On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks. I’m on a bit of a roll with Faulks at the moment, having recently re-read Birdsong. He’s such an accomplished writer and what I like the most is how he effortlessly shifts novelistic scenes. This book is set in the United States in 1959 against the backdrop of the Kennedy/Nixon debates and Presidential election campaign. The MC is Mary van der Linden, the wife of British diplomat Charlie van der Linden. They are stationed in Washington and Mary has an affair with Frank Renzo, a New York reporter. Charlie has drinking problems and has lost money through bad investments. Mary’s mother is dying back in London and her two children are in boarding school in the UK.

So far it sounds like your average ho-hum romance novel – bored British housewife meets outgoing, attractive American man and they have a fling. Where Faulks excels though is in the detail, which raises this novel way above a predictable romance. He weaves in the US-Soviet Cold War, McCarthyism, FBI investigations into suspect Communists, the appeal of JFK and the drabness of Nixon, and racial tensions of the time period. When Mary goes to Moscow to help Charlie (who has basically suffered a nervous breakdown), you really feel what Cold War Russia must have been like.

Characterisation is faultless. Any woman who has been in love will engage with Mary and her moral dilemma. Traditionally-raised in the UK and a dutiful diplomatic wife, should she follow her heart and be with Frank or do what is expected and remain with Charlie and the two children? What I like about Faulks’ writing is that he always explores moral dilemmas and powerful themes, such as desire and attraction; fidelity; death; self-destruction and so on.

Frank and Charlie both live with memories of World War II (in which Charlie and Frank served) and this results in an apprehensiveness toward the Cold War and the feeling that the US is losing the race.

The title, On Green Dolphin Street, comes from a Miles Davis jazz tune that Frank plays for Mary. The song becomes a symbol for Mary of her daring and her exciting existence in Frank’s world. I was worried how the novel would end and Faulks did not disappoint by taking the easy way out. This is a novel on so many levels. Extremely well-written and paced.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Debut novel. Set in Amsterdam in 1686 (why are so many current books set in old-world Amsterdam?) it is the tale of (yet another) young girl, 18 year-old Petronella Oortman, who marries the wealthy Dutch merchant, Johannes Brandt (who is about to turn 40 years old). He works for the VOC or Dutch East India Company. You also have the archetypal waspish sister-in-law, Marin Brandt – very Mrs Danveresque.

What then follows is a lukewarm story for me. Johannes gives his young bride a miniature house, which is an exact replica of their marital home and its occupants. Petronella (or Nella) obtains tiny figurines from an enigmatic miniaturist who is Norwegian apparently and whose role in the story I never really grasped. The miniaturist sub-plot sort of went nowhere. Well, other than she has “hair like pale gold thread”(which we are told several times) and she seems to be glimpsed for a moment or two by Nella, then mysteriously vanishes. Nella spends a lot of time wandering around Amsterdam looking for her.

The title is The Miniaturist yet there is not much in the novel about this character. We are never sure if she possesses some supernatural power or is just a snoop into Nella’s life. We are told her name is also Petronella, so there must be some deep significance I have missed. I found the under-development of this character very dissatisfying.

Johannes basically ignores Nella (it’s an arranged marriage) and there seem to be a lot of secrets in the house. The figurines Nella commissions (and sometimes just receives unsolicited) mirror or sometimes predict increasingly bizarre events in Nella’s life and that of the household. This is intriguing but, again, it kind of went nowhere for me.

Johannes has no physical interest in Nella and it takes little imagination to know why. Johannes is caught in the act with a young boy and is up for sodomy – and in 17th Century Amsterdam that meant the death sentence.

I did find Nella’s transformation throughout the novel interesting but, at the same time, a bit unbelievable and I didn’t really engage with any of the characters to be honest. Marin’s character for me was also under-developed.

