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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s an outstanding novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Been a busy month settling in to The Shed. To tell you the truth, we feel like we’ve lived here for years. The Far North of NZ is amazing. It’s the end of Autumn (or Fall) right now and it’s still warm during the day. T-shirt weather warm. Nights and mornings you get the warmer layers on though.

My friend down South tells me that they’ve had a dusting of snow, very strong NW winds and an earthquake. Not missing any of that! The Far North region does not get earthquakes we’re told or, if they do, the last one was decades ago. And speaking of NW winds – last week, the weather report said strong winds were expected. We battened down the hatches as they say; something we used to do down South. Along came the strong winds….a mild breeze. The farmer behind our property said yep, that’s as strong as they get.

Meanwhile, Zeph is very curious about a giant hole El Hubs has been digging. It’s a dog’s job to dig isn’t it?! The giant hole is our greywater system. Greywater is waste water from kitchen sinks, showers, baths, and washing machines. It is not from toilets (toilet waste water is known as sewage or black water).

So you dig a huge hole and fill it in. We’ve filled it with scoria (volcanic rock material) and planted. The plants will use the food particles and other components of grey water that they need for their nutrients and growth (which is why you don’t use toilet water).

El Hubs then built two raised vegetable beds and a floating deck. Everything grows overnight here. We seeded some grass about two weeks ago and already it needs to be trimmed. The floating deck was built for us to have coffee and breakfast on but Zeph and Zsa Zsa have taken it over for sunbathing purposes 😉

Don’t remember digging such a big hole!

Zeph and Zsa Zsa enjoy the sun on the floating deck. Behind them, you can see the two vege boxes and the plants in the grey water system.

 

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Well, Dear Reader! I’ve been offline a bit due to no Internet connection. We moved into The Shed (as I call it) on April 22 (after nearly 3 weeks in the pet-friendly motel) and then spent the next 10 days or so trying to get connected to the outside world.

We had to get the telecom company here in New Zealand to give us a phone connection thingo. This is technical jargon for some wire that they embed in the earth after having dug around a fair bit 🙂 Then, we had to get a long trench dug from this connection to The Shed. After trying to find a contractor to do this, El Hubs gave up and dug it himself, with me laying the phone cable in the trench.

Then….the real circus began. We needed the same telecom company to come back and do its thing. They were supposed to be here April 26 but it was a no show. El Hubs rang on April 27 and they said Yes, Sir we’ll be there today. You guessed it – another no show. We were shopping for food on April 29 and we get a frantic call from the technician to say he’s on the property and where are we?

We rush back and the technician fiddles around and leaves us saying you need VDSL. We go get VDSL and then ask the telecom company to come again because it wasn’t working. The company says you need VDSL. Ah yes, we have that now, we reply: thanks to your technician telling us. Then they say Nope, not our issue; it’s your service provider. So we ring them and they say No, the telecom company will sort this out.

Flummoxed, El Hubs decided to fiddle around and lo and behold, connected us. What a legend. He rings the telecom company back to cancel the request for them to come out again.

So now I can bring you photos of The Shed. We are still tarting it up though. Our 10 solar panels are fired up and give us light, and we are off-the-grid yeah!! We have two water tanks that hold 45,000L each, so we now have water. We use gas for hot water and we bought a huge Weber BBQ, which is amazing – I’m sure it could dance if I asked it to. We boil up our water for coffee on it; produce pizzas and BBQ chook; we’ve even baked a cake in it.

After two weeks of living in The Shed, I can tell you that I prefer the smaller scale of things. Our house down South had two-storeys but, in The Shed, everything is compact. The dogs love the property and their new home.

We are still decorating but I will show you the inside of The Shed soon.

The Shed, nestled in the landscape, with a contractor’s truck outside. You can see the two water tanks to the right of The Shed.

The dogs are far more active here. Zsa Zsa is exhausted from all the running and sniffing. We let her rest in our truck, which is one of her most favoured of places.

Long-distance view of The Shed – I took this photo from the bank of one of the streams.

We have to pave from the bottom of the property up to The Shed. It’s about 400m, so quite a bit to pave. We could have left it but, with the rain you get in the North, the driveway up to The Shed can get very muddy. We have been stuck a couple of times already. This is the first layer of paving and you can see Zeph and Zsa Zsa trying it out!!

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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.

 

Have you noticed the name change for the blog yet? Can’t change the URL but I thought it was time to pick a new name. So the Daily Oxford is now Up North.

In this post, I’ll give you a first look at our (rather large) property. We decided to downsize. We had 30 acres down South and we shifted to….wait for it….47 acres. Yep. We simply fell in love with the property and that was that.

We arrived on April 3 and went immediately to the property and let Zeph and Zsa Zsa run wild and free. This was before going to the pet-friendly accommodation! I promised the dogs that they could sniff and explore their new home as soon as we made it up North.

We will be living temporarily in a shed, which I refer to as The Shed. Next post, I’ll show you what it looks like. It is a serious downsize – from a two-storey home to a shed.

