poems. I am starting to hyperventilate at the thought of it all!! I need to go all zen and watch the sunrise.

View from our front window looking over the district as the sun rises.

I have been writing a lot and entering contests but I have knocked off three novels in 10 days. Pretty good I think.

The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell. Contemporary fiction, published in 2004. Maggie O’Farrell is a critically-acclaimed author from Northern Ireland and my word what a talented writer. I’ve heard of her books but just didn’t get around to reading any until now. I think this is her third novel and I stumbled on it in the library and pounced. Some readers/reviewers don’t consider this her best work. Really? Then I can’t wait to read what is considered her finest.

There are two parallel stories – Jake Kildoune is the son of an English mother and Scottish father who lives with his mother in Hong Kong. He speaks pitch-perfect Cantonese and wonders who his father is (he was conceived on the hippie trail somewhere in India). During Chinese New Year, he is trampled by a surging crowd and his girlfriend (Mel) is critically-injured. Her dying wish is to marry Jake – they marry – but she survives and Jake finds himself in England with Mel’s family and feeling miserable. He is drawn to Scotland to find his father in a place that doesn’t actually exist on any map. So he sets off for a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, Stella Gilmore and her sister Nina are half-Scottish/half-Italian and born in Edinburgh. They harbour a dark secret and have a very tangled sibling relationship. Stella and Jake’s lives collide in a hotel in the remote Scottish highlands where Stella has run to in an effort to escape her life. As Stella tries to move on from her past; Jake is trying to find his.

There’s a fair bit of jumping around with flashbacks and multiple points of view – but it worked. Particularly as the flashbacks are written in short episodes. Jake and Stella were richly drawn characters, very believable if a tad annoying at times. I wanted to shake Jake a couple of times as he tried to explain Mel to Stella. Equally, I wanted Stella to stop moping about the past and get on with her life. When a writer makes you feel such strong emotions, you know that the writer is very good.

I loved Stella and Nina’s Italian mother, Francesca, and her attempts to understand her two complex daughters. O’Farrell also nailed Hong Kong (a place I’ve been to at least seven times over the years).

There are a few threads left loose – we never found out about Jake’s father even though one of the hotel workers very clearly seemed to realise who Jake’s father was. Very mysterious indeed but the reader was left hanging. In fact, the whole narrative had a surprising layer of suspense that kept me turning the pages.

The ending was very well-executed. It wasn’t syrupy romantic. I can imagine some readers might find it unsatisfying, but for me, it was spot on. No need to tell you I’ll be reading every single book O’Farrell has ever written.

The Wolf & The Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag. Debut novel. Historical fiction originally published in 2017. This dark novel is by a Swedish author (whose surname means night and day) and was a big hit in Sweden. It’s been translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg. Natt och Dag is a member of Sweden’s oldest surviving noble family.

It’s a bawdy, brutal novel I must say, and I’m not sure I liked it all that much. It has rave reviews but I wanted something more from it. It’s close to 400 pages and I think the author took a loooooong time to get to a pretty lack-lustre ending.

So the story goes – it’s 1793 in Stockholm and the narrative opens with a grisly find in the Larder (a lake full of human waste). The torso belonged to a man whose limbs, eyes, teeth and tongue were severed over several months. One of the main characters is Cecil Winge, a former lawyer now dying of consumption. He assists the police and investigates the case along with a night watchman, Mickel Cardell, who lost an arm in the war with Russia and fished the body from the lake.

Their paths eventually cross with Kristofer Blix, a 17-year-old lad from rural Sweden who is at the mercy of a fairly sinister character, and a young girl (Anna Stina) who is wrongly accused of whoring and sentenced to the workhouse (an aspect of this book I found very believable was the absolute economic and political power men had over women in this time period).

I think the author excelled in recreating 18th century Stockholm – full of corruption and violence, squalor, bawdiness, and brutally short lives. What I didn’t like (or find convincing) was the graphic and gratuitous violence on the part of the character responsible for the cruelty inflicted on the person whose body was found in the lake. The reasoning given to justify the violence didn’t match the level of cruelty and it wasn’t much of a psychological twist.

I liked the characters of Winge and Cardell but I found the four points of view (Winge, Cardell, Kristofer and Anna-Stina) sometimes jarring, along with all the flashbacks. At times, I lost sight of Winge who really is a pivotal character in the narrative. It read to me like novellas that were then brought together but not all the threads were convincingly tied.

Let me say the ending had me annoyed – basically, a man gets away with murdering a woman.

I found the prose very readable and Natt och Dag has given contemporary Scandinavian noir a historical twist. I will say that if you are tempted to read this book be aware it contains violent scenes and rape.

Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad. Historical fiction, published in 2019. I REALLY wanted to love this novel not only because of its gorgeous title but also for its premise and because it’s reminiscent of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (which I enjoyed).

