THE LAST PAINTING OF SARAH DE VOS by Dominic Smith

Do you know the names of any seventeenth century Dutch women artists,  just off the top of your head? I googled it - three. What about male Dutch artists of the same period - twenty four. Did women paint any less than men then? Unlikely - the urge to paint is just that, a personal expression - when you gotta paint, you gotta paint I guess. Sara de Vos is a fictional character, an amalgam of several actual women artists of the time. In this novel she is the first woman to be admitted into the guild of master artists. Women artists existed, but their signatures were never on the works they did, they were signed by husbands or male artists.  Which is what happened to Sara: her husband and father of their daughter, being the earner, his signature was on her work as his own. Life takes a terrible turn for Sara, but she does  manage to paint a most beautiful and haunting picture, that survives down through the centuries.

This painting ends up being bought by a wealthy Dutch merchant, staying in the same family through the years, until it ends up on the wall of his descendant, Marty de Groot who lives in New York. It is now 1957, and one day Marty notices that the painting hanging above the bed is actually a fake. How did this happen? In a very clandestine and deceitful fashion, obsessed with revenge, he tracks down the forger - a young Australian fine arts restoration student, Ellie Shipley who is living in New York at a subsistence level, unhappy, disillusioned. Extraordinarily talented, her skill at restoration leads her down the path of making a forgery of the de Vos painting.

The story moves effortlessly between the seventeenth century, the late 1950s and the year 2000 as the lives of Sara, her family, Ellie and Marty, and the painting itself unfold. In 2000 Ellie, now in her sixties,  is a world renowned art historian living in Sydney. An exhibition of Dutch masters is taking place, and bizarrely, both of the paintings are on their way - the secretly reclaimed original back in the hands of Marty de Groot, and the fake which has been  hanging in a Dutch gallery. Will Ellie's forgery past come back to haunt her? And what will happen when she and Marty meet up again after so many years?

This is such a good story - the plot alone is enough to compel one to pick it up and read. But it is also so extremely well written. Carefully paced, and moving effortlessly across time and back again, it's strength lies in the way relationships between the key characters develop, and how the plot hinges on these relationships. The author has also researched most thoroughly old Dutch masters, guilds, painting techniques, women artists . What was most fascinating was the secret world of stealing/forging/onselling stolen works of art, how these old and valuable works are forged so perfectly, the processes museums and art galleries go through to verify and restore works of art.

Very, very good. 

THE SECRET DIARY OF HENDRIK GROEN 83 1/4 YEARS OLD by Hendrick Groen

I fondly remember that marvellous TV series of the 1990s - Waiting for God. Two feisty oldsters, Tom and Diana, living in Bayview Retirement Village, under the management of Harvey and his hapless assistant Jane. Continually looking for ways to sabotage and subvert the efforts of Harvey and Jane in their 'management' of the residents, Tom and Diana never let an opportunity go by. Even though it was funny, there was a serious message in the weekly escapades of the residents - how to live a meaningful life, build good and strong friendships, how to remain independent in mind and body for as long as possible, when all around you are slowly fading away, whether it be mentally, physically or both. 

Hendrik Groen is one such elderly resident of a residential care home. There is enormous speculation around the world as to whether he is a real person or not, adding a touch of frission to the story telling. In the Netherlands where it was originally published  in 2014 it has been a sensation, and taken the world by storm since its translation into other languages. Most of us will make old bones, and it makes sense for us to be naturally curious, frightened, pragmatic, even fatalistic about where and how we will live out our last days. This could well give you a few ideas to make it all bearable!

This retirement home, north of Amsterdam, sounds like a very reasonable place to be. Hendrick has his own unit within the complex, he lives independently, with like minded people living just like he is. At the beginning of the year, January 1, he decides to write a diary, documenting exactly what goes on in a rest home, because it would appear a lot goes on behind closed doors that never gets out. He has a number of good friends in the complex including the totally impossible Evert, doing everything he can to subvert the noble aims of management. Just like a bunch of teenagers really, hassling their teachers or parents. 

Death, naturally, is part and parcel of everyday life in the home. One day Hendrik has a new neighbour, Eefje,  with whom he strikes up a beautiful friendship, showing that even in your 80s, it is never too late to fall in love or find your soul mate. He, Eefje, Evert and a few other similarly rascally residents form a group - The Old But Not Dead Club - where they take it in turns to organise day outings. These outings and the camaraderie give the old people a new lease of life, some point to their increasingly constrained existences. Some great times are had, and Hendrik is a marvellous chronicler of the goings on in the home. 

