Book reviews


On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks. I’m on a bit of a roll with Faulks at the moment, having recently re-read Birdsong. He’s such an accomplished writer and what I like the most is how he effortlessly shifts novelistic scenes. This book is set in the United States in 1959 against the backdrop of the Kennedy/Nixon debates and Presidential election campaign. The MC is Mary van der Linden, the wife of British diplomat Charlie van der Linden. They are stationed in Washington and Mary has an affair with Frank Renzo, a New York reporter. Charlie has drinking problems and has lost money through bad investments. Mary’s mother is dying back in London and her two children are in boarding school in the UK.

So far it sounds like your average ho-hum romance novel – bored British housewife meets outgoing, attractive American man and they have a fling. Where Faulks excels though is in the detail, which raises this novel way above a predictable romance. He weaves in the US-Soviet Cold War, McCarthyism, FBI investigations into suspect Communists, the appeal of JFK and the drabness of Nixon, and racial tensions of the time period. When Mary goes to Moscow to help Charlie (who has basically suffered a nervous breakdown), you really feel what Cold War Russia must have been like.

Characterisation is faultless. Any woman who has been in love will engage with Mary and her moral dilemma. Traditionally-raised in the UK and a dutiful diplomatic wife, should she follow her heart and be with Frank or do what is expected and remain with Charlie and the two children? What I like about Faulks’ writing is that he always explores moral dilemmas and powerful themes, such as desire and attraction; fidelity; death; self-destruction and so on.

Frank and Charlie both live with memories of World War II (in which Charlie and Frank served) and this results in an apprehensiveness toward the Cold War and the feeling that the US is losing the race.

The title, On Green Dolphin Street, comes from a Miles Davis jazz tune that Frank plays for Mary. The song becomes a symbol for Mary of her daring and her exciting existence in Frank’s world. I was worried how the novel would end and Faulks did not disappoint by taking the easy way out. This is a novel on so many levels. Extremely well-written and paced.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Debut novel. Set in Amsterdam in 1686 (why are so many current books set in old-world Amsterdam?) it is the tale of (yet another) young girl, 18 year-old Petronella Oortman, who marries the wealthy Dutch merchant, Johannes Brandt (who is about to turn 40 years old). He works for the VOC or Dutch East India Company. You also have the archetypal waspish sister-in-law, Marin Brandt – very Mrs Danveresque.

What then follows is a lukewarm story for me. Johannes gives his young bride a miniature house, which is an exact replica of their marital home and its occupants. Petronella (or Nella) obtains tiny figurines from an enigmatic miniaturist who is Norwegian apparently and whose role in the story I never really grasped. The miniaturist sub-plot sort of went nowhere. Well, other than she has “hair like pale gold thread”(which we are told several times) and she seems to be glimpsed for a moment or two by Nella, then mysteriously vanishes. Nella spends a lot of time wandering around Amsterdam looking for her.

The title is The Miniaturist yet there is not much in the novel about this character. We are never sure if she possesses some supernatural power or is just a snoop into Nella’s life. We are told her name is also Petronella, so there must be some deep significance I have missed. I found the under-development of this character very dissatisfying.

Johannes basically ignores Nella (it’s an arranged marriage) and there seem to be a lot of secrets in the house. The figurines Nella commissions (and sometimes just receives unsolicited) mirror or sometimes predict increasingly bizarre events in Nella’s life and that of the household. This is intriguing but, again, it kind of went nowhere for me.

Johannes has no physical interest in Nella and it takes little imagination to know why. Johannes is caught in the act with a young boy and is up for sodomy – and in 17th Century Amsterdam that meant the death sentence.

I did find Nella’s transformation throughout the novel interesting but, at the same time, a bit unbelievable and I didn’t really engage with any of the characters to be honest. Marin’s character for me was also under-developed.

Once Johannes is arrested, Nella swings into action selling all the sugar in his warehouse. She seems to suddenly possess a wisdom beyond her years whereas, up to this point in the novel, Nella has been pretty wishy washy. The sugar loaves from Surinam are a bone of contention between Johannes and his difficult and odd clients, Frans and Agnes Meermans. Frans seems to have the steak knives out for Johannes and something seemed to go down between Marin and Frans, years ago, but we’re never quite sure what.

The writing and dialogue is a bit odd at times. For example, Otto is an African former slave who Johannes has rescued and who lives in the house. Nella describes his skin as “dark, dark brown everywhere”. Yeah, okay. The second-half of the book descended into a bit of family melodrama – too much so for my liking.

