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.

 

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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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October 7 is Zeph’s seventh birthday. I am going to sound very cliched here but…where on earth has the time gone?

Below is his official birthday portrait. He LOVES that yellow bush (over to experts to tell me what it is). Bees love this bush too. Zeph goes to it every day to sniff and sit or stand behind it. No idea why.

As Zeph gets older, he is getting quirkier. If that’s possible because he’s always been a very quirky dog. He’s extremely expressive and loves to socialise with humans and other dogs. He’s a happy, happy dog.

I really feel he prefers the North to the South Island. We are spending most of our time outdoors here as the climate is warmer and less harsh. Zeph sunbakes after breakfast and then we walk around the property during the day. There is so much for him to sniff. I think his very favourite place is the forest or bush at the back of the property – mine too. He loves to search for rabbits (they always elude him) or just sit and look around.

I notice he does a lot of staring but this is a Pointer thing. Pointers stare at moths, butterflies, bees. When we are at the very top of the property, we have a panoramic district view as we’re high up. There is a hill he loves to sit on and just stare into the distance.

Happy Birthday to my Zephilicious.

I don’t think Zeph would approve of this photo with his ears flapping in the breeze LOL

Zeph sitting in the forest.

Official 7th birthday portrait.

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We’ve been in the Far North now for six months. Can’t believe how fast that time has gone by. Last time I checked in with you, I think it was four months. I will do a post soon on how we are getting by off-the-grid and I’ll take photos of how we’ve landscaped. One very large totora tree has a family of five Tui. I talk to them every day and they look down and chortle and warble at me. They are beautiful birds. I really didn’t experience them in the South Island.

What is amazing here is the lushness of vegetation. You plant something and it grows overnight. We’ve travelled a bit around the area – about an hour’s drive each time – and the scenery is so varied. Not to mention the stunning bays and beaches. What I really love about the Far North are the giant ferns and glorious trees.

In the town near to where we live, there is a stunning pink tree. I have no idea what it might be, so over to any experts out there. I snapped a shot with my iPhone and the woman you see in the photo went back to the tree and took a ton of photos. It’s quite the tourist attraction actually. I recently saw a horde of tourists mingling around the tree, taking selfies and group shots.

Just around the corner from this tree is a working backpacker’s hostel and we recently gave work to two 19 year old German lads. They helped us plant over seventy plants and trees – liquid ambers, flaxes, native grasses and fruit trees. Very hard-working and polite. We intend to provide more work to the backpackers if these two are any indication of quality and work ethic.

 

 

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I believe I’m turning into my mother. Not such a bad thing really. After all, she was a wonderful woman. Yet, I always felt I had quite a different personality and was far more like my dad (who was also wonderful I might add). Where my mum was introverted, I’m extroverted. My mother hated going out or being among people. I get energy from being out and about and meeting new people.

My mum wouldn’t even consider travelling overseas. She was born in Wellington NZ but moved to Australia with my grandparents before her 20s, married and remained in Australia all her considerably long life. Despite offering many times to take her on a trip to see how much Wellington had changed over the years, or to go for a couple of weeks to Hawaii (she often said she’d like to go) – she always refused. Yet, I have travelled a ton in my life. Mum would often comment that I must be restless to want to travel so much.

My mum died in 2007 at the age of 91. Over the last five years or so, I’ve often felt I was turning into my mother. I have not been overseas since 2014 and really have no desire to do so. I don’t like going out much now, preferring to live the quiet life on our property. And now….I have proof that I’m turning into my mother. Camellias. Lavender.

My mother loved gardening. Something I’ve never been into. She grew lavender, dried it and then produced small lavender-scented pillows that she would pin to my bed pillow and dried lavender would be all over the house in little bowls (potpourri). I cringed at this stuff as a teenager, growing up in Sydney. It seemed old-fashioned to me. A waste of time. Why create something when you can just go out and buy?

My mum also grew camellias in our shady front yard. In one corner, she had a rare white camellia. She would often show it to me and she’d also paint it (she was a china painter and also painted in oils). I think this camellia tree would be gone now because the people who bought her property 12 years ago basically chopped down every single tree and tore down the house to build a McMansion.