There are MANY characters in this novel but the main ones are a missionary doctor from New England sent to Siam in the 1800s (and who is the only non-Thai perspective in the novel); a jazz pianist from the 1970s; a young female activist whose boyfriend was killed in anti-government protests in 1973; a bunch of teenagers in the future, when Bangkok has been largely submerged by flood waters, who sell tissues so that people can wipe away their tears for the places they remember. (Some climate scientists believe that Bangkok may be under water in less than 15 years).

The narrative centres around a colonial-style house that becomes the lobby of a high-rise condominium block. Every character has some connection to this old house or the people who lived in it. Characters may meet for a fleeting moment or have an intense relationship.

I’m not sure if this book has been translated from Thai or if the author wrote it in English. But I sometimes found the English stilted or there was odd phrasing here and there, yet there were moments of beautiful prose. I also think the editing could have been tighter.

This novel has some rave reviews but I just couldn’t get into it. I find it slow going, the narrative lacked energy and the characters had little depth so I just didn’t engage with them. There were too many characters and the narrative jumped here, there and everywhere (which I’m okay with if the threads are ultimately drawn together very well). I did appreciate that the author left it to the reader to figure out the connections between all the characters. But sometimes I felt I was reading loosely-connected short stories or vignettes that drifted between time periods, and the characters meandered their way through the history of Bangkok.

I know Bangkok well – it’s just behind Rome for me as a favourite city – and Sudbanthad certainly brought to life the sois (alleyways or smaller streets), the chaos of Bangkok traffic, the wonderful Thai food, and Thai customs. Some chapters take place in London and Yokohama, Japan.

The changing points of view messed with my mind. Birds were the narrators sometimes and even dogs told their story. I felt the very ambitious structure of this novel is its weakness.

But there were some lovely touches – ghosts, feng shui and karma weave throughout the narrative, so the reader could gain some understanding of what it means to be Thai. And Sudbanthad didn’t shy away from exposing the dark underbelly of Thai politics.

It might be the sort of book I’ll need to read again to fully appreciate it, but I did not enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

I have an author interview that I’m really delighted to share with you. This interview is with Canadian author, Melanie Cossey, whose debut novel, A Peculiar Curiosity was published in late 2018.

Confession time: I’ve known Melanie for about three years now and we chat regularly, share each other’s writing and swear we will meet one day. I read an earlier version of APC and the final version just before publication.

If you want a thrilling read, go get Melanie’s book. But first, get yourself a good cuppa, sit down and read this interview. Melanie really goes into depth in her answers. As an aside, the novel she nominates as most underappreciated is one that we both read together and discussed. (It was a reread for us both and we found lots to talk about.)

Your debut novel A Peculiar Curiosity was published in October 2018. Tell us a bit about it and how did you come up with the idea?

A Peculiar Curiosity is a gothic horror with a duo character point of view. It’s about down-and-out anthropology professor Duncan Clarke, who finds the journals of a 19th century curiosity dealer. The journals of Edward Walker describe his ill-fated decision to bring a Haitian zonbi boy back to Victorian London. Clarke, hoping to save his failing career, becomes obsessed with finding out what became of Henri, the boy in Edward’s journal.

The elements of the story came together for me around 2010. At the time, I was very interested in the TV show “Oddities.” It was filmed in a curiosity shop called Obscura in New York City and highlighted the kinds of Victorian attractions and curiosities that were collected and sold at the time. This really inspired me to write a creepy story utilizing some of the bizarre items I saw on the show (and more).  Also, I was a big fan of The Walking Dead and wanted to write my own zombie story, but I wanted mine to be different. Not the zombie apocalypse stories that have long been popular, but I wanted to go back to the origin of the zonbi—Haiti.

My idea for the theme came when my then 14-year-old son and his girlfriend came home with 100 stick bugs, hoping to sell them to turn a profit.  We soon found out through research that it was illegal to sell them. It was also illegal to let them loose in the environment, as they were an invasive species that would destroy the habitat. We then found out that they breed like crazy. So here we were, stuck with something we didn’t want, couldn’t get rid of morally, ethically, or physically, and this something was likely to take over our lives. It was a horrible feeling. So I thought, “A-ha! Perfect premise for a horror novel!” So I wove together a story using all these elements. A Peculiar Curiosity is the story of obsession, and the depths of harm to which our obsessions can take us.

Not everyone knows what about gothic horror. What are the features of this genre and what attracts you to it?

Gothic horror is a genre that first got its start in the late 1700s. When we think of gothic horror, immediately we think of the old crumbling mansion, high on a hill with something sinister taking place within its walls.