By the end of the book, I was wondering what was the point of it. Where I think Burton did excel was the very detailed historical research and showing us the 17th Century clashes between staunch Dutch Calvinists and progressive-minded merchants. I very nearly gave this book up half-way through but was hoping that all the secrets would be worth it. Nah.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. This is a Gothic Victorian tale and, my word, what a talented writer. This is Perry’s second novel and it’s set in 1890’s London and Essex. The MC is a feisty widow, Cora Seaborne, who fancies herself as a bit of an amateur geologist. She decamps to Colchester in Essex along with her autistic son, Francis, and his nanny, Martha (who also functions as Cora’s companion). There she meets the Reverend William Ransome and his wife, Stella, who is suffering from tuberculosis.

What follows is a wonderful exploration of friendship: between man and woman; woman and woman; man and man. This is all against the backdrop of the myth of the Essex Serpent – a creature who first appeared in the Essex district in the 17th Century and is said to have reappeared following an earthquake in the 1880s. I won’t spoil it and tell you whether there is a serpent or not. Suffice it to say the hysteria that surrounds the serpent leads to an exploration of science and superstition. Beyond this, the novel deals with ideas and contrasts: medical breakthroughs amidst a society in which a large proportion of the population lived in unsanitary slums; and women’s rights in a society governed by rigid expectations of a woman’s role.

Cora’s character is richly drawn and, at times, I felt I was reading a novel set in contemporary times. This intrigued me enough to read an interview with Sarah Perry. She discussed the research she had undertaken and referred to a particular book that I have hotfooting its way from Book Depository. This book suggests that the Victorian era was not as straight-laced as we presume, with women fainting in the aisles from attacks of the vapours.

Perry’s prose is simply exquisite and this novel has become a firm favourite that I will read again. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox. NZ author. Written in 1998. I remember thinking back then that I should buy it and read it, but didn’t. Nearly 20 years later, I found a copy of the book in a secondhand bookshop. In style, this book reminds me of A.S.Byatt’s, Possession. I did struggle with this allegorical novel I have to admit but what an original concept.

It’s an erotic tale; an unorthodox lifelong love story between an angel (whose name is Xas) and Sobran Jodeau, a French vintner. The story starts in 1808 when Sobran stumbles on Xas in the family vineyard and ends when Sobran dies in 1863. Sobran and Xas agree to meet every year on the same night in June. Through their relationship we learn about the family dramas of Sobran (and his love affair with his employer, Baroness de Valday). Murder and madness feature and a cast of characters that is sometimes difficult to keep up with.

I was reminded though of Plato’s cave scenario and his Theory of Forms – a group of people are chained in a dark cave facing a blank wall. Shadows are projected onto the wall from behind them and the prisoners come to view this “world” as their reality. Plato’s Theory of Forms suggests that the non-physical represents reality. So in our world, we have copies or distillations; the real form or idea exists in another realm. Our world is therefore subjective and the other realm is objective.

This concept is the core of Knox’s narrative I think. There is a suggestion, for example, that Xas is an imperfect copy of Christ and that souls are but distilled humans. This is the aspect of the book I found fascinating.

The novel is organised into chapters for each year that Sobran and Xas meet. This made it a bit slow going for me and I didn’t really engage with the characters until the half-way point. The ending where Sobran dies is extremely touching.

Not a quick or easy read but worth it in the end. I believe a sequel was published in 2009 and is titled The Angel’s Cut.

The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman. NZ author. I enjoyed Kidman’s latest book, All Day At The Movies, which I reviewed here. The Infinite Air is the story of New Zealand aviatrix, Jean Batten, who made the first solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. I was a tad worried it was going to be a bit like Paula McLain’s irritating novel, Circling the Sun – a fictionalised account of Beryl Markham who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, east to west, in 1936. I reviewed it back in 2015 and felt that Markham had been reduced to a woman falling for rugged men.

Thankfully, Kidman didn’t fall into this trap despite the stories of Batten being (supposedly) something of a gold-digger. Kidman produced a very readable novel in her usual effortless writing style. I didn’t find it a page-turner to be honest but it was interesting enough to keep me going. Kidman did very well in bringing out Batten’s somewhat dysfunctional childhood and relationship with her two brothers, as well as with her rather controlling mother. However, I felt the ending was rushed.

Batten became something of a recluse after WWII and she lived with her mother in various parts of the world: Jamaica (where she may have had an affair with Ian Fleming); Tenerife and Majorca. I felt Kidman whipped through this part of her life a bit too quickly. For example, there was a suggestion (a false one) that Batten had an association with a Nazi spy. This led to her being largely ignored in war efforts whilst other aviators were deployed. This was kind of glossed over a bit in the novel as was her possible relationship with the writer Ian Fleming. At times I felt Kidman was trying a bit too hard to get in all the facts about Batten and because it’s a fictionalised account, you never quite knew what was fact and what was author imagination.

After being an international celebrity in the 1930s, Batten largely fell from public view and interest. What is really sad is how she died in Majorca in 1983. She was bitten by a dog but refused to get treatment until it was too late. Batten was buried in a pauper’s grave because the authorities did not know her real name. It was only five years later that her family back in New Zealand found out about her death.

