Isn’t this a great photo of Zeph? He was looking at some sheep in the paddock next to The Shed.

I’m biased but I think he looks magnificent!!

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I looked out the kitchen window the other day to see this wonderful sight. A bunch of cows gave birth to calves over the last few weeks and the photo below shows most of them all together.

I love the calves that are mostly white with black splotches. I must try and get a photo of them with Zeph. When I see them together (albeit sniffing noses from either side of a fence), they look so alike.

I find all the activity very soothing – watching mamas and babies bond, calves running around like lunatics. At least three calves come up to the fence as this paddock is adjacent to The Shed. They are SO curious and love to hear human voices. I talk to them and there’s one bold calf who allows me to touch it, then runs off. Too cute.

 

It’s a mixed bag of book reviews this time around.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. You sure need staying power for this 400+ page book. Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel, The God of Small Things, and spent the following 20 years as a political activist working on behalf of Kashmir independence and against Hindu nationalism.

This is a sprawling novel with a huge cast of characters that are somewhat difficult to keep up with and the pace is, at times, a bit tedious. The novel begins in the 1950s and ends in a graveyard in present time. We are first introduced to Anjum, who is a hijra or transgender person. Basically, how the hijras are treated in this novel represents India itself and the never-ending conflict with Kashmir. You are reading Roy’s political stance to be honest and you find yourself embroiled in issues such as Hindu fundamentalism, war and poverty, brutality, land exploitation, the consequences of the US invading Afghanistan, people on the margins of society.

Her writing can be breathtaking but I think the book could have been a lot shorter and told through the eyes of less characters. At times, the narrative meandered and I think tougher editing was needed. There’s a lot of hit-over-the-head telling, not much dialogue in this book and certainly not much of a plot.

I’m 50/50 on this book to be honest. There were some rather crude caricatures. For example, a Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) is referred to as The Trapped Rabbit. The novel raised more questions than it answered but I guess that’s the point.

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim. This book, published in 1921, is said to have inspired Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel, Rebecca. What I didn’t know was that von Arnim was born in Australia but lived most of her life in England, France, Switzerland and Germany. Her cousin was Katherine Mansfield.

I’m a great fan of novels written in the early to mid-20th Century, especially by authors who have perhaps been forgotten. This book was fabulous. I didn’t even find the liberal use of adverbs annoying – I think because they were couched in the more formal language of the 1920s. Everything flowed.

Vera is a dark, chilling story. Two people, who have recently suffered losses, meet and fall in love (Lucy and Everard). They marry only months after Everard’s wife, Vera, fell to her death from a window in their country home called The Willows. The unresolved question being did she commit suicide? Was it an accident? Or….

Apparently, Everard was based on Elizabeth von Arnim’s second husband, Francis Russell, the elder brother of Bertrand Russell. Everard is portrayed as controlling and narcissistic. The first part of the story is what appears to be a sweet love story developing between 22-year-old Lucy Entwhistle and 45-year-old Everard Wemyss. He meets Lucy as he was walking in the village where Lucy had been staying with her father on holiday. Lucy’s father had just died and she stands at a gate, bereft, when Everard sees her.

What follows is a spiralling tale of bullying by a man towards the women in his life and of the household servants. It is a story of power play and manipulation.

Lucy is expected to sleep in the very bed that Everard shared with his recently departed wife, Vera. There is a life size portrait of her in the dining room and Lucy becomes somewhat obsessed with Vera, while living in her shadow. Love is blind and she cannot see Everard’s true character or that she is trapped in a nightmare.

Lucy’s very proper aunt, Miss Entwhistle, has misgivings about Everard and there’s a wonderful showdown between them at the end of the book. The ending was unexpected I must say. I did think (hoped) that Everard might suffer a fate worse than Vera but I think the ending was sensational (I won’t give it away just in case you want to read this great novel).

Von Arnim does an excellent job of character development. I can see how this novel inspired du Maurier but Vera is a novel about psychological and emotional abuse and doesn’t have the ghostly aspects of Rebecca (or a house that is a character in its own right).

Trompe L’Oeil by Gardner McKay. Do you recognise the name of the author? I literally stumbled onto this book on Amazon and thought, wait – Gardner McKay? Couldn’t be. The same Gardner McKay I saw on endless reruns of the TV show, Adventures in Paradise, as I was growing up in Australia? The same chap my mother had a huge crush on?

