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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s an outstanding novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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