The elements of gothic horror include the house or mansion, usually deteriorating or haunted. There is also a supernatural aspect to the story, be it ghost, vampire, werewolf, or what-have-you. Gothic usually, but not always, can involve a woman in distress. Also present in gothic is high emotion; madness is a common theme.

Some good examples of gothic horror include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are other types of gothic literature besides gothic horror. Wuthering Heights and Dickens’ Great Expectations are also a form of gothic. Then you have female gothic and southern gothic. The works of Steinbach and Tennessee Williams can be considered southern gothic, especially since there is often a character suffering from a mental illness. Gothic usually includes the pathos, the tragedy, the regret, and the desperation. 

I’ve been attracted to the gothic for as long as I can remember. As a child, growing up in the ever-changing neighbourhood of North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, I was witness to a fair amount of houses being knocked down for new builds. We kids would explore these abandoned houses, imagining all sorts of tragic stories about how their owners met with some demise or other. It was thrilling to dare each other to go in.

 At the time, my best friend and I were completely taken with true ghost stories. We would check such books out of the library and read to each other from them, usually when we were alone in the house, for maximum effect. It gives me a chuckle to think of it, but my childhood was heavily marred by the thrill of being frightened and in frightening others.

I’ve realized too, that one of my favourite themes in horror as a kid was this idea that an evil can attach itself to you and you can never be rid of it. This theme, as discussed, made its way into A Peculiar Curiosity.

Finally, I love the creep factor in gothic. Gothic differs from other kinds of horror in that it is usually a slow creep, rather than the murder and mayhem aspect of other, contemporary horror. It is about being disturbed. That “something isn’t right” feeling, rather than the blatant jump scare or slasher-type horror.

Could you suggest some gothic fiction for people who might want to discover this genre.

As mentioned above, one can return to the classics such as Frankenstein, Dracula, or even the tale that started it all: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Ortranto, published in 1764.

I’m a big fan of Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. Another great book is The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter. Oh, there are so many good ones, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, and let’s not forget the king of gothic horror, Edgar Allen Poe!

Where are you from? Has this influenced your writing?

I’m from the West Coast of Canada, British Columbia. I must admit that I don’t typically set my stories in my region. I tended to gravitate towards the British influence present around me. The parents of one of my closest childhood friends were from Britain and I delighted in their accents and “foreign terms.” Also, my aunt Mary was British, and I loved her nature, and how she called everyone “dear.” Canada has a strong British influence present in our culture and laws, as we are a Commonwealth country, so that was a large part of my identity. I have a fascination with English history and culture, specifically.

My parents were history buffs and instilled in us an appreciation of history. We travelled a lot through British Columbia and everywhere we went, we always visited the historical landmarks. With my strong imagination, I would visualize the people and events that took place where I was standing, and I feel it instilled in me great compassion for the plight of others, the will and ability to survive, and the greater meaning of the struggles of the people that came before us.

I think because of this, I write primarily historical fiction. The voices of the past speak to me; they want their stories to be told.

It’s funny too because I tend to strongly identify with my Romanian roots, although I have not really been exposed to Romanian culture too much. There is also the Flemish side to me. I associate that side with my artistic talents. My Flemish grandmother was a talented artist, and so is my father.

Also, my parents together with the Canadian school system, exposed me to a lot of culture. We attended plays, operas, arts, crafts, and writing programs, and musical concerts. I also had rich library experiences.

So it’s not so much where I’m from that has influenced my writing, but the way I was raised, the things I was immersed in, that have impacted me.

When did you first start to write?

I’ve written my whole life. When I was about four or five, I wrote my first book. It consisted of me copying a children’s book, word for word. When I proudly showed my dad, he kindly explained I couldn’t copy someone else’s stories; I had to make up my own. I thought about that for a moment and nodded my head and said, “Yes! I can do that.” And from that day to this, I have never stopped writing.

I wrote bedtime stories for my dad to read to my baby brother. I wrote poetry. I wrote plays to be acted out by my friends. I kept reading and writing and pursuing art. These things are my passion and what I live for.

Who are your favourite authors? What is it about their writing that speaks to you?

Oh, I have so many to choose from. I tend toward literary writers and poets. At the top of my list is Vladimir Nabokov; his turn of phrase, poetry of language, and complexity of characters are absolutely magical.  Another favourite of mine is John Updike. Again, a master at characterization and lyrical, although often gritty, writing. Then there’s John Irving. He’s an expert storyteller with complex ideas and plotlines. He has a knack for getting at the very essence of human frailties and desires.

 I’m also a big fan of Latin American authors like Isabelle Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. Their magical realism and ability to capture the pathos of life is heart-wrenching. Another magical realism author I love is Gunter Grass.

Then, of course, there are the gothic Victorian writers, Oscar Wilde, Poe, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker.

One of my favourite modern day horror writers and someone who was an early influence on me is Robert R. McCammon.