I felt Kidman did very well in portraying Batten as a troubled but determined soul who was out to prove that she could do better than the male aviators of the time period. Kidman painted the backdrop of colonial life  (I had to remind myself that Australia and New Zealand were still very much “colonial” in the 1920s and 1930s; part of the British Empire and the Commonwealth; and its citizens were British citizens up until the late 1940s when Australian and New Zealand citizenship was recognised).

I particularly enjoyed reading about the early days of aviation and am in awe of Batten’s courage. A good read.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. Written in 2003, it’s the story of Alessandra Cecchi, the 15-year-old daughter of a prominent fabric merchant in Florence during the 15th century Renaissance. She has a love for painting but, as a woman, cannot pursue her passion. Her father commissions a young painter to decorate the family chapel and Alessandra is intoxicated by his talent and the two ultimately provide the romantic thread for the novel. Alessandra marries a much older man (as family and society dictated) and the novel is as much about the limits on a woman’s role during that time period as it is the story of Florence (which suffered four years of Savonarola’s extreme puritanical grip).

Dunant is a very strong writer and certainly conjures up life and death in Florence in the 1400s. I was puzzled by the ending though (which I won’t give away in case you want to read this book). Alessandra was such a strong personality that I felt the ending wasn’t true to character. There is also a murder sub-plot that I felt detracted and was unnecessary.

The really intriguing character is Erila, a black slave in the Cecchi household. She was not bound by the strict etiquette of the time period and could roam the streets, picking up gossip. I imagine she witnessed a very different aspect to 15th Century Florence and this would make a wonderful story in its own right.

Dunant’s writing style is lyrical, at times almost poetic. I did have a few further gripes with the book – at times the dialogue sounded too modern and I would have ditched the Prologue. I’m not a fan of Prologues at the best of times and I think this one gave away too much too soon. I also think the conflict between Alessandra and one of her brothers, Tomaso, was forced and unbelievable. I would have thought that a brother’s role in 15th C Italian families was to be protective of sisters.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book and appreciate Dunant’s meticulous research. It just wasn’t the page turner I’d hoped.

 

 

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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.

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.

 

I’ve been powering my way through books over the last month or so.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. You need staying power for this novel as it’s over 500 pages. It’s the story of Cyril Avery, a man born in Ireland in 1945 to sixteen-year old girl Catherine, who is kicked out of her family, church and the village of Goleen. She must make her own way in Dublin but ultimately gives Cyril up for adoption to a rather flamboyant couple (Charles, a banker; and Maude who becomes one of Ireland’s best-loved novelists). At the age of seven, Cyril meets Julian who will have a lifelong influence on him and keeps a secret from him that will ultimately wreck their friendship.

Cyril’s journey through life is filled with mistakes, inflicting suffering on others but, ultimately, he finds happiness. It’s a intimate look into Ireland from the 1940s, its societal prejudices and the role of the Catholic Church. Boyne is a masterful storyteller and I enjoyed this book.

The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey. New Zealand author. This is Chidgey’s fourth novel – I confess I have not heard of her. But…I plan to read her previous books, such is the power of her writing. The Wish Child is the German story of WWII, through the eyes of two children: Erich Kröning and Sieglinde Heilmann. We follow the children and their families as Hitler’s warped ideology grips Germany. The attention to detail is outstanding as we take a glimpse into the ordinary lives of the German people, who were promised the world but ended up scavenging for food and informing on each other.

The brutality and pointlessness of war is front and centre as the children see dead bodies on the streets and Sieglinde is raped by Russian soldiers as they advance on Berlin in 1945.

The story is told by an unknown narrator, which I initially found a tad annoying, but when I discovered the identity of this narrator it all made perfect sense and really tugged at the heart (I can’t say more as I’ll give the game away).

Chidgey is a wonderful writer – her prose is lyrical and haunting. This is a political novel without it being smack in your face. It forces one to question how we view our leaders, how ideologies can take root and how a populace can react. It’s also a novel about the power of language. Sieglinde’s father worked for the National Socialist government as a censor, cutting out words from books and letters. The novel presents some of these words: promise, God, pity, sorrow, Versailles, surrender, defeat, love, exterminate – but who decides whether these words should be censored? Chidgey invites us to reflect on this.

When the parents are killed during bombing raids, Sieglinde and Erich spend days hiding out in a theatre as Berlin collapses around them. We then follow their separate lives post-WWII with Erich behind The Iron Curtain and Sieglinde an archivist. They eventually meet again in the 1990s. A remarkable novel that I will read again.

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken. YA fiction. Time travel novel and the first in a new series. First time I have read any of Bracken’s books. I liked it but…….couldn’t really connect with the main character, Etta. I found her a bit inconsistent – at times very feisty whilst, at other times, dazzled by her pirate love, Nicholas. And speaking of Nicholas, who was from the 18thC, I found him a bit too ardent and over-the-top in his love for Etta. The pacing throughout the novel was also a bit slow and inconsistent for me.