The Shed was not quite ready for our arrival. We started the build around November of last year not knowing when we’d actually sell our house. We have no power or water on the property, so we have to install solar panels, a composting toilet and get a phone line put in. This has taken a bit more time than we had hoped because it was hard to organise things whilst still living in the South Island.

We’ve been at the pet-friendly accommodation for two weeks now and I think one more week to go before we can move into The Shed. But we take the dogs to the property every day so they feel right at home there already. El Hubs is now project managing the build so things are moving faster.

The best part of the property for Zeph and Zsa Zsa I think is two places. The first area I call The Forest. No idea what the trees are but they are massive, tall trees and underneath them is a lovely shady area with mossy rocks and a small stream. The second place is a part of the stream. We actually have two streams that merge into one. Near The Shed is a gorgeous spot – shallow pools of water with green ferns.

When Zeph first saw the water he was a bit scared. He gingerly put one paw into the water and drew it out immediately. Two weeks down the track, he runs through the stream and uses the mossy rocks in the water as a bridge to get to the embankment on the other side. This embankment is a bit steep and Zeph and Zsa Zsa found it tough the first few days. You could see they were worried about their footing. But now they are like a couple of mountain goats.

These photos show you just how happy they are to be on their new property.

Three days in the car with the dogs! We were originally going to send them up to the North Island by pet bus. In the end though, we felt they would be safe and secure with us. I wouldn’t want to do this road trip again though. But I’ve noticed that Zeph is a lot less worried about noises now. Before when a car zoomed by, he would get a fright. No more. And especially after surviving the ferry to the North Island with all its loud noises, he’s pretty well bomb-proof LOL.

We stopped every two or three hours to exercise the dogs. There were a few pet-friendly cafes along the way where Zeph and Zsa Zsa could sit with us.

Because I was an anxious mother, I didn’t take a lot of photos along the road. But here are a few to whet the appetite!

For some reason, Zeph decided to steal Zsa Zsa’s pink blanket to make himself comfortable in the car.

I took this in Picton. We stayed there the first night so we could catch the inter-island ferry early the next morning. I have a strong liking for Picton. My Dad, who was from Wellington, wanted to retire to Picton but never got the chance.

We rarely eat out but when we do!!! This was a yummy hamburger with waffle-cut chips. At a cafe on the Picton waterfront.

Getting a glimpse of the Kapiti Coast, just outside of Wellington. This was the area we were very keen on but there is a major fault line around here. My Dad always said that when Wellington goes, it will be pretty bad. We also felt the Coast is a little crowded.

This was a great pet-friendly cafe. I didn’t get the name of it, sorry. I think it was somewhere between Matamata and Lake Taupo. Zeph and Zsa Zsa loved it and the girls serving us coffee loved the dogs and spent time patting them.

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What a schlepp dear reader! It took us three days’ road travel to get to our new home in the Far North of NZ. My biggest fear was the dogs – I was worried that they would not travel well. But they did just fine and were such good dogs.

The worst part was the ferry ride across the Cook Strait. You can book a dog kennel but the kennels are right next to the door where they load and offload vehicles. You can imagine how much noise there was and how scared Zeph and Zsa Zsa were. No-one is allowed in the cargo hold area, so we could not check on them for 3.5 hours. All sorts of things went through my mind!

Staff on the ferry though were great. They allowed us to go immediately down to the kennels, after the ferry turned and headed towards the Wellington dock. They were both sitting in their kennel and barked and jumped up when they saw us. We gave them their pet beds and blankets to sit on and I think that helped them feel a bit safer.

We had three nights’ accommodation and had to find pet-friendly places along the way. Let me give a shout out to Spirits Creek Cottage in Picton. We stayed there on the first night. Lovely cottage and a very understanding owner with her own dogs and miniature horses. She allowed us to shut the gate so Zeph and Zsa Zsa could roam around the yard.

Our next night was in Lake Taupo. I will not name the accommodation as I’d be up for defamation. Horrid 1960’s era motel that has seen better days and an owner who carried on about no pet hair to be left behind. We did not feel welcome and we hardly slept. So we did an hasta la vista outta there and left at 5.45am.

Our third and subsequent nights were at Kerigold Chalets. Great accommodation! Zeph and Zsa Zsa had a welcoming bowl of water and the owner put up a childproof gate so Zeph could sit on the balcony and watch the world go by. The chalets are located in gorgeous sub-tropical gardens.

In my next update, I’ll show you our temporary accommodation. We bought bare land. No power; no water. Well, we have a beautiful stream that runs through the property. We will be living in a shed on our property whilst we build the Dream Home. But…we have to get solar power and water tanks for the shed.

I must say people up in the North Island are a lot friendlier than down South. The weather is also warmer. So far, I’m not complaining!

Here’s a photo of Zeph on Day 1 of our road trip to the North Island. We decked out the back of the car with lots of cushions and blankets to make them both comfortable.

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