We never learn much about Hendrik and his life prior to coming to the home. He is widowed, and lost his only child many years ago. He doesn't have family visiting, or taking him on outings, so becomes a very astute observer of the lives of those around him. He also has a brilliant relationship with his mobility scooter which also gives him considerable freedom, and allows him to pass disparaging comments about fellow mobility scooter users. Very funny.

It is a wonderful story, who cares if it is true or not. It is exactly the type of old person I want to be - slightly bonkers, subversive, able to have great relationships still with people, and seize the day even if at times it will be bloody difficult! 


SUMMER ISLAND by Kristin Hannah

Variously described in reviews as poignant, funny, romantic, luminous, tender, with a triumphant ending, this certainly sounds like the complete package for a good read.  There are definitely elements of this all the way through the novel, but it is a long drawn out, at times turgid and frustrating journey. And I would hardly say the ending is triumphant! More like predictable. Right from first couple of chapters, you know exactly how this is going to pan out - a death, a reckoning, a love story, a coming together. We have all read novels where we know what is going to happen, but some writers tell it better than others. This is very average - enough to engage you, but not enough to wow you.

This is one of the author's early novels, published in 2001. She has come a very long way since which is marvellous - only a couple of years ago she wrote the wonderful and memorable 'The Nightengale'. What a dazzling story that is. Read that, and not this. Although you could read this, and then marvel at how her writing and story telling has developed in the years since.

Summer Island is a fictional island in the San Juan island group, north west of Seattle. For Ruby's family it was both a holiday place and, for a while where the family lived. It is also the place from which Ruby's mother Nora deserted the family some 15 years earlier when Ruby was 11. Her father never get over his wife leaving, and it left huge scars on Ruby and her sister Caroline. Ruby is now in her late 20s, a failing/failed comedienne, at a loss in her personal and professional life. Nora has become a celebrated radio agony aunt talk show host and newspaper columnist. She is very famous, and very estranged from Ruby, who has never forgiven her mother for leaving. Nora's life suddenly takes a wild down ward turn, exposing her to nationwide ridicule. Ruby is given the chance to make some money and get revenge back on her mother by writing a tell-all story of the family. Full of rage and retribution she makes her way back to Summer Island to nurse her mother and write her book. Things do not go as planned. What a surprise. Of course we find out the real reason Nora left and didn't come back, what happened to Ruby's father, and sweetest of all, what happened to her first love, who just happens - yes really, just happens to be on the island too! What a coincidence. Dean is nursing his terminally ill brother. Again, deserted by parents - so sad.

It is a light, harmless read, usual themes of family dynamics, secrets, misunderstandings, and forgiveness. Well written, but just a little dull. No more than 3 out of 5. 

ALL DAY AT THE MOVIES by Fiona Kidman

Finally my review of this marvellous book, one of the best NZ novels I have read, so pleased I have had opportunity to read and review, pass book to others, and give to family for Christmas presents. This is a greatly abridged review of that submitted for LandfallOnLine. 

Dame Fiona Kidman, what a national treasure this woman is. She writes fiction novels and short stories, poetry, memoirs – yes, more than one, film scripts. She has won numerous awards and fellowships for her writing, she has been involved in the publishing and advancement of all New Zealand writing and books. A true heroine of New Zealand publishing, but more importantly of telling the stories of women’s lives in this country. It seems to me that this latest book collectively takes all these past stories, including fragments from her own life story, seamlessly stitching them together into a moving, acutely observed chronicle of a family over a sixty year plus period. 

There is history too in this novel, even if it is in the very recent past for many people in this country. Those of us around who remember, and may or may not have taken part in protests of the 1981 Springbok tour will recall it as a pretty traumatic, divisive time, even though it was only for 56 days. The tour has a prominent part to play in this book. Not so prominent but of equal import in the story and plot making are a variety of other events that were crucial to the times, if not necessarily so to the characters. For example, the 1951 Watersiders’ Strike, the death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk in 1974, the Ruth Richardson ‘Mother of All Budgets’ in 1991, United Women’s Convention of 1975, are just a few of the milestones that are peppered throughout this novel, and lend enormous authenticity to the characters, their actions and lives.

This novel is the story of a family, a family torn apart even before it had begun. A man dies during WWII leaving behind a pregnant wife, Irene. The story opens in 1952 with Irene and her now six year old daughter trying to start a new life with a tobacco picking job in Motueka.  None of this goes to plan of course, and by the end of the first chapter, some thirty pages later, Irene has almost lost her daughter, found and lost a potential husband, been part of a horrible death, and in her shock, found herself an actual husband. And what a bad life choice that turned out to be. But what does one do – barely coping with one child, and a second child on the way. Irene was hardly unusual for her time, choosing to marry a man, Jock, making the best of what she saw as the best of a bad situation.