For the short story I like Alice Munro and John Updike, and for poetry Sylvia Plath, Edna St. Vincent Milay, Leonard Cohen… oh gosh, so many many more…I couldn’t possibly mention them all.

What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?

Holy smokes! That is a tough question. What leaps to mind is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

I think it’s easy for people to look at this novel and think it is nothing more than a deplorable book about a disgusting pedophile, and far be it from me to convince people, who for very good reason do not want to touch this book with a 10-foot pole. But the book itself is perhaps one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator. You literally cannot trust a thing that Humbert says. He manipulates the reader in a very crafty way.

The writing itself is incredibly poetic and well crafted, but tragic as well. Also buried in the book is a maze of symbolism, allegory and references to politics, social issues, etc. It employs many literary devices such as anagrams, puns and coinages. In my humble opinion, it is a work of genius.

It’s a difficult book emotionally, morally, ethically, and intellectually. It truly challenges the reader on so many levels. Let’s face it, few of us would want to get inside the mind of a pedophile. But the book offers so much more than this. Whole college courses could be taught on it; it is that intricate and involved.

If your readers would like a general analysis of the book, here’s a decent website discussing Lolita. https://www.shmoop.com/lolita/literary-devices.html

What is your pet peeve in writing?

As an editor, I have so many! Lol. Of course, there are the mechanics of writing well, such as showing rather than telling, repetition of words, thoughts, and actions, overuse of adverbs, but for me, I think the biggest pet peeve in writing I see is when the author neglects their character’s motivations. As humans we all have desires, wants, and a past that is constantly affecting the way we view the world. For instance, if a person was severely neglected as a child, this will colour everything they desire and do in life, even if they don’t want it to.

In A Peculiar Curiosity, my character Duncan Clarke lost his father in WWII. Before his father left for the war, he promised Duncan, (a child at the time) his gold watch, when he was old enough to have it. So when his plane is shot down in the war, Duncan believes that the watch he was promised, which represents love, was lost in a field. So as a child, Duncan spent his time digging in fields, looking for that watch. In his adulthood, this aspect of his past and who he is provides the deeper reason why, as an anthropologist, he must pursue the whereabouts of the zonbi written about in Edward Walker’s journal. Therein Duncan is determined to symbolically “find that gold watch,” and fulfill his one desire in life: to obtain love and acceptance.

So to me, when I read a book, I need to know, pretty close to the beginning what a character wants. I mean what does he really want?  And not just to win this war, or get that girl, but what does it really mean to him personally?

When I see an author neglecting this important aspect of characterization it makes me a bit sad and crazy. A main character is going to carry us through their whole story. We need to connect with them. We need to feel for them, pull for them, be their ally. If we don’t know what they really want, and what will happen to them if they don’t get what they want, well then, it’s only a surface story, and frankly, it won’t move me. Therefore, I guess you could say that my pet peeve is not knowing what a character really wants. Because if I don’t know, I’m unlikely to want to spend time with them.

Do you have any tips for people who are writing their first novel?

For a first novel, often finishing the thing is the biggest challenge. Most beginning writers have started several novels only to abandon them. I think the biggest inhibitor to getting a first novel down on paper is the urge to edit what we have written. I strongly advise not doing this.

Get the idea in your head, maybe write down the key factors of the plot: the main character, what he wants, what is preventing him from getting what he wants, and how he will or will not get what he wants, and what will be the outcome? Note your setting, your climax, and your ending (if you have one) and then get going.

Just write. Do not look over your work with an eye for editing, but only read it back at the beginning of your next session to see where you left off and get back into the flow. Once the whole novel is out of your head and on paper, only then do you go back and read the whole thing and start to figure out what is good and what goes.

In short, just barf out your story on the page. Once you have finished barfing, then you go and clean it up.

Oh, and craft books, workshops, critique groups. They are invaluable resources for learning the craft of writing and improving your work as there is so much to think about when writing a novel. But get your story down first. There’s a fine line between reading about and doing.

Oh, and one final thing, read lots of fiction! You need to study the aspects of story, to see and train yourself on what makes a good story and what makes a bad one, and the only way to do this is to read the work of others, both the mediocre writers and the masters. Only then can you really know what flies and what to strive for.

What do you have planned to do next in the writing world?

I have so much to do! I have at least six novels here that need editing before they are ready for submission. I have more gothic horror, some historical fiction, a book of poetry, more flash fiction to write, a few magical realisms to write and edit. Plus there is my blog over at www.crumblingmanor.blogspot.com that needs updating.

