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.

 

 

 

Lots of change going on dear reader, hence the lack of posts. We have sold our property and will be moving to the North Island. El Hubs prefers warmer climes and I have family up in the North Island. So we are busy packing or rather culling.

It’s amazing what you accumulate over the years. We’ve been here nearly 8 years now and some stuff I brought over from Australia – well, I haven’t even used. I am donating a lot of clothes. When you live on a farm, you just don’t need black pencil skirts or corporate jackets. I’ll keep you posted on the move as we go.

This means I’ll have to change the name of this blog! Haven’t decided yet what I’ll call it.

Zeph and Zsa Zsa will travel up with us in the pet mobile. I am a bit nervous about Zeph as he doesn’t like car travel very much. We will stop off along the way at pet-friendly caravan parks and motels. The Mares will go by horse transport and I have someone at the other end who will offload them.

I am looking forward to living up North. I don’t mind the cold climate of the South Island but it will be lovely to see the huge ferns that grow up in the North Island and have warmer Summers. Speaking of which – we are still waiting for Summer to arrive here and it’s nearly Autumn.

Zephs contemplates The Move.

Zeph contemplates The Move.

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I must say that I was looking forward to the end of 2016. All the celebrity deaths and Trump being elected (going to say it: not a fan). I was just praying that Betty White would make it through and she did (celebrated her 95th birthday on January 17). I don’t really like uneven numbered years but I’m hoping that 2017 is a good one.

Zeph has developed mild arthritis in his front left paw (the one he always hurts) and has been having canine massage and cold laser therapy. He’s taken to it like a duck to water, as they say.

Summer has not arrived. The weather has been patchy and pretty disappointing so far. Half the time I can’t get Zeph off the bed. He just wants to snooze.

As for me, I am making it a goal in 2017 to increase my poetry and fiction writing efforts.

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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!!

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