Book reviews


It’s a mixed bag of book reviews this time around.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. You sure need staying power for this 400+ page book. Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel, The God of Small Things, and spent the following 20 years as a political activist working on behalf of Kashmir independence and against Hindu nationalism.

This is a sprawling novel with a huge cast of characters that are somewhat difficult to keep up with and the pace is, at times, a bit tedious. The novel begins in the 1950s and ends in a graveyard in present time. We are first introduced to Anjum, who is a hijra or transgender person. Basically, how the hijras are treated in this novel represents India itself and the never-ending conflict with Kashmir. You are reading Roy’s political stance to be honest and you find yourself embroiled in issues such as Hindu fundamentalism, war and poverty, brutality, land exploitation, the consequences of the US invading Afghanistan, people on the margins of society.

Her writing can be breathtaking but I think the book could have been a lot shorter and told through the eyes of less characters. At times, the narrative meandered and I think tougher editing was needed. There’s a lot of hit-over-the-head telling, not much dialogue in this book and certainly not much of a plot.

I’m 50/50 on this book to be honest. There were some rather crude caricatures. For example, a Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) is referred to as The Trapped Rabbit. The novel raised more questions than it answered but I guess that’s the point.

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim. This book, published in 1921, is said to have inspired Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel, Rebecca. What I didn’t know was that von Arnim was born in Australia but lived most of her life in England, France, Switzerland and Germany. Her cousin was Katherine Mansfield.

I’m a great fan of novels written in the early to mid-20th Century, especially by authors who have perhaps been forgotten. This book was fabulous. I didn’t even find the liberal use of adverbs annoying – I think because they were couched in the more formal language of the 1920s. Everything flowed.

Vera is a dark, chilling story. Two people, who have recently suffered losses, meet and fall in love (Lucy and Everard). They marry only months after Everard’s wife, Vera, fell to her death from a window in their country home called The Willows. The unresolved question being did she commit suicide? Was it an accident? Or….

Apparently, Everard was based on Elizabeth von Arnim’s second husband, Francis Russell, the elder brother of Bertrand Russell. Everard is portrayed as controlling and narcissistic. The first part of the story is what appears to be a sweet love story developing between 22-year-old Lucy Entwhistle and 45-year-old Everard Wemyss. He meets Lucy as he was walking in the village where Lucy had been staying with her father on holiday. Lucy’s father had just died and she stands at a gate, bereft, when Everard sees her.

What follows is a spiralling tale of bullying by a man towards the women in his life and of the household servants. It is a story of power play and manipulation.

Lucy is expected to sleep in the very bed that Everard shared with his recently departed wife, Vera. There is a life size portrait of her in the dining room and Lucy becomes somewhat obsessed with Vera, while living in her shadow. Love is blind and she cannot see Everard’s true character or that she is trapped in a nightmare.

Lucy’s very proper aunt, Miss Entwhistle, has misgivings about Everard and there’s a wonderful showdown between them at the end of the book. The ending was unexpected I must say. I did think (hoped) that Everard might suffer a fate worse than Vera but I think the ending was sensational (I won’t give it away just in case you want to read this great novel).

Von Arnim does an excellent job of character development. I can see how this novel inspired du Maurier but Vera is a novel about psychological and emotional abuse and doesn’t have the ghostly aspects of Rebecca (or a house that is a character in its own right).

Trompe L’Oeil by Gardner McKay. Do you recognise the name of the author? I literally stumbled onto this book on Amazon and thought, wait – Gardner McKay? Couldn’t be. The same Gardner McKay I saw on endless reruns of the TV show, Adventures in Paradise, as I was growing up in Australia? The same chap my mother had a huge crush on?

Yep. Turns out that this actor, who was a heartthrob in the late 50s and 60s, gave up acting in the late 1960s and pursued his creative side: sculpture, photography, and writing.

I admit I was skeptical. I took a peek inside this book as Amazon lets you do. I liked the synopsis of the book and bought the e-book. Wow. Let me say that again. WOW. Gardner McKay could write (he died at the age of 69 years in 2001) and this book is probably one of the most amazing books I’ve read in a very long time. I hate reading e-books and usually don’t get beyond a few pages because I prefer to hold a book in my hands. But I devoured this book over a weekend. At over 500 pages, it’s a substantial read and when I was doing other things, I kept thinking I have to get back to that book.

Apparently, McKay read it in chapters for his weekly show on Hawaii Public Radio, so at least we know that he wrote it and it wasn’t ghost written. The book was finished just before he died and his wife then spent a few years trying to piece it all together. From what I’ve read, there wasn’t one computer file for the book.

The narrator is an artist, Simon Lister, who has the unique ability to draw people into his paintings and literally create reality. In a moment of madness, he burns 51 of his paintings, valued in the millions. He has an intense love for a woman called Anna who dies in a plane crash but Simon refuses to accept the reality of her death. Simon wants freedom from all the characters who want to isolate him in some remote location so he can paint again and replace the lost artworks. He flees the United States for France and a life of obscurity with Anna but art dealers want to find him and so the chase across Europe begins.

