Starting 2019 with a bang – here are the books I’ve read in the first half of January.

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton. Historical romance published in 2018. I’m trying to branch out and read some romance novels, but really it’s not my thing. And this book certainly wasn’t my thing.

It’s another novel with a dual timeline/narrative, which alternates between the character of Elisa Perez and her life in Cuba in 1958/1959, during Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement; and her grand-daughter, Marisol Ferrera, who is a freelance journalist living in the United States in 2017.

Elisa’s father was a powerful sugar baron and she and her sisters enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, complete with ball gowns from Paris. But there was another Cuba – one of poverty and hatred for the brutal regime of the US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

Elisa fell in love with Pablo, a revolutionary. The Perez family ultimately had to flee Cuba once Fidel Castro came to power.

Sixty years later, Marisol fulfils her grandmother’s wishes by bringing her ashes home to Cuba. It is her first trip to the romanticised Cuba of her childhood stories, and she discovers family secrets and what it means to be Cuban. Just like her grandmother, she falls in love (within a week no less).

As interesting as the setting of Havana might be this novel hits the reader over the head. Countless times. I felt like I was being given a loooong history lesson about the politics of pre-revolutionary Cuba, and then Fidel’s regime. So many repetitive themes about “home”, “belonging”, and “exile”. It became very tiring.

The novel was apparently inspired by stories told within Cleeton’s family – specifically, her father telling her how families buried their valuables in a box and buried it in the backyard as they fled Cuba. They presumed they would return one day and pick up their lives again, never dreaming that Fidel would stay in power for so many decades.

And I think this is the crux of the issue for me. The novel felt forced with too much backstory on Batista, Fidel, the lives of ordinary Cubans. It ended up being preachy and was as though the writer was getting in all the stories she’d been told over the years. The dialogue also seemed a bit unnatural to my ear at times.

This is a romance novel really and it was too sickly sweet for me. Marisol’s contemporary love story with Luis didn’t ring true, and I thought having Marisol fall in love with a modern-day “revolutionary” was trite. Elisa’s story was strong, and it should have been left at that. No need to rehash all the love themes with the grand-daughter, and go for a contrived parallel story.

I also had trouble believing in a romance between a high-society Cuban girl of nineteen in the 1950s, and a dangerous, scruffy revolutionary determined to eradicate the privileged class she belongs to.

An interesting read for the Cuban setting but meh apart from this.

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison. Historical fiction published in 2018. This is a lushly-written pastoral narrative, but it was slow at times and I think it fell just a little short. However, I think it’s a must-read simply because of the author’s outstanding ability to describe the seasons, the rural landscape, birds and animals.

The main character is Edith Mather, a fourteen-year old girl living on a farm in Elmbourne, Suffolk in 1933 during the grip of the Great Depression. Edie and her parents and brother live on 60-acre Wych Farm, surrounded by golden fields of barley. The Mathers have tilled these acres for generations according to old agricultural practice.

Constance FitzAllen arrives in Elmbourne to write a column about the old rural practices that are falling to the wayside as mechanisation takes over. To a certain extent the novel explores the theme of changing times and the dangers of nostalgia. Constance and Edie form an unlikely friendship, given that Constance is in her 30s.

I didn’t engage with Constance’s character at all, and did wonder how welcomed she would be (as a Londoner) to a small, close-knit Suffolk farming community. She seems an innocent character at first, but we learn that Constance is not who she seems. The reveal is where I felt the story fell short, and without giving too much away, it’s to do with Fascism. The dark shadow of Fascism was falling all over Europe in the early 1930s, England included. I don’t feel this theme (and the accompanying one of anti-Semitism) was prominent enough in the narrative to give the punch necessary.

Edie is an awkward girl who sees meaningful signs all around her – Elmbourne, and most of rural England in that time period, was steeped in superstition and folklore. I thought Edie’s coming-of-age character was richly-drawn and very believable. Edie suffers mental health issues, which in the 1930s were handled very differently from today, and Harrison portrayed this extremely well.

The strength of this novel was Harrison’s ability to describe the timeless rhythms and beauty of Nature in the interwar years. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about old farming methods, and felt immersed in the long lost farming landscape.

The Epilogue felt forced to me. There were enough clues in the novel to know what Edie suffered, and all the explanations in the Epilogue were a bit too tidy ending for me.

Star of the North by D.B. John. Suspense/thriller published in 2018.

