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.