Sunday, 26 June 2022

 

A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting, by Sophie Irwin.

 

  


          What enormous fun this story is, similar as it is to the product of all the august lady-novelists of yesteryear – you could say that it is Jane Austen-Lite but, whilst it follows all the rules of their choosing (independently-minded heroine, haughty but noble hero) Ms Irwin’s research paints a sad but true picture of just how important it was to make an advantageous marriage – for either sex – in 1818.

            Kitty Talbot is the oldest, at 19, of five sisters when she and her 17 year-old sister Cecily journey to London from Dorsetshire to stay with Aunt Dorothy Kendall, with the sole objective of finding a rich husband for Kitty during the Season – rich enough to pay off the debts their dead parents have left, and kind enough to continue the education of her younger sisters.  They have two months for Kitty to snare herself a gentleman of independent means, and no-one is more determined to succeed.  Fortunately, she is of handsome looks – and a shrewish tongue, but no-one need know that till afterwards.   

            Aunt Dorothy is a staunch friend and conversant enough with the foibles of High Society (thanks to employment of doubtful origin when she was younger) that she can advise the girls of correct behaviour and address, and it is not long before the young sisters are launched into the lower echelons of polite society, soon rising to higher levels, thanks to Kitty’s quick thinking loss of her shoe in the park, requiring the assistance of Archie de Lacy, younger son of an Earl, and about to come into his majority – and inheritance!  Kitty loses no time practising her feminine wiles (she discovers it’s very hard to look upwards through one’s eyelashes but gamely tries, anyway), and Archie is soon In Love, the silly boy.  BUT!

            The only fly in the ointment is his elder brother, Lord Fairfax:  he sees effortlessly through Kitty’s blushing ardour and calls her out on her behaviour. After several pages of wounding wordplay, he agrees to give her information as to the income and reputation of the gentlemen she meets at the various balls and functions they attend during the Season – as long as she leaves his brother alone.  Naturally, his brother is heartbroken, and finds other, more dangerous pursuits to console him.

            We all know what will happen next, and there’s nothing like a happy ending in these troubling times, but Ms Irwin has given us a very clear and damning picture of the strata of society in that era – and the hypocrisy.  This is a most charming story.  Book Two is on its way!  FIVE STARS.

Sunday, 19 June 2022

 

Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn.                 Young Adults.

 

 


           16 year-old Black girl Bree Matthews is suffering.  Her mother was killed in a hit-and-run three months before, and Bree’s grief is all-consuming, except for the prospect of a huge change of scene:  a scholarship for a year’s  Pre-college study at North Carolina University.  Her best friend is going too, and Bree is grabbing at the distraction and new environment like a lifeline:  Anything to help her forget the terrible yawning emptiness in her life, and the fact that her last words to her mother were cruel.

            At first, the new setting works – until she and her friend Alice go to an Off-Campus outdoor party, and what started out to be pranks and loutish behaviour turn into a situation that Bree has trouble believing:  monsters suddenly materialising, and being just as quickly vanquished by the companion assigned to her by the Dean to keep her on the straight and narrow. (Thanks, Dad!)  As if that weren’t bizarre enough, Nick and his companions are called Legendborn and belong to a highly secret society made up of pages, vassals and knights whose duty it is to protect the ‘once-born’ (ordinary people) from said monsters of every stripe trying to find gates to enter the normal world to feast on the once-born.  The fact that once-borns are spectacularly unaware of Legendborns’ existence testifies to their success.

            Brie is, naturally, staggered.  Who knew that the education she is receiving has nothing to do with what she signed up for.  And to make matters much worse: she is the only Black girl – not in the college;  there IS diversity of a sort – but to be invited to join (if she gets through the trials) this WHITE-male-dominated secret society which hails back to the days of King Arthur.

            Brie is proud to be Black.  She’s proud of who and what she is and she doesn’t need favours from anyone.  She decides to go along with things, but only for a time – until she discovers the truth about her mother’s death;  there are too many unanswered questions about the where, how and why of it.  If they want to use her for any reason, well, she’ll use them right back!