There was a lot of travelling (through time travel passages) between different time periods to retrieve an astrolabe that can control the historical timeline. I think this had a lot of promise but more time was spent on the romance than there was on action. Etta and Nicholas spend a lot of time pondering whether they should act on their feelings, at the expense of getting on with the job of finding the astrolabe. I also didn’t find them convincing as a couple.

Etta travels from Bhutan 1910; to New York in 1776; WWII London; 1685 Angkor; Paris 1880; and Damascus in 1599. That’s a whole lot of places and time periods and I’m not sure she captured the historical essence of each period.

A long read at 400+ pages but it does end with a reasonably good cliff hanger. I did find the novel picked up towards the end but seemed rushed (given the slow pace throughout) and there seemed a fair bit of information dumping going on (in order to set up the sequel). Racism is a theme in this book (Nicholas is black) and I think Bracken handled this well, although coming across a little preachy at times. Wayfarer is the next book in this series and I might give it a go.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter. A really quirky book by a Canadian author that is partly narrated by ghosts from the late 19th Century. The main character is Jane Standen, a London archivist with a troubled past. She is obsessed with two disappearances: the 1877 disappearance of an anonymous girl in the northern English countryside; and Lily, a 5 year-old child who went missing in the very same woods when Jane was her 15 year-old babysitter.

Thrown into this mix is a 19th Century asylum (Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics); the personal museum of curiosities owned by Edmund Chester (an Industrial age textile merchant); and the Inglewood estate, a magnificent private home within walking distance of Whitmore.

Essentially, this book is about life, death and memory. The squabbling ghosts, most of whom inhabited Whitmore, follow Jane around, waiting for clues as to their identity. This means that the narrative point of view shifts between third person and first-person-plural, which I occasionally found irritating and I’m not sure if Jane was as well-rounded a character because of this constant movement between third and first. I don’t feel that I gained a sense of Jane resolving her past and coming to terms with her feelings for William Elliot (Lily’s father).

I enjoyed learning about the identity of the ghosts – a schoolmaster, a servant, inmates of Whitmore – and the idea that people who have passed remain with us in another form.

Hunter is an exceptionally strong writer. The metaphors are sometimes a tad overdone but her prose is lyrical. My favourite line from the novel occurs when the ghosts are watching Jane: “some of us feel the shape our hearts once took hang like pendulums in the hourless clocks of our chests”.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon. Australian writer. I read an advance reading copy. I don’t know – I didn’t really connect with this book. I liked its premise: being connected to land along the spectrum of past, present and future. Set in the Illawarra region of New South Wales. I didn’t find the characters compelling nor the writing style.

The novel starts in 1796, with a young cabin boy (Will Martin) who goes on a voyage of discovery in the Tom Thumb with Matthew Flinders and Mr Bass. We then have five interlinking stories, with five different narrators, spanning a time period of 400 years or so. There is the story of ex-convict, Hawker, who murders an Aboriginal woman; Lola, who runs a dairy farm in 1900 with her brother and sister, and they are suspected of a crime they did not commit; Bel, a young girl who goes on a rafting adventure with her friends in 1998 and is caught up in violent events; and in 2033, the story of Nada whose memories hint at an ecologically-driven apocalypse.

All the characters are connected: via blood, the landscape, place of living. I believe this is called a translit novel where narratives shift in time (aka time hopping) and geography. Storyland starts in the future and then ebbs and flows, like a wave, between past and future. Given the clues to an ecologically-driven apocalypse, I did find the book’s anchoring in Nature compelling. There are a lot of birds flying around, and rivers, streams and trees are focal points throughout the novel. You do gain a good sense of how a landscape changes over time due to population growth, building activities and so on. And you end up feeling that our present time is very disconnected from Nature.

I did find this book very reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2003) but obviously in an Australian setting. I will give this book another go as I think I might have missed deeper layers.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. YA fantasy. There’s a strong premise for this book – a dystopian world ruled by the Silvers, people with silver blood and astonishing God-like powers (such as reading minds and manipulating actions; hands that turn into electricity or melt iron). The Silvers rule over the Reds, who are normal humans. One Red girl (Mare) has the power to throw electrical balls of fire. She is a hybrid of Silver and Red, a new breed. Mare finds herself working at the Silver palace and, ultimately, discovers her powers, which could destroy the Silvers.

I can’t quite put my finger on it but something about this novel didn’t work for me. I read it to the end but it was fairly obvious who the “bad guy” was despite a few twists and turns thrown into the mix to get the reader off the scent. The plucky main character, Mare Barrow, is a 17 year old girl. I found her characterisation inconsistent. She’s involved in a love triangle with two brothers but there’s another guy as well, so make that a love square.