We have now been in the North Island for six months, can you believe it? We have a little vegetable garden and….I have a small white camellia bush and some lavender growing in a pot. My first attempts with lavender failed, as I planted them in a spot that was too wet. I now have some Italian lavender in a fancy blue pot and, so far, it seems to be happy.

I guess the camellia is a reminder for me of my mum. The lavender is the more sinister thing – I have visions of drying it and producing potpourri to scent the house. Maybe even use it as an ingredient in the face creams I make up. Or use the flowers and whip up some lavender biscotti. Sit alone in our outdoor room. Opposite magnificent totora trees, sipping my coffee and being thankful I don’t have to mix with people.

See? I’m turning into my mother.

There’s even a stick insect on this white camellia!

 

 

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Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. Published in 2000, I found this in a second-hand bookshop. I’m a great fan of Ondaatje. Did you know he writes poetry? One of my favourite poems is by him and is called The Cinnamon Peeler. I believe this is Ondaatje’s fourth novel and it’s a very powerful account of the civil war that occurred in Sri Lanka during the 1980s. Although Ondaatje is considered a Canadian writer, he was born in Sri Lanka.

The main characters are Anil Tessira, a 30-something forensic pathologist who has been sent by the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate reports of mass murders; archeologist Sarath Diyasena is assigned by the Sri Lankan government to work with Anil; and Sarath’s brother, Gamini, an emergency room doctor who treats the casualties of the brutal violence resulting from insurgent fighting.

Anil flies in from America (she had not been back to Sri Lanka in 15 years) and works with Sarath to discover the identity of a recently murdered man. They name his skeleton Sailor and the mystery of who he was and how he died threads its way through the narrative. Anil becomes suspicious of Sarath as she attempts to show that the Sri Lankan Government has murdered hundreds of people.

Another character is Ananda, a sculptor and painter of eyes on Buddha statues. He is hired to recreate Sailor’s face. I won’t give the game away and tell you what happens to Ananda but I engaged most with this character and found him deeply touching.

Ondaatje has a complex writing style. He kind of builds up the story layer by layer and we never really get to understand the motives behind his characters. A lot of things are left unsaid and I like this. The reader gets to engage more with the story. And since the novel is set against the backdrop of a terrifying civil war in which people, even teenagers, literally disappeared – it is very apt in my view to leave a lot unsaid.

This is not a linear story and sometimes felt fragmented. Ondaatje switches between past and present, using the characters to show how our past deeply impacts and how we might react during times of crisis.

There’s a ton of references and themes in this book. For example, Sailor’s skeleton is symbolic of all the nameless people who died in Sri Lanka’s civil war or who were victims in any war really. The title Anil’s Ghost – is it referring to the identity of Sailor or Anil’s troubled past growing up in Sri Lanka? The theme of truth is a major strand in the novel – Anil seeks the truth: who is responsible for the murders of hundreds of Sri Lankans? This is a blunt Western truth but, for Sarath, the truth hides numerous dangers. There’s a wonderful line in the novel – “The truth was like a flame against a sleeping lake of petrol“.

Birds, nature and stone also feature heavily in Anil’s Ghost, as does the human and the divine. It’s a novel that must be read slowly so that the rich imagery can be enjoyed to its fullest.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. This is a gut-wrenching story set in WWII. There’s not a battlefield in sight and I appreciated the originality of this novel set in small town America (Massachusetts) during 1940-1941. As the title suggests, a major character is the postmistress (Iris James) whose job is to deliver the mail and yet, one day, she decides to slip a letter into her pocket and not deliver it.

Another character is Frankie Bard, a young female reporter, who goes to Europe and travels the trains recording the voices and stories of fleeing Jews. She also has news to deliver but declines to do so. The third female character is Emma Fitch, the wife of the town doctor. The threaded lives of these three women converge in the small town.

Essentially, this is a book about the last moments of the lives of unnamed people; it’s the story of news and how it travels and the impact undelivered news may have on loved ones. It’s about stories with no endings or people never knowing the ending. The phrase “pay attention” is repeated a lot in the novel as a call for us all to pay attention to what is going on in this world. Frankie is trying to get Americans to pay attention to the plight of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

I do have some issues with the novel. I did not like the opening chapter where Iris goes off to a doctor to get a certificate showing she is “intact” (i.e. a 40-year-old virgin.) I really don’t think this story line worked. In fact, when she gives the certificate to her love interest, Harry Vale, he is nonchalant about it and that’s the end of that. Ho hum. It went nowhere.