The story starts in 1998 when a nineteen-year-old Korean American woman and her boyfriend disappear from a beach on Baengnyeong Island, South Korea. Her twin sister, Jenna (born Jee-min), becomes an academic and specialist on North Korea. In 2010, when Jenna is in her early 30s, she is recruited by the CIA.

North Korea has been busy testing long-range missiles, and Jenna is part of a peace mission sent to North Korea. She has discovered that her sister was kidnapped by North Korean operatives, and she believes she is still alive somewhere inside the Hermit Kingdom.

The two other narratives in this thriller I found far more compelling – that of Mrs. Moon, a 60-year-old North Korean peasant woman sentenced to work in a labour camp. She sets up a black market trading business, and through her character, we see the disillusionment with the North Korean regime.

The other character is that of Colonel Cho Sang-Ho, a high-ranking, loyal official in the regime who comes to learn that his ancestors were traitors (the crime of having bad blood going back three generations), and so he is arrested by the authorities and shipped off to Camp 22, a pretty horrible slave labour camp. But before this happens, he gets to go to New York on a diplomatic mission and discovers that the imperialists dogs aren’t so bad after all! And those burgers and fries are pretty darn good.

He meets Jenna (who is half-Korean/half African-American). I did hope that the story wouldn’t descend into a ridiculous love affair between the two. Thankfully, it didn’t although there was electricity between them.

DB John is a Welsh author who is one of the few Westerners to have visited North Korea. His depiction of a brutal, secretive authoritarian regime, where you can be arrested and tortured for the slightest thing, was extremely thorough. I enjoyed the book immensely for its insight into an Orwellian world.

The three narratives eventually come together in not very surprising ways. I could see who Mrs. Moon was a mile away, and this is fine. I don’t think thrillers always need the OMG I didn’t see that coming twist. The writing style is a little simplistic and I did find Jenna’s character somewhat cliched and unbelievable (especially what she does on a train heading out of China into North Korea – I won’t say more as it would be a spoiler). But still, I enjoyed the read as it’s something quite different from my usual historical fiction/Gothic horror.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. Gothic horror published in 2017. I very much liked this novel set in rural England in 1865. It has all the elements of Gothic horror – thick fog; a remote rambling estate; creepy servants; hostile villagers; supernatural figures; themes of madness; insane asylums.

The MC is Elsie Bainbridge who owns a match factory in London, along with her brother Jolyon. Elsie marries above her station in life and we first meet her as she travels to The Bridge – the rural estate of Rupert Bainbridge (her new husband). But only months into the marriage, Rupert dies under mysterious circumstances at the estate. Elsie is pregnant and travels there with Sarah, Rupert’s unmarried young cousin.

Elsie finds the servants a strange lot and the villagers won’t go near the estate due to past unexplained deaths. There’s a locked garret room, but Elsie finds it open one day. In this room are the silent companions – wooden figures of a young girl called Hette, and a gypsy boy named Merripen, along with a cook and various other figures. The wooden figures are from the 1630s.

Also in this room Elsie and Sarah find diaries from that time period that belonged to Anne Bainbridge, and through these diaries the reader understands that the figures are trompe l’oeil that scare the bejesus out of everyone. Apparently, silent companions were actually fashionable in the 17th century in Amsterdam.

Elsie and Sarah find the companions in unexpected places around the estate, and Elsie suspects they have evil intentions. Were they responsible for Rupert’s death? What do they want, particularly Hette?

Jolyon wonders whether his sister has inherited their mother’s madness, as both she and Sarah blame the companions for the various happenings on the estate.

This is the gist of it and I have to say it’s one of the best gothic tales I’ve read in ages. Purcell has a great writing style and kept the reader in suspense (even I was a bit spooked when reading about dark corridors and companions gathered at the end of these corridors in a threatening array).

I had two problems with the book though. Hetta’s wooden figure is said to look like Elsie, yet Elsie is not related to Hetta (except by marriage) and nothing more is ever made of this strange coincidence. And I’m not sure about the ending; I could see it coming, so it wasn’t much of a twist and was a tad disappointing.

Petty issues really because this was a fabulous read and I was so engrossed in this book I forgot to eat dinner LOL.

City of Shadows by Michael Russell. Historical fiction/political crime thriller published in 2012. This is book #1 in a four-part series. Had I known this, I wouldn’t have borrowed it because I’m not a fan of series. But….really glad I did because this was a great read.