Her two love interests are brothers, Cal and Maven. Cal, the older brother and heir to the throne was like a piece of cardboard in my view; Maven (who I could spot a mile away as not what he claimed to be) ended up being a stereotypical evil dude, complete with twisting smile and creepy laughter.

The premise of the book also reminded a lot of Red Rising by Pierce Brown (where the world is divided into Reds and Golds, who are the powerful ruling elite).

For me, there was too much love triangle going on and too little about the world the characters inhabited and the war going on between the Silvers and the Reds. I never felt I had a grip on why the war had been blazing away for 100 years.  I had no sense of the backstory. You also had the oh-so-predictable character of Evangeline. She hated Mare on sight and wanted to duel it out.

The book is a mixture of everything out there really – the Hunger Games, X-Men, Divergent, Game of Thrones. It’s written well and the pacing was okay, it kept my interest (despite getting sick of the unbelievable love triangle). So I liked the book but didn’t love it. It’s one of those books I’ll forget about in the coming months.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney. Historical fiction published in 2006 by Scottish author, Stef Penney. It was her debut novel and won the Costa Book of the Year award. Set in the frozen wilderness of Canada and the community of Dove River in 1867, I read somewhere that Penney did all her research in the British Library and never stepped foot on Canadian soil. Remarkable really because the writing is so detailed when it comes to describing the Canadian landscape, you’d swear the author had been there.

It’s a complex murder mystery. A French trapper, Laurent Jammet, is found brutally murdered in his remote cabin and a young boy (Francis Ross) is an immediate suspect because he flees the area. His mother sets off after him and is accompanied by another Indian trapper, who is also a suspect for Jammet’s murder.

But there’s a deeper layer to this novel. It’s the journey of the characters as we come to understand their true natures, their fears and aspirations, their relationship to family and loved ones.

I do think there were too many characters in the book and I had to work at remembering who was who. The reader would also benefit from a map because the characters went on so many journeys, criss-crossing the frozen Canadian landscape.

A section of the book involves Francis Ross being found near death and then cared for by a Norwegian religious community. This introduced the female character, Line, who I found very unconvincing. Line took off with her two children and someone’s husband. They all ended up being lost in the snow and, frankly, these characters went nowhere and distracted from the main story. They weren’t necessary to the story and I think Penney could have edited them out. In fact, the whole Norwegian community aspect could be edited out in my view. Penney did not really give the reader much information or backstory about the Norwegians – why they were living there, where they obtained their food from etc.

Penney’s writing style is atmospheric with a lot of references to wintry landscapes, spindly trees, bitter cold and blinding white snow.

The characters I most enjoyed were Mrs. Ross – the plucky mother of Francis who sets off into the wilderness to find her son – and William Parker, the “half-breed” tracker and murder suspect. Penney portrayed these characters with an amazing strength and left a lot unsaid. You end up wondering about the relationship between Mrs. Ross and Angus (her husband) and what exactly is going on between her and Parker as the roam the frozen Canadian territories.

I also thought a sub-plot about the decade-old mystery of two missing sisters, which was woven throughout the book, was very cleverly done.

One thing I didn’t like was the constant shift between first person point of view (when Mrs. Ross narrated as the protagonist) and the third person perspectives of the other characters.

The ending gets exciting but I did wonder why it took so very long to arrive at this point. Despite this, I found it a haunting novel that I will not easily forget.

 

 

 

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. I quite liked this book, although I didn’t find it a page turner. 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.

 

 

 

I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult Fiction novels lately. I sometimes find them a more satisfying read than adult fiction. So here’s what I’ve been reading.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly. This is YA fiction/historical fiction and what a page turner. Set in Victorian-era New York (a refreshing change from Victorian London), it’s the story of Josephine Montfort, who is from a wealthy New York family and investigates the death of her father. There’s a bit of romance with a young reporter, Eddie Gallagher, who provides the tension: he comes from the street gangs of New York.

Very strong characterisation, with great character growth, although I did think the introduction of Eddie’s sister was unnecessary (the plot was strong enough). I was not keen on the voice of Grandma and found some of her utterances a bit silly (e.g. “Fine set of hips on that girl too. She’ll breed as easily as an Ayrshire heifer.”). An insane asylum also features in this book and I think Donnelly amped up the thrill level when Josephine’s uncle has her committed. Thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Thousandth Floor by Katherine McGee. YA dystopian fiction (although I’m not sure what the dystopian part was all about). I simply couldn’t finish it and found it pretty dull (I think I reached page 200 of 400+ pages).The futuristic setting had me intrigued: Manhattan 2118 and a thousand storey apartment complex. The book started off with the death of a young girl, as she falls from the roof of the complex. This was the only interesting part of the book for me.