Once Johannes is arrested, Nella swings into action selling all the sugar in his warehouse. She seems to suddenly possess a wisdom beyond her years whereas, up to this point in the novel, Nella has been pretty wishy washy. The sugar loaves from Surinam are a bone of contention between Johannes and his difficult and odd clients, Frans and Agnes Meermans. Frans seems to have the steak knives out for Johannes and something seemed to go down between Marin and Frans, years ago, but we’re never quite sure what.

The writing and dialogue is a bit odd at times. For example, Otto is an African former slave who Johannes has rescued and who lives in the house. Nella describes his skin as “dark, dark brown everywhere”. Yeah, okay. The second-half of the book descended into a bit of family melodrama – too much so for my liking.

By the end of the book, I was wondering what was the point of it. Where I think Burton did excel was the very detailed historical research and showing us the 17th Century clashes between staunch Dutch Calvinists and progressive-minded merchants. I very nearly gave this book up half-way through but was hoping that all the secrets would be worth it. Nah.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. This is a Gothic Victorian tale and, my word, what a talented writer. This is Perry’s second novel and it’s set in 1890’s London and Essex. The MC is a feisty widow, Cora Seaborne, who fancies herself as a bit of an amateur geologist. She decamps to Colchester in Essex along with her autistic son, Francis, and his nanny, Martha (who also functions as Cora’s companion). There she meets the Reverend William Ransome and his wife, Stella, who is suffering from tuberculosis.

What follows is a wonderful exploration of friendship: between man and woman; woman and woman; man and man. This is all against the backdrop of the myth of the Essex Serpent – a creature who first appeared in the Essex district in the 17th Century and is said to have reappeared following an earthquake in the 1880s. I won’t spoil it and tell you whether there is a serpent or not. Suffice it to say the hysteria that surrounds the serpent leads to an exploration of science and superstition. Beyond this, the novel deals with ideas and contrasts: medical breakthroughs amidst a society in which a large proportion of the population lived in unsanitary slums; and women’s rights in a society governed by rigid expectations of a woman’s role.

Cora’s character is richly drawn and, at times, I felt I was reading a novel set in contemporary times. This intrigued me enough to read an interview with Sarah Perry. She discussed the research she had undertaken and referred to a particular book that I have hotfooting its way from Book Depository. This book suggests that the Victorian era was not as straight-laced as we presume, with women fainting in the aisles from attacks of the vapours.

Perry’s prose is simply exquisite and this novel has become a firm favourite that I will read again. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox. NZ author. Written in 1998. I remember thinking back then that I should buy it and read it, but didn’t. Nearly 20 years later, I found a copy of the book in a secondhand bookshop. In style, this book reminds me of A.S.Byatt’s, Possession. I did struggle with this allegorical novel I have to admit but what an original concept.

It’s an erotic tale; an unorthodox lifelong love story between an angel (whose name is Xas) and Sobran Jodeau, a French vintner. The story starts in 1808 when Sobran stumbles on Xas in the family vineyard and ends when Sobran dies in 1863. Sobran and Xas agree to meet every year on the same night in June. Through their relationship we learn about the family dramas of Sobran (and his love affair with his employer, Baroness de Valday). Murder and madness feature and a cast of characters that is sometimes difficult to keep up with.

I was reminded though of Plato’s cave scenario and his Theory of Forms – a group of people are chained in a dark cave facing a blank wall. Shadows are projected onto the wall from behind them and the prisoners come to view this “world” as their reality. Plato’s Theory of Forms suggests that the non-physical represents reality. So in our world, we have copies or distillations; the real form or idea exists in another realm. Our world is therefore subjective and the other realm is objective.

This concept is the core of Knox’s narrative I think. There is a suggestion, for example, that Xas is an imperfect copy of Christ and that souls are but distilled humans. This is the aspect of the book I found fascinating.

The novel is organised into chapters for each year that Sobran and Xas meet. This made it a bit slow going for me and I didn’t really engage with the characters until the half-way point. The ending where Sobran dies is extremely touching.

Not a quick or easy read but worth it in the end. I believe a sequel was published in 2009 and is titled The Angel’s Cut.