Yep. Turns out that this actor, who was a heartthrob in the late 50s and 60s, gave up acting in the late 1960s and pursued his creative side: sculpture, photography, and writing.

I admit I was skeptical. I took a peek inside this book as Amazon lets you do. I liked the synopsis of the book and bought the e-book. Wow. Let me say that again. WOW. Gardner McKay could write (he died at the age of 69 years in 2001) and this book is probably one of the most amazing books I’ve read in a very long time. I hate reading e-books and usually don’t get beyond a few pages because I prefer to hold a book in my hands. But I devoured this book over a weekend. At over 500 pages, it’s a substantial read and when I was doing other things, I kept thinking I have to get back to that book.

Apparently, McKay read it in chapters for his weekly show on Hawaii Public Radio, so at least we know that he wrote it and it wasn’t ghost written. The book was finished just before he died and his wife then spent a few years trying to piece it all together. From what I’ve read, there wasn’t one computer file for the book.

The narrator is an artist, Simon Lister, who has the unique ability to draw people into his paintings and literally create reality. In a moment of madness, he burns 51 of his paintings, valued in the millions. He has an intense love for a woman called Anna who dies in a plane crash but Simon refuses to accept the reality of her death. Simon wants freedom from all the characters who want to isolate him in some remote location so he can paint again and replace the lost artworks. He flees the United States for France and a life of obscurity with Anna but art dealers want to find him and so the chase across Europe begins.

This book is not a romantic ghost story or an art theft adventure tale. The title gives the clue – Trompe L’Oeil – which is an art technique that depicts objects with photographically realistic detail; an optical illusion that deceives the senses. Given this, my interpretation is that the novel asks questions: Is reality a form of madness? Can madness create reality? Is life itself an optical illusion? How do we learn to “let things go” (as Simon must let go of Anna)? What does it mean to be free and how can we find this freedom? What is art supposed to give us?

At its heart, the novel is also one of the finest love stories I’ve read. As the reader, you are informed that Anna is dead and you then watch Simon struggling to come to terms with this fact. It’s heartbreaking. Since many people also saw Anna, you realise that Simon possesses the power to create reality, he created Anna but must let her go and live his life on a small island in the Atlantic for another 40 years.

A writer eventually tracks down Simon and visits him with the intent of writing his biography and revealing to the world that he is not dead. The writer is only interested in self-glory. Simon gives him his journals to read and the writer decides what he must do. I won’t reveal what this is because I think you should read this book. Let me say the ending was very fitting and emotional.

I very much liked McKay’s writing style and it’s clear to me that he mastered the craft. Very powerful writing from a talented man with a wonderful imagination. I think Trompe L’Oeil is nothing short of a masterpiece. I am now going to hunt down a hardcopy of this book as I want it in my personal library.

Dead Lemons by Finn Bell. NZ author (originally from South Africa). A bit like Trompe L’Oeil, I stumbled onto this book while browsing Amazon. I really don’t like reading e-books and I don’t read mysteries or thrillers but I liked the title of this book, so thought why not. A day or so after I’d purchased this book, it won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Dead Lemons is a self-published novel and I read that Bell has not sold a single hard copy.

First thing I’ll say is that I liked the first person narrative voice of the MC. It was strong and quirky. The MC, who interestingly is named Finn Bell, is in his mid-30s and on a destructive path. I really don’t get why he named the MC after himself but, then again, why not? I did wonder if it means there’s some autobiographical aspect to Dead Lemons. And I did find it a bit annoying if I’m honest.

The MC is unhappy, drinks too much, crashes his car and ends up in a wheelchair. His wife leaves him, he sells up in Wellington and moves to Riverton in the deep South of New Zealand.

He buys a cottage and we found out the interesting history of Riverton (real place in the South Island of NZ) as a whaling station. The young daughter of the original owners of the cottage went missing in the late 1980s and the MC becomes somewhat obsessed with finding out what happened to her (and her father who also disappeared about a year later). This obsession involves three brothers, known as the Zoyls, who live on a creepy farm next door to the cottage. The Zoyl family history goes back to the 1800s when they were whalers and traders.

So far, so good. Now to the review. I did find the Zoyl baddies a bit unbelievable and I was somewhat irritated by Betty, the therapist Finn sees weekly. Although I will say that I kind of liked her Betty-isms (her take on life). But I do think that the psychobabble may put some readers off. It’s during a therapy session that Finn is asked whether he is a dead lemon (basically, a person not fit to live because they are incapable of goodness within themselves).