I read that there are shades of Gossip Girl in this novel but I’ve never watched that TV series. I found it to be a pointless, slow-paced plot about rich kids living high up in the mega-tower (I really had to put aside any architectural worries about a thousand floors). The characters were flat and I didn’t care about any of them. Some were cliched: for example – Avery, rich, blonde hair, beautiful, genetically engineered. I also had a problem with Avery lusting after her own brother (albeit adopted). Just didn’t sit well with me.

This is McGee’s debut novel and I think this is the first book of some series. I was half-tempted to skip to the end and find out who was plastered all over the pavement and whodunnit, but….couldn’t be bothered.

My Name is Not Friday by Jon Walter. YA historical fiction. This is a book that had a slow start for me but rapidly picked up. Set in the Deep South during the American Civil War, it’s the story of a young orphan, 13-year-old Samuel, who is tricked into slavery. At first, I thought: yeah, heard this before but I think the strong voice of Samuel (whose slave name is Friday) created a very engaging character.

There was just enough accented speech of the time period to lend authenticity without being annoying. The story is told in the first person and you certainly become immersed in the narrative as Samuel works as a slave, then flees the oncoming Yankee soldiers. The scene where a black plantation manager is whipped by the white plantation owner’s wife is harrowing.

What I liked was the intimate glimpse into the relationship between slave and master. The young son of the plantation owner, Gerald, strikes up a friendship with Samuel and this I see as a vehicle for the author to drive the point home about equality.

There are any number of themes to ponder – the role of religion, colonialism, the meaning of family, loyalty and freedom – to name a few.

The author has an effortless writing style. After the darkness of the Civil War, I loved the final line in the book: “Some time soon I’ll stand in sunshine.’ I think this book should be required reading in high school History classes. It’s a story that will stay with you, that’s for sure.

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton. YA fiction/fantasy. You can see I’ve been reading a lot of YA books! This is the first book in a trilogy that Hamilton is writing and is a debut novel. I didn’t really like this book as I found it a very weird combination of gunslinging Wild West and Arabian desert folklore and magic with some X-Men references thrown in. I think it would have worked better if the Western references were ditched. I think the author’s world-building was strong enough to let the book be set in an Arabian setting.

It’s the story of a smart-talking, sharp-shooting 16-year-old girl, Amani Al’Hiza, who is determined to get out of her hometown called Dustwalk (I would too with a name like that). Hamilton paints an alternative universe and, since I’m not much of a fantasy genre reader, I found it a little difficult. There are creatures called Skinwalkers and the Demdjii (mythical horses).

Amani lives in a land occupied by a foreign ruler/Sultan and she meets up with Jin, who turns out to be the love interest and something else (won’t reveal in case you want to read the book).

Here are my issues: (1) writing style – the first half of the book employed an annoying over-use of similes and I found the wise-cracking Amani a bit too wise-cracking; (2) the strong world-building seems to die off in the second half of the book; and (3) the plot was entirely predictable. But I did hang in there to the end.

Sons of the Blood by Robyn Young. Historical fiction. This is Book 1 of the New World Rising series and I really enjoyed this book. It has a strong plot – set in 1483 during the War of the Roses, it’s the story of Jack Wynter, the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Vaughan. Jack is sent by his father to Spain with instructions to protect a secret document: a map. Following his father’s death, Jack returns to England and all hell breaks loose – rogue Catholic priests, mysterious organisations, people chasing around London for the map and a very interesting view on what happened to the Princes in the Tower (Edward and Richard).

A well-written book that never lost pace or focus. I’ll certainly read Book 2.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L.Stedman. What a stunning debut novel by an Australian author. The author is female and has done an outstanding job writing through the point of view of a male character. When I first read a synopsis of the plot, I thought how boring – set in 1926, WWI veteran, Tom Sherbourne who clearly has PTSD, is the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an island off the Australian coast. His wife, Isabel, is desperate for a baby. So desperate that the couple make a decision that will affect their lives. Basically, it’s a story about bad things that happen to good people.

Ho-hum. But wait!! It’s such a beautifully written narrative; so poignant. The author excels at presenting the reader with a gut-wrenching moral dilemma. I think this book will resonant with Australian readers particularly – we understand the jargon, the Aussie language of the time period, the remoteness of parts of Australia, the weather and landscape.

Tom is a very believable character; Isabel not so much. There were times when I couldn’t quite believe that Tom would go along with Isabel; that his decision was so out of character for a WWI hero. But perhaps that is the point. I also thought there was a bit of awkward information dumping – scenes relating to the workings of a lighthouse.

I did see the ending coming. It was predictable but handled with great skill. I loved this book!

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I’ve been helping the 15-year-old daughter of a friend of mine and homeschooling her three times a week. For her NCEA Level 1 English exam, I assigned her this classic book. In New Zealand, students can sit the exam and focus on whatever book they wish.