This book is not a romantic ghost story or an art theft adventure tale. The title gives the clue – Trompe L’Oeil – which is an art technique that depicts objects with photographically realistic detail; an optical illusion that deceives the senses. Given this, my interpretation is that the novel asks questions: Is reality a form of madness? Can madness create reality? Is life itself an optical illusion? How do we learn to “let things go” (as Simon must let go of Anna)? What does it mean to be free and how can we find this freedom? What is art supposed to give us?

At its heart, the novel is also one of the finest love stories I’ve read. As the reader, you are informed that Anna is dead and you then watch Simon struggling to come to terms with this fact. It’s heartbreaking. Since many people also saw Anna, you realise that Simon possesses the power to create reality, he created Anna but must let her go and live his life on a small island in the Atlantic for another 40 years.

A writer eventually tracks down Simon and visits him with the intent of writing his biography and revealing to the world that he is not dead. The writer is only interested in self-glory. Simon gives him his journals to read and the writer decides what he must do. I won’t reveal what this is because I think you should read this book. Let me say the ending was very fitting and emotional.

I very much liked McKay’s writing style and it’s clear to me that he mastered the craft. Very powerful writing from a talented man with a wonderful imagination. I think Trompe L’Oeil is nothing short of a masterpiece. I am now going to hunt down a hardcopy of this book as I want it in my personal library.

Dead Lemons by Finn Bell. NZ author (originally from South Africa). A bit like Trompe L’Oeil, I stumbled onto this book while browsing Amazon. I really don’t like reading e-books and I don’t read mysteries or thrillers but I liked the title of this book, so thought why not. A day or so after I’d purchased this book, it won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Dead Lemons is a self-published novel and I read that Bell has not sold a single hard copy.

First thing I’ll say is that I liked the first person narrative voice of the MC. It was strong and quirky. The MC, who interestingly is named Finn Bell, is in his mid-30s and on a destructive path. I really don’t get why he named the MC after himself but, then again, why not? I did wonder if it means there’s some autobiographical aspect to Dead Lemons. And I did find it a bit annoying if I’m honest.

The MC is unhappy, drinks too much, crashes his car and ends up in a wheelchair. His wife leaves him, he sells up in Wellington and moves to Riverton in the deep South of New Zealand.

He buys a cottage and we found out the interesting history of Riverton (real place in the South Island of NZ) as a whaling station. The young daughter of the original owners of the cottage went missing in the late 1980s and the MC becomes somewhat obsessed with finding out what happened to her (and her father who also disappeared about a year later). This obsession involves three brothers, known as the Zoyls, who live on a creepy farm next door to the cottage. The Zoyl family history goes back to the 1800s when they were whalers and traders.

So far, so good. Now to the review. I did find the Zoyl baddies a bit unbelievable and I was somewhat irritated by Betty, the therapist Finn sees weekly. Although I will say that I kind of liked her Betty-isms (her take on life). But I do think that the psychobabble may put some readers off. It’s during a therapy session that Finn is asked whether he is a dead lemon (basically, a person not fit to live because they are incapable of goodness within themselves).

Second thing I will say is that I think the book could have been edited more closely. There were some tense inconsistencies and grammatical errors. I also found the use of flashbacks a bit tedious. I was forced to continually look at the chapter headings to figure out whether it was present time, days or months ago.

Third thing is that I didn’t like the police characters from Benin. They are twins and I’m not sure why they are in the book, other than for Bell to hark back to his African origins and throw in some folklore about monkeys and use this tidbit of information to plan how to catch who dunnit.

There is one character – who I won’t name because I might give the game away – I found very odd. Let me just say I started to figure out that this was the real culprit but the ending left me flat. Why did this character do what he did? What was the motivation? To be honest, I found the ending a bit of a let down and kind of rushed. I think it was a let down because this character was very underdeveloped. The character was referred to here and there and then, wham, you’re hit with this is who really did it. But I didn’t really get a handle on why this character behaved as he did over the many years since the 1980s and how he and the Zoyls were connected (beyond him finding out what the Zoyls were really up to on their farm). The threads weren’t drawn together all that well.

At times the pace was a bit slow but I did like Finn’s writing style. Would I read another book by Finn Bell? Probably not. I didn’t dislike the book but I didn’t really like it either.

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott. I have decided to get out of my comfort zone and try reading some ghost stories. This was a good book to start off with. Debut novel published in 2007, it is a murder mystery and ghost story in one.

In the 17th Century, a number of suspicious deaths occurred at Trinity College, Cambridge University where Isaac Newton seemed to rise quickly up the ranks to become Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Who is responsible for the deaths of the various academics – who all seemed to have a remarkable tendency to fall down staircases? Did Newton resort to murder to attain a fellowship at Trinity? This is the question contemporary Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, asks as she researches Newton’s fascination with alchemy, light and gravity.

