Evie’s War – book review

Evie’s War, by Anna Mackenzie

A fictionalised diary is a difficult way to tell a story because although you hear the intimacies of one person’s mind, you get no one else’s point of view and none of the direct action. The story is delayed—you are told about events afterwards, once the immediacy has gone. It’s a hard format to pull off. Could Evie hook me? Continue reading “Evie’s War – book review”

Gone to Pegasus – book review

Gone to Pegasus, by Tess Redgrave

I was recommended Gone to Pegasus because of my interest in colonial women. The setting is Dunedin, New Zealand and we are in 1892, on the cusp of the historic victory that gave votes to women in 1893. Continue reading “Gone to Pegasus – book review”

The Smuggler’s Wife – book review

Kitty, Amber & Band of Gold, by Deborah Challinor

These books are a lot of fun. I defy anybody to read just the one. And I’ve just seen there is a fourth, published after a six year (and at least 5 book) gap. Hooray! I’m going back in. Continue reading “The Smuggler’s Wife – book review”

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke – book review

The Imaginary lives of James Pōneke, by Tina Makereti

Interesting book!
Tina Marereti is long listed for the Ockham Book awards and I so hope she wins. That’s unfair, because I haven’t read any of the others, (yet, but if you send them, I will, I will!)  But if you’ve been following my book reviews you’ll know by now that I’m a sucker for Victorian era fiction and this one’s a corker. Continue reading “The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke – book review”

Unsheltered – book review

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

Other reveiws of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered focus on the political; the coy way that Trump shadows the book but is never mentioned by name, the crisis in mid-America in employment, health, etc, our hurtle towards ecological crisis. It has all this; it is trademark Kingsolver.

But I read the book very literally.  To be unsheltered is a primal fear. Unsheltered gave me goosebumps. It is as threatening as a horror story, more so because the menace lies in the undercurrents while things on the surface look good enough. Continue reading “Unsheltered – book review”

Educated – book review

Educated, by Tara Westover

As I read this story, I wondered – how much can really be true?

How, given the emotional brainwashing and abuse of her childhood, could Tara succeed so brilliantly – from unschooled junk-yard kid, through Harvard and Cambridge to a PhD in only ten years?  If I was reviewing this as fiction I would call it unbelievably contrived. Continue reading “Educated – book review”

Elizabeth and her German Garden – book review

Elizabeth and her German garden, by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Here’s my pick for a Christmas gift for a woman who likes reading and gardening, and doesn’t go at things in a rush. It’s for someone who takes time over words and soil, someone who stops to look at dew on a spider’s web and who, when you drop by over Christmas, is invariably in a flowering sunny nook with a book.

It’s a turn of the Century book (20th Century, that is) in which a young English woman marries a German count and bucks established conventions, opting to leave city society and live in his country pile, where she is obsessed with being outdoors and working in the garden.

She refers to her husband as the Man of Wrath though he is a long suffering dear, who humors her and visits when he can and gives her a generous budget for her mulches and compost though appears quite bewildered by the oddball he has married. She says it must be agreeable to have an original wife, he counters that she is eccentric.  Her three daughters are the April baby, the May baby, and the June baby and are all “inoffensive and good” and are released by the nurse periodically to wander the gardens with their distracted mother.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, is learning how her garden grows. Her gardener has planted rockets right along the very front of the two borders and now the plants behind are completely hidden.  “No future gardener shall be allowed to run riot in quite so reckless a fashion.” But she is charmed by the delicate colour of the rockets and their scent, she picks them to bring inside to the room is filled with their fragrance. She experiments with planting in long grass, she puts pansies in the rose beds and makes a great bank of azeleas in front of the fir trees to brighten up a gloomy nook.

The extent of Elizabeth’s garden and obsession is far beyond what most of us consider gardening, but between monologues about over-wintering of tea roses and the planting of annual larkspurs around the privet hedge she does consider wider issues of a woman’s place in the world, the foibles of society and the benefits of me-time (my words, she calls it wintering all alone, which is disapproved of by the German matrons).  She has visits from two friends, one she likes, the other they pick on, and when the visitors get too much, Elizabeth escapes to her garden.