I also think the prologue, where Frankie is much older and is attending a dinner party where she poses the moral dilemma of an undelivered letter, is too contrived. Frankie Bard’s character was the strongest rather than that of the postmistress (who is the title of the novel). The ending wasn’t satisfactory for me – the whole story kind of petered out. Also there was quite a bit of chopping around with points of view.

Overall though, I think the novel worked and Blake’s writing style is extremely good (if a little odd with the dialogue now and then.)

Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop. I was really looking forward to this book but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it very much. The premise is great – young English girl (Ellie) living a sad life in gloomy London receives a series of postcards from Greece. They are actually not meant for her but the former occupant of her flat. She decorates her flat with the postcards that show the bright blues and dazzling whites of Greece. A journal also arrives and she cannot resist reading it and ends up going to Greece to see if it is as beautiful as the postcards depict. The author of the journal (Anthony) travels around Greece in an effort to get over a relationship that went south.

I was expecting more of a mystery but it’s really a whole lot of short stories strung together. Interesting stories they are and I certainly did like the Greek flavour Hislop brought to her writing. The stories span myth (e.g. Icarus), tradition, history, betrayal and love and are accompanied by photographs that are reminiscent of postcards. We also learn about economic problems in post-global financial crisis Greece.

I totally lost sight of Ellie in this novel to be honest. She didn’t make much of an appearance at all. I never really engaged with her and thought her character was under-developed. If I were writing this book, I would have ditched her and just stuck with Anthony and his journal. It was interesting enough to read his thoughts as they unravelled and his reaction to the stories he was told by the Greeks who welcomed him to their country. Some of the stories were quite dark and they seemed to reflect Anthony’s state of mind at the time.

I was also reeeeally hoping the ending wouldn’t be what it was (Ellie decides to deliver the journal to Anthony at his apartment in Athens). I could see it coming but it was too contrived; too predictable for me. It brought the book to a dead, screeching halt. I get the point of the book and the ending – live your life to the fullest; follow your heart; YOLO.

As for writing style, it was nothing special. I think the problem for me was that there was no conflict between characters or any thread that wove itself throughout the stories. The pattern was – Anthony arrives in village blah and someone tells him a story, so now I’m going to tell that story and accompany it with a beautiful photograph or two. I like the idea but it didn’t work for me.

Woods Burner by John Pipkin. Debut novel published in 2009. I read his latest book, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, and liked it so much I picked up his first book to read. You can read my review of his latest book here.

Woods Burner is based on an actual incident – the American essayist, Henry David Thoreau – accidentally set fire to the Concord Woods (Massachusetts) in April, 1844 while on an excursion with his friend, Edward Sherman Hoar. Around 300 acres of woodlands were burned. Pipkin is a masterful author who assembles a cast of unforgettable characters who meet in the woods on that fateful April day.

Aside from Thoreau and Hoar, there is Eliot Calvert, an aspiring playwright, who somehow finds himself married to the daughter of a successful American businessman; Irish-born Emma Woburn, who is married to an old drunkard; Norwegian, Oddmund Hus, who dreams of having Emma to himself; Anezkova Havlic and her partner, Zalenka Dusekova, two women from Bohemia; and the best character of them all, the Reverend Caleb Ephraim Dowdy, a Bible thrashing, opium-smoking odd ball who wants nothing more than to experience Hell. Ralph Waldo Emerson also makes an appearance.

What is particularly appealing about this novel (aside from the wonderful prose) are the themes it deals with – a young, optimistic America attempting to define itself; the notion of being consumed by one’s own insecurities, passions and hopes (literally, lighting of your own fires); the environmental concern over native woods being felled to make way for cities (Thoreau, of course, also being an environmentalist); the sins and burdens of the Old World in a New World setting; accident and intention; purification; rebirth and renewal; strength and fragility. I could go on as this novel has so many layers. But at its heart is the metaphor of conflagration.