Elizabeth winds up dead and her friend, Dr Lydia Brooke, is asked by Elizabeth’s son Cameron (a neuroscientist) to ghostwrite and finish Vogelsang’s manuscript on Newton. She moves into Elizabeth’s studio and strange lights start appearing on walls and she sees a ghostly figure in red robes. Lydia resumes her love affair with Cameron and starts to question what the connection is between the 17th Century deaths and Elizabeth’s death by drowning.

The story is told as a first person narrative (Lydia) to Cameron (referring to him in the second person). My issue is that I didn’t quite connect with the love affair between these two. I felt that Cameron was a bit of an unbelievable character. At times, I could have killed Lydia – she seemed very weak – especially when she was busy fantasizing about Cameron (for example: she imagines him giving a conference speech in the US). So I ended up with no empathy for the two main characters.

Also what bothered me is that for a ghost story, there wasn’t a lot of the supernatural going on. In fact, there were a lot of themes woven together: romance, history, alchemy, science, the supernatural, 20th Century pharmaceuticals (Cameron’s work), animal rights activists groups, secret organizations, glass making in 17th Century Europe and quantum physics. And I think this ended up in a bit of a confusing mish-mash to be honest. There was just too much going on. The part of the book where Stott explained quantum physics as a way of understanding how two time periods could be entangled felt vague and disjointed.

However, Stott can write. There was some exceptional prose. The ending was fairly obvious and a kind of non-event. No spine-chilling stuff. I did like the contrast between Lydia and Cameron’s text messages and excerpts from Elizabeth’s manuscript on Newton (a subtle way of contrasting two time periods). The Author’s Note at the end explains what is fact and what is fiction – a good thing because Newton is quite a mysterious figure in his own right. As a character, Newton wasn’t very well-developed but in hindsight I think that works well – he remains a shadow of the 17th Century.

On the whole, this was a good read.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. I’m late to the party with this slim book (around 200 pages) published in 1983. One of my favourite books is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins so I thought I’d try this similarly-titled book and it’s my second ghost story read (or more precisely, I think this is Gothic Horror). In contrast with Stott’s book, Hill has a very simple writing style and this allowed her to pull off a strong story because it was simply told.

You may have seen the recent film starring Daniel Radcliffe. I haven’t and so I don’t know how it might be different from the book. The story starts off on Christmas Eve with the main character, Arthur Kipps, who is now elderly and surrounded by his family. His step-sons start sharing ghost stories and Arthur has one to tell but feels uncomfortable. He leaves the house but later returns to basically write down his earlier experience with a malevolent female ghost – the woman in black.

As a younger man, Kipps was an up and coming lawyer sent to tidy up the affairs of a deceased client (Mrs Drablow) who lived in the small village of Crythin Gifford. Her estate (Eel Marsh House) was accessed via the Nine Lives Causeway by pony and trap. When the tide came in, the marshland waters surrounded the house and inhabitants were isolated from the village until the tide went out again.

Arthur is cautioned not to remain overnight at Eel Marsh House but he becomes frustrated with the secrecy surrounding the woman in black, who Kipps spots at Mrs Drablow’s funeral. What are the villagers not telling him? And so begins a pretty good ghost story that is a study in restraint. There are no nasty cobwebs hanging off ceilings; no skulls glaring at you from mirrors; or blood oozing from walls. The power in this story is how confidently Hill tells it, as Arthur’s story. Hill excels at creating just the right amount of atmosphere and the inclusion of Spider (a dog) is genius. Spider can sense the woman in black and almost succumbs to her evil intents.

What I really liked about this book was the setting – gloomy skies, marshes that glitter silver in the sun, an old isolated house that can only be reached by pony and trap, the beauty of the surrounding marshlands. The setting is as much a character as Arthur who I really connected with. His sense of fear, apprehension and sadness as he starts to realize who the woman in black was and her story of unfinished business.

The ending was quite a surprise and very fitting. I liked this book so much that I will investigate Susan Hill’s other novels. Apparently she has written over 50. Thoroughly recommend this book.

 

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Oh yes! MORE book reviews! I’ve been powering through books over the last few weeks.

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. Thankfully, I found this book in a second-hand bookshop so didn’t waste a ton of money on it. I REALLY didn’t like it. About a third of the way through, I could not go on. I hated the writing style. Almost every sentence was over-written with too much wordy description of things and too many nasty adverbs. The characters were vacuous (no depth; no dimension) and the story was going nowhere for me. It was published in 2006 and apparently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

The novel traces the relationships between three anxious, thirty-something friends living in New York on the eve of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Emperor refers to Murray Thwaite, the writer father of one of the characters (Marina, who hasn’t realised that her day in the sunshine as an “It” girl is over).  I suspect there is a solid story in this book. I suspect it’s about a generation that has been brought up to believe in their own brilliance and entitlement, educated but under-employed. I would like to have finished it but I couldn’t get beyond the irritating writing style.

