A slight diversion before I get back onto the subject of our new property Up North. I’ve had a lot of time to read books lately and write. I’ve now had two poems published and one piece of Flash Fiction. The latter I’m particularly proud of because it was selected for publication by two international reviewers whose writing I very much admire.

Would you like to read my two published poems? If so, check them out here. My Flash Fiction piece is here. I currently have four poems out for review and hope at least one of them will be published and I’ve just finished a mentoring course with a well-known NZ poet.

Enough about me – back to today’s post and my reviews for the recent batch of books I’ve been reading.

The Severed Land by Maurice Gee. YA fiction by a well-known New Zealand writer. I’ve not read any books by Gee before. Set in a fantasy world where slavery exists and competing families vie for dominance. Fliss, a black girl, and Kirt (aka Keef) who is from the Despiner family, must rescue The Nightingale as she holds the key to maintaining an invisible wall that keeps a land divided. On one side, you have oligarchic rule, violence and chaos; on the other, you have freedom, Nature, and the old People, who were original inhabitants of the land. The old People created the invisible wall and only the Old One now maintains it through mental thought. The Nightingale has to be rescued to secure the future of the wall.

The male main character, Kirt (aka Keef), irritated me. I found him wishy-washy. Fliss was at least interesting and strong-minded, a worthy heroine. I think the short length of the book worried me too; I wanted more. More world-building; more back-story about the families struggling against each other; a better understanding of how Kirt came to be a drummer boy and what this fall from grace meant for him and his family.

I liked the effortless writing style, although the dialogue didn’t always sound realistic. It has me interested enough to perhaps read Gee’s Salt Trilogy. I believe Maurice Gee is now 85 years old.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. A strong, debut novel. A very absorbing narrative about survivors of the female-only concentration camp, Ravensbruck. It has multiple points-of-views: Caroline Ferriday, a real-life New York socialite; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager working for the Resistance; and Dr.Herta Oberheuser, a real-life Nazi doctor who was stationed at Ravensbruck.

Each chapter tells the story of one of these women and what they were doing in the lead-up to WWII. We learn how Oberheuser applies for a job at a “re-education camp” for women; how Kasia joins the Polish resistance, following her country’s invasion in 1939; and how Caroline becomes a tireless campaigner for war orphans and later demands justice for Holocaust survivors. Good backstory leads to Kasia and Herta’s individual experiences at Ravensbruck. Many Polish prisoners were forced to endure medical experiments and became collectively known as The Rabbits. It was this side of Kelly’s story that I engaged with because it’s a story seldom told – the Nazi experimentation; the psychological trauma; the resilience these people needed to survive.

Following WWII, the novel details how the three main characters cope with “normal life” and how their lives intersect. At over 400 pages, this novel is not for the faint-hearted. I could sense the extraordinary amount of research Kelly undertook to produce a novel that is both gruelling and uplifting. Despite one of the darkest hours of human history, people emerged with strong spirits and the desire to forgive and forget. Whenever I read about the concentration camps, I wonder how I would have coped.

The only criticism I have of this book is Caroline’s obsession with the married French actor, Paul Rodierre. We constantly wonder will she/won’t she get together with him and I felt this sub-plot did not move the narrative forward (despite it being based on a true relationship apparently). Despite this, I would thoroughly recommend this book for its effortless prose.

The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd. This is Glasfurd’s debut novel and is an original look at the French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes, told through the eyes of a 17th Century Dutch maid, Helena Jans van der Strom. Helena and René are lovers and, despite being a maid, Helena can read and write. The imagined narrative is based on scant archival material that suggests a relationship did in fact exist between René Descartes and Helena and that they had two children. The youngest, Francine, died of scarlet fever at the age of five. It is a mystery how Helena learned to both read and write, given the lot of women in that time period.

This book has good reviews but I wasn’t as engaged with it as I thought I would be. Glasfurd did exceptionally well in portraying life in the Netherlands of the 1600s, and highlighting the inequality in power and relationship between Descartes and Helena. I did like Glasfurd’s characterisation of Helena as a strong, determined young woman (despite her irritating habit of calling Rene “Monsieur” all the time). Helena constantly seeks knowledge and makes ink out of beetroot in her attempts to write. Glasfurd really allowed us to get into Helena’s head.