The world of a writer is a crazy one. There are so many stories to tell and so little time to do it in. Marketing is hugely time-consuming, as is searching for places to accept your work. Then there’s all the research we have to do, the reading, etc. So, hopefully soon, I’ll be ready with my next book, which will either be my historical fiction novel or my magical realism novel and no, I’m not giving away any plotlines. *wink*

What are 5 things we don’t know about Melanie Cossey?

(1) In a former life, I was in competitive swimming. My coach wanted to train me for the Olympics, but I said no. It’s probably my biggest regret.

(2) I am absolutely addicted to the Canadian favourite: Hawkins Cheezies.

(3) I was a high-risk birth. I was born breech and had the umbilical cord wrapped around my throat. I’m very lucky to have survived with no adverse effects.

(4) I could be considered a triple threat. In addition to being a writer, I am also an artist and play the flute.

(5) I’m an incurable pet lover. I spent ten years of my life as a dog groomer working out of the back of a pet store. That was a dangerous time. Let’s just say, many, many pets followed me home during those years. Right now, I’m absolutely mad for a crazy boxer that talks back and a big grey fluffy cat with ice blue eyes, that loves you one moment and bites you the next.

Melanie has a blog called Crumbling Manor and Polished & Precise is her website that details her editing services. When I FINALLY write my novel, Melanie will be my editor. Good news is that I’m in the outlining stage and have written one chapter.

Do you remember that one of my horses, Miss Rosie, had a foal back in December 2017? If you need to be reminded, click here.

Well, look at him now! Argo went to a new home last year and is the pride and joy of his owner. What a handsome young man he’s turned out to be.

And here he is at six weeks old.

I’ve read more than these three books during May but will take them over to June. I’ve been busy writing poems to enter into contests, hence lack of posts.

Songs from the Violet Cafe by Fiona Kidman. Dame Fiona Kidman is a highly-acclaimed NZ author. I’ve reviewed two of her latest books (The Infinite Air) here and (All Day at the Movies) here.

I know I’m in for a good read with Kidman and I’ve always wanted to read this earlier book (published in 2003). Violet Trench rows across Lake Rotorua in 1943 with a two-year-old Eurasian child called Wing Lee. She leaves him with a close friend, Hugo, and his Chinese wife, Ming.

Twenty years later, Violet is back and opens up a cafe in Rotorua. Young girls work for her and find she is a strict boss. The narrative centres around this cafe and the relationships between the girls and their mothers or fathers, the gossip and rumours that circulate in the lakeside town.

I thought Kidman excelled at capturing small-town New Zealand in the 1960s – the food, the economic stress on women who often had to marry just to survive, the sexist attitudes.

We follow the lives of the girls and Violet up to 2002. The main character is runaway Jessie Sandle who was one of the waitresses at the cafe, and she ends up as a war correspondent in Cambodia in the 1980s. (As an aside: Jessie grows up in Island Bay, Wellington, which is where my dad was born and grew up too. So I loved the little references to this area). But the shadow of Violet and her secret hangs over them and when they all meet up again in 2002, we learn Violet’s secret and what has become of everyone.

I loved every minute of this novel. It’s not a fast-paced narrative and there were times I had to go back to recall who was who. Kidman’s writing style is spot-on – eloquent, straightforward but never simplistic.

Next up, I’d like to read The Captive Wife (2005) and The Book of Secrets (1987).

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters. Speculative fiction published in 2016. I recently read Golden State and reviewed it here. I really liked Golden State but Underground Airlines not so much.

The premise of the book was interesting – what if slavery still existed in present-day America? In this case, four states known as the Hard Four – Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Carolina (North and South having merged). All four are involved with cotton and trade embargos are slapped on them by other American states and countries who refuse to trade with slave-owning entities. This alone had me intrigued and I think Winters did a good job of explaining the background to this alternate history. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated as President-Elect and so the Civil War never happened – love these sorts of slightly different historical facts.

The MC is Victor who is a former slave and works with US marshalls to hunt down those who make a break for freedom (slaves are known as Persons Bound to Labor). He uses the internet to research where the slave might be hiding but he is conflicted because he has his own very vivid memories of life as a young boy on Bell’s plantation. Underground Airlines refers to the network of abolitionists who help or hide escaped slaves (it’s based on the underground railroad concept).

As Victor pursues a young slave called Jackdaw, his inner torment becomes very apparent and he must confront his conscience. For some reason, I just never engaged with Victor. This was a professionally risky book to write (since the author is white) but I don’t think that is the issue for me. I just found his character flat and somewhat boring.

Victor is given an impossible mission – enter the Deep South to recover an envelope that may contain evidence that would destroy the Hard Four. I anticipated a fast-paced, crackling narrative at this point and I didn’t get it.

The ending, which should have been OMG, wasn’t. It was disappointing and I also felt the final chapters started to fall apart a bit. I presume there’s a sequel in the works because there was a lot left hanging in the ending.