Let me give you a taste:

“Perhaps the frisson was born of the taboo, amid all that flourescence, the acres of discreet carpet, of the sense that Julius might have to convince David of his own worth in this setup, which cast him as dogsbody rather than an enviable and ethereal man-about-town?”

Or better yet: “But for right now, on the Sunday evening the week after the wedding, it just felt as though she were married not to a man but to The Monitor; or rather, that she was not married at all, because it was after nine p.m. and she had packed in hours ago – the issue in all its glory wouldn’t be sent to the printer until Tuesday night and her part was done, for this first time at least, and the pieces for her section in the second issue edited and ready to go, and only Ludo still had tweaking and fussing and frankly obsessing to do, because the issue was finished, even for him, there was nothing to be done, it was Sunday night for God’s sake and the final checks could be made on Monday, or even Tuesday, even till late Tuesday night if need be…”

This is the kind of writing that forces you to re-read whole slabs because you’ve simply lost track of what’s being said. I decided to check out some reviews to see if I had totally missed the point of the book. I must have missed the point because the New York Times raves about it and calls it a “masterly comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11.” Yeah, okay.

But many readers on Goodreads appear to agree with me, so we must all have missed the literary point. I loved this comment by a reader – “Maybe the best example I’ve ever found of the disconnect between what the average reader enjoys and what literary critics say is good.

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. Published in 2009. After the previous book, this was a very welcome surprise. It’s a ghost story (a time slip novel really), which I don’t normally read but I thoroughly enjoyed this bittersweet tale. I don’t read Gothic tales much either but I felt The Winter Ghosts would sit very comfortably alongside a classic ghost story a’la Wilkie Collins.

The writing style was simple and powerful, so that meant the focus was on telling a story. I think the author did extremely well with the MC (Freddie), a 27 year old who has never been able to overcome his grief. He’s a gentle soul who demonstrates good character growth by the end of the novel. In fact, characterisation is deep and I found myself understanding Freddie’s fears and doubts. Freddie’s brother died in WWI and over the 17 year period the story spans, Freddie suffers a nervous breakdown and ends up in a sanatorium in England.

On the instructions of his doctor, Freddie goes to France for recuperation and finds himself caught up in a 600 year old mystery that has to do with caves and Catharism. I won’t say more in case you want to read this book. It’s a quick read and a definite page turner. The plot is well-constructed and the dialogue natural. Basically, it is a 14th Century story merged with one from the 20th Century.

The author could have fallen into the abyss of melodrama but, thankfully, she maintained a subtle, steady pace that produced a touching story. What I particularly liked was the exploration of male grief – not something that is touched on very often in novels. Also woven in are the themes of love, guilt, loss, abandonment, isolation, and numbness.

The south of France setting provided a haunting atmosphere – icy mountains, mist, winter skies, overgrown trails – and I also liked how the author explored whether time itself can shift and whether a geographic location can hold memories. The plot was extremely predictable but, if you read it as a plot-based novel, then yep you’ll be disappointed. But if you read it for what it is – a story that explores a number of themes such as I’ve outlined – then you’re in for a good read.

At times it read like a YA novel but that’s fine with me. As I’ve said before, I often find YA novels a better read than adult commercial fiction.

Stoner by John Williams. The history of this book is fascinating. It was published in 1965 to little fanfare. Williams (who died in 1994) was a Professor of English at the University of Denver, Colorado. Stoner became an unexpected bestseller over 40 years after its publication. I read that it took off in France around 2011 and, through word-of-mouth, became popular in Europe. It was named the Waterstones Book of the Year in 2013. I believe the French novelist, Anna Gavalda, discovered the book, read it in English as there was no French translation, and bought the rights to it.

I’ve done a number of writing courses and, if you listen to all The Rules of Writing, you would wonder why this book is so popular. There isn’t really any conflict going on. It’s set in Columbia, Missouri where William Stoner is a Professor of English at the local university (his academic career starts in 1910). He marries an awful, vindictive woman and becomes estranged from their only child (a daughter who struggles with alcoholism in her 20s). One of his fellow professors has the steak knives out for him and Stoner seems to lead a sad, unfulfilled life. Even he considers himself a failure. He has an affair in middle-age that ends as most affairs do.

This is not an American Dream book where the protagonist becomes a hero or meets with great success. It is not a loud, rah rah book. And I think this is why it is still relatively unknown (apparently) in the United States. The writing style is sombre, restrained – if not austere. The pace is slow but steady. It’s no action-packed thriller.

Yet, I was glued to this book. Sometimes I didn’t want to go on because Stoner’s life was such a painful and seemingly lonely journey. The opening pages told me I was in the presence of a masterful writer and the final pages will have you in tears. In fact, the first page does everything we are told not to do in fiction writing – it basically offers the plot in miniature, gives biographical details of Stoner (who was born on a dusty rural farm in 1891) and then tells the reader that Stoner is a man largely forgotten after his death by his students and colleagues (he dies in 1956). So you wonder, well why read it? What follows though is 288 pages (in the edition I have) of a man coming to truly know himself.