The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman. NZ author. I enjoyed Kidman’s latest book, All Day At The Movies, which I reviewed here. The Infinite Air is the story of New Zealand aviatrix, Jean Batten, who made the first solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. I was a tad worried it was going to be a bit like Paula McLain’s irritating novel, Circling the Sun – a fictionalised account of Beryl Markham who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, east to west, in 1936. I reviewed it back in 2015 and felt that Markham had been reduced to a woman falling for rugged men.

Thankfully, Kidman didn’t fall into this trap despite the stories of Batten being (supposedly) something of a gold-digger. Kidman produced a very readable novel in her usual effortless writing style. I didn’t find it a page-turner to be honest but it was interesting enough to keep me going. Kidman did very well in bringing out Batten’s somewhat dysfunctional childhood and relationship with her two brothers, as well as with her rather controlling mother. However, I felt the ending was rushed.

Batten became something of a recluse after WWII and she lived with her mother in various parts of the world: Jamaica (where she may have had an affair with Ian Fleming); Tenerife and Majorca. I felt Kidman whipped through this part of her life a bit too quickly. For example, there was a suggestion (a false one) that Batten had an association with a Nazi spy. This led to her being largely ignored in war efforts whilst other aviators were deployed. This was kind of glossed over a bit in the novel as was her possible relationship with the writer Ian Fleming. At times I felt Kidman was trying a bit too hard to get in all the facts about Batten and because it’s a fictionalised account, you never quite knew what was fact and what was author imagination.

After being an international celebrity in the 1930s, Batten largely fell from public view and interest. What is really sad is how she died in Majorca in 1983. She was bitten by a dog but refused to get treatment until it was too late. Batten was buried in a pauper’s grave because the authorities did not know her real name. It was only five years later that her family back in New Zealand found out about her death.

I felt Kidman did very well in portraying Batten as a troubled but determined soul who was out to prove that she could do better than the male aviators of the time period. Kidman painted the backdrop of colonial life  (I had to remind myself that Australia and New Zealand were still very much “colonial” in the 1920s and 1930s; part of the British Empire and the Commonwealth; and its citizens were British citizens up until the late 1940s when Australian and New Zealand citizenship was recognised).

I particularly enjoyed reading about the early days of aviation and am in awe of Batten’s courage. A good read.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. Written in 2003, it’s the story of Alessandra Cecchi, the 15-year-old daughter of a prominent fabric merchant in Florence during the 15th century Renaissance. She has a love for painting but, as a woman, cannot pursue her passion. Her father commissions a young painter to decorate the family chapel and Alessandra is intoxicated by his talent and the two ultimately provide the romantic thread for the novel. Alessandra marries a much older man (as family and society dictated) and the novel is as much about the limits on a woman’s role during that time period as it is the story of Florence (which suffered four years of Savonarola’s extreme puritanical grip).

Dunant is a very strong writer and certainly conjures up life and death in Florence in the 1400s. I was puzzled by the ending though (which I won’t give away in case you want to read this book). Alessandra was such a strong personality that I felt the ending wasn’t true to character. There is also a murder sub-plot that I felt detracted and was unnecessary.

The really intriguing character is Erila, a black slave in the Cecchi household. She was not bound by the strict etiquette of the time period and could roam the streets, picking up gossip. I imagine she witnessed a very different aspect to 15th Century Florence and this would make a wonderful story in its own right.

Dunant’s writing style is lyrical, at times almost poetic. I did have a few further gripes with the book – at times the dialogue sounded too modern and I would have ditched the Prologue. I’m not a fan of Prologues at the best of times and I think this one gave away too much too soon. I also think the conflict between Alessandra and one of her brothers, Tomaso, was forced and unbelievable. I would have thought that a brother’s role in 15th C Italian families was to be protective of sisters.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book and appreciate Dunant’s meticulous research. It just wasn’t the page turner I’d hoped.