What I enjoyed though were all the glimpses into a familiar, yet alternate, world – one where Victor plays Michael Jackson tapes on a CD player in his car. Technologically, America lags slightly behind in some respects and so CDs are still used in Victor’s world. The world-building had me puzzled a bit though. You take the Civil War out of American history and things are very different. Would the musical route that ended up with the amazingly-talented Michael Jackson have been the same? Would Victor have been able to research using the internet? – given that it is largely an American invention.

Obviously, the novel works as a metaphor for how immigrants and black Americans are treated in our contemporary society. It is a very American-centric novel though and I found that a bit off-putting.

Winters writes in a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett style, which makes his books very detective/film noir. I will read Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy and see if I fare better with these.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Historical fiction/romance, published in 2009. I missed the hype around this debut novel when it came out a decade ago and I think it’s being made into a Hollywood movie.

I appreciated the sentiment behind this book, which looks at the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII in the Seattle region. There are two main characters – 12-year-old Henry Lee who is Chinese and Keiko Okabe who is around the same age and second-generation Japanese.

In 1940s Seattle, you had Chinatown and you had Nihonmachi where the Japanese lived. Blacks, whites, Chinese, Japanese did not mix and there was increasing resentment towards Japanese Americans – who were eventually rounded up and placed in internment camps.

Henry forms a strong bond with Keiko at their school in 1942 (where they are the only two students of Asian descent) and eventually realises he’s in love, but the war and her family’s placement in a camp meant that they eventually grew apart. Henry went on to marry Ethel and lost all contact with Keiko. He had a very difficult relationship with his father who was staunchly Chinese and anti-Japanese.

In 1986, the Panama Hotel in the old Nihonmachi district (which had been boarded up since WWII) is renovated and the personal belongings of 37 Japanese families are found in the basement. As the families were “evacuated” to camps, they placed their precious possessions in this hotel and other buildings.

50-something Henry Lee is among the crowd watching the new owner of the hotel displaying a colourful parasol and saying that she hopes to reunite the possessions with the families. Henry wonders if there is something of Keiko amongst the dusty battered suitcases, photo albums, china and silverware. He also wonders if there is an old vinyl record of an album/song that meant a lot to him and Keiko. The jazz scene and music in Seattle during WWII weaves throughout the narrative.

The older Henry tells a pretty straightforward story in a series of flashbacks – we read how he and Keiko were taunted at the school, how Henry’s father would no longer speak to him once he learned of his friendship with Keiko, how Japanese Americans were treated (very shameful and akin to how Japanese and Germans were treated in Australia).

I say I appreciated the sentiment behind the book but it was all too saccharine for me. I thought the prose was pretty simplistic and Henry’s voice was way too “old” for a 12-year-old, so he wasn’t entirely believable for me. The anger and the sense of injustice I expected in this novel (the bitter of the title if you like) just weren’t there. It remained a slow-paced syrupy story.

I also had great trouble believing in a romantic relationship between two 12-year-olds. Might have been better to up their age a bit.

I was perplexed by a couple of things: Henry’s son Marty searches online to find Keiko so she and Henry could meet again. In 1986? The internet? Even if not the internet, what public online databases were around then to find the address of someone in New York (where Keiko ended up)? I also wondered why the author portrayed two 50-something-year-old characters as being pretty old and decrepit. That age range is not exactly fossilized LOL.

I think David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) did a far better job of relaying the experience of Japanese Americans and prejudice against them during WWII.

So it’s meh from me.

It took 10 months to build the new house. We moved in about a month ago, but there are still bits and pieces to do. The driveway was only done last week and we still have to finish the landscaping and tart up the balconies.

But I can tell you it’s an energy efficient house. We are about to hit Winter here in New Zealand. In The Shed and down South, we would need heating by now. But not in the new house. The concrete slab soaks up the sun during the day and keeps the house around 20-22°C. The lowest it’s been is 18°C and that’s even overnight.

The kitchen is also really well-designed (and nope, I didn’t design it. El Hubs has done it all). Everything is easy to reach and the walk-in pantry is big enough to store food, pots and pans, and cutlery.

My walk-in wardrobe is a dream! El Hubs keeps complaining that we didn’t build more bedrooms (we have two) but, as I keep saying, we are two old people with two dogs. And family lives overseas and rarely visit. So why do we need more bedrooms? The Shed has now been converted to an office but can easily be morphed into a third bedroom. In fact, we had a young couple visit us in March and they stayed in The Shed.

I will get better photos but we are still fussing around with things, so the house isn’t Home and Garden Magazine ready. But here’s a photo from the outside at night. Note the three pots – we call them our museum pots, the sort you might find in the grounds of a museum LOL

Yes, I know we’re in May already but here are more books I read during April. You can read Part 1 here.