There are SO many layers to this book and I’m not sure I can do justice to them all. I’ll need to read it many more times to fully appreciate its brilliance. On one level it’s about falling in love with ideas and literature. But it’s also a book about reflection – understanding your own limitations, yet resolving to go on in life with integrity and adhering to your principles. Despite the nasty characters Stoner has to deal with (such as his wife, Edith, and the villain of the book who provides a touch of conflict, Professor Lomax), Stoner does not give in to their mean-spirited natures. He meets them with grace and kindness.

Stoner is written in the third person and I wonder how much of John Williams is actually in Stoner’s characterisation. I think possibly it wasn’t appreciated in the 1960s because it was written during a time of upheaval and transition (Vietnam War, counter-cultural movement) and when books were crowded with heroes and larger-than-life personalities. Rather like our contemporary times are crowded with people wanting to be famous on YouTube or social media.

Stoner is a book about a person’s character – it delves deeply into the character of a man who is flawed and, on the surface, rather sad and introverted. I think we possibly find this uncomfortable nowadays because our culture is very much one of externalities: how a person looks, how popular that person is, how many friends on social media etc.

I’m rambling! I cannot recommend this book enough. Seriously, go get a copy. A lost American classic that has been found again.

The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim (Australian author). YA mystery/thriller with a touch of magic. I enjoyed this book although it wasn’t a page-turner for me. The MC is an oddly-named high school student, Avicenna Crowe. She is the daughter of a gifted astrologer (Joanne) who comes from a line of female astrologers who can predict the future with uncanny accuracy. Joanne named her daughter after a medieval astrologer, which we learn about half-way through the book. Up to this point, I was struggling a bit with the name.

Joanne has a history of being stalked and then goes missing, leaving Avicenna to solve a thirty-year old cold case murder and come to terms with her mother’s fate. She has inherited her mother’s powers and finds a link between Joanne’s disappearance and the cold case.

What I liked about this book was that it touched on class issues and racism in Australia (it’s set in Melbourne). Avicenna’s father was Asian and died trying to save her and Joanne from a house fire. Avicenna’s face is scarred as a result and her left ear melted away. It was a refreshing change to have an MC who is physically-flawed – not your usual pretty young teen.

Avicenna hooks up with a fellow-student, Simon, who seems to be a golden boy but is also flawed in many ways. I liked the theme of enduring love (beyond the grave). What happened to Joanne is a bit ambiguous but I don’t mind ambiguity. Lim writes with confidence, the book was well-structured and the plot was quite different.

I didn’t quite engage with Avicenna to be honest. She is a crazy gal and not entirely believable. There was some cliche stuff going on – flawed Avicenna has a love/hate relationship with the equally-flawed Simon but wait, there’s also the physically beautiful Hugh, who Avicenna lusts after.

I think the second half of the book fell down a bit. One of the evil dudes was just too cliched evil and we have a threatening scene in some dark Melbourne theatre. It was very predictable that this would happen since Lim gave a detailed description of the theatre earlier on and set things up. I feel the cast of bad people in the second half of the book threatened to overthrow what, up until this point, had been an interesting exploration of loss, denial and grief.

Overall though, I liked the book and I have another Rebecca Lim book to read (Afterlight).

Afterlight by Rebecca Lim. So straight onto this paranormal thriller, set on the streets of Melbourne, after finishing Lim’s other YA novel. I preferred The Astrologer’s Daughter but I will say that Lim is good at crafting original plots. A bit formulaic though – misfit teenage girl doesn’t believe she ever has a chance of getting the attention of the school’s super-hot guy. But wait…she does.

However, I do like that Lim’s MCs are pretty flawed. In Afterlight, Sophie Teague is a tall, awkward teen with a mop of red, curly hair. She is odd, no doubt about it. And the object of her desire, Jordan, is equally flawed (and a tad boring) – he can see dead people (as can Sophie – very The Sixth Sense).

After Sophie’s parents die in a motorcycle crash, she is haunted by a ghost, Eve, who wants her to perform heroic deeds and save certain people. These tasks lead Sophie to link up with Jordan and a whole host of interesting characters – a drag queen, bikie gang members, a crazy cat lady.

I could have done without the bumbling romance between Sophie and Jordan. They had hardly spoken to each other then, bam, Jordan is professing he finds Sophie very attractive, different. I think it would have worked better if they simply became good friends bound by their mutual “gift” to see dead people.

I also found Sophie’s narrative voice very irritating and self-deprecating. Obviously, a lot of teen girls lack self-esteem or doubt their looks/popularity but this was way over the top. I did, however, like the way Lim introduced bullying – a student locked in the toilets with three angry bitches threatening and humiliating her. Bullying is very much a part of school life and Lim weaves into her fiction some very realistic themes (with racism being a theme in The Astrologer’s Daughter).