From the start, you just know that Russell is a good writer. After finishing the book, I found out that he was a script editor for leading British dramas, such as Emmerdale.

The books are known as the Stefan Gillespie series, and book #1 is set in 1930’s Ireland, just as Nazism is casting its shadow across Europe. Detective Sargeant Stefan Gillespie is a member of the Garda Siochana (the police force), a widower and father to four-year-old Tom.

Gillespie is investigating Doctor Hugo Keller an Austrian abortionist, and the disappearance of a young woman who was involved with a priest. In the course of this investigation he meets an Irish Jewish woman, Hannah Rosen, who is trying to find out what happened to her friend, Susan Field, who visited Dr. Keller’s clinic and was never seen again.

The bodies of a man and woman are found buried in the Dublin mountains, and so begins an absorbing read that takes us from Ireland to the free city of Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk). Stefan and Hannah travel to Danzig in search of Keller and the priest. I didn’t mind that these two characters became romantically involved – predictable yes, but it was well-handled.

I really liked two things about this novel – firstly, Gillespie’s very-likeable character. He’s a Protestant raising a Catholic son and pretty much bucks the system. He speaks excellent German (thanks to having a German mother) and this certainly comes in handy in Danzig, which the Germans believe belongs to them.

The best part of the novel for me was the main setting – Dublin in the 1930s. I did not know that the Nazi party had a presence in Ireland. Adolf Mahr (a character in the book and also a real-life character) was the Director of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. He was an Austrian archaeologist who also happened to be the leader of the Nazis in Dublin. He kept an eye on Germans in Dublin who weren’t sympathetic to Hitler.

When the narrative moved to Danzig, the tension really ramped up. The city was on the eve of elections, and the Nazis were confident they would win a majority, enough to kick out Seán Lester – the Irish diplomat who was the last Secretary-General of the League of Nations. He was also a real-life character and a character in the novel.

The presence of SS and SA personnel in Danzig foreshadowed the spreading stain of Fascism in Europe. I did wonder why on earth Hannah – as a Jewish woman – would voluntarily enter a city swarming with Nazis, but okay, she did enter under another name.

All in all a really enjoyable read. And I’m already moving on to book #2 in the series (The City of Strangers).


The one thing I hated about Australia was…..the heat of Sydney. In the summer months, that cloying mugginess really used to get to me. I’d walk from work to Wynyard train station to catch the train home, and half the time, the train wasn’t air-conditioned. So I’d be stuck in this hot sardine can with a lot of other miserable, sweaty people.

The Far North of New Zealand can get pretty hot, too. Today, it is around 33°C (or 91°F) and it’s a different kind of heat from Sydney. It is humid and muggy, but not quite as bad. The sun though is like some frickin’ laser beam.

I walk the Z team in the cool of the morning – anywhere from 4.45am to 6.00am – so we get our walking over and done with until the evening. During the day, we lounge around under big shady trees. I put a large pet bed on the ground, plonk a chair on the grass for me and a book, and this is where we spend the bulk of the day.

In the new house we’ll have air-conditioning, but we don’t plan to use it that much. The concrete floor should regulate the temperature, and it does seem to do that because every time we visit the house, it’s pretty cool inside.

El Hubs thinks the build might be finished in late Feb/early March. We are now waiting for a tiler. The one we want isn’t available until early Feb, and the tiling has to be done before the plumber can come back in, along with the electrician and blah blah.

I think El Hubs is over building his own home and will never do it again 🙂

Here comes the sun and another blistering day.

I hope you had a great Christmas and New Year. What did you get up to? It was quiet for us as we don’t celebrate. New Year, well it’s just another year about to begin; and Christmas is SO commercial now that I feel the spirit behind it has been forgotten. Christmas, as we know it, is largely a Victorian invention and it’s interesting to read about this.

Do you have any New Year resolutions or goals? Mine are to:

  • increase my poetry writing and getting published;
  • start the novel I’ve had in mind for over 15 years. It’s set in Thailand.
  • take up some new form of exercise. I’ve always been a walker and still walk up to 2 hours a day. But heading into my dotage, perhaps I should look into pilates or yoga (which I’ve done before), or golf. I’m not a swimmer, although I can swim very well. I’m just not a natural water baby. But maybe swimming.

We plan to travel again in 2019. We have not been overseas since early 2014, which is surprising as I’ve always been a traveller. But we like New Zealand so much there’s not much point in travelling.