            Ms Deonn has written a thriller which, maze-like, dense plotting aside (not to mention an army of minor characters – and all those monsters!) has the reader staying up to the wee hours to find out What Happened Next, and When:  I was very glad to finish it – not that there was anything resolved – bring on Book Two! – but I could finally get a good night’s sleep again!  (And at my age, that’s very important.)  FIVE STARS.   

             

Monday, 13 June 2022

 

Harbouring, by Jenny Pattrick.

 

  


       
Jenny Pattick’s tenth novel is set in 1840, in the fledgling settlement of Port Nicholson founded by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his brothers, proprietors of the New Zealand Company – a business set up in Britain to sell ‘country acres’ to wealthy investors, and single acre lots to those providing commerce and the means to house and feed those well-heeled investors who felt adventurous enough to make the four-month journey to this new and exciting land by ship, a journey fraught with discomfort and danger;  even more so for the migrants and their young families who travelled in the bowels of the ship, enduring terrible hardship and privation, all so that they could be servants to said investors – if they made the journey alive.

            Huw and Martha Pengellin of Wales are a just such a ‘steerage’ family; they are forced by grinding poverty and political unrest into considering the unthinkable:  to make a start in the Great Unknown, or starve, cheated out of what they own by English overlords.  When she arrives in New Zealand, Martha will be a washerwoman, but Huw travels first;  he is useful to the Wakefields for his quartermaster skills;  they have heard that the natives will sell land for all manner of implements, but muskets are preferred – the more a tribe is armed, the more powerful against its enemies.  Huw has a good ear for languages, too, and learns Maori from Rere and Te Whaiti, two crew members on his ship, but he is dismayed to learn that after their arrival, there appears to be different versions between Maori and the Wakefields as to what actually is for sale:  in Port Nicholson, survey pegs are hammered into Maori vegetable gardens and long-established Pa.  It is not long before hostilities arise – and pakeha diseases spread:  it doesn’t take long for drinking water from streams to be polluted when night soil is emptied into it.

Ms Pattrick, as always, enthrals us with her wonderful characters, each of whom narrate their chapters and propel the plot forward at dizzying speed;  such is her artistry that the reader feels the joys of a new world – and its tragedies – as they happen.  And it is thrilling for this reader to recognise in the nascent settlement of Port Nicholson the bones of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand’s capital city.  And the ‘native’ point of view is exemplified by Hineroa, a slave whose tribe was conquered by Te Rauparaha and his bloodthirsty nephew Te Rangihaeata.  She was given to whalers, one of whom taught her to read the Bible, and her future hand-to-mouth existence and life-choices are the gripping heart of the story.  Bravo, Ms Pattrick.  SIX STARS.                  

              

Sunday, 5 June 2022

 

The Fish, by Lloyd Jones.


 

            The fish is not a real fish.  The fish is the family nickname for him, because that’s what he looks like;  bulging eyes, thick lips and no neck – he’s slow, too – can’t spell for toffee, and this family prides itself on its spelling and its erudition in knowing the Latin origins of particular words, according to his teenage uncle, the narrator of Lloyd Jones’ transfixing novel. 

No, the fish is not Piscean, an ocean-dweller, but his family, regardless of the public front they preserve for the neighbours, wish that his mother, their youngest daughter (Older sister Carla is the glamorous one but she is modelling in Sydney), a teenage rebel in the 50’s well before it was fashionable  had at least known about birth control, thus preventing the birth of a severely disabled and disadvantaged child.  And she’s not saying who the father is.

            Regardless, the family rally around, trying to help the new mum who lives with her newborn in a battered caravan (‘I need my privacy!’) at a motor camp, but she doesn’t make a good fist of things, and Mum and Dad have to come to the rescue after the new mother overdoses and has to be institutionalised and rehabilitated.  The fish and his hapless mother come to live with the family, and his young uncle reluctantly assumes child-minding duties whether he wants to or not as the fish’s mother deteriorates further into self-loathing, despite the heroic efforts of her agonised parents who cannot prevent her inevitable destruction.  Fish’s mother doesn’t want to live.     