I have some issues though. I was left wondering why Eve demanded Sophie rush around Melbourne saving people (on her way to resolving Eve’s murder). The ending was a shocker. I’m all for ambiguous endings but this one didn’t work for me at all. It was quite at odds with where the story was going I think but, clearly, a sequel is planned.

I sense that Lim is quite intrigued by certain concepts or questions such as “is there consciousness after death?”, “can you make up for bad deeds in your life beyond the grave?” and she very clearly favours an empowered female MC (which is great). The ghost, Eve, was a well-developed, believable character. Each time she appeared in front of Sophie, I did a little look over my shoulder and I’m not a reader of ghost stories at all.

I’ve heard that Lim’s Mercy series is a good read, so I might check this out down the track.

City of Crows by Chris Womersley. Australian author. New release book. I’m not sure about this book to be honest. The story is based on the L’affaire des poisons in France in the 1670s. There was a five-year investigation into witchcraft following an allegation that a group of people attempted to poison King Louis XIV. A spate of executions followed and this novel is filled with many of the real-life characters from that infamous affair.

I’ve not heard of Womersley before. His debut novel was The Low Road, published in 2007. He went to France to research for City of Crows (which is a reference to the crows of Paris). I think the book was incredibly well-researched and the author brought the cesspool and debauchery of 1670’s Paris to vivid life.

The MC is Charlotte Picot, a peasant woman from the French countryside, who flees her village after her husband dies from the plague. Three of her children died in previous bouts of fever or didn’t survive infancy but, one son (Nicholas), survives and flees with Charlotte. Nicholas is kidnapped by slavers and taken to Paris, where apparently children were sold as servants or to be involved in the dark witchcraft practices of that time period.

Charlotte meets the Forest Queen, an old sorceress who passes on her dark powers. The story then involves Charlotte summoning demons and casting spells in order to find Nicholas. She is aided by Adam du Coeuret (aka Lesage) who has been freed from the prison galleys of Marseilles, where he was imprisoned due to participating in the occult. Charlotte mistakes Lesage for the demon she has conjured up and together they go to Paris in search of Nicholas.

What follows is a very well-written Gothic story. I think there are two questions this novel explores: how far will a mother go to save her child and can someone redeem themselves or save their soul by performing a noble act?

The genre is a departure for me – I’d describe it as magical realism – and it’s a pretty sombre read. There is no redemption of characters and I’m puzzled by the ending (as in, not sure what the hell).

However, this is an author who knows how to write. Dialogue is superb and the characters of both Charlotte and Lesage are deeply-developed. I am intrigued enough to maybe read Womersley’s award winning book, Bereft, but there is just something about City of Crows that I didn’t quite take to. I’m not sure what it is. Possibly, parts of the plot were a little disjointed.

One question that remains unresolved for me is what happened to the demon Charlotte summoned at the start of her journey to Paris? Was it the wolf that showed up? I don’t read magical realism so not sure if I have misunderstood some references.

On the whole though, a good book that might appeal to people who like books dealing with the themes I’ve outlined.

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. Published in 2000, I found this in a second-hand bookshop. I’m a great fan of Ondaatje. Did you know he writes poetry? One of my favourite poems is by him and is called The Cinnamon Peeler. I believe this is Ondaatje’s fourth novel and it’s a very powerful account of the civil war that occurred in Sri Lanka during the 1980s. Although Ondaatje is considered a Canadian writer, he was born in Sri Lanka.

The main characters are Anil Tessira, a 30-something forensic pathologist who has been sent by the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate reports of mass murders; archeologist Sarath Diyasena is assigned by the Sri Lankan government to work with Anil; and Sarath’s brother, Gamini, an emergency room doctor who treats the casualties of the brutal violence resulting from insurgent fighting.

Anil flies in from America (she had not been back to Sri Lanka in 15 years) and works with Sarath to discover the identity of a recently murdered man. They name his skeleton Sailor and the mystery of who he was and how he died threads its way through the narrative. Anil becomes suspicious of Sarath as she attempts to show that the Sri Lankan Government has murdered hundreds of people.

Another character is Ananda, a sculptor and painter of eyes on Buddha statues. He is hired to recreate Sailor’s face. I won’t give the game away and tell you what happens to Ananda but I engaged most with this character and found him deeply touching.

Ondaatje has a complex writing style. He kind of builds up the story layer by layer and we never really get to understand the motives behind his characters. A lot of things are left unsaid and I like this. The reader gets to engage more with the story. And since the novel is set against the backdrop of a terrifying civil war in which people, even teenagers, literally disappeared – it is very apt in my view to leave a lot unsaid.

This is not a linear story and sometimes felt fragmented. Ondaatje switches between past and present, using the characters to show how our past deeply impacts and how we might react during times of crisis.