Tragedy strikes again some years later, with the death of Irene. Widowhood is indiscriminate in its choices. Little told are the stories of men widowed due to wives dying in childbirth or of illness, leaving them unable to cope with babies and young children. Enter the stepmother, who often started in the household as a housekeeper, or was a widowed friend, neighbour, or just a lonely woman who saw an opportunity to change her life. More often than not, totally ill-equipped to take on the care and upbringing of distraught grieving children not her own. Jock and his four children, Jessie, Belinda, Grant and Janice find themselves in this very situation. The new stepmother may be Charm by name, but certainly not by nature. 
  
Life treats each of the four children differently in its unfolding of events over the years that follow, as the fallout of those early days takes hold, and never goes away. There is never any excuse for cruelty. Jock and Charm, really are the most awful pieces of work, making the lives of each of these children a total misery. 

It is going to give too much of the plot away to say what happens to Jessie, Belinda, Grant and Janice. Suffice to say that collectively, there is teenage pregnancy, banishment, adoption, marriage, child sexual and physical abuse, racism and bigotry, what would probably be diagnosed now as dyslexia, depression and mental illness, domestic violence, drugs, imprisonment. Wow – you hooked now? You want to read this? A phenomenal amount of action packed into 318 pages! All against the backdrop of New Zealand’s ever changing social and political times.

It certainly is worth reading, if for nothing else than the documentation of change over the last sixty years or so in our society, and how attitudes have also changed. For example, to women working and having real careers, something that was almost unheard of in the 1970s; women having control over their reproduction, again only just getting underway in the 1970s; changes in attitude to unmarried mothers, teen mothers, adoption; to children with learning difficulties. Although I have my doubts if things would really have been any better for those children living with Jock and Charm under today’s Child, Youth and Family Service.

Admittedly the novel is a bit of a whirlwind. There are many potential plot lines that could be furthered explored and developed, many characters I would love to have known more about. But this is a minor criticism. The fact that I wanted to know more shows how engaged I was with the novel, with the characters, their lives, the decisions they make, what happens to them. Dame Fiona leaves no stone unturned in her telling, with a geographical reach as impressive as her social/historical reach – Hokianga, Auckland,  Rotorua, Turangi, Wairarapa, Wellington, Motueka, South Canterbury, even as far out as the Campbell Islands. Her characters live in cities, farms, small towns. They are poor, middle class, protestant, catholic, successful career people, students, teachers, marginalized, academics, hairdressers. And this is the real beauty of this novel. She wants people to get on, to live and work together in harmony, empathy, understanding and kindness for each other. That despite our infinite variety in where we come from, how we live, we what do, we are essentially the same. It would be so easy for her to rail in anger and rage at the way women have had to fight for their equal place in our society, at the injustice served to those who don’t quite fit the traditional, conservative mould of much of New Zealand society in its short history. And yet she doesn’t. She quietly gets on with telling the stories of damaged people, always with an eye to things getting better, not reflecting or dwelling in the past, having those four children – Jessie, Belinda, Grant and Janice – constantly trying to make it right and do better for themselves.  So, for two of them it doesn’t work out, which are the tragedies of this novel, as happens in many families, but in the last pages there is a reunion of sorts, realistically awkward, which does give hope for the future of this fractured family.

I truly hope you read this book, especially if you have lived through these times, have strong memories of what NZ society was once like, how things have changed for the better. Plus it is just such a great story. I loved it. Is this Dame Fiona's best book? I have no idea, but I certainly intend to read more of her so as to find out. 



THIS IS YOUR LIFE by John O'Farrell

Nothing wrong with dreaming big in life, planning your future from a young age, writing letters to yourself to be read when you become a grown up and are actually famous. There is only a problem of course when you don't become famous, when you don't achieve that greatness that you know you were destined to achieve. Instead you become a lowly teacher of English as a second language in an English backwater town, leading a pretty down at heel sort of wasted life. Single, broke, bored, disillusioned.

Poor Jimmy Conway, life was supposed to be such a different kettle of fish! And now his life has amounted to very little. He still harbours the desire to be a world famous stand up comic, the novel opening with him about to do a routine at the Royal Variety Performance, his childhood dream about to come true. But oh dear, it is all a lie, the result of a huge fabrication that Jimmy has himself created, aided and abetted by those who should know better. Bizarrely he becomes a victim of his own success!

