• The Witches of Vardø

    By Anna Bergman

    It’s 1662 in Norway and the paranoia of men is high. The King, in Copenhagen, is afraid of “witches” in the North and has a brutal governor in place on the island of Vardø who is tasked with hunting and executing them. This is a time where witches were to blame for so many things: the plague, storms and even empty barrels of beer. Some men were clearly afraid of women, some just wanted to blame them for their own doings or for bad luck. But women also accused other women – often for nothing more than jealousy.

    This book is told from two point of view. Anna was once mistress of the King (back when he was still a prince). She has been banished to the island of Vardø, where she is kept as a prisoner. While she hasn’t been accused of being a witch, the threat is there as she is reminded repeatedly that she has no power there. She is desperate to get back to her home in Bergen, and will do anything to change her lot in life – even take part in trying to get confessions from accused witches. Ingeborg is 16 years old, and the daughter of a fisherman on the mainland. Her brother and father have died at sea and her mother, who was never a great mother to her daughters to begin with, has turned bitter in her grief. That is until the day that she catches the eye of the local merchant’s son and starts an affair with him. This leads to her being accused of being a witch and transported to Vardø, and triggers Ingeborg’s quest to save her mother from torture and death.

    The chapters told from Anna’s point of view are written in first person, as letters to the king. Ingeborg’s chapters are in third person and through her chapters we learn a lot more about the Norwegians, their harsh life, the prejudices the people in the North faced from those originating from the South, and the challenges women faced. Ingeborg’s story catches the heart. Through so many events that could break her, she doesn’t steer away from her goal to save her mother.

    … whispers began in the crowd, and people shifted their feet. Her story had unsettled them. It was a tale of violence, and abuse. None liked to hear if from the lips of a girl, for in her words perhaps they recognised themselves: the times when their husbands or fathers had taken them outside and beat them in the snow; the nights their masters were so drunk they forced themselves upon them. The jury of twelve good men shifted uncomfortably upon their bench… for it was easier to blame the Devil for the bruises on their wives and daughters; easier to blame witches for their emptied barrels of beer. Easier to brand the maids heavy with unwanted pregnancies as followers of the Devil.

    It took a little bit for me to really get into the story, but I’m glad I gave it a chance. It was a very anger-inducing book though. In respect of the men and what they did, as well as the double standards. And Fru Brasche, who used her anger and jealousy to send three women to their deaths. In a time when women were at the mercy of fearful yet powerful men, that women did not stick together was inexcusable. Even Anna, though not party to the women being in their predicament, does pursue her course to support the conviction of them even after coming to the realisation that they are innocent – merely because it suits her ends.

    Throughout this novel there is also Maren, the daughter of an accused and burnt witch. She believes that her mother was one, and she is too, and that women need to scare the men with their power to gain their freedom.

    This is a fascinating and emotional book. One definitely worth reading.

    Norway, 1662. A dangerous time to be a woman, when even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft. After recently widowed Zigri’s affair with the local merchant is discovered, she is sent to the fortress at Vardø