There’s a ton of references and themes in this book. For example, Sailor’s skeleton is symbolic of all the nameless people who died in Sri Lanka’s civil war or who were victims in any war really. The title Anil’s Ghost – is it referring to the identity of Sailor or Anil’s troubled past growing up in Sri Lanka? The theme of truth is a major strand in the novel – Anil seeks the truth: who is responsible for the murders of hundreds of Sri Lankans? This is a blunt Western truth but, for Sarath, the truth hides numerous dangers. There’s a wonderful line in the novel – “The truth was like a flame against a sleeping lake of petrol“.

Birds, nature and stone also feature heavily in Anil’s Ghost, as does the human and the divine. It’s a novel that must be read slowly so that the rich imagery can be enjoyed to its fullest.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. This is a gut-wrenching story set in WWII. There’s not a battlefield in sight and I appreciated the originality of this novel set in small town America (Massachusetts) during 1940-1941. As the title suggests, a major character is the postmistress (Iris James) whose job is to deliver the mail and yet, one day, she decides to slip a letter into her pocket and not deliver it.

Another character is Frankie Bard, a young female reporter, who goes to Europe and travels the trains recording the voices and stories of fleeing Jews. She also has news to deliver but declines to do so. The third female character is Emma Fitch, the wife of the town doctor. The threaded lives of these three women converge in the small town.

Essentially, this is a book about the last moments of the lives of unnamed people; it’s the story of news and how it travels and the impact undelivered news may have on loved ones. It’s about stories with no endings or people never knowing the ending. The phrase “pay attention” is repeated a lot in the novel as a call for us all to pay attention to what is going on in this world. Frankie is trying to get Americans to pay attention to the plight of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

I do have some issues with the novel. I did not like the opening chapter where Iris goes off to a doctor to get a certificate showing she is “intact” (i.e. a 40-year-old virgin.) I really don’t think this story line worked. In fact, when she gives the certificate to her love interest, Harry Vale, he is nonchalant about it and that’s the end of that. Ho hum. It went nowhere.

I also think the prologue, where Frankie is much older and is attending a dinner party where she poses the moral dilemma of an undelivered letter, is too contrived. Frankie Bard’s character was the strongest rather than that of the postmistress (who is the title of the novel). The ending wasn’t satisfactory for me – the whole story kind of petered out. Also there was quite a bit of chopping around with points of view.

Overall though, I think the novel worked and Blake’s writing style is extremely good (if a little odd with the dialogue now and then.)

Cartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop. I was really looking forward to this book but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it very much. The premise is great – young English girl (Ellie) living a sad life in gloomy London receives a series of postcards from Greece. They are actually not meant for her but the former occupant of her flat. She decorates her flat with the postcards that show the bright blues and dazzling whites of Greece. A journal also arrives and she cannot resist reading it and ends up going to Greece to see if it is as beautiful as the postcards depict. The author of the journal (Anthony) travels around Greece in an effort to get over a relationship that went south.

I was expecting more of a mystery but it’s really a whole lot of short stories strung together. Interesting stories they are and I certainly did like the Greek flavour Hislop brought to her writing. The stories span myth (e.g. Icarus), tradition, history, betrayal and love and are accompanied by photographs that are reminiscent of postcards. We also learn about economic problems in post-global financial crisis Greece.

I totally lost sight of Ellie in this novel to be honest. She didn’t make much of an appearance at all. I never really engaged with her and thought her character was under-developed. If I were writing this book, I would have ditched her and just stuck with Anthony and his journal. It was interesting enough to read his thoughts as they unravelled and his reaction to the stories he was told by the Greeks who welcomed him to their country. Some of the stories were quite dark and they seemed to reflect Anthony’s state of mind at the time.

I was also reeeeally hoping the ending wouldn’t be what it was (Ellie decides to deliver the journal to Anthony at his apartment in Athens). I could see it coming but it was too contrived; too predictable for me. It brought the book to a dead, screeching halt. I get the point of the book and the ending – live your life to the fullest; follow your heart; YOLO.

As for writing style, it was nothing special. I think the problem for me was that there was no conflict between characters or any thread that wove itself throughout the stories. The pattern was – Anthony arrives in village blah and someone tells him a story, so now I’m going to tell that story and accompany it with a beautiful photograph or two. I like the idea but it didn’t work for me.

Woods Burner by John Pipkin. Debut novel published in 2009. I read his latest book, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, and liked it so much I picked up his first book to read. You can read my review of his latest book here.

Woods Burner is based on an actual incident – the American essayist, Henry David Thoreau – accidentally set fire to the Concord Woods (Massachusetts) in April, 1844 while on an excursion with his friend, Edward Sherman Hoar. Around 300 acres of woodlands were burned. Pipkin is a masterful author who assembles a cast of unforgettable characters who meet in the woods on that fateful April day.