But we probably need to go see El Hubs’ family in South Africa. Haven’t seen them since 2013. I want to go to the Cook Islands or Cuba, too.

Guess we’ll see how 2019 unfolds.

What better way to spend the Christmas period than reading a ton of books? To end my year of book reviews, here’s what I’ve been reading during the last half of December. And there’s one absolutely stand-out book.

The Spirit Photographer by Jon Michael Varese. Debut historical/supernatural novel published in 2018. I thought this novel started well; I liked the writing style; and the post-Civil War setting of Boston in 1870, and the age of spiritualism. But….

So we’ll start with the plot. The MC is Edward Moody, a renowned spirit photographer who had worked for the Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady. (Moody is loosely-based on the real-life photographer William H. Mumler).

Moody is haunted by the horrors of the battlefield and what he photographed. After the war, he sets up a studio in Boston and one of his clients is Senator James and Elizabeth Garrett, who lost their young son William to fever.

Elizabeth hopes his spirit will appear in the photo, but another spirit appears instead – Isabelle, a young coloured woman who was involved with both Moody and Senator Garrett.

She disappeared, and the spirit photo is taken eighteen years after she vanished. Everyone freaks out when they see the ghostly image of Isabelle in the developed negative, because at least four characters knew her and they’re all harbouring secrets.

Moody decides to find out what happened to her and the search begins. It takes the reader from Boston through the dark alleys of St.Louis and the voodoo-practicing bayous of Louisiana (in this respect I guess it’s a Southern Gothic tale).

What I did like about this novel was the historical setting – the Reconstruction era when the Southern states still clung to their slave-holding ways, and abolitionists were in a struggle to safeguard the legal rights of newly freed slaves and fend off bounty hunters.

I also liked reading about the early days of photography. The writing-style was minimalist (which I always prefer), but I didn’t engage with any of the characters for some reason. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.

I thought the novel got lost in the bayous – with all the far-fetched voodoo stuff and one melodramatic (stereotypical badie) character. The ending was preachy (about slavery/freedom). This was unnecessary because the themes of oppression/cruelty/subjugation were deftly-woven throughout the narrative. The reader could have come to their own conclusion about slavery. This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the book, but it wasn’t a stand-out for me.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Published in 1987 and winner of the Man Booker Prize. I have been meaning to read this book for yeeeears, but somehow never got round to it. Then I saw it at the local library and pounced.

Wow. A superb novel by a masterful writer. I could not put this book down. I have not read anything by Lively before; you can bet I’m going to be hunting down all her books.

The main (and very strong) character is Claudia Hamilton who writes popular history books. We first meet her in hospital, dying of cancer in her late 70s. She is planning to write a history of the world, but the reader is presented with Claudia’s own history.

Her story takes us from WWI, and the loss of her father, through WWII and her experience as a war correspondent in Egypt (where Lively was born), and her intense love affair with Tom Southern, a British tank commander who is killed shortly after he asks her to marry him.

The novel jumps all over the place – in time and points of view – which sounds disconcerting but it works fabulously. Because as each character comes to visit Claudia in hospital (her sister-in-law, Sylvia; her daughter Lisa; her Hungarian friend Lazlo) it triggers memories – a series of vignettes really. Sometimes these are first-person recollections; sometimes third person. As she passes back and forth into consciousness, the reader is taken back and forth through world history, and Claudia’s life and relationships.

It was uncanny frankly – how Lively invited the reader into Claudia’s head. I’ve never read a novel before where I FELT the narrator’s emotions and reactions. I lived Claudia’s life.

I simply can’t do justice to the themes in this clever novel. On one level, it’s about how we are all a part of living history, as well as having our own personal histories; it’s Jungian in the sense that Claudia has many different selves (lover, mother, writer). The whole novel is a history of the world as Lively touches on fossils, Australopithicus, chaos theory, belief in God, the Furies and the Muses, Montezuma, Cortez, Rommel – the list goes on.

The centrepiece of this novel for me was the time distance between elderly Claudia lying in hospital and her love affair with Tom forty-something years previously. In her mind, Tom is still young, yet he belongs to a time period that is now gone. Claudia has lived and loved for forty years without him, and so the reader is invited to consider what her life might have been like had Tom not been killed.

The title, Moon Tiger, refers to a brand of mosquito coil that Lively knew during her childhood in Egypt, and functions as a metaphor:

“The Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness.”