Second thing I will say is that I think the book could have been edited more closely. There were some tense inconsistencies and grammatical errors. I also found the use of flashbacks a bit tedious. I was forced to continually look at the chapter headings to figure out whether it was present time, days or months ago.

Third thing is that I didn’t like the police characters from Benin. They are twins and I’m not sure why they are in the book, other than for Bell to hark back to his African origins and throw in some folklore about monkeys and use this tidbit of information to plan how to catch who dunnit.

There is one character – who I won’t name because I might give the game away – I found very odd. Let me just say I started to figure out that this was the real culprit but the ending left me flat. Why did this character do what he did? What was the motivation? To be honest, I found the ending a bit of a let down and kind of rushed. I think it was a let down because this character was very underdeveloped. The character was referred to here and there and then, wham, you’re hit with this is who really did it. But I didn’t really get a handle on why this character behaved as he did over the many years since the 1980s and how he and the Zoyls were connected (beyond him finding out what the Zoyls were really up to on their farm). The threads weren’t drawn together all that well.

At times the pace was a bit slow but I did like Finn’s writing style. Would I read another book by Finn Bell? Probably not. I didn’t dislike the book but I didn’t really like it either.

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott. I have decided to get out of my comfort zone and try reading some ghost stories. This was a good book to start off with. Debut novel published in 2007, it is a murder mystery and ghost story in one.

In the 17th Century, a number of suspicious deaths occurred at Trinity College, Cambridge University where Isaac Newton seemed to rise quickly up the ranks to become Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Who is responsible for the deaths of the various academics – who all seemed to have a remarkable tendency to fall down staircases? Did Newton resort to murder to attain a fellowship at Trinity? This is the question contemporary Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, asks as she researches Newton’s fascination with alchemy, light and gravity.

Elizabeth winds up dead and her friend, Dr Lydia Brooke, is asked by Elizabeth’s son Cameron (a neuroscientist) to ghostwrite and finish Vogelsang’s manuscript on Newton. She moves into Elizabeth’s studio and strange lights start appearing on walls and she sees a ghostly figure in red robes. Lydia resumes her love affair with Cameron and starts to question what the connection is between the 17th Century deaths and Elizabeth’s death by drowning.

The story is told as a first person narrative (Lydia) to Cameron (referring to him in the second person). My issue is that I didn’t quite connect with the love affair between these two. I felt that Cameron was a bit of an unbelievable character. At times, I could have killed Lydia – she seemed very weak – especially when she was busy fantasizing about Cameron (for example: she imagines him giving a conference speech in the US). So I ended up with no empathy for the two main characters.

Also what bothered me is that for a ghost story, there wasn’t a lot of the supernatural going on. In fact, there were a lot of themes woven together: romance, history, alchemy, science, the supernatural, 20th Century pharmaceuticals (Cameron’s work), animal rights activists groups, secret organizations, glass making in 17th Century Europe and quantum physics. And I think this ended up in a bit of a confusing mish-mash to be honest. There was just too much going on. The part of the book where Stott explained quantum physics as a way of understanding how two time periods could be entangled felt vague and disjointed.

However, Stott can write. There was some exceptional prose. The ending was fairly obvious and a kind of non-event. No spine-chilling stuff. I did like the contrast between Lydia and Cameron’s text messages and excerpts from Elizabeth’s manuscript on Newton (a subtle way of contrasting two time periods). The Author’s Note at the end explains what is fact and what is fiction – a good thing because Newton is quite a mysterious figure in his own right. As a character, Newton wasn’t very well-developed but in hindsight I think that works well – he remains a shadow of the 17th Century.

On the whole, this was a good read.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. I’m late to the party with this slim book (around 200 pages) published in 1983. One of my favourite books is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins so I thought I’d try this similarly-titled book and it’s my second ghost story read (or more precisely, I think this is Gothic Horror). In contrast with Stott’s book, Hill has a very simple writing style and this allowed her to pull off a strong story because it was simply told.

You may have seen the recent film starring Daniel Radcliffe. I haven’t and so I don’t know how it might be different from the book. The story starts off on Christmas Eve with the main character, Arthur Kipps, who is now elderly and surrounded by his family. His step-sons start sharing ghost stories and Arthur has one to tell but feels uncomfortable. He leaves the house but later returns to basically write down his earlier experience with a malevolent female ghost – the woman in black.