 

 

Poor Zeph. He had to get The Chop. A few months ago, he developed a bit of a prostate problem due to The Ladies. You may know that a whole male dog can sniff the ladies miles away (2km or 1.2 miles according to our vet). The scent of the female dog in heat enlarges the male prostate and this all pushes on the bowel, so the dog ends up with toilet problems.

So 10 days ago, Zeph had his operation. I was calm about it but when he came home well….vets really should warn you that animals coming out of anesthetic cry and are terribly unsettled. El Hubs picked him up around 4.00pm and I think he was operated on before 10.00am. Apparently, vets do cats first, then dogs.

We put him on our bed and basically we both slept with him all night. Thankfully, we have a huge bed. He was very hungry around 7.00pm but I only gave him a tiny amount of food. Didn’t want the poor thing to throw up. Next morning, you would not have known anything was wrong. He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as we Australians say.

Then began the “keep your dog quiet for 10-14 days business.” Well, Zeph wanted to run around like a lunatic and play with Zsa Zsa (who was a little provocateur!). I admit to being a bit of an hysterical dog mum, so I made sure Zeph remained as quiet as possible. Thankfully, there’s been no swelling or any problems and his toilet issues have disappeared.

We had a good vet down South and we’ve found an equally good one here. Can you believe we’ve been in the Far North for over four months now?!

I love this photo of Zeph and Zsa Zsa’s paws. When little ZZ wasn’t being provocative and trying to get Zeph to play, she sat quietly with him.

Save

At the top of our property is native bush. I’m still coming to grips with what the trees are but I think they are Totora. They’re very tall and are home to wood pigeon and harrier hawks.

In the bush (or forest as I call it) are these amazing rock formations. The Far North is volcanic so I’m sure these rocks have been formed by past eruptions. Only the North Island of New Zealand has volcanoes and there is a long history of eruptions. It’s said that Auckland is sitting on a super-volcano – let’s hope not!

I’ve been told that the previous owner of our property, when he was a kid, would play in this forest with his siblings and they built rock walls to play behind. Zeph and Zsa Zsa love to sniff around these walls because rabbits hide there. I’ll try and do a video soon – a walk-through of the forest.

Can you spot the dogs behind the wall?

 

Save

Save

It’s just been snowing down south where we used to live. I think I’ve said it before: for the first year or so, snow was really magical for me. Coming from Sydney, where I was born and lived for a long time, I never saw snow (unless I travelled to Europe in their Winter or went to someplace in NSW like Cooma). When the snow melts though….nah. You also have to deal with feeding out in the middle of a snowstorm and breaking the ice on water troughs.

Over the years we lived in the South Island, we became used to it but I’m very happy to be here in the winterless Far North. El Hubs thinks it is cold here (albeit not as cold as the South); I don’t think it’s cold at all. Crisp in the mornings and evenings yes, but not bone-chilling like I’ve experienced.

My horses are still down South staying with a good friend. Miss Rosie is in foal and expecting in early December and Karma is keeping her company. My friend sent me a video of Rosie with the stallion she is obsessed with and I can’t stop watching it. Just magical the way the stallion moves and with the snow falling.

Press the play button and enjoy!

We have been very busy planting. The thing about the Far North is that everything grows – lush and very fast. We hope to start the build of The House in January 2018 but, for now, it’s living in The Shed. So we are trying to make it as comfortable as possible. We are already eating salad from our garden. We just couldn’t get stuff to grow in the South: the frost or the cold would kill things off.

It seems that we are always at nurseries and El Hubs is learning about native plants and bushes. He is the one with the green thumb. Zeph loves to supervise and I run around taking photos LOL

This is one of our vege garden raised beds. In this we have lettuce, spring onions and spinach mainly. Where Zeph is, I planted some lavender but it’s not doing well, so I will replant elsewhere.

Saw this gorgeous trees outside one of the nurseries we visit.

Save

What do you call it when a whole lot of bulls come together? A conference of bulls? This looks more like a flash mob.

I looked out the kitchen window of The Shed early the other morning and was greeted by this sight. Not sure what they were all planning or why they were looking towards the window. Probably they are just curious cows. Zeph has been very curious about them but came a little too close for comfort – and decided to run off.