It sits on a table next to Claudia and Tom as they lie naked in a Cairo hotel room on a snatched night together. As the coil burns away, it reminds us that time marches on; that some lives are cut short (like Tom’s); or that memories can (like ash) diminish over time.

I can’t say enough about this novel – it’s brilliant. Apparently, when it was published some critic disparagingly referred to it as the “housewife’s choice”, and it seems to be an undervalued book (although it was shortlisted for the Golden Man Booker in 2018).

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis. Debut historical fiction published 2016. This book had a lot of promise but failed to deliver for me. It’s set in the Barbizon Hotel in New York in 1952, and looks at a generation of single women who live at the hotel. (Apparently, many famous women actually lived at the Barbizon – Lauren Bacall, Candice Bergen, Grace Kelly being three notables). The hotel was also known as The Dollhouse and provided a safe haven for aspiring Ford models, actresses and secretarial students from 1927 until 1981.

Some of these women, now in their 80s, live on the fourth floor of the hotel, which has become a renovated apartment complex. Darby McLaughlin was a secretarial student back in 1952 and the narrative focuses largely on her.

Rose Lewin is a journalist living in the building (in 2016), and she is told that one of the young women fell to her death from an upper terrace back in 1953. Desperate for a juicy story in the digital age, Rose seeks to interview Darby (and some of the other women), but Darby disappears and Rose is left to try and puzzle things out.

Here are my problems with this novel – the characters were trite with no emotional depth; the writing is clichéd, superficial; there’s an oh-so-predictable romance between Rose and a co-worker; Rose was turned into some simpering idiot, rather than the strong journalist she could have been; there’s stereotypical homosexuality; a stereotypical Puerto Rican girl also thrown into the mix; the storyline is unbelievable at times (spoiler alert: the Puerto Rican gal is involved in a heroin ring; she is interviewed by the cops and somehow the interview, complete with names of people involved, ends up in the newspaper?!); and don’t even get me started on the silly ending. Oh wait: something else – the writer spends ages building up towards the scene on the terrace, when a character falls to her death. What an anti-climax that scene was. Meh.

Dual narratives/timelines are all the rage now in fiction, but The Dollhouse would have been SO much stronger if the author had just stuck to 1952, delivered well-rounded characters, and ditched the clichéd writing. Of course, it didn’t help that I read this novel straight after Moon Tiger.

Basically The Dollhouse is fluffy chick lit, which I never read. I should have followed my gut and done a DNF on it around page 20. I picked it up because I thought the back cover blurb had promise. Live and learn!

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor. Historical fiction published in 2017. I was interested in the subject matter of this novel – the Cottingley Fairies. I remember learning about this photographic hoax when I was a teenager.

In 1917, Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright were two young cousins living in Cottingley, UK. Frances and her mother lived with Elsie’s parents while the father fought on the battlefields of WWI. The girls borrowed a camera from Elsie’s father and took photos of themselves with the fairies said to reside in woodlands at the bottom of the garden.

Photographic experts of the time declared the photos to be genuine, but they were declared a hoax in the 1970s.

This is the basic premise of the book (based on a real story) and once again we have a dual narrative/timeline. Olivia Kavanagh inherits her grandfather’s ailing bookshop in present-day Ireland, and he also leaves her a manuscript written by Frances. The manuscript explains how the girls took the photos one hundred years earlier, and why they maintained their hoax for decades.

Olivia is caught up in a toxic relationship that she works through as she comes to learn that she is also connected, through her great-grandmother, to the Cottingley Fairies and the photos. I found her side of the story a bit ho-hum to be honest; I never really engaged with her and found the cousins’ story far more interesting.

I get that the theme was all about magic – can Olivia believe in herself and start a new life in Ireland? Can she work magic in her grandfather’s bookshop and revive it? Did two Edwardian-era girls really see fairies and do they exist? Can the world rediscover faith and hope following the horror of WWI?

I thought the story was well-told, and although it was entirely predictable (complete with new love interest for Olivia), I found the story enchanting enough to stay with it. It was a bit twee at times, but the historical account of Frances and Elsie was very well-handled. The reader learns that Frances always believed in the fairies, and we’re left wondering – could fairies really exist? Why not!

In case you’ve never seen the 1917 photos here they are, and you have to chuckle at how unrealistic those fairies look.

I would recommend this book as it’s a whimsical read.


Merry Christmas (or Meri Kirihimete in Te Reo Māori). I don’t really celebrate it anymore – too old and cranky. Frankly, it’s too commercial and everyone gets stressed about having family over; cooking the Christmas chook or turkey; fussing over presents (and spending too much money in the process).