As a younger man, Kipps was an up and coming lawyer sent to tidy up the affairs of a deceased client (Mrs Drablow) who lived in the small village of Crythin Gifford. Her estate (Eel Marsh House) was accessed via the Nine Lives Causeway by pony and trap. When the tide came in, the marshland waters surrounded the house and inhabitants were isolated from the village until the tide went out again.

Arthur is cautioned not to remain overnight at Eel Marsh House but he becomes frustrated with the secrecy surrounding the woman in black, who Kipps spots at Mrs Drablow’s funeral. What are the villagers not telling him? And so begins a pretty good ghost story that is a study in restraint. There are no nasty cobwebs hanging off ceilings; no skulls glaring at you from mirrors; or blood oozing from walls. The power in this story is how confidently Hill tells it, as Arthur’s story. Hill excels at creating just the right amount of atmosphere and the inclusion of Spider (a dog) is genius. Spider can sense the woman in black and almost succumbs to her evil intents.

What I really liked about this book was the setting – gloomy skies, marshes that glitter silver in the sun, an old isolated house that can only be reached by pony and trap, the beauty of the surrounding marshlands. The setting is as much a character as Arthur who I really connected with. His sense of fear, apprehension and sadness as he starts to realize who the woman in black was and her story of unfinished business.

The ending was quite a surprise and very fitting. I liked this book so much that I will investigate Susan Hill’s other novels. Apparently she has written over 50. Thoroughly recommend this book.

 

Really loving life in the Far North. We’re now well into Spring and the weather is t-shirt warm. Nights can be a little crisp but nothing compared to the South Island.

And have I mentioned before how things just grow overnight?! We now have grapefruit from our grapefruit tree and our pear trees have busted out their leaves.

The other thing I love about living here is the cafes. SO many to choose from. About once a month, I like to have poached eggs on toast – that is when I can drag myself away from our property. There is such an amazing amount of vegetation that I can literally spend all day walking in the forest at the back of the property; staring up at hawks flying overhead; walking in the English Garden part of our property (that’s what I call it); or walking up the hill that is to the side of the forest.

I really feel Zeph and Zsa Zsa prefer this property to the one we had down south. There’s two streams for them to explore and splash in; the forest to find rabbits; the hill to run up and down. It’s also sunnier up here and Zeph has a new routine. After breakfast, he likes to sit on his favourite chair and soak up the Vitamin D. Zsa Zsa prefers to luxuriate in soft blankets inside (she loves her blankets) but will often lie on her pet bed in the sun. The dogs spend more time outdoors here than down south because it’s not as cold and we don’t get those nasty NW gales.

Really loving it.

Grapefruit tree.

Pear tree.

Zeph in the sun on his favourite chair.

Nothing better than poached eggs on toast.

Zeph has always been fascinated by cows. Down South, we had about fourteen cows and he would visit them every day. Here we have more cows and the property behind us has a ton of cows and a whole lot of Spring calves.

Basically, at every fence on the property, Zeph has a chance to visit with cows and have a chat. There is one black cow he particularly likes. They touch noses through the fence (thankfully, not hot-wired).

They stare at each other, then inch closer towards the fence, then both of them stretch so that their noses are touching. The cow usually gets a fright and bolts, or Zeph barks and both of them bolt.

Too funny watching dog and cow antics. But it’s wonderful to see how animals interact.

 

Oh yes! MORE book reviews! I’ve been powering through books over the last few weeks.

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. Thankfully, I found this book in a second-hand bookshop so didn’t waste a ton of money on it. I REALLY didn’t like it. About a third of the way through, I could not go on. I hated the writing style. Almost every sentence was over-written with too much wordy description of things and too many nasty adverbs. The characters were vacuous (no depth; no dimension) and the story was going nowhere for me. It was published in 2006 and apparently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

The novel traces the relationships between three anxious, thirty-something friends living in New York on the eve of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Emperor refers to Murray Thwaite, the writer father of one of the characters (Marina, who hasn’t realised that her day in the sunshine as an “It” girl is over).  I suspect there is a solid story in this book. I suspect it’s about a generation that has been brought up to believe in their own brilliance and entitlement, educated but under-employed. I would like to have finished it but I couldn’t get beyond the irritating writing style.

Let me give you a taste:

“Perhaps the frisson was born of the taboo, amid all that flourescence, the acres of discreet carpet, of the sense that Julius might have to convince David of his own worth in this setup, which cast him as dogsbody rather than an enviable and ethereal man-about-town?”