Now that we are a bit more settled into The Shed, I’ve been stepping up my reading and writing. I’ve had one of my historical poems published in the US and you can read it here. I’ve also just had another poem accepted by a New Zealand poetry journal. So I’m on a roll!

Meanwhile, here’s the books I’ve been reading.

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson. My introduction to Olsson’s writing was via her latest book, The Blackbird Sings at Dusk (reviewed here). I enjoyed that book immensely and very much like Olsson’s spare writing style. So I ordered Astrid & Veronika, along with Sonata for Miriam. Olsson is Swedish but resides in New Zealand.

This novel was Olsson’s debut and published in 2005. Set in a remote Swedish village, it’s a very haunting exploration of friendship between 30-something Veronika, who has suffered a recent loss, and Astrid, an elderly woman who has her own secrets to tell. They strike up an unlikely friendship and begin to confide in each other.

I was irritated by some clichés, such as “time stood still”, but things soon settled into a restrained, quiet novel and the characters of the two women became very strong. I could just imagine Astrid and her rather quirky style of dressing. As the tragedy and secrets are revealed, I was a bit worried that Olsson would jump off the abyss into melodrama but, thankfully, she maintained the steady, elegant pace through simple language and vivid imagery.

I enjoyed Olsson’s description of the two women sharing food and wine, and talking about their memories and wounds. As with her latest book, Olsson is drawn to descriptions of the sky, water and birds. This inclusion of the natural world gives her writing a poignancy.

There’s nothing really remarkable about the plot: no twists or turns, no urgency. It gently unfolds and I will be thinking about the heartfelt friendship between Astrid and Veronika for quite some time.

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth. Unsworth was an English writer whose writing I very much like (he died in 2012 at the age of 81). The first book of his I read was Sacred Hunger, which won the Booker Prize in 1992. I have never forgotten it, such is the power of Unsworth’s writing. Land of Marvels was written in 2009 and what a great read.

Set in Ottoman-­ruled Mesopotamia on the eve of World War I, it follows a British archaeologist (John Somerville) in his desperate attempt to establish a name for himself. As he is digging at Tell Erdek in Mesopotamia, the Germans are building a railway line that will pass very near to the archaeological site. As each day and week goes by, the railway line gets closer and Unsworth uses this as a vehicle to show how impending warfare threatens Europe as each day and week goes by. The mound containing the archaeologist’s dig also lies near oil fields.

All of this is set against the backdrop of war, political intrigue and double-dealing as powers such as Britain, France and Germany look to carve up the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Unsworth assembles his cast of characters at the dinner table and each one represents a political perspective. So you have, for example, the very proper British Major Manning, whose official mission in Mesopotamia is map-making, but who is really drumming up allegiance for the British Empire as he meets with tribal leaders.

The novel’s themes are very much about empire (old and new); extraction and exploitation of natural resources; and political power struggles. This novel is so multi-layered. Somerville’s assistant, who is an expert on the Sumerian culture, observes that empires rise and fall. And so Unsworth leads us to seeing that the British Empire must fall and that WWI will change the political and financial landscapes.

I very much like Unsworth’s writing style, which seems effortless but is, in fact, extremely well-constructed. He wrote this book when he was 79 years old I think and his writing style reminds me of an older writer, someone who went to school in the 1940s or 1950s, and therefore knows how to use language correctly. His research into archaeology and the pre-WWI landscape is very evident in this detailed novel. It appears to be a thriller but it’s really a political commentary about international intrigue and the modern greed for oil. Loved it.

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang. Canadian author. An unusual book that I quite liked. Takes inspiration from Chinese folklore – in this case a fox spirit. The role of this fox spirit looms large in the book, as the spirit watches over the life of the MC, a young girl called Jialing, and her mother (who abandoned her daughter at the age of 6).