Elizabeth and her German Garden is a lovely read. It has a gentle pace and a spirited heroine, through she does little other than walk around her flower beds. I’m no large-scale gardener and was a bit overwhelmed by the plants and flowers she describes in all their glory and through every season, but very much enjoyed her enthusiasm and love for them all, the poetry of the writing and the fact that a woman can be so happy in her eccentricity.

Elizabeth is missing – book review

Elizabeth is missing, by Emma Healey

Maud is a great hero of mine. She’s an old lady who is losing her marbles, but she clings on to the things she does know for dear life. She remembers things long past, but not yesterday. She’ll set an alarm clocks to remind her of something, but can’t remember why she set it.

I’m not Maud yet. I do remember why I set the alarm clock, but the fact that  I feel I need to set it at all makes we wonder if I’m heading that way.

So here’s a lovely book for a book group of women rolling with a bit of a swagger through their fifties. Watch the hesitation in their eyes as they make their funny wee confessions and giggle. Forgot the name of the actor you watched last night? Bought canned peaches again, although they already form a wall in the cupboard? Swear blind you haven’t seen your husband’s keys and can’t explain how they ended up in your handbag? (Hang on, that last one might just be me…)

Elizabeth is Maud’s dear friend. Maud thinks Elizabeth is missing, but is unable make her concerns clear to her long-suffering daughter, or her carer, or Elizabeth’s difficult son, or the police, the doctor.  Maud is confused about a lot of things, and the way this confusion is handled by Healey is gentle and empathetic. We are inside her head and feeling her frustration, but can also sympathise with the way those around her react to her crumbling reality.

The missing friend obsesses Maud so piercingly because, after the war, her older sister, Sukey, also went missing.  She was never found. We go back fifty years into Maud’s clearer memories, but things get more confusing before all the unravelling begins to reform into something unexpected.

It’s hard to categorise Elizabeth is Missing. It’s a lovely character story and a well described study of a woman’s slide into dementia with all the accompanying frustrations and misunderstandings that many readers will recognise.  It’s also a sharp psychological mystery, and a ripping thriller.  There are lots of different aspects to discuss in Healey’s book (not least that it’s her first novel – how does a woman in her twenties develop such acute observation?) For sure it’s a good pick for a women’s book club if, as I say, the odd senior moment hovers around your periphery.  This will make ’em squirm.

A Gentleman in Moscow – book review

If you enjoyed War & Peace…

This is War & Peace-lite, set over a century later with a different kind of war. And while the original covers a huge sweep of country from Napoleon’s battlefields to the St Petersburg salons, country peasants and the exodus from Moscow, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow is set entirely within the walls of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow’s Theatre Square.

But there is something distinctly Tolstoyian in our hero, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, charming and urbane, surely a descendant of the more famous Rostovs. He is sent into house arrest by the Bolsheviks and goes willingly, considering the alternative, and for 30 years from 1922 is imprisoned in the hotel, first as an honoured guest and later as a respected waiter. We almost see this as a promotion, so conditioned are we by then to look on the positive side of life.

Rostov witnesses the momentous changes in Russia, not Tolstoy-style through the debate of powerful men and the clash on the battlefields, but in the detail of everyday life in the hotel as he quietly observes the changing guests and procedures. We are left to imagine the mentality of the new regime’s leaders who remove the labels from every bottle in the famous wine cellar so comrades receive a egalitarian pot-luck bottle with each meal. Rostov, connoisseur and master of the wine-food match, merely serves the first bottle that comes to hand.

The backing cast of the story are the workers of the Metropol who are trained for service, impeccably courteous front-of-house and a pack of real characters behind the scenes. Rostov is Rostov, his beautiful manners translate from his aristocratic youth to service without missing a beat.

There are three main women who come into Rostov’s life, each in a different context, and he is loyal, generous and playful in his love for each in a very Rostovian way. The women all have beating hearts.

He’s a lovely man. It’s an elegantly written book. Glib? Yes, perhaps. Open the book in the middle and read a few pages to see if the voice is for you. But don’t be fooled, under the light tone, we are still in 1930’s Russia.  Towles gives a menacing feel for the era, without much “proper” history at all. And the end is sublime.