Or better yet: “But for right now, on the Sunday evening the week after the wedding, it just felt as though she were married not to a man but to The Monitor; or rather, that she was not married at all, because it was after nine p.m. and she had packed in hours ago – the issue in all its glory wouldn’t be sent to the printer until Tuesday night and her part was done, for this first time at least, and the pieces for her section in the second issue edited and ready to go, and only Ludo still had tweaking and fussing and frankly obsessing to do, because the issue was finished, even for him, there was nothing to be done, it was Sunday night for God’s sake and the final checks could be made on Monday, or even Tuesday, even till late Tuesday night if need be…”

This is the kind of writing that forces you to re-read whole slabs because you’ve simply lost track of what’s being said. I decided to check out some reviews to see if I had totally missed the point of the book. I must have missed the point because the New York Times raves about it and calls it a “masterly comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11.” Yeah, okay.

But many readers on Goodreads appear to agree with me, so we must all have missed the literary point. I loved this comment by a reader – “Maybe the best example I’ve ever found of the disconnect between what the average reader enjoys and what literary critics say is good.

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. Published in 2009. After the previous book, this was a very welcome surprise. It’s a ghost story (a time slip novel really), which I don’t normally read but I thoroughly enjoyed this bittersweet tale. I don’t read Gothic tales much either but I felt The Winter Ghosts would sit very comfortably alongside a classic ghost story a’la Wilkie Collins.

The writing style was simple and powerful, so that meant the focus was on telling a story. I think the author did extremely well with the MC (Freddie), a 27 year old who has never been able to overcome his grief. He’s a gentle soul who demonstrates good character growth by the end of the novel. In fact, characterisation is deep and I found myself understanding Freddie’s fears and doubts. Freddie’s brother died in WWI and over the 17 year period the story spans, Freddie suffers a nervous breakdown and ends up in a sanatorium in England.

On the instructions of his doctor, Freddie goes to France for recuperation and finds himself caught up in a 600 year old mystery that has to do with caves and Catharism. I won’t say more in case you want to read this book. It’s a quick read and a definite page turner. The plot is well-constructed and the dialogue natural. Basically, it is a 14th Century story merged with one from the 20th Century.

The author could have fallen into the abyss of melodrama but, thankfully, she maintained a subtle, steady pace that produced a touching story. What I particularly liked was the exploration of male grief – not something that is touched on very often in novels. Also woven in are the themes of love, guilt, loss, abandonment, isolation, and numbness.

The south of France setting provided a haunting atmosphere – icy mountains, mist, winter skies, overgrown trails – and I also liked how the author explored whether time itself can shift and whether a geographic location can hold memories. The plot was extremely predictable but, if you read it as a plot-based novel, then yep you’ll be disappointed. But if you read it for what it is – a story that explores a number of themes such as I’ve outlined – then you’re in for a good read.

At times it read like a YA novel but that’s fine with me. As I’ve said before, I often find YA novels a better read than adult commercial fiction.

Stoner by John Williams. The history of this book is fascinating. It was published in 1965 to little fanfare. Williams (who died in 1994) was a Professor of English at the University of Denver, Colorado. Stoner became an unexpected bestseller over 40 years after its publication. I read that it took off in France around 2011 and, through word-of-mouth, became popular in Europe. It was named the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2013. I believe the French novelist, Anna Gavalda, discovered the book, read it in English as there was no French translation, and bought the rights to it.

I’ve done a number of writing courses and, if you listen to all The Rules of Writing, you would wonder why this book is so popular. There isn’t really any conflict going on. It’s set in Columbia, Missouri where William Stoner is a Professor of English at the local university (his academic career starts in 1910). He marries an awful, vindictive woman and becomes estranged from their only child (a daughter who struggles with alcoholism in her 20s). One of his fellow professors has the steak knives out for him and Stoner seems to lead a sad, unfulfilled life. Even he considers himself a failure. He has an affair in middle-age that ends as most affairs do.

This is not an American Dream book where the protagonist becomes a hero or meets with great success. It is not a loud, rah rah book. And I think this is why it is still relatively unknown (apparently) in the United States. The writing style is sombre, restrained – if not austere. The pace is slow but steady. It’s no action-packed thriller.

