October 7 is Zeph’s seventh birthday. I am going to sound very cliched here but…where on earth has the time gone?

Below is his official birthday portrait. He LOVES that yellow bush (over to experts to tell me what it is). Bees love this bush too. Zeph goes to it every day to sniff and sit or stand behind it. No idea why.

As Zeph gets older, he is getting quirkier. If that’s possible because he’s always been a very quirky dog. He’s extremely expressive and loves to socialise with humans and other dogs. He’s a happy, happy dog.

I really feel he prefers the North to the South Island. We are spending most of our time outdoors here as the climate is warmer and less harsh. Zeph sunbakes after breakfast and then we walk around the property during the day. There is so much for him to sniff. I think his very favourite place is the forest or bush at the back of the property – mine too. He loves to search for rabbits (they always elude him) or just sit and look around.

I notice he does a lot of staring but this is a Pointer thing. Pointers stare at moths, butterflies, bees. When we are at the very top of the property, we have a panoramic district view as we’re high up. There is a hill he loves to sit on and just stare into the distance.

Happy Birthday to my Zephilicious.

I don’t think Zeph would approve of this photo with his ears flapping in the breeze LOL

Zeph sitting in the forest.

Official 7th birthday portrait.

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We’ve been in the Far North now for six months. Can’t believe how fast that time has gone by. Last time I checked in with you, I think it was four months. I will do a post soon on how we are getting by off-the-grid and I’ll take photos of how we’ve landscaped. One very large totora tree has a family of five Tui. I talk to them every day and they look down and chortle and warble at me. They are beautiful birds. I really didn’t experience them in the South Island.

What is amazing here is the lushness of vegetation. You plant something and it grows overnight. We’ve travelled a bit around the area – about an hour’s drive each time – and the scenery is so varied. Not to mention the stunning bays and beaches. What I really love about the Far North are the giant ferns and glorious trees.

In the town near to where we live, there is a stunning pink tree. I have no idea what it might be, so over to any experts out there. I snapped a shot with my iPhone and the woman you see in the photo went back to the tree and took a ton of photos. It’s quite the tourist attraction actually. I recently saw a horde of tourists mingling around the tree, taking selfies and group shots.

Just around the corner from this tree is a working backpacker’s hostel and we recently gave work to two 19 year old German lads. They helped us plant over seventy plants and trees – liquid ambers, flaxes, native grasses and fruit trees. Very hard-working and polite. We intend to provide more work to the backpackers if these two are any indication of quality and work ethic.

 

 

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I believe I’m turning into my mother. Not such a bad thing really. After all, she was a wonderful woman. Yet, I always felt I had quite a different personality and was far more like my dad (who was also wonderful I might add). Where my mum was introverted, I’m extroverted. My mother hated going out or being among people. I get energy from being out and about and meeting new people.

My mum wouldn’t even consider travelling overseas. She was born in Wellington NZ but moved to Australia with my grandparents before her 20s, married and remained in Australia all her considerably long life. Despite offering many times to take her on a trip to see how much Wellington had changed over the years, or to go for a couple of weeks to Hawaii (she often said she’d like to go) – she always refused. Yet, I have travelled a ton in my life. Mum would often comment that I must be restless to want to travel so much.

My mum died in 2007 at the age of 91. Over the last five years or so, I’ve often felt I was turning into my mother. I have not been overseas since 2014 and really have no desire to do so. I don’t like going out much now, preferring to live the quiet life on our property. And now….I have proof that I’m turning into my mother. Camellias. Lavender.

My mother loved gardening. Something I’ve never been into. She grew lavender, dried it and then produced small lavender-scented pillows that she would pin to my bed pillow and dried lavender would be all over the house in little bowls (potpourri). I cringed at this stuff as a teenager, growing up in Sydney. It seemed old-fashioned to me. A waste of time. Why create something when you can just go out and buy?

My mum also grew camellias in our shady front yard. In one corner, she had a rare white camellia. She would often show it to me and she’d also paint it (she was a china painter and also painted in oils). I think this camellia tree would be gone now because the people who bought her property 12 years ago basically chopped down every single tree and tore down the house to build a McMansion.