Aside from Thoreau and Hoar, there is Eliot Calvert, an aspiring playwright, who somehow finds himself married to the daughter of a successful American businessman; Irish-born Emma Woburn, who is married to an old drunkard; Norwegian, Oddmund Hus, who dreams of having Emma to himself; Anezkova Havlic and her partner, Zalenka Dusekova, two women from Bohemia; and the best character of them all, the Reverend Caleb Ephraim Dowdy, a Bible thrashing, opium-smoking odd ball who wants nothing more than to experience Hell. Ralph Waldo Emerson also makes an appearance.

What is particularly appealing about this novel (aside from the wonderful prose) are the themes it deals with – a young, optimistic America attempting to define itself; the notion of being consumed by one’s own insecurities, passions and hopes (literally, lighting of your own fires); the environmental concern over native woods being felled to make way for cities (Thoreau, of course, also being an environmentalist); the sins and burdens of the Old World in a New World setting; accident and intention; purification; rebirth and renewal; strength and fragility. I could go on as this novel has so many layers. But at its heart is the metaphor of conflagration.

This is not a novel with a twisting plot. In fact, there’s not much plot going on at all and these are the types of books I love. Why? Because the author relies on richly flawed characters and an exploration of philosophical concepts and themes to convey the story. The reader should not be fooled though as this novel has a very complex structure.

I would say Woods Burner will go down as an American classic and it certainly does not read as a debut novel. I’m keeping both of Pipkin’s books in my personal library as I will be reading them again and again.

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde. This book is part of the new genre of climate change fiction (or cli-fi). It was a really slow start for me. About half way through the book, I was ready to toss it in. Why? The writing style I found simplistic, more suited to Young Adult fiction really. Of more concern was that I think the book could have been better edited.

To give some examples: how many times can you mention the nasty adverb “carefully” on one page? Well, four times on the first page alone. Or “quickly” – another nasty adverb mentioned so many times in this book I lost count. On p.308 one of the main characters (Tao) is on the floor and we read this, “She stood over me.” In the next paragraph, we read that this person (Li Xiara) does the following, “Slowly Li Xiara walked over to me…” Ah, wasn’t she just hovering over Tao? No need to walk over therefore.

The story itself had legs. Three separate (but ultimately intertwined) narratives. William Savage is a biologist and beekeeper in England, 1852. He studies bees and designs a new type of hive. George, a farmer in Ohio, United States in 2007, and a descendant of Savage’s daughter, Charlotte. George is a beekeeper and his colonies are among the first in the US to experience Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This is a real world phenomenon where worker bees simply disappear and, since 2006, scientists have been deeply concerned (because crops are pollinated by bees and no bees equals no food).  Is CCD due to pesticides or climate change? A parasite or fungus? The jury is still out.

The third narrative is set in the future (2098) after The Collapse (when the bees vanished from the world). Cities are deserted; the world’s population has dwindled and famine prevails. In China, crops are hand-pollinated. The main character in this narrative is Tao who lives in Sichuan, China and is a worker who hand-pollinates pear trees. Her three year-old son (Wei-Wen) is taken away by The Committee. I won’t reveal why but Tao searches for him and the answer to his disappearance becomes the “hope” of the book.

I was bothered by the lack of description of Beijing in 2098. There was a bit here and there but not enough to satisfy me. I really didn’t feel I was in an Asian setting. In fact, for all three narratives I didn’t feel a sense of place.

The novel relies a lot on difficult relationships between characters. George, for example, wants his son (Tom) to take over the farm and continue the family’s long tradition of beekeeping but Tom does not appear interested. William’s son, Edmund, is a “dandy” at the age of 16 and appears more interested in alcohol than his father’s scientific studies. Tao is a mother struggling with the parent-child relationship and I did like how Lunde often contrasted these less than perfect human relationships with the single-mindedness and cooperative social structure of a bee colony.

It wasn’t until the last third of the book that I thought all three narratives started to come together. Parts of this book were very slow and parts were well done. Lunde does a fair bit of moralizing along the way – a bit like Annie Proulx in her book, Barkskins, which I reviewed here – but the issue of CCD is a real one and it’s a terrifying prospect.

However, it could all have been handled with more subtlety. The reader is hit over the head as Tao explains The Collapse. I would have preferred it if Lunde didn’t have her character dish out all the details and left me to imagine what might have happened (as it was glaringly obvious that bees vanished from the planet). The ending was very predictable, in fact you could see it coming when Wei-Wen disappeared.

Characterisation? Well, the most engaging for me was Tao. I found George and William under-developed (if not somewhat bizarre) characters. I often felt the dialogue of these characters wasn’t natural.

This novel is a comment on humanity’s attempt to control Mother Nature – William designs better beehives and starts to understand colony behaviour; George’s narrative shows how pesticides may be leading to CCD; and Tao shows how humans of the future might have to hand pollinate. Ultimately, our attempts to control could lead us into a dark future. This is the novel’s heart.

Lunde is a Norwegian author and this book was translated. I guess any translation might not carry the nuances of the original language. I like any book to do with a dystopian future and anything to do with bees. I’m glad I stuck it out to the end of the book and did enjoy it despite the issues I’ve talked about.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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