Yet, I was glued to this book. Sometimes I didn’t want to go on because Stoner’s life was such a painful and seemingly lonely journey. The opening pages told me I was in the presence of a masterful writer and the final pages will have you in tears. In fact, the first page does everything we are told not to do in fiction writing – it basically offers the plot in miniature, gives biographical details of Stoner (who was born on a dusty rural farm in 1891) and then tells the reader that Stoner is a man largely forgotten after his death by his students and colleagues (he dies in 1956). So you wonder, well why read it? What follows though is 288 pages (in the edition I have) of a man coming to truly know himself.

There are SO many layers to this book and I’m not sure I can do justice to them all. I’ll need to read it many more times to fully appreciate its brilliance. On one level it’s about falling in love with ideas and literature. But it’s also a book about reflection – understanding your own limitations, yet resolving to go on in life with integrity and adhering to your principles. Despite the nasty characters Stoner has to deal with (such as his wife, Edith, and the villain of the book who provides a touch of conflict, Professor Lomax), Stoner does not give in to their mean-spirited natures. He meets them with grace and kindness.

Stoner is written in the third person and I wonder how much of John Williams is actually in Stoner’s characterisation. I think possibly it wasn’t appreciated in the 1960s because it was written during a time of upheaval and transition (Vietnam War, counter-cultural movement) and when books were crowded with heroes and larger-than-life personalities. Rather like our contemporary times are crowded with people wanting to be famous on YouTube or social media.

Stoner is a book about a person’s character – it delves deeply into the character of a man who is flawed and, on the surface, rather sad and introverted. I think we possibly find this uncomfortable nowadays because our culture is very much one of externalities: how a person looks, how popular that person is, how many friends on social media etc.

I’m rambling! I cannot recommend this book enough. Seriously, go get a copy. A lost American classic that has been found again.

The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim (Australian author). YA mystery/thriller with a touch of magic. I enjoyed this book although it wasn’t a page-turner for me. The MC is an oddly-named high school student, Avicenna Crowe. She is the daughter of a gifted astrologer (Joanne) who comes from a line of female astrologers who can predict the future with uncanny accuracy. Joanne named her daughter after a medieval astrologer, which we learn about half-way through the book. Up to this point, I was struggling a bit with the name.

Joanne has a history of being stalked and then goes missing, leaving Avicenna to solve a thirty-year old cold case murder and come to terms with her mother’s fate. She has inherited her mother’s powers and finds a link between Joanne’s disappearance and the cold case.

What I liked about this book was that it touched on class issues and racism in Australia (it’s set in Melbourne). Avicenna’s father was Asian and died trying to save her and Joanne from a house fire. Avicenna’s face is scarred as a result and her left ear melted away. It was a refreshing change to have an MC who is physically-flawed – not your usual pretty young teen.

Avicenna hooks up with a fellow-student, Simon, who seems to be a golden boy but is also flawed in many ways. I liked the theme of enduring love (beyond the grave). What happened to Joanne is a bit ambiguous but I don’t mind ambiguity. Lim writes with confidence, the book was well-structured and the plot was quite different.

I didn’t quite engage with Avicenna to be honest. She is a crazy gal and not entirely believable. There was some cliche stuff going on – flawed Avicenna has a love/hate relationship with the equally-flawed Simon but wait, there’s also the physically beautiful Hugh, who Avicenna lusts after.

I think the second half of the book fell down a bit. One of the evil dudes was just too cliched evil and we have a threatening scene in some dark Melbourne theatre. It was very predictable that this would happen since Lim gave a detailed description of the theatre earlier on and set things up. I feel the cast of bad people in the second half of the book threatened to overthrow what, up until this point, had been an interesting exploration of loss, denial and grief.

Overall though, I liked the book and I have another Rebecca Lim book to read (Afterlight).

Afterlight by Rebecca Lim. So straight onto this paranormal thriller, set on the streets of Melbourne, after finishing Lim’s other YA novel. I preferred The Astrologer’s Daughter but I will say that Lim is good at crafting original plots. A bit formulaic though – misfit teenage girl doesn’t believe she ever has a chance of getting the attention of the school’s super-hot guy. But wait…she does.

However, I do like that Lim’s MCs are pretty flawed. In Afterlight, Sophie Teague is a tall, awkward teen with a mop of red, curly hair. She is odd, no doubt about it. And the object of her desire, Jordan, is equally flawed (and a tad boring) – he can see dead people (as can Sophie – very The Sixth Sense).