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton. Historical fiction, published in 2019. This book is currently on the Longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019.

This is a debut novel by an American author and it is heartbreaking. The story opens in 1910 when Edward Freeman, a black male in his 40s, drives a trolley car through a crowd of white people into Clyde’s department store window in Philadelphia. He lies dying in the hospital for “colored” people after having been beaten by the police. His mother Spring sits by his bedside with the ghost of her sister, Tempe, who urges Spring to tell Edward the truth so that he can be guided home. The supernatural element of this narrative worked very well. Tempe did not come off as cliched or cheesy.

We are taken back to 1843 and Walker’s farm – a slave plantation. Ella is a young free black girl who is kidnapped off the streets of Philadelphia and whisked to the Walker farm. Her experiences there are difficult to read and anyone who has suffered sexual abuse should view this as a trigger warning. We meet Spring and Tempe’s parents and find out why Spring (who is not Edward’s biological mother) ended up caring for him.

We learn that women killed their babies rather than allow them to grow up enslaved; we learn that some slaves committed suicide since death was often seen as a preferred path to freedom.

This novel is about a number of things – obviously, it’s the story of the brutality of slavery across generations of a family, but it’s also about motherhood – what does it mean to be a mother when the child you raise is not your own? – and it’s about the importance of stories and not forgetting them. For me, it also asked a further discomforting question – are black people in America still enslaved? You just have to look at the number of black Americans in the prison system to ponder this.

I’ll be surprised if this book doesn’t make the Shortlist (which is announced on April 29). UPDATE: I”m surprised! It didn’t make the Shortlist.

Golden State by Ben H. Winters. Dystopian/speculative fiction, published in 2019. I really liked this novel, which is set in an alternate future world called the Golden State (and is clearly California). We can certainly recognise this world, but it’s one in which lying is severely punished and the Objectively So (or the truth) is fiercely guarded. Citizens greet each other using facts such as “it is 11.00am” or “a cow has four stomachs”. There is no room for “alternative facts” or wordplay. Truth is religion. I wonder if Trump’s election and “fake news” inspired Golden State.

The MC is Lazlo Ratesic – a gruff, downtrodden 54-year-old veteran of the Speculative Service, the Golden State’s special police. Speculators, as they are called, have a special talent. They can feel dissonance in the air when someone is lying. Everything in this world is recorded. There are surveillance cameras hidden in the grass, in door frames and speculators have a camera in the black hats they wear. Every Golden State citizen carries a Day Book in which they record conversations and have them stamped by the person they are talking to so that the truth is verified.

At the end of every day, citizens bundle up receipts for items they bought and tear out the relevant pages of their Day Book, and archive all this in mylar bags. Should there be a dispute about anything, the “stretch” (or the surveillance camera recordings) can be requested and the archived material can be examined. There is a permanent public record of every citizen’s movements and conversations. This record captures all reality.

Ratesic investigates the death of a construction worker who fell off a roof. It seems to be an open and shut case but as Ratesic and his rookie partner, Aysa Paige, investigate they start questioning reality – especially because the construction worker possessed a forbidden artefact, a novel. A speculator’s job is to arrive at the full and final truth, so they are the only citizens allowed to speculate or discuss possibilities. Ratesic and Paige discover that someone has tampered with reality and Ratesic’s faith in his society erodes. Is someone trying to overthrow the Golden State and the truth? There were hints of Minority Report in this regard.

Citizens who are caught lying (or even the mentally ill whose ravings are considered lies) are exiled beyond the borders of the Golden State because they are a threat to public safety. Ratesic finds himself exiled as the narrative unfolds, and beyond the Golden State Ratesic discovers what happened to the rest of the United States. And this is the second mystery in this novel – what events led to the Golden State being carved out as a separate “nation” fixated on the Objectively So?

Winters very effectively mashes detective noir and political thriller with the philosophical question of what is “truth”? The final third of the book I didn’t find as tight and the ending had me a bit puzzled (I’m referring to the pumpkins should you read it).

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa. Debut historical fiction translated from Spanish and published in 2016. Yeah, I’m a bit iffy about this novel. It is certainly a unique look at WWII and the plight of the Jewish people but I think it has some weaknesses that ultimately detract.

The story is told through the POV of a twelve-year-old Jewish girl, Hannah Rosenthal, who is caught in Nazi Germany as WWII breaks out. She and her wealthy influential parents, Max and Alma, flee Germany on the passenger liner St.Louis bound for Cuba, a country that initially was open to taking in over 900 European refugees. The Cuban government then changed its mind, and by the time the boat arrived in Cuba, the captain and passengers were worried whether they would be allowed to disembark.

Hannah and her mother were granted permission to disembark but Max had to return to Europe (to France) and was then unfortunately shipped to Auschwitz where he died.