Jialing is later reunited with her mother, who has taken on the role of an old beggar woman, Ping Mei. That she was Jialing’s mother I could see a mile off but the way Chang wrote about their relationship was touching.

A portal or doorway to a Land of Immortals also features heavily in this novel. Without giving too much away, Jialing feels it is preferable to tread her path as a human, rather than live for hundreds of years as a fox spirit and watch the humans she loved age and die.

I did like the merging of Chinese folklore with a story set in the period of WWI. Jialong is half-Chinese, half-European – what was scathingly called zazhong (Eurasian).China was opening up to foreign businessmen and traders, and Eurasian children were not always treated fairly or with respect. The novel goes into detail about the structure of traditional Chinese families, how they lived, and how Eurasians were often spat on or ignored. This is a vanished world.

Also of interest was how the the world changed. Old Chinese homes demolished in favour of Western-style apartments. Revolutions came, not just to China, but also to nearby Russia.

A simple writing style meant that the story itself stood out. A great melding of history, fiction, and fantasy. Not a page-turner for me but I liked it.

The March of the Foxgloves by Karyn Hay. New Zealand author. I will start off by saying I don’t get the title. There is one very small scene in this novel that refers to foxgloves (flower) and how they grew haphazardly in a garden and along paths. I don’t see the relevance of the title to the book. Guess I missed it.

I really didn’t like this book much at all. I wasn’t sure if it was a comedy to be honest. It’s the story of Frances Woodward, a female photographer in the late 1890s. She has a friend, Dolly, who poses for erotic photos that the pair make into postcards and sell. Because of this, Frances has to leave London in haste and her father, Alfred, writes to two sets of friends in New Zealand and asks them to give Frances accommodation. We don’t find out much about Dolly – who she was, how she met Frances – and I found this annoying.

For me, the story went nowhere. We read a lot about Frances on an ombibus; Frances on a ship; the three children of one set of friends and what they get up to. There were some odd choices about scenes and these never moved the story forward. For example, the Irish husband of one family is having dinner with his three (oddly-named) children and a fantail flies into the dining room, stuns itself by smacking into the window, and then lands promptly onto the dinner plate of the husband. I didn’t really find the scene particularly funny and didn’t see how it added to the story (such as it was).

There was also some head-hopping going on. One moment, you’d be reading about Frances and her thoughts; the next, you’d be hearing what Hope (wife of the Irishman) was thinking.

On a positive note, I enjoyed the colonial setting of the late 1890s but I think if Hay stripped back the humour and the cliches, and focused more on rounding out Frances’s character, it would have been a much stronger novel. There was a very good opportunity to beef up Frances as a female photographer in a time-period when males dominated the industry. Instead, she fled to the Colonies and did nothing in particular but hang around the homes of two families. There was also an Irish photographer character in Auckland who seemed interested in Frances (or vice versa) but this went nowhere.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. I first read this around the time it was published (1993) and was very moved by this novel about WWI. Anything by Faulks is a winner in my view; he’s a very accomplished writer. I loved his latest novel, Where My Heart Used To Beat, and reviewed it here.

I saw Birdsong on my bookshelf and thought yep, let’s re-read it. The main character is British soldier, Stephen Wraysford, who is sent to France in 1910 to study the textile industry. This is the first section of the book. He has a wild affair with Isabelle, the wife of his host (René Azaire). Isabelle leaves Stephen and we are then thrown into the trenches of WWI warfare (really, slaughter). How those chaps survived the bloodshed and rat-infested trenches, I don’t know. Faulks is masterful in his description of the underground trenches and, when Wraysford was trapped with another man after a tunnel collapsed, I nearly ended up with claustrophobia such is the power of his writing. Sixty years after the end of WWI, Wraysford’s granddaughter discovers and keeps Stephen’s promise to a dying man.

It’s an outstanding novel.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I tried to like this book, really I did but, nope. It had a great premise – the Victorian-era interest in the language of flowers and how the meaning of flowers was used to communicate feelings. Very Dickensian. An emotionally-damaged child/woman who can only communicate through the language of flowers – great idea – but somehow the book didn’t work for me. It’s a debut novel that sparked an international bidding war and sold for over USD $1 million and it has mostly rave reviews.