After Sophie’s parents die in a motorcycle crash, she is haunted by a ghost, Eve, who wants her to perform heroic deeds and save certain people. These tasks lead Sophie to link up with Jordan and a whole host of interesting characters – a drag queen, bikie gang members, a crazy cat lady.

I could have done without the bumbling romance between Sophie and Jordan. They had hardly spoken to each other then, bam, Jordan is professing he finds Sophie very attractive, different. I think it would have worked better if they simply became good friends bound by their mutual “gift” to see dead people.

I also found Sophie’s narrative voice very irritating and self-deprecating. Obviously, a lot of teen girls lack self-esteem or doubt their looks/popularity but this was way over the top. I did, however, like the way Lim introduced bullying – a student locked in the toilets with three angry bitches threatening and humiliating her. Bullying is very much a part of school life and Lim weaves into her fiction some very realistic themes (with racism being a theme in The Astrologer’s Daughter).

I have some issues though. I was left wondering why Eve demanded Sophie rush around Melbourne saving people (on her way to resolving Eve’s murder). The ending was a shocker. I’m all for ambiguous endings but this one didn’t work for me at all. It was quite at odds with where the story was going I think but, clearly, a sequel is planned.

I sense that Lim is quite intrigued by certain concepts or questions such as “is there consciousness after death?”, “can you make up for bad deeds in your life beyond the grave?” and she very clearly favours an empowered female MC (which is great). The ghost, Eve, was a well-developed, believable character. Each time she appeared in front of Sophie, I did a little look over my shoulder and I’m not a reader of ghost stories at all.

I’ve heard that Lim’s Mercy series is a good read, so I might check this out down the track.

City of Crows by Chris Womersley. Australian author. New release book. I’m not sure about this book to be honest. The story is based on the L’affaire des poisons in France in the 1670s. There was a five-year investigation into witchcraft following an allegation that a group of people attempted to poison King Louis XIV. A spate of executions followed and this novel is filled with many of the real-life characters from that infamous affair.

I’ve not heard of Womersley before. His debut novel was The Low Road, published in 2007. He went to France to research for City of Crows (which is a reference to the crows of Paris). I think the book was incredibly well-researched and the author brought the cesspool and debauchery of 1670’s Paris to vivid life.

The MC is Charlotte Picot, a peasant woman from the French countryside, who flees her village after her husband dies from the plague. Three of her children died in previous bouts of fever or didn’t survive infancy but, one son (Nicholas), survives and flees with Charlotte. Nicholas is kidnapped by slavers and taken to Paris, where apparently children were sold as servants or to be involved in the dark witchcraft practices of that time period.

Charlotte meets the Forest Queen, an old sorceress who passes on her dark powers. The story then involves Charlotte summoning demons and casting spells in order to find Nicholas. She is aided by Adam du Coeuret (aka Lesage) who has been freed from the prison galleys of Marseilles, where he was imprisoned due to participating in the occult. Charlotte mistakes Lesage for the demon she has conjured up and together they go to Paris in search of Nicholas.

What follows is a very well-written Gothic story. I think there are two questions this novel explores: how far will a mother go to save her child and can someone redeem themselves or save their soul by performing a noble act?

The genre is a departure for me – I’d describe it as magical realism – and it’s a pretty sombre read. There is no redemption of characters and I’m puzzled by the ending (as in, not sure what the hell).

However, this is an author who knows how to write. Dialogue is superb and the characters of both Charlotte and Lesage are deeply-developed. I am intrigued enough to maybe read Womersley’s award winning book, Bereft, but there is just something about City of Crows that I didn’t quite take to. I’m not sure what it is. Possibly, parts of the plot were a little disjointed.

One question that remains unresolved for me is what happened to the demon Charlotte summoned at the start of her journey to Paris? Was it the wolf that showed up? I don’t read magical realism so not sure if I have misunderstood some references.

On the whole though, a good book that might appeal to people who like books dealing with the themes I’ve outlined.

In the South Island we would often get spectacular sunsets. I’d catch a glimpse of bright oranges and yellows through the trees and (being Australian) immediately think BUSHFIRE. Then I’d calm down and enjoy the show the sky was putting on for me.

I find the light in the Far North less harsh than down south. The blue of the sky is more muted and the surrounding light seems soft and hazy. Might need to go to Specsavers 🙂

We also get rather beautiful sunsets and I captured this one on my trusty iPhone the other night. Look at the gorgeous apricot, lemon yellow and mauve slices in the sky.

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