I think it is Descartes’ character that worried me – I found him capricious and the love affair not so believable. But I remember studying Descartes at University – his quest for reason; his Discourse on Method – and I imagine he was no ordinary character for the time period. He probably was an enigmatic and elusive sort, prone to flights of fancy. It would also have been very difficult for Descartes to carry on a relationship with someone from a different class, so reputation was everything. Given this, I understand the characterisation.

At times, I found the dialogue to be a bit melodramatic. But I think it was the quietness of the novel that ultimately I didn’t engage with. By this I mean, nothing much really seemed to happen. Even when Helena was beaten by Daan, (a minor male character) or when Francine succumbed to scarlet fever, Glasfurd’s writing style remained quiet, steady and even.  However, it’s a good read; just not one of my favourites.

As an aside, it did inspire me to write a poem I’ve called Discourse on Magpie (yes, it’s about a magpie).

Longbourn by Jo Baker. I was introduced to Baker’s effortless prose via her latest novel, A Country Road, A Tree, which I reviewed here. Longbourn has been sitting on my bookshelf for some time and I thought let’s get around to reading it. This is an outstanding novel from a very accomplished writer.

Inspired by Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), Longbourn is the untold story of the servants, their relationship with the Bennet family, their reaction to all the family dramas and how the servants maneuver their way through the lives of the upper class. Some of Austen’s characters appear – Mr. Darcy; Mr. Collins; Mr. Bingley – along with new characters imagined by Baker such as James, the footman. Reading this book, you have to keep in mind that it is inspired by P&P. It is not a prequel or a narrative that snuggly fits into the Bennet’s timeline.

Baker is a powerful writer, blessed with an ability to use the perfect word or words to describe an emotion or scene. We get an intimate glimpse into the servant world of the Georgian period, in particular the daily hardships and poverty. What I found most impressive was Baker’s knowledge of the social etiquette and housekeeping rituals of the time – right down to what was served for breakfasts and dinners. This novel is historical fiction and, as a lover of history, I expect and cherish all these little details.

I’m glad that Baker did not try to mimic Austen’s style. When I picked up the book, I feared that she might try a variation on Austen’s famous opening line: “”It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gentlewoman in need of a husband is also in need of a good servant.” Thankfully, she didn’t.

I liked the growth of the main character, Sarah, who toils long hours but imagines that there is a life for her beyond being a servant at Longbourn. Enter the character of James and you have a novel that vividly portrays the vulnerable life of a woman in the Georgian era – whether you are Elizabeth Bennet or Sarah, your economic future depended on a successful marriage. In this way, it was the same life whether you were a servant or a member of the upper class.

Baker also delves deeply into the Napoleonic Wars via the backstory of James, which I enjoyed. I can imagine though that die-hard Austen fans might have their feathers ruffled a bit by this novel. It isn’t a novel about the romance and high society of the Regency period; our hearts are not fluttering over Mr. Darcy. This is the world of smelly chamber pots and lugging water on freezing cold mornings.

If you read this book and P&P together, you have a perfect glimpse into the Georgian period, warts and all. My only criticism? The ending was a little rushed.

The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly. My introduction to this author was via the YA novel, These Shallow Graves, which I enjoyed and reviewed here. So I was pretty confident it would be a good book as Donnelly is a strong writer. The Tea Rose is the first book in her Rose Trilogy. There was commonalities with her YA novel – strong female character who falls in love with someone not in her social class and New York in the 1800s. But….I felt this book was nowhere near as good as These Shallow Graves.

It’s set in East London in the 1880s and New York in the 1890s. The central character is Irish lass, Fiona Finnegan, who starts life as a tea factory worker and ends up being a wealthy tea merchant in New York. Her love interest is Joe Bristow, a costermonger’s son, who also ends up a wealthy man in London. Basically, Joe marries another woman and Fiona sets off for New York to forget her sorrow. She must also flee London because she is being chased by a dastardly character who may or may not be Jack the Ripper.

I did wonder at times if I was reading a Mills & Boon novel. The romance between Fiona and Joe was too melodramatic but what I found really hard to engage with was this – Fiona, who is around 19 years old, meets William McClane, a super-wealthy American tycoon who is 45 years old. Despite her being from the working class, McClane falls madly in love and escorts her to high-society events and fashionable restaurants. Nah, didn’t buy it for one minute.