I finished it and immediately recommended it to friends, particularly, but not exclusively, to those who have re-watched the BBC War & Peace series over and over and can’t quite get enough.

And if you still can’t get enough, Amor Towles writes a Q&A on A Gentleman of Moscow on his website, well worth a read to pick up some little details you may have missed.

I love Charles Dickens

As a tonic for insomnia

I became a Dicken’s fan early on. I remember reading David Copperfield at primary school and I gobbled up Oliver Twist. Pip and his Great Expectations hovered around my teenage years. I probably had a strange view of the world.

The thing I liked best about Dickens were the characters I met, they were nothing like the people I knew in 1970s Wellington.  I would have died for friends like the Artful Dodger and his gang.  They were my imaginary friends and did much more exciting things than the real ones.  And because I was not long out of the fantasy & magic worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth I half believed these people existed. I knew that “Dickensian London” was a real time and place, and I read in that zone between reality and imagination. Where most history probably belongs, anyway.

One of the main advantages of Dickens now is that he’s out of copyright. Yes, you can download the entire works of Dickens onto your kindle for free.  Generally, I don’t download books for free. I like to ensure the authors get paid, but that’s a rant for another time. Dickens doesn’t need my coin any more. I put him in my bag when I’m travelling and now I look forward to that four hour delayed stopover.

I suppose I’ve read Dickens on and off throughout my life. There is no end to the stories, once you’ve read the entire collection you can happily go back and start again – by that time years will have past and the stories will be fresh. They certainly won’t get any more dated.

But here’s the thing. Charles Dickens saved me.

It was when I was living in England, and my children were little, and I was an insomniac. I don’t mean the kind of insomnia when you’re a bit stressed and don’t sleep well for a few nights and whine, I’m so tired.  I’m talking about the deep insomnia that can last for months, when you have no expectation of sleep at all, even though you are in that place that’s deeper than tiredness. Fathoms deeper.

It’s where you wake up at 2am and know that nothing will send you back to sleep. That’s where I was. Of course I drank cocoa, had hot baths, did yoga, said hommmmm for hours. Counted bloody sheep. Sleep wasn’t coming.

If you ever find yourself there, here’s my tip: read Dickens.

I’m not suggesting for a single second that Dickens is soporific.  Quite the reverse. Reading Dickens will not send you to sleep.  He’s thrilling. And anyway, you’re an insomniac. Nothing is going to put you to sleep. You may as well read. At 2am, there’s not a lot else to do.

After a while you’ll find Dickens’ characters will climb in to bed with you.  They become so real, you can anticipate what they are going to do. And then they surprise you, like when a friend you know well does something out of character. The very fact that you can know a fictional character well enough to be surprised by them is a bit creepy.

When you know characters so well, you don’t even need to turn the light on or pick up the book. You can look, wide-eyed into blackness of your black room and you can play with Dickens’ characters, because you’ll know them so well. You can put yourself in the stories with them – you can take Pip in hand and tell him to forget his Great Expectations and go back to the forge, and have Pip look up at you with those big eyes and say “Yes! Yes I will go back. Joe is a good man, I’ll go home.”

Doesn’t happen in the book.

Or pick up a gun and shoot Little Nell – God knows she deserves it – and put her and generations of future readers out of their misery. I’ve done that a few times. BANG! Goodbye Little Nell.  It’s very satisfying at 3am.

I’ve been thanked many times by insomniacs  for that bit of advice – to read Dickens through the night. I know a teacher who received his entire classical education between 2 and 5am.

So if you find yourself falling into an insomnia that might last for months, put a stack of Dickens on your bedside table and pick some characters to romp around in bed with you. You can mix them up. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Inspector Bucket of Bleak House, and I sometimes take him to visit Dombey, to see if he can’t sort out that great bully. He tells Dombey to take note of little Florence: “You’re a sensible man of the world,” he says. “And a sensible man of the world knows the value of an intelligent girl.”

If you want a suggestion on where to start, try here:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” and keep going until you have worked your way through the complete works.  You won’t get any more sleep, but you will spend your nights in excellent company and get out of bed in the morning with a dramatically improved vocabulary.



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