The fateful journey of the St.Louis is a real WWII story that you can read about here. Neither Canada nor the United States would give the refugees sanctuary (for which both countries have since publicly apologised), and the novel raises the question of how we treat refugees in our contemporary society.

The German Girl is also a dual narrative (and you know I’m not really a fan of these). We have 12-year-old Anna Rosen, who is the daughter of Louis (who died during the twin towers tragedy of 9/11). Anna’s narrative is told 75 years after Hannah’s.

She and her mum live in New York. Louis is the son of Hannah’s brother, Gustav, who was born once Hannah and Alma arrived in Cuba and he became a Cuban revolutionary. Gustav and his wife died and Hannah raised Louis, who eventually left Cuba for NYC. The Rosenthals shortened their name to Rosen once in Cuba.

Anna never knew her father Louis and she and her mother go to Cuba to visit 87-year-old great-aunt Hannah after Hannah sends them a package of old photos. There they learn about the fate of the Rosenthals and their experience in Cuba.

This is why I’m iffy about the book. Due to the Cuban revolution, Hannah and her mother lose everything all over again. Their property (in this case a pharmacy that Hannah established) is confiscated by the revolutionaries and they are seen as “enemies of the state”. The parallel with their experiences in Nazi Germany (where their property was also confiscated) felt a little too forced.

The ending – no. Way too over-the-top syrupy and unrealistic for me. But there will readers who will love the ending. I also felt the book was more YA than adult fiction. A very irritating aspect for me (and why I say it felt YA) is the author’s insistence on referring to the Nazis as “ogres”. But okay, perhaps this is a youthful understanding. The term “Nazi” was never used nor was the term “holocaust”. As Hannah told Anna about the family’s past surely, decades after WWII had ended, she would have referred to the Holocaust.

I know I sound like a broken record but the dual narrative meant that I never formed a solid connection with Hannah or Anna. There was this constant back and forth between 1939 and 2014 or the 1950s and 2014 that I found fatiguing. I think Correa could have axed Anna and concentrated solely on Hannah. Her experiences in Cuba after WWII ended, and up until her death in 2014, were kind of glossed over and I wanted to know more.

There are also too many contrived similarities between Hannah and Anna – both idolised their fathers, both were children beyond their years, both had a close male friend who they had a girlhood crush on, and both had an emotionally-fraught relationship with their mother.

All of this is not to say I didn’t like the novel. I just thought it lacked energy – apart from the opening kick-ass line of Hannah’s narrative: I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova. Historical fiction/thriller, published in 2017. Kostova is the author of The Historian, which I read when it first came out in 2005 and loved (must do a reread actually).

This novel is set in Bulgaria, which I believe is Kostova’s adopted country having married a Bulgarian. It’s 2008 and twentysomething aspiring writer, Alexandra Boyd, has come to the capital Sofia to teach English. Her taxi drops her off at the wrong hotel and at the taxi stand she has a brief encounter with an elderly couple and a tall man. Alexandra ends up with the wrong satchel and it turns out this satchel holds an urn – the remains of the Bulgarian violinist Stoyan Lazarov.

She jumps into a taxi driven by a young man called Bobby (his real name is Asparuh Iliev) and reports the mix-up to the police. All hell then breaks loose. Alexandra and Bobby begin a five-day journey around Bulgaria searching for the elderly couple and the tall chap. It turns out Bobby is gay (plot device) and a well-known poet who drives a taxi presumably for extra money.

They begin to piece together the life of Stoyan Lazarov, his dreadful experiences in a Bulgarian communist labour camp in the late 1940s/early 50s, and why a whole host of people seem to be after the urn. Kostova excelled with Stoyan’s portrayal. It was deeply moving.

Where I became a tad irritated was with the backstory of Alexandra’s brother Jack who disappeared while hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Alexandra and Jack had a fight just before he disappeared and her sense of guilt weaves itself throughout the novel. But every time Kostova harked back to Jack, I felt it took the focus off Bulgaria and Stoyan. In a way, it was like I was reading two books – the somewhat unbelievable odyssey of Bobby and Alexandra; and the poignant story of the dark history of communist Bulgaria. Because Kostova switched between first and third person points of view, it took me out of the immediacy of Stoyan’s narrative.

I did have to suspend my belief – a young girl who can’t speak Bulgarian getting into a taxi, finding an urn, then spending days rattling around the countryside with a taxi driver she doesn’t know searching for the owner of the urn. Somewhere in the journey, they adopt a dog (Stoycho) and this dog figures prominently in the novel’s conclusion (and I had to suspend belief here, too).

Because I’m not a fan of the dual narrative, I would have preferred the narrative to be solely Stoyan’s. However, I very much like Kostova’s confident writing style. You know you are in the hands of a very good storyteller.