This is not a novel with a twisting plot. In fact, there’s not much plot going on at all and these are the types of books I love. Why? Because the author relies on richly flawed characters and an exploration of philosophical concepts and themes to convey the story. The reader should not be fooled though as this novel has a very complex structure.

I would say Woods Burner will go down as an American classic and it certainly does not read as a debut novel. I’m keeping both of Pipkin’s books in my personal library as I will be reading them again and again.

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde. This book is part of the new genre of climate change fiction (or cli-fi). It was a really slow start for me. About half way through the book, I was ready to toss it in. Why? The writing style I found simplistic, more suited to Young Adult fiction really. Of more concern was that I think the book could have been better edited.

To give some examples: how many times can you mention the nasty adverb “carefully” on one page? Well, four times on the first page alone. Or “quickly” – another nasty adverb mentioned so many times in this book I lost count. On p.308 one of the main characters (Tao) is on the floor and we read this, “She stood over me.” In the next paragraph, we read that this person (Li Xiara) does the following, “Slowly Li Xiara walked over to me…” Ah, wasn’t she just hovering over Tao? No need to walk over therefore.

The story itself had legs. Three separate (but ultimately intertwined) narratives. William Savage is a biologist and beekeeper in England, 1852. He studies bees and designs a new type of hive. George, a farmer in Ohio, United States in 2007, and a descendant of Savage’s daughter, Charlotte. George is a beekeeper and his colonies are among the first in the US to experience Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This is a real world phenomenon where worker bees simply disappear and, since 2006, scientists have been deeply concerned (because crops are pollinated by bees and no bees equals no food).  Is CCD due to pesticides or climate change? A parasite or fungus? The jury is still out.

The third narrative is set in the future (2098) after The Collapse (when the bees vanished from the world). Cities are deserted; the world’s population has dwindled and famine prevails. In China, crops are hand-pollinated. The main character in this narrative is Tao who lives in Sichuan, China and is a worker who hand-pollinates pear trees. Her three year-old son (Wei-Wen) is taken away by The Committee. I won’t reveal why but Tao searches for him and the answer to his disappearance becomes the “hope” of the book.

I was bothered by the lack of description of Beijing in 2098. There was a bit here and there but not enough to satisfy me. I really didn’t feel I was in an Asian setting. In fact, for all three narratives I didn’t feel a sense of place.

The novel relies a lot on difficult relationships between characters. George, for example, wants his son (Tom) to take over the farm and continue the family’s long tradition of beekeeping but Tom does not appear interested. William’s son, Edmund, is a “dandy” at the age of 16 and appears more interested in alcohol than his father’s scientific studies. Tao is a mother struggling with the parent-child relationship and I did like how Lunde often contrasted these less than perfect human relationships with the single-mindedness and cooperative social structure of a bee colony.

It wasn’t until the last third of the book that I thought all three narratives started to come together. Parts of this book were very slow and parts were well done. Lunde does a fair bit of moralizing along the way – a bit like Annie Proulx in her book, Barkskins, which I reviewed here – but the issue of CCD is a real one and it’s a terrifying prospect.

However, it could all have been handled with more subtlety. The reader is hit over the head as Tao explains The Collapse. I would have preferred it if Lunde didn’t have her character dish out all the details and left me to imagine what might have happened (as it was glaringly obvious that bees vanished from the planet). The ending was very predictable, in fact you could see it coming when Wei-Wen disappeared.

Characterisation? Well, the most engaging for me was Tao. I found George and William under-developed (if not somewhat bizarre) characters. I often felt the dialogue of these characters wasn’t natural.

This novel is a comment on humanity’s attempt to control Mother Nature – William designs better beehives and starts to understand colony behaviour; George’s narrative shows how pesticides may be leading to CCD; and Tao shows how humans of the future might have to hand pollinate. Ultimately, our attempts to control could lead us into a dark future. This is the novel’s heart.

Lunde is a Norwegian author and this book was translated. I guess any translation might not carry the nuances of the original language. I like any book to do with a dystopian future and anything to do with bees. I’m glad I stuck it out to the end of the book and did enjoy it despite the issues I’ve talked about.