We have now been in the North Island for six months, can you believe it? We have a little vegetable garden and….I have a small white camellia bush and some lavender growing in a pot. My first attempts with lavender failed, as I planted them in a spot that was too wet. I now have some Italian lavender in a fancy blue pot and, so far, it seems to be happy.

I guess the camellia is a reminder for me of my mum. The lavender is the more sinister thing – I have visions of drying it and producing potpourri to scent the house. Maybe even use it as an ingredient in the face creams I make up. Or use the flowers and whip up some lavender biscotti. Sit alone in our outdoor room. Opposite magnificent totora trees, sipping my coffee and being thankful I don’t have to mix with people.

See? I’m turning into my mother.

There’s even a stick insect on this white camellia!

 

 

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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.

 

We’ve been in the Far North for over four months now. I can honestly say I would not live anywhere else in New Zealand. I have travelled far and wide in this country – with my Dad when I was a teenager and since I’ve been living here (seven years now). The only part of NZ that I’m not familiar with is the Tauranga/Bay of Plenty area.

There is more rain up in the Far North but it comes and goes. One moment it’s sunny; then there’s a downpour; then it’s sunny again. There is no snow and, frankly, I don’t miss it. No horrid north-west gale force winds; just gentle warm breezes. The soil on our property is volcanic so the rain water drains quickly. Even with stock on the property (cows and sheep) there is no mud to slip and slide around.

Winter here has been very mild. A few cold days where I had to break out the fleecy-lined tops but, other than this, we survived with no heating. El Hubs does not miss chopping and stacking the wood or fuelling the fire.

The people here are friendly and you meet a lot of foreigners. Many are called swallows because they spend the summer in NZ and then return to their own country for their summer. I’ve met Dutch, Germans, Americans and Italians so far.

I love our property so much I rarely venture off it. When I do, there are plenty of shops in our area to get whatever we need including a boutique with great clothes and handbags. I’m afraid I succumbed. I saw this large black tote made in Florence. It’s not leather and I’m trying very hard to be more sustainable in my purchasing and eating habits. Needless to say, I bought it and now carry around the whole house with me LOL I like the gunmetal hardware; very on fleek as they say.

You can also get great coffee with some fun designs. I have to stay out of the fabulous chocolate cafe we have here. I’d love to go every day because I love my chocolate and the cafe has a great vibe. But I’ve cut out all processed sugar from my diet; all carbs; all meat. Been at this for two months now. I do not miss meat at all. Mind you, I rarely ate red meat as I preferred chicken, turkey and fish. I still eat the occasional carb (rice or bread) but not every day.

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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.

 

 

Poor Zeph. He had to get The Chop. A few months ago, he developed a bit of a prostate problem due to The Ladies. You may know that a whole male dog can sniff the ladies miles away (2km or 1.2 miles according to our vet). The scent of the female dog in heat enlarges the male prostate and this all pushes on the bowel, so the dog ends up with toilet problems.

So 10 days ago, Zeph had his operation. I was calm about it but when he came home well….vets really should warn you that animals coming out of anesthetic cry and are terribly unsettled. El Hubs picked him up around 4.00pm and I think he was operated on before 10.00am. Apparently, vets do cats first, then dogs.

We put him on our bed and basically we both slept with him all night. Thankfully, we have a huge bed. He was very hungry around 7.00pm but I only gave him a tiny amount of food. Didn’t want the poor thing to throw up. Next morning, you would not have known anything was wrong. He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as we Australians say.

Then began the “keep your dog quiet for 10-14 days business.” Well, Zeph wanted to run around like a lunatic and play with Zsa Zsa (who was a little provocateur!). I admit to being a bit of an hysterical dog mum, so I made sure Zeph remained as quiet as possible. Thankfully, there’s been no swelling or any problems and his toilet issues have disappeared.

We had a good vet down South and we’ve found an equally good one here. Can you believe we’ve been in the Far North for over four months now?!

I love this photo of Zeph and Zsa Zsa’s paws. When little ZZ wasn’t being provocative and trying to get Zeph to play, she sat quietly with him.

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