Welcome to 2018!!! If you are still on holidays in January, some of these books might appeal. During 2018, I am going to be reading neglected or forgotten authors, bestsellers from the 1920s or 1950s. Basically, early to mid-20th Century. I don’t always find contemporary fiction a satisfying read. Here’s what I read during December 2017.

The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H Wilson. I was doing a Book Depository order and this book popped up. I found the plot intriguing and, even though not really my genre, I bought it. I’ve not read anything by this author before and this book was published August 2017.

There are shades of The Terminator in this novel, which is always going to suck me in. I have a fascination with all things robotic, as well as a deep-seated fear of a dystopian world full of machines who are out to get humans. The story often reminded me of Highlander as well (albeit with robots).

I think the premise of this book was more fascinating than the execution – a First Race (long-vanished humans) who created intelligent clockwork robots (called avtomats); a hidden world of robots who want to protect their existence; Russia under Peter the Great’s rule; colonial occupation of India; ancient Chinese civilizations and terracotta soldiers; an ancient relic around the neck of a modern day anthropologist who gets caught up with advanced machines that look almost human. It was sort of steampunk mashed with sci-fi. The author has a PhD in Robotics and, from this angle, the book worked extremely well. The insight into how human-like machines might have feelings or a soul was interesting.

However. Each chapter switched back and forth through time – 1700’s Russia; 3000 years ago; present day Oregon; colonial India; WWII – and each of these chapters was quite short. So you were just getting into things when whoosh, you were off to another time period. I found this annoying and it didn’t give time for character-development. The first person present tense narrative switched between Peter (avtomat) and June (young American anthropologist who ends up helping Peter to find The Yellow Emperor).

I did not engage with June at all (her character was under-developed) and I think she could have been ditched. I prefer character-driven stories and I just didn’t feel I knew all that much about June. There were also some robot characters dumped into the story (Hypatia and Batuo). I really didn’t understand how Hypatia moved the story forward at all. Batuo was quirky but, so what?

Peter’s narrative – as a machine who came to understand his purpose – was alone very interesting. The only reason June is present is because she is an expert in “antique technologies” and breathes life back into The Yellow Emperor by inserting his anima (she’s been carrying this around her neck since her grandfather found it on the battlefields of WWII). I see where the author might have been heading – showing a relationship between humans and machines – but it didn’t quite work.

The writing style was flat and often cliched. The plot lumbered along for most of the book via action scenes and reminded me of script writing.

There was some odd stuff going on too. For example: after a face-off with an evil robot called Talus, June and Peter are on a private jet winging their way to Harrods in London, so that June can be decked out in diamond necklaces. Apparently, Peter (conveniently) invested in a bank back in the 1700s and is extremely wealthy. Okay, fine but this sort of stuff detracted from the plot and ended up going nowhere.

Parts of this book were clever – how ancient avtomats were seen as gods throughout history or were talented musicians and artists who contributed to human advancement; how the villain of the piece (Leizu) created wars so that humans would advance faster with technology and help the avtomats regenerate; how machines can have bonds between each other and be sentient. I wanted more of this and less The Terminator crossed with Highlander and sci-fi, with elements of good and evil thrown in.

The ending. Yes, well. Not clear if two characters killed each other and the discovery of a fossilized anima was very “Indiana Jones Government storage facility” and clearly sets up a sequel (and why not!). The final battle scene was over too fast and was an anti-climax.

Having said all this, I do think the author did a good job of world-building but, about half-way through, I was getting a tad bored as it was all a bit B-grade movie with a young adult plot line.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey. Published in 2012. I was really looking forward to reading this book but it left me cold. It is basically a retelling of Jane Eyre, recast as a 1950’s orphaned schoolgirl who finds her Mr Rochester in the Orkney Islands. Gemma is from Iceland and loses both parents. An uncle in Scotland provides a home but there is a nasty aunt to contend with and Gemma finds herself as a 10 year-old working girl in a boarding school where she is bullied and disregarded. Basically, this is a story of survival, courage and determination but – knowing it was a retelling of Jane Eyre – I could not stop comparing the two novels. Even if I had not read Jane Eyre (many times), I doubt I would have liked this novel.