We prefer to spend a quiet day at home. El Hubs’ family is in Johannesburg and I’m basically an orphan (only one elderly uncle left in Levin). So we spend it with the Z Team and I’m going to whip up a beef stroganoff with mushrooms and sour cream. No idea why – I saw the recipe on a website for the Thermomix (I’m a bit obsessed with my Thermi), and thought why the heck not?!

It’s been raining a fair bit in the lead up to Christmas, so I’m at least hoping for a fine day to walk the dogs.

I wish you a happy holiday and hope you have a wonderful day, however you spend it.

For me, Sydney is all about jacarandas. The purple beauties bloom all over the suburbs in Spring and Summer.

I remember driving to work with my good Aussie mate – I’d stay at her place for two nights a week to cut my travel from the Lake Macquarie area where I lived.

We’d come over a certain hill, heading to North Sydney, and the vista in front of us was dotted with jacaranda trees. I do miss them but…the Far North of New Zealand also has jacarandas, albeit not as many.

I am a bit obsessed with one that is just outside the vet we take the Z Team to. And so – a photo!

What have I been reading throughout December? Read on!

The Forbidden by F.R. Tallis. Published in 2012 and I’d say it is Gothic horror but is also a supernatural thriller. Set in late 19th century France the MC is Dr. Paul Clément, who witnesses the destruction of a zombie by an island bokor (sorcerer) in French colonial West Indies.

On his return to France, he becomes fascinated with near-death experiences and the eternal question – is there life after death? Many patients have reported joyful glimpses of heaven, and Clément has a medical colleague inject him with the poison of a puffer fish. He is clinically dead for a few minutes before being revived by electricity (Galvanism). Instead of a wondrous experience, he descended into Hell. Quite literally.

The novel is then about demonic possession, morphine addiction, the occult, old magic, and morality. I really liked the confident writing style and I thought Tallis excelled at creating a pretty horrific hellish landscape. He also re-created Paris in the 1880s by attention to little details – such as referring to a diligence that characters would ride in (like a stage coach).

I liked the MC immensely and I found all characters well-developed. Not really the sort of book I’d read, and I was more interested in the historical portrayal of the time period than the battle between good and evil. But I enjoyed the novel and might see what other books Tallis has written.

Mr. Peacock’s Possessions by Lydia Syson. Published 2018. Historical fiction and debut adult fiction novel by a YA author. One word: wow. No: let me say more words!

Set in the late 1870s, it’s the story of the Peacock family and the father (Joseph) who is trying to create paradise on a remote volcanic island in the Pacific. Joseph Peacock fought in the Maori Wars in New Zealand and is now looking for a place to settle with his wife and six children. The tale is told from two perspectives: 15 year-old Lizzie, one of the Peacock daughters; and Kalala, one of a group of Polynesian island workers (or kanakas) who come to Monday Island to work, two years after the family settled there. Food is short and the family has struggled to tame the unforgiving island.

When the kanakas arrive, the eldest son Albert (a tormented boy) disappears and the reader is plunged into a compelling mystery that reveals some pretty dark secrets  Syson’s ability to create a sense of dread is very skilful.

Also evident in this novel was the meticulous historical research – from the hierarchy of the Victorian household, to ship voyages of that time period. But I never felt I was being given a history lesson.

Syson’s writing is poetic, exquisite. I loved that it is a character-driven story that really examines colonialism, familial relationships, love and loyalty. I’ve seen this book described as a blend of The Poisonwood Bible, Lord of the Flies, Mister Pip and a darker version of Swiss Family Robinson – and I think this pretty well sums things up.

Kalala’s narrative is told in first person present tense, which could have gone horribly wrong because Lizzie’s narrative is told from the close third person perspective. But first person present tense gave Syson the opportunity to really explore the horrific experiences 19th century islanders were subjected to (such as being forced into slavery through a practice known as blackbirding). The reader gained that sense of intimacy and immediacy needed to emotionally connect.

Apparently the idea for this novel came from her partner’s family history on Raoul Island, part of the Kermadecs, between New Zealand and Tonga.

Highly recommend this beautiful novel.

The Secret of Vaselious by Jordi Llobregat. Spanish author (Thomas Bunstead trans), published in 2017. I’d describe this debut novel as Spanish Gothic horror.