And how did this peculiar set of circumstances come about? How does a nobody find himself in the wings of the Royal Albert Hall, petrified out of his wits, the fool playing to the fooled? Through a chance encounter with a famous stand up comic who promptly dies of a heart attack, Jimmy finds himself plunged into the world of the rich and famous, his reckless joke making taking on a life of its own.

As much a satire on the game of fame, as well as a serious commentary on the price of fame, this is a novel that could so easily have spiralled out of control, yet remains totally held.  Jimmy is actually very funny, and I am surprised he never has made it as a comic, because he is funny on paper! See, even I am beginning to think Jimmy is a real stand up comedian. A bit like The Emperor's New Clothes, Jimmy the Stand Up Comic is a complete fabrication. The joy of the novel is how he gets out of his potential fall from grace, how he loses friends and wins them again and best of all finds joy in his life, peace and contentment.

LUNCH WITH THE GENERAL by Derek Hansen

Isn't it great when you find a series that you just have to read all of. So it is with the 'Lunch With...' series, by Derek Hansen. Unlike many other series', you don't actually have to read this series in order, which is just as well, because I started with  the last one - 'Lunch with a Soldier', then moved onto number three - 'Lunch with the Stationmaster', and now number two. Next is number one - 'Lunch with Mussolini'. Each of these novels is completely self contained, the link and familiarity between them due to the same four men meeting weekly in an Italian restaurant in Sydney to tell their stories and pass time together. And eat beautiful Italian food! How incredibly civilised! And what stories these ageing gentlemen tell! Each book is great story telling, the author has a wonderful gift in the art of telling a story. The tension and hook of each story is trying to figure out whether it is the narrator's life story or if it is really a made up story, or even a mixture of the two.

This fluidity with the truth is maddening in this particular tale! The story of the General is narrated by Ramon, an exile from Argentina. You never know at all how much is Ramon's story and how much isn't, even at the end there are doubts. But don't let this slight annoyance detract you from the brilliance of the story telling.

Ramon's story begins during a terrible period in Argentina's recent history. A small boy witnesses his parents being taken away, betrayed by an ex-lover of the mother. The parents are never seen again, The ex-lover 'escapes' to Australia, renames himself Eduardo, and begins a new life. Running parallel to this story is that of a young Dutch man who makes the long journey to his childhood home in Indonesia, taken over by the Japanese during the war. Eventually he and his family also land in Sydney, where inevitably the paths of the two men and their families cross. As does the third path of the young child abandoned during his parents' arrests. It is perhaps a little contrived with a not entirely satisfactory ending, but still compelling story telling. Not the best in the series, but still worth a read. 

THE HOUSE AT RIVERTON by Kate Morton

Lots to like in this novel, perfect for summer or holiday reading. The setting is very Downton Abbey with the grand English home between the wars, the family upstairs and the servants downstairs, their lives intimately connected with each other, changes taking place in society during this time, the tragedy of the war on the living as well as those killed.  Such great material to pull together in a novel.

Grace is the narrator of the story. Now 99 years old and living in a rest home, she has been visited by a young American film maker, Ursula, who is making a movie about an incident that took place at Riverton during the 1920s. At a ball, a young poet, Robbie, killed himself. He was at the centre of a love triangle involving the two sisters of the manor house, Hannah and Emmeline. Grace, at the time, was a lady's maid to Hannah, and as the only person still living from this tragic episode, is the only one Ursula can call upon for a first hand account.

Grace likes Ursula, and so decides to tell the story. At the same time she makes a tape recording to leave to her grandson Marcus, only child of her only child Ruth, with whom she has a prickly relationship. The telling of the tragic story, so long buried in Grace's memory  and her forced remembrance of the part she herself played in the tragedy, is not easy for Grace but slowly, moving between the past and the present, Grace manages to come to a certain peace about the events that took place some 80 years earlier.

This narrative is only part of what is going on in this novel. Grace herself comes from unexplained beginnings which gradually emerge through the telling. Although I guessed fairly early on what had happened. It will also give too much of the plot away by elaborating further on the story line. What is less easily explained, and has also been picked up by numerous other reviewers, is how did Grace, in the course of her very long life, go from being a lady's maid to a famous archaeologist! We know women can do anything, but this does seem rather a long stretch of the imagination for the times. But never mind. Sometimes you have to suspend belief when the rest of the story catches your imagination. And it is a good story, twists and turns, dominated by the mistress/servant relationship between Hannah and Grace which ultimately leads to the tragic events.

It does, however, take a lot of pages before we finally get to learn what really happened the night of Robbie's death. Too many pages really, it sort of does drag along a bit. But plenty of intrigue, a vivid portrayal of life between the wars, for those upstairs and downstairs, romance, betrayal, passion. It is still most enjoyable!