            It is now up to Mum and Dad to bring up the fish as best they can and, while he can’t write legibly (or spell) the fish proves unexpectedly clever and helpful in Dad’s scrap metal business, knowing with uncanny accuracy where everything is stored, and the price of everything:  it seems there is a useful place for him in life:  who knew it would be in the scrap metal business?  And who knew that more tragedy would ensue with the death of Dad from a heart attack caused by a breath-holding competition underwater with the fish one day at the beach:  the family reels from one tragedy to another, until good news at last:  glamorous model Carla visits (finally!) from Sydney, and makes a huge effort ‘to get to know’ her nephew, taking him for a week to the South Island – and returning on the overnight ferry ‘Wahine’ – on April 10th, 1968, a day tragically engraved in New Zealand history when the ferry sunk in Wellington Harbour with the loss of 53 lives:  Carla survives, but the fish is never found.

            This is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, a tale of woe of a family where everyone has secrets and no-one is anything like the façade they present to the world – and so beautifully written.  Lloyd Jones is a master of prose.  His account of the ‘Wahine’ tragedy was powerful and mesmerising;  whether I wanted to be or not, this reader was right there with those who survived – and those who died, like the fish.  SIX STARS.     

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

 

Remember Me, by Charity Norman.

 

 


           Emily Kirkland’s comfortable life in London as a children’s book illustrator is changed irrevocably when she receives an absurdly early morning phone call from her father’s next-door neighbour – in New Zealand.  And the next-door neighbour is widow Raewyn Parata who, with her son Ira, Emily’s childhood best friend, runs a farm on the block next to Felix Kirkland’s. 

            Early morning phone calls seldom presage good news, and this is no exception:  Emily’s Dad has Alzheimer’s disease, diagnosed when he recently crashed his car and his symptoms were found to be more than concussion.  Could Emily return to Aotearoa to care for him for a little while, and to decide with her twin siblings the best solution for future care of their dear Dad, once a respected family Doctor in Tawanui, the small East Coast town to which the family migrated from England, and now suddenly a confused old man who doesn’t remember anyone.

            Fair enough.  Emily will do her duty.  She’ll stay for three weeks, long enough to ‘arrange things’.  She had never felt close to her father anyway;  he was always very remote from his supposed Loved Ones, preferring to give his respect and attention to his patients to such an extent that when his last child left home, Emily’s Mum left, too.  Yes, Emily will do her bit, but she is already looking forward to leaving her unhappy beginnings in Tawanui (before she has even arrived!), for her memories also include a very rare Cold-Case:  the disappearance of Raewyn Parata’s brilliant daughter Leah, who went walking in the Ruahine Ranges on a scientific exploration – and never returned.  Emily was the last to see her alive.  She does NOT want to relive those memories!

            But her father changes her mind.  Swinging wildly in behaviour between not recognising her at all, and in his attempts at normalcy revealing horrifying, long-kept secrets, Emily knows she must stay and care for him until HE decides his fate, despite huge opposition from her siblings who are screeching for Power of Attorney so that they can sell his property and shunt him off to the local rest home.

            Decide his fate he does, and that is what makes Ms Norman’s story so clever:  she writes in clear, beautiful, everyday prose of ordinary people trying to make sense of a disease that we all greatly fear – the horror of forgetting who we are, our very selves – and weaves a stunning suspense plot into the mix as well.  And sibling rivalry has never been so baldly portrayed.  FIVE STARS.    

                 

               

 

         

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

 

Kiss Myself Goodbye, by Ferdinand Mount.           Non-fiction

 

 


           That tired old adage ‘fact is always stranger than fiction’ applies beautifully here as British author Ferdinand Mount recounts the tempestuous life and times of his Aunt, Betty Mount, an extraordinary milker of every opportunity and lover of excitement – and men, for Aunt Betty’s husband Uncle Greig (his name was George but that name sounded SO pedestrian) was not the only man in her life.  Or her only husband.  In fact, she sometimes divested herself of her husbands with unseemly and, in several instances, illegal haste.  Aunt Betty was a bigamist more than once, and no-one was more shocked to discover this than Ferdinand and his sister Francie when he decided to delve into the family history and, thanks to the detailed birth, marriage and death records he consulted in the multiple countries associated with Betty and her family, he has produced a fitting and authentic account of an extraordinary woman’s life.