It’s set in Barcelona, Spain in 1888 just a few weeks before the World Fair that is to be held in that city. Daniel Amat returns to Barcelona for the funeral of his father (a doctor). They have been estranged for seven years, and Daniel has been teaching at Oxford University. He fled Barcelona after a fire consumed the family mansion, and took the life of his brother and Daniel’s fiance. Daniel has always blamed himself for this fire.

At the funeral, Bernat Fleixa – who is a journalist – tells Daniel he believes the father was murdered in order to cover up a series of grisly murders said to be the work of a hell-hound.

They are joined by a young medical student, Pau Gilbert, who has secrets to keep, and the quest begins to uncover the identity of the murderer. This involves the work of Andreas Vesalius, a sixteenth century anatomist; the rat-infested sewers of Barcelona; Galvanism; and various dastardly characters.

There’s a touch of Frankenstein and Da Vinci Code to this novel. I enjoyed how the author played with contrasts – experimental science and nineteenth-century medical advances, whilst the superstitious believed a black hound from Hell could be responsible for the horror taking place in the city.

I thought characterisation was okay (didn’t really engage with any of them, and there were some annoying stereotypes like “damsel in distress”), but the story had me intrigued. There were some very obvious plot points along the way, so the surprise wasn’t a surprise for me.

I think the novel is too long and a bit lumbering (over 500 pages) – a shorter novel would have resulted in tighter pacing. And the ending was a bit silly (I refer here to the character who turns out to be the culprit. Characterisation was straight out of the evil villain playbook).

Overall an okay read, and it was refreshing to read a book set in Victorian-era Barcelona. But there are far better Gothic horror books out there.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry. I waited all year for this book to be published. I LOVED her previous novel, The Essex Serpent, which I reviewed here. I have to say I struggled a bit with this dark, brooding Gothic story. Actually, I would describe this as post-modern Gothic. I struggled because it is so multi-layered, so profound, so lush that I will need to read it again to fully appreciate its brilliance.

The Essex Serpent was beautiful prose; with sharp, interesting characters; and a fluid storyline. Melmoth is the complete opposite in so many ways, and I felt as I was reading that Perry was trying to do too much. That it was too ambitious but….she actually pulled it off. Bravo!

Perry’s novel was inspired by Charles Maturin’s 1820 Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer. The main character is that novel sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for 150 more years of life, but ends up walking around the world visiting people in despair, and looking for someone willing to take over his bargain with the Devil. Perry’s Melmoth is a retelling of this classic tale.

There are two main characters in Perry’s novel: Helen Franklin, an English translator living in contemporary Prague, who is haunted by her past actions. She is 42 years old, sleeps on a mattress with no sheets and refuses to eat properly or listen to music. The second MC is Melmoth the Witness, a dark legendary and lonely figure who wanders the earth, doomed to witness humankind’s worst. An interesting twist is that Perry has used a Biblical story to explain Melmoth – she was a woman who saw that Christ had risen yetg denied it. As punishment, she was doomed to wander the earth robed in black clothes, her feet and eyes bleeding, seeking a companion in her loneliness. It’s a feminist twist to have Melmoth as a woman.

Helen is a drab character (and I did tend to lose sight of her as the tale unfolded). One day she meets Dr. Karl Pražan and he tells her about an old man (Josef Hoffman) who died in a local library and left behind a folder full of letters and research on Melmoth.

What follows is a mille-feuille of testimonies about Melmoth’s incarnations throughout history as she witnesses Nazi collaborators in World War II Prague; an Austrian boy who condemns his Jewish neighbours to a concentration camp; two Turkish brothers whose bureaucratic policies led to the massacre of Armenians; and we slowly come back to Helen’s own terrible secret and her actions twenty years earlier in Manila. But is Melmoth real?

Underpinning all the stories is the very act of witnessing atrocities, and how we react to them, or how we are consumed by guilt because we acted (or failed to act) in a certain way.

I think Perry’s genius is how she takes the language, mood and structure of a Victorian novel and gives it a modern feel. In many ways, she is reinventing the ghost story, and I thought that the way Helen’s character (being lonely and miserable) brilliantly reflected the loneliness and despair of Melmoth.

I’d highly recommend this novel. Can’t wait for Perry’s next book. An interesting aside – in 2016, Perry suffered from a ruptured disc in her lower spine, and suffered excruciating pain for which she was prescribed opioids. She admits to being more or less out of her mind when writing Melmoth!