I think this is the fourth time I’ve read this outstanding book. I thought I knew it very well but discovered new things, thanks to our discussions in homeschool. For example: last year’s exam asked a question around symbolism and I hadn’t given this any thought before. The scene in the book where a rabid dog walks into the township is a symbol of the madness that Atticus Finch faces as he defends Tom Robinson.

We also watched the 1962 film together and the first comment was “this film is black and white”. So that was a great teaching point as well – why was the film shot in black and white?

If you haven’t read this book, do yourself a favour and get onto it.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope. A quiet, haunting book that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is the story of two mental patients, Irishman John and Ella, and it is a wonderful insight into the treatment of mental health in the Edwardian era. In the asylum is a ballroom and well-behaved patients can attend a dance there on Friday nights for social interaction and music therapy. John and Ella form a touching relationship that is threatened by Dr.Fuller, who provides the conflict in the novel. Fuller is fascinated with eugenics and struggles with his latent homosexuality – this creates a great character.

The author’s great-great grandfather was the inspiration for this novel – he was a patient in the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum (in the UK) from 1905 until his death in 1918.

There are shades of Anthony Doerr in her writing – both describe the weather in breathtaking ways. I spotted the ending easily but I thought it was a fitting end. A very well-paced and well-written novel.

All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman. A Kiwi writer at the height of her talent. This book is 14 interconnected stories that follow the fortunes of a New Zealand family from the 1950s through to 2015.  It starts in the oppressive 1950s, when women were constrained by social and sexual mores of the time period. I wouldn’t say it’s a page-turner but you are invested in the characters, all related to the family matriarch, Irene Sandle. It is like watching a movie – 14 chapters that take you through 55 years of social and cultural history.

Being Australian, this was the interesting part for me – learning about the New Zealand of an earlier time period. Kidman also excels at creating vivid, in-depth characters that generate a reaction within the reader (either good or bad). I’m currently reading Kidman’s latest collection of poetry, This Change in the Light.

Reviews for the latest batch of books I’ve been reading.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. This book created a scandal when it was published in 1955. I first read Lolita at University I think. It’s the story of European academic, Humbert Humbert, and his attraction to “nymphets” (under-aged girls in other words). Humbert tells his story from prison.

Yes, this is a book about the sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old American girl (Dolores “Lolita” Haze). But Nabokov is such a skilled writer that you feel sympathetic for Humbert. In lesser hands, you would have viewed Humbert as nothing more than a monstrous pedophile.

I don’t view this book as a “love story” (as many reviews describe it) because Humbert is incapable of love.

This is a postmodern novel and it works on so many levels. It’s part detective story (Humbert is a murderer); it’s a tale of tragic obsession and revenge; it’s a post-WWII American road trip novel; it’s the story of one man’s psychological need to control and possess; but it’s also the story of Lolita’s power over Humbert.

Hard to believe that English was not Nabokov’s native language, such is the beauty and fluency of his prose. Clever wordplay runs throughout the novel – a secondary character, Vivian Darkbloom, is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov; Humbert and Lolita drive through a town, Soda, Pop 1001; a major character, Clare Quilty, rhymes with guilty; the numbers 52 and 342 occur repeatedly.

It’s a dark, violent and disturbing novel yet, at times, quite funny. Ultimately, it’s the story of a lonely man – a cultured European cast adrift in a post-WWII America shaped by vulgar consumerism.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. This book is also called Everyman Dies Alone. Rudolf Ditzen wrote under the name of Hans Fallada in the first half of the 20th Century. His personal history is fascinating: born in Germany in 1893, Fallada was an alcoholic who was also addicted to drugs; in 1911, he killed a schoolfriend in a dual; spent time in psychiatric hospitals; and had a tenuous relationship with the Nazis.

The book was published in 1947, shortly after Fallada’s death at age 53. It’s the story of German resistance to the Nazis and, as such, is a refreshing take on the Nazi era.

The main characters are Otto and Anna Quangel, an ordinary Berlin working couple. The death of their son, Ottochen, in 1940 triggers their resistance to the German war effort. Otto spends Sundays writing protest messages on postcards and dropping them around Berlin. Most of the postcards end up in the hands of the Gestapo and, ultimately, the couple are arrested.

The novel is populated with a cast of vivid characters: Gestapo Inspector Escherich; Emil Borkhausen (a pimp); drunken Old Persicke and his ambitious Nazi-supporting sons; Frau Rosenthal, an old Jewish lady who meets a tragic end.

The novel conveys the desperation of the German people, who are driven by suspicion and fear. The slightest hint that one might not support National Socialism could end up with a knock on the door and the Gestapo.

I thought Fallada did an exceptional job of conveying the coldness of Hitler’s Berlin and the insanity of the Nazis. Yet, flashes of kindness and integrity still existed. I particularly liked the growth in Otto and Anna’s moral courage. Neither Otto nor Anna are likely dissidents. Otto works in a factory and Anna is a housewife.