I felt the first half of the book was far stronger than the second half. Gemma’s experience at the boarding school tugged at the heart but, for some reason, I just couldn’t connect with Gemma despite her travails. I didn’t connect with her Mr Rochester (who in this book is Mr Sinclair). I didn’t connect with their relationship at all. In fact, I found the love scenes between them rather clumsy.

The second half of the book was basically trying to fit all of Jane Eyre’s story into the retelling. It fell in a huge hole for me when Gemma stole some money to fly to Iceland to find any long lost relatives and then, on leaving Iceland, amazingly Mr Sinclair is on the plane (having spent a year tracking her down after she fled just as they were to be married). Gemma’s reason for running away from Sinclair was pretty weak and the ending of the book: yes, well.

It was 443 pages of a lack lustre retelling. Livesey writes well and Jane Eyre’s basic story line is there for us all to see. But I couldn’t help wondering – Jane Eyre is a product of its time period. Why try to retell it in a modern setting? I think if Livesey had told Gemma’s story – young orphan girl from Iceland making her own way in the world, reconnecting with her Icelandic roots – it would have been a lot more interesting.

This modern retelling lacked the nobility (and the Gothic darkness) of Jane Eyre. There were so few cultural references to the 1950s and 1960s that I sometimes wondered why did the author bother with a modern setting? The whole novel felt forced and it was a consistently slow pace. Meh.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. You probably know that this author’s name is a pseudonym of JK Rowling. If not, you do now. Confession time: I have never read a single Harry Potter book but I have seen some of the movies. I know! But the books have never appealed to me – boy wizard and all that. I’ve had my eye on Cuckoo’s Calling (published in 2013) for a couple of years now and finally caved in. I’m not really into thrillers or crime novels but, I admit, I was curious about Rowling’s writing style.

The novel itself has a very old-fashioned feel to it. Very 1940’s film noir, complete with a dishevilled, down-on-his-luck detective (the oddly-named Cormoran Strike). Strike is updated a bit though – he’s ex-military police who served in Afghanistan and lost a leg. He’s also the estranged son of a 1970’s rock star and his mother was a groupie. Okay!

Strike is asked to investigate a supermodel’s suicide. The adopted brother of the model hires Strike because he’s convinced of foul play.

Rowling’s writing style is assured and the novel had a slow but steady pace. At times I felt the pace was a little slow but, in hindsight, Rowling did well with the slow burn. I don’t have the benefit of knowing her Harry Potter style but I did think descriptive phrases were a little odd at times – for example, “face the colour of corned beef…”. However, the plot was deftly woven and characters well-developed (if again sometimes odd – John Bristow, the brother of the victim, is described as rabbity. And I don’t know how many times Strike was referred to as hairy). I particularly liked the touching relationship built up between Strike and his temporary secretary, Robin. I could feel her enthusiasm for detective work and wanting to know more about her odd boss. I thought she made a wonderful sidekick.

There was some stuff I don’t think was needed. We learn a fair bit about Strike – great – but the part where he attended his nephew’s birthday party didn’t move the story along. Strike also receives death threats from a disgruntled client and this didn’t go anywhere really.

I appreciated that it was a pretty straight-forward mystery. No real surprises. It wasn’t hard to figure out whodunnit. I’ll probably read the second book in the Cormoran Strike series – The Silkworm – and then decide if I’ll move onto the third book. The Cuckoo’s Calling was an enjoyable read but it didn’t knock my socks off.

There’s No Home by Alexander Baron. Now here is a novel that DID knock my socks off. I don’t understand why this book isn’t a classic of 20th C English literature. Published in 1950, it tells the story of the emotional side of WWII. A British platoon is billeted in the Sicilian town of Catania. The soldiers are there for two months before being moved to the fighting front on mainland Italy. Baron was a British infantryman in Montgomery’s Eighth Army and was garrisoned with his fellow troops in Catania, so no doubt he drew inspiration for this second novel from his experiences.

The MC is Sargeant Craddock (who must be modelled on Baron himself) and, like many men in the battalion, he fills the void left by the Italian men who have gone to war. He begins an intense, brief affair with Graziella, a young mother whose husband is off fighting (we never learn of his fate).

I loved several aspects of this novel. The quiet, restrained pace. There are no gruesome battle scenes, no fast-paced action. But you know that war is never far away. It’s on the outskirts of Catania or in the skies as German planes zoom over.

