The Blackbird Sings at Dusk by Linda Olsson, who is a Swedish author living in New Zealand. This is a haunting story of a Swedish woman, Elizabeth, who lives in an apartment building. Her neighbours, Elias (an artist) and an older man, Otto, are intrigued by her. Elizabeth has an unhappy past and through friendship and love between the three characters, this past is confronted.

The tension is provided by the Green Woman, who is an imaginary figure in Elizabeth’s life and acts as a vehicle to help her choose between happiness and love or the darkness of a disturbed mind and perhaps death. Frankly, I’m not sure the Green Woman was needed as the story itself is strong enough. Elizabeth’s character for me was a bit sketchy and might have been stronger had the Green Woman not existed.

I loved Otto’s character. I could visualise him and Olsson brought him to life. I favour the writing style, which is sparse but elegant. Olsson is a very atmospheric writer – wonderful descriptions of the sky, weather, light, Stockholm and the Swedish Midsummer’s Eve.

It’s a very evenly-paced novel and I loved the symbolic use of the blackbird. It is the national bird of Sweden and also an analogy for Elizabeth – a woman broken by the betrayal of love. The blackbird appears in Spring as the weather gets warmer and the days longer. It symbolises an awakening, just as Elizabeth is awakened by the surprising friendship and love between herself, Elias and Otto. There’s a very ambiguous ending – does Elizabeth commit suicide or not? This novel has stayed with me, which is always the sign of good fiction, and I’ve bought another two of Olsson’s novels as I like her writing so much.

The Pearl-Shell Diver by Kay Crabbe. YA historical fiction. Australian author. Set in 1898, this is the story of a young islander, Sario, who wants to be a pump (or deep sea) diver. His father has been coerced into joining a white trader on a pearl lugger and Sario is left to take care of his ill mother, Apu, and his sister, Leilani. Later, Sario also joins the crew of a pearl lugger and is taken advantage of by the white captain and an Indian trader.

This book raises issues of how children were treated in the late 19th Century and colonial Australian treatment of indigenous peoples. It also touches on Australian Federation and the White Australia Policy – and so it would be a very good teaching resource. It’s very simply written. I didn’t think the tension between Sario (13 years) and Hiroshi, a Japanese boy, worked and the sudden move to friendship wasn’t convincing.

I do think Crabbe described deep sea diving very well (at a time when the bends were not really known) and island life. Although I bought it largely for the cover art, I enjoyed this book.  There was too much telling going on for me – nothing was left to the imagination and the ending was a bit “off into the sunset”.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. This is a dazzling novel and so very well executed. A writer with great confidence and command of a cast of characters. Essentially, it’s about a person having many alternative, possible lives. The main character is Ursula Todd, born on 11 February, 1910 in England. In one version of her life she is strangled by the umbilical cord; in another version she is married to a German and living in Nazi Germany; in yet another version, she experiences the blitz in London during WWII and is part of a rescue unit.

This book could have gone horribly wrong as the structure means that we continually loop back to February 1910, but I never found it confusing or irritating. Ursula eventually realises that her sense of deja vu means she has lived before and she attempts to change the course of history. Since this history mainly involves WWII, you can guess what Ursula might do.

Atkinson has a strong, very descriptive writing style. Ursula’s parallel existences take us through decades of social history – from WWI, through to WWII and the 1960s. What I really enjoyed was Atkinson’s ability to detail the fashion and fads of the times. There are rapid chronological shifts in this novel but Atkinson anchors us with each chapter dated by month and year.

One of the last chapters seems to suggest (to me anyway) that Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, has the same ability as Ursula – to relive a life and know the outcome. Because this time, in February 1910, when Ursula is born yet again and with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, Sylvie is ready with a pair of surgical scissors. There is also a fleeting reference to Ursula seeing her mother on the arm of another man, coming out of a London hotel – Atkinson never picks this up again in the novel. So I wonder – did Ursula see her mother in one of her alternative lives? Intriguing thought. There were also clever devices in this book: dogs keep appearing in the book, dog after dog.

It’s not a light read but Atkinson injects humour here and there to lighten things up. Highly recommend this book.

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernard Schlink. The premise is enticing: a missing painting (of a nude woman descending stairs), a mysterious woman, her husband and her lover. I just didn’t connect with this book and I think it’s because of the writing style, which I found very stilted. Possibly it’s because it’s been translated from German. I also didn’t connect with the main character.

The narrator is a German lawyer who is on business in Sydney when he comes across the painting in an Art Gallery. He becomes determined to track down the owner of the painting and the whereabouts of the woman of the painting he loved and lost 40 years ago. It could have been a good legal thriller (given that the author is a Professor of Law) but, for me, it became bogged down.

Irene (the woman in the painting) disappears and is found living in some remote cottage in a cove up North from Sydney. Decades earlier, the lawyer handled a case involving Irene and her powerful husband (Gundlach) and her lover, the painter Schwind. They both fight over the painting and her. Meanwhile, the lawyer becomes infatuated, throws caution to the wind and helps her in a plan to steal the painting and disappear together. Irene outwits the lot of them and she disappears with the painting.

Forty years after this painting heist and the disappearance of Irene, Gundlach and Schwind drop in by helicopter and by boat – I was waiting for this reunion with Irene to be full of shocks and secrets, but nah. She declares she was a muse to one man and a trophy to the other; and so she escaped with the painting to East Germany. The narrator is a very dull character but that is the point I guess. His life is boring, predictable and we do see his transformation towards the end of the novel. Irene is very sick and he cares for her until she dies during a bushfire.

In Part Two, where all the characters assemble to argue over the painting, I found the prose clunky and wooden. I have not read Schlink’s earlier novel, The Reader. Perhaps I should do that to see if it’s a better read.

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith, who is an Australian author living in Texas. Wonderful, effortless writing style.

It’s the story of a 17th-century Dutch painting, the link to its 20th-century American owner and the forgery of this painting by a twenty-something year old art student. What I liked about this book was its quietness and very steady pace, although I must say I’m getting a bit tired of novels about paintings (e.g. The Improbability of Love, The Woman on the Stairs).

There are three interconnected narratives linked by the (fictional) painting At the Edge of the Wood. Of the three main characters, I did think the Dutch painter, Sara, was crafted very well. In fact, I thought her narrative was extremely touching – she lost her 7 year old daughter to the plague and her last painting (which depicts a young girl) was her way of grieving. Structurally, it’s quite a complex novel and I think Smith’s fluid writing style allowed him to produce a novel of great skill. It also has the best opening line for a novel I’ve read in some time: “The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space”. Really enjoyed this book.

The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Middle Grade/YA fiction, magical realism. The story of a young girl, Isabella, who lives on an island called Joya, which is ruled by the malevolent Governor Adori. Her father is a cartographer and everything on the island is affected by malevolence.

Songbirds have been driven out by ravens and the island is split in two, with the Forgotten Territories being a zone no person is allowed to enter. Then a young girl goes missing and Isabella joins the rescue mission. They journey through a magical and mythical world of huge fire dogs and a fire demon. A thousand year old legend inspires Isabella to save Joya by consulting ink maps (which sometimes alter) and using her knowledge of the stars to navigate.

This is the debut novel for Hargrave, who has published poetry and so the prose is eloquent. I would have liked more world-building but action is the focal point. I did enjoy the alternate universe feel of the book but it wasn’t a page turner for me. However, Isabella is a very strong female heroine and the book itself has an equally strong message – have courage in life and follow your beliefs.  I believe it will be called The Cartographer’s Daughter in the US, which is a shame as I think The Girl of Ink and Stars is a far better title as it captures the essence of Isabella.