Both are tortured by the Gestapo and a regime who cares for no-one, least of all the Jewish people. And yet Otto realises that “everyone matters” and this is the moral heart of the book.

I liked the staccato writing style of Fallada as it echoed the brutality of the era. Apparently, Fallada wrote this novel in one month and this is the first time it’s been available in English.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx. The latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize winner and an epic at more than 700+ pages.  I’d love to say it is exceptional but I found it very preachy and the writing flat. The novel spans 300 years, from the arrival of French settlers in Canada in 1693 to an account of melting glaciers in 2013.

The theme of the book is the environment, particularly the destruction of the forests. The main characters are René Sel and Charles Duquet and we follow the bloodlines of these two men. The story takes us to Dutch coffee houses in Amsterdam; to the kauri forests of New Zealand; to logging camps and the harsh treatment of indigenous people in America.

What I didn’t like was that nothing was left for the reader to imagine or interpret. Proulx hits us over the head with all the details and I found the silly names of some characters very distracting (for example: Brenton Dred-Peacock, Jim Sillyboy, Blade Scugog, Louis Bluzzard).

So many characters were hastily killed off you never really get to know them. But I suppose this did portray the brutality of the time period (disease and forest accidents) and Proulx wants to tell the story of the environment (the forest really), rather than a character-driven narrative.

The last 40 pages seemed rushed to me and the narrative voice was always preachy and judgemental. To learn that Proulx had to axe 150 pages from the original manuscript is a small mercy.

I did enjoy the meticulous research and attention to historical detail. It’s certainly a wide-sweeping saga of North American history and a new addition to environmental fiction.

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker. A wonderful book from a skillful and very visual writer. It’s based on the experiences of Irish author, Samuel Beckett, in wartime France and focuses on his relationship with a French girl, Suzanne, who later becomes his wife in real life. The story follows their journey south from Paris to Roussillon after they have come to the notice of the Gestapo. The point of view is Beckett.

Baker illuminates the gritty realities of war: hunger, worn boots, blistered feet, rotting teeth, the fear of betrayal; cold and inadequate clothing. The writing style is beautifully paced and is an example of the contemporary, contemplative present-tense prose. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs. This book has great reviews. I reached p.125 and couldn’t go on. I just wasn’t engaged in the characters and I found the main character, Lucia Joyce, irritating. The narrator is the daughter of the writer, James Joyce (who also turns up in Jo Baker’s book).

The story shifts between Zurich in 1934 and sessions of psychoanalysis with Dr. Carl Jung and 1920’s Paris, where Lucia’s life revolves around dancing and her parents. She is attracted to Samuel Beckett (the main character in Baker’s novel) and sculptor Alexander Calder. But both abandon her and she descends into madness.

I wish I could have finished the novel but I wasn’t invested in the story.

One Half From The East by Nadia Hashimi. This book is Young Adult fiction and an author’s note reveals the core of the story – “The moment we look past gender and look at the heart of a child, we will see a world of potential that can take him or her all the way to the mountaintop.

Set in Afghanistan, it explores the rigidly enforced gender roles of the country. The main character is a 10-year-old girl, Obayda, who is transformed into a bacha posh: a boy. Following a bomb blast in Kabul and the loss of her father’s leg, Obayda’s family moves to a small rural village. Culturally, there is a belief that boys are good fortune and so, to attract better luck, Obayda experiences life for a few months as a boy.

Hashimi is a good writer and you connect well with the characters. This would be a great book for young adults as it invites an exploration of gender equality issues.

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J Church. Exceptional writing. Not the visual writing that I like (a’la Anthony Doerr or Jo Baker) but the powerful use of minimalist wording to convey an emotion or action. Here’s an example:

We have to take flight. It’s not given to us, served up on a pretty, parsley-bordered platter. We have to take wing. Was I brave enough to do that? Or would I be content to remain earthbound?”

Meridian Wallace gives up her ornithological studies to marry Alden Whetstone, a scientist involved in the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos. Meridian feels trapped in the rigid, claustrophobic social environment of the 1940s and 1950s – a time when women were expected to sacrifice their careers for those of the husband. Meridian finds solace in her study of crow behaviour in nearby canyons.

As the 1970s approach, she meets a young Vietnam veteran, Clay, and they embark on a love affair. The countercultural movement of the 60s and 70s is meticulously portrayed. I felt Clay was a little too good to be true but I liked how Church used Clay to shift Meridian’s thinking about herself and her marriage.

Ultimately, this is a book about the changing role of women from the mid-20th Century. I did find Alden a bit one-dimensional and Meridian too passive, but you have to remember the context of the time period. Meridian’s change through the course of the novel is powerful. I loved this novel.

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