The MC is Victoria Jones who was abandoned by her mother at birth and grew up in foster homes. She desperately wants to be loved; I get that. At the age of 9, she is adopted by Elizabeth (a very strange woman if you ask me) and here begins my problem – the inner thought processes of this 9-year old girl are too mature. I often found the dialogue of both Elizabeth and Victoria very odd and Elizabeth’s mothering style bizarre. Elizabeth’s nephew, Grant, is also involved in this story. Grant and Victoria get together when she is 18 years old and making her way in the world as a florist. They have a baby.

There’s an awful lot of telling going on in this book – does Victoria feel she is worthy of being a mother? Can she have a relationship with Grant or will she fail him? Should she tell him her deep, dark secret?

Victoria declines everyone’s help along the way. She ends up having her baby in the small apartment she is renting. The whole section of the book where she declines help to look after the baby, I just didn’t find convincing and it was extremely frustrating. I never engaged with the character of Victoria. I get that she was let down by the foster care system but, somehow, I failed to connect with her depressing, bizarre personality. In fact, it seemed to me that being a foster kid was almost given as an excuse for inexcusable behaviour.

The use of foreshadowing I found to be very clumsy and the two-fold narrative – flashbacks to Victoria’s childhood and then back to present time – was distracting. I don’t think it flowed well. Also, I’m not sure if this book is magical realism. Victoria (thanks to Elizabeth) has a love of flowers and their meaning. She goes on to become a florist and her floral arrangements seem to alter people’s lives.

I found the sub-plot to do with Elizabeth’s sister a clutch at straws and the lack of description of place in this novel was irritating. It made it hard for me to visualise where the characters were living and the surrounds. What I did find interesting though was the different models of “mother” that the book offered: Elizabeth’s smothering style of motherhood; Victoria’s fearful style of motherhood; and Renata’s (florist friend) “at a distance” style of motherhood.

It’s a story of what it means to be a family; of love and redemption. But I found it bordered on the melodramatic and the ending? Wishful thinking if you ask me. Best part of the book was the inclusion at the end of Victoria’s Flower Dictionary.

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne. I really enjoyed Boyne’s latest book, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I reviewed here. This book not so much. Set in 1916, it’s the story of the lead-up to the Russian Revolution. The MC is Georgy Jachmenev, a 16 year old peasant who saves the life (unintentionally) of the Tsar’s cousin. As a result, he is whipped off to the Winter Palace in St.Petersburg and becomes the guardian of the Tsarvarich, Alexei (son of Tsar Nicholas II).

Somehow the Imperial family forgets to tell Georgy that Alexei is a hemophiliac and, when Alexei falls out of a tree, everyone blames Georgy for his lapse. If this doesn’t stretch my imagination too much – that they’d forget to inform the guardian of the health of the tsarvarich or that a peasant with no training suddenly becomes the body guard to the heir – then what really stretches my imagination is that Georgy and Grand Duchess Anastasia fall in love.

What happens in the lead-up to the Revolution and its aftermath is told through a series of flashbacks (the story jumps back and forth from 1981 to 1915 to 1920 to 1941 to 1935). At times, it becomes a bit formulaic, if not confusing. Possibly, the book would have worked better if the story was told in a linear manner. Starting in 1981, eighty-two year old Georgy is retired from the British Museum and is caring for his adored wife, Zoya, who is suffering from cancer. They are both mourning the death of their only child, Anya. To reveal more would give the game away.

I did think that Georgy’s characterisation was well done and Boyne writes with ease. Particularly strong was his contrasting of the wealth and debauchery of Russian aristocratic circles with the poverty and toil of the peasantry. I did find his characterisation of Rasputin a tad laughable I must admit.

The ending…well, you really need to suspend your belief or any historical knowledge you may have on the fate of the Romanovs. A bit of a meh book for me.