The entire novel takes place on one street – Via dei Martiri – and we come to know many characters: Paloma, Rosario, Graziella, Nella, Francesca. Character-development is wonderful, with each chapter revealing just a little more. I could connect with all the characters, particularly the main female character of Graziella.

I also liked that this was both a female and male narrative. We come to understand how men view war and how the women of Catania saw it very differently. Baron was a keen observer of female reactions to war and survival. The different cultural attitudes and tensions of the British and the Sicilians were also played out very well.

The title of the book is apt for it deals with a sense of home. For the British, who had been months away from “Old Blighty”, and their wives and children, the lull between fighting provided a sense of normality. For the Sicilian women, having men around to cook for and look after allowed them to feel a sense of stability.

Yet, the reader knows that this is a temporary home and, as the novel draws to a close, the anticipation of leaving picks up. There is a sense of restlessness in the air: the soldiers wish to move on, get on with the war, but many of the women are left with broken hearts (especially Graziella). Baron also shows us the seamier side of war through the exploitative sexual relationship between Captain Rumbold and fifteen-year-old Nella. Rumbold shows no care or remorse and this is in stark contrast to the sensitivity of Craddock’s character.

I believe Baron gave up writing fiction in the 1970s and went on to become a scriptwriter (he had a hand in the Poldark series and the 1981 Sense and Sensibility film adaptation). That There’s No Home has not been made into a film astounds me. I will certainly be seeking out more of Baron’s novels, starting off with The Human Kind published in 1953.

 

 

 

 

 

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Another Christmas done and dusted. As usual, ours was pretty quiet. I’d love a white Christmas but you don’t get that in the sweltering summer heat of Australia (where I was born and lived for yonks) or in the hot climate of the Far North of New Zealand (where I currently live).

I’m connected to a wonderful Canadian writer on Facebook – we are writing a poetry chapbook together – and he shared with me photos of the meat fondue they had for Christmas lunch, the snow, festive decorations and so on. I looked at them a bit longingly and admit I miss the Christmas times I had with my mum and dad and my maternal grandparents back in Sydney.

But….time moves on and we enter different phases of life. And we have our memories; so nothing really disappears.

El Hubs made a wonderful Bombe Alaska with his new toy, a thermi (aka a Thermomix). Heard of them? Have one? It costs a small fortune but is worth every single cent. It produces the most perfect Panna Cotta that wobbles seductively. It basically does everything except tap dance.

We were thinking of making our own Christmas cake with the thermi. I have fond memories of my grandmother spending ages making her brandy-infused cake and I always wondered how my slice magically ended up with a silver coin. But in the end, we found a cake handmade in Paihia and a certain percentage of sales was going to charity. It had just the right amount of fruit and nuts in it.

We don’t normally give each other Christmas presents but, this year, we did. I was very pleased with mine – a set of Splayds. It could be that only Australians know of Splayds since they were invented in Australia in the 1940s. I think though that Splayds were also available in New Zealand and you can certainly buy them here now.

A friend in Christchurch gifted me two Splayds from the 1970s (when they were extremely popular in Australia, along with fondues) and you can see one of them in the photo below with the shorter handle. I think it might be a dessert Splayd.

El Hubs scoffed at the idea when my friend gave me the two Splayds. But guess who has been using them since I opened my Christmas gift?! He told me he walked into a local kitchenware shop, saw them and thought I would love them. He was right!!

One of my New Year resolutions is to try and blog more. I have been caught up this year with the move to the North Island and settling in. If you follow me on Twitter (if you don’t, why not? I’m @kimmar), you will know that I am extremely interested in the state of affairs in the United States since Trump became President. I often think I’m trapped in a Salvador Dali painting when I think of Trump as President.

Then, of course, I’ve been busy writing a lot this year and getting a few poems published. My latest poem was published by the NZ Poetry Society and was written for the theme Transformation. You can read it here.

Anywho! A lot of excuses for not blogging as much in 2017. I hope to make up for this in 2018. I’m really looking forward to the new year. I wouldn’t say 2017 has been a stressful year as I try to take things in my stride. But it’s been a year of letting go of a lot of stuff (we sold a lot before moving), getting established on our new property, and planning the house we’ll be building in 2018.