            Ferdinand and his sister were invited for holidays at his Aunt and Uncle’s  coastal residences, as company for Betty’s daughter Georgie (Ferdinand’s mother remarked unkindly that Betty went away one Christmas and came back with a baby) and, for a time, an adopted toddler daughter called Celeste whom everyone loved but had disappeared mysteriously and permanently by the time the next lot of holidays rolled around.  Despite renting every property they lived in, there was no shortage of money;  Unca and Munca (as they instructed the children to call them) also had the long-term rental of a suite at Claridge’s hotel – nicknamed The Pub, excellent accommodation when one attended a West End Musical, as they all often did.  Unca and Munca were always generous hosts, but there were some members of their family who were not as popular, like Buster, Munca’s supposed brother, who sometimes let his daughter stay during the holidays, but always seem to be in a bad mood and a hurry.  He was also known for his many marriages (seven) and riding a motor cycle on the Wall of Death.  Who could resist such a dashing relative?  Until research revealed that Buster’s origins were very different from Munca’s official story.

            As was Munca and her sister Doris’s true history, originating in the slums of Sheffield and ending in wealthy and celebrated comfort, thanks to Munca’s vague reference once to ‘my sugar daddy’.   Ferdinand Mount’s reminiscences of his feckless Aunt Betty – some of it in exhaustive and pedantic detail, is nevertheless a hugely entertaining record of a singular life, a life in which every risk was taken and opportunity seized, regardless of who got hurt along the way.  And there were so many who did.  FIVE STARS.        

             

Sunday, 8 May 2022

 

The Mother, by Jane Caro.

 


            Miriam Duffy is a successful Real Estate Agent on Sydney’s North Shore.  She has a loving husband, two successful adult daughters, one of whom is the mother of a darling granddaughter.  Her cup should really runneth over – in fact, when Jane Caro’s dark and disturbing suspense novel opens, Miriam and her husband are at the wedding of their youngest, gorgeous Ally, to Nick, the man of her dreams.  They are tying the knot after a brief whirlwind courtship and, because Ally has always been a bit of a Drama Queen, Miriam is secretly pleased that someone else will now be custodian of all the teary tantrums:  her daughter has always been hard work, but Love should Conquer All, and Economist Ally is clearly thrilled to be a handsome, charming Vet’s wife, even if they do have to move to a nondescript little town in the Hunter Valley where Nick has found work at a Vet Practice.  Yes, the future looks rosy – and infinitely more peaceful!

            Until the family’s life is upended by the sudden, tragic death of Miriam’s husband and, as if that weren’t awful enough, Love hasn’t Conquered All in the Hunter Valley:  Ally has produced a beautiful baby boy but doesn’t seem to want her family to visit, or see the baby – until Nick calls Miriam and asks for her assistance.  He is frightened that Ally is having a breakdown, and needs help – which she certainly does, for three months after giving birth, she is pregnant again. 

            Miriam rushes to her daughter’s side, and is horrified by the change in her;  she obviously loves her little son but the honeymoon seems to be over with her husband and Miriam, a rampant feminist – and not a character I could warm to at first – starts to notice cracks in Nick’s charming, considerate façade.  He seems to be doing his best to convince people that Ally is mentally unstable to the extent that he sends her to a Psychiatrist, who arranges visits from a mental health nurse – who advises Ally that it is time she goes back home to mum before she gets killed!

            This is a take-no-prisoners story of domestic abuse, so prevalent in society, and so accepted;  Miriam’s eventual solution to her daughter’s heartbreak has far-reaching and terrible consequences, but if someone has to die, it won’t be her beloved daughter and grandchildren.

            Ms Caro has written a novel that everyone should read:  your family is not your punching bag.  FIVE STARS.