Then we have Fiona basically saving the world – she loses her father and mother in London (her mother to Jack the Ripper and her father was murdered by the very tea merchant Fiona worked for). She spends 10 years plotting revenge and returns to London to take over Burton Tea and ends up confronting the owner, William Burton, who is a deeply shady character. Along the way, she marries a gay guy, Nick, who just happens to be a Viscount and dripping with money, so she becomes a Viscountess. And, oh joy, Nick just happens to have shares in Burton Tea, which Fiona has been buying over the years so she can gain control of the company.

Fiona met Nick as she was trying to find a ship embarking for America. Here’s where the book really fell over for me. Nick suggests Fiona (and her young brother, Seamus) pretend to be his wife and son. All because Fiona didn’t know you needed a ticket to get on a ship. Nick rushes her off to get good clothes (how did he hide the Cockney accent I ask?) and, when they disembark in New York, they part company. Has anyone heard of Ellis Island? There were legal and medical inspections even for First Class passengers. Donnelly ignores this.

The characters were either good or evil. Nothing in between. There were so many unbelievable moments in this book but Donnelly is a good writer, so I stuck with the 600+ pages. I could see the ending coming; no surprises really. There was far too much clinging, cloying romance and sex scenes in this book for me. I am half-tempted to read the other two in the trilogy but wondering if I should waste my time.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter. A short, debut book at around 114 pages. How to review this unusual piece of magical realism? It’s part-poetry, part-mythology, a meditation on grief and a black comedy. The title references Emily Dickinson’s poem, Hope Is The Thing With Feathers.

It’s the story of a father and his two young sons who are grappling with the sudden death of the wife and mother. The father is visited by a metafictional crow, which is a reference to Ted Hughes who the father is writing a book about. (Ted Hughes was an English poet and was married to the American poet, Sylvia Plath. He wrote the literary masterpiece, Crow). The crow plays therapist and guides the family towards recovery. He promises that he will not leave until the family no longer needs him (a bit like Nanny McPhee!).

The story is told from three viewpoints: the crow, the father and the boys. I found the crow a bit difficult to get my head around at times (I need to go back and read Hughes’ poem) but I loved it when the crow said that he only found humans interesting in times of grief.

There’s a lot of word play in this book, something Porter obviously excels at. There are plenty of lovely stories in this book and many lines that stop you in your tracks because they are insights to ponder over.

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin. One word to describe this book – breathtaking. This is Pipkin’s second novel and I’ve already ordered his first from Book Depository (Woodsburner). What an astounding, accomplished writer. And where to start with a review?

It’s a novel about obsession, scientific enquiry and political/social reformation. Set in Ireland in the late 18th Century, it is the narrative of amateur astronomer, Arthur Ainsworth, and his obsession with finding a planet he calls Theodosia. His daughter, Caroline, joins him in his search of the heavens. At the same time, another Caroline is helping her brother, German astronomer William Herschel, as he discovers Uranus. Arthur is jealous of Herschel’s success and stares directly at the sun in his fevered attempts to find his elusive planet.

Following his blindness and death, Caroline Ainsworth leaves for London to forget her love for Finnegan O’Siodha, a blacksmith who was helping her father build a telescope larger than that of his rival, Herschel. She returns to Ireland to deal with her father’s telescopes just as Ireland is swept up by rebellion (Irish Rebellion of 1798). She is fleetingly reunited with Finnegan amidst the turmoil and violence. I enjoyed reading about this part of Ireland’s history.

Each character is caught up with their own obsession and a quest for knowledge or the unknown. Finnegan, for example, becomes entranced with animal magnetism and revivification. This leads him to design a mechanical device for Caroline’s withered arm (from a childhood accident).

Let me give you a taste of Pipkin’s extraordinary writing ability. After her father’s death, Caroline continues with her own celestial observations: “the quiet excitement of casting her eye into corners of the sky where few have gone before, this gentle trespass and the familiar yearning . . . to know something more, something new and wondrous and seemingly impossible.”

Pipkin has an ability to create strong, vibrant characters and these characters orbited around what is essentially the core of the narrative: astronomy. And this narrative occurred at a time when there was a sense of awe about the heavens. I think we’ve largely lost that sense of wonderment. John Pipkin is up there for me as writer, along with Anthony Doerr and Jo Baker. Highly recommend this book.