I am hoping to travel again in 2018. Can you believe it? I have not been overseas since 2014. Our last trip was to Hong Kong (for work) and then onto Indonesia. We may go to Brazil to see my step-son as we haven’t seen him since 2012. Or we may go to South Africa to see El Hubs’ family. Haven’t seen them since 2013.

While the house is being built, I may go to Bangkok and stay with my dear friend, Lalida, and her family. El Hubs will project manage the build and I find it disturbing to have a lot of workers around hammering away. So for peace and quiet I may go to Bangkok. I have not seen Lalida and Nataya (another Thai friend) since 2011.

I am planning a poetry chapbook and living in Bangkok for a few months will give me the opportunity to write poetry. Or…I may go to Rome. A wonderful person I still work with from time to time (on a contract basis) may go to London for a couple of months. She’s asked whether I might be able to babysit her beloved dogs and cats and live in her apartment in Trastevere. Well, someone has to do it, so why not?!! I left my heart back in Rome and would love another opportunity to go there. I was invited to go to Rome in March this year for work but, because we had just sold the house, could not go.

This is all a long way of saying that I think 2018 will be a fantastic year and who knows what it will bring us all.

Meanwhile my foal, Argo, would like to take the opportunity to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas!

There’s a lot to do when you move. We still haven’t unpacked everything and don’t plan to. We’ll wait until the house is built in 2018. Meanwhile, we’ve been steadily planting around The Shed and El Hubs has been designing the house and running the gauntlet of Local Council regulations and restrictions. I think it’s today that our plans go into Council. We wanted to get them in before Christmas.

So…eight months now in the Far North. It’s heating up I must say. Summer is here. But the mornings and nights are cool-ish, which is lovely. I far prefer the North to the South Island. The people are a lot friendlier and less reserved. This is not to say that I didn’t like the South Island but the two islands are quite different.

I’ve been super-busy with writing and planning next year’s goals. Hence, my quietness on this blog. I do have some news though. Miss Rosie has had her foal – a beautiful colt!!! And we’ve found the most wonderful kennels for Zeph and Zsa Zsa. The owner absolutely adores Zsa Zsa and tucks her in at night. So far, they’ve spent two weeks there over the last eight months. When we have trucks and equipment on the property (preparing the building platform), we prefer to have the Z Team at the kennels so they are safe.

The lady who runs the kennels offers farm walks. She makes sure dogs are socialised first before she takes them out together. The Z Team cannot get enough of these walks and the owner takes photos of them for me and her FB page. She thinks Zeph is magnificent. Well, he is LOL. This is by far the best kennels we’ve experienced and this, at least, has eased our minds should we go overseas in 2018.

Can you believe I have not travelled out of NZ since 2014? El Hubs has not seen his son since 2012. He now lives in Brazil, so we are considering a trip to see him next year but he wants us to go to Japan in 2019 for the Rugby World Cup. Then he’s thinking of coming back to NZ with us to stay for a few months. We also need to go to South Africa to see the family. Haven’t been there since 2013. Who knows where we’ll be going next year.

I’m excited for 2018. I think I’ve said a few times that I don’t like uneven-numbered years. 2017 has been a bit gruelling what with selling the house, moving to the North Island, establishing ourselves here, waiting for Miss Rosie’s foal and hoping for a safe birth and so on.

But 2017 is nearly over and here’s to 2018!!! Meanwhile, enjoy the photos of Zeph and Zsa Zsa running wild and free on a farm walk and Argo, Miss Rosie’s new foal.

 

Isn’t this a great photo of Zeph? He was looking at some sheep in the paddock next to The Shed.

I’m biased but I think he looks magnificent!!

I looked out the kitchen window the other day to see this wonderful sight. A bunch of cows gave birth to calves over the last few weeks and the photo below shows most of them all together.

I love the calves that are mostly white with black splotches. I must try and get a photo of them with Zeph. When I see them together (albeit sniffing noses from either side of a fence), they look so alike.

I find all the activity very soothing – watching mamas and babies bond, calves running around like lunatics. At least three calves come up to the fence as this paddock is adjacent to The Shed. They are SO curious and love to hear human voices. I talk to them and there’s one bold calf who allows me to touch it, then runs off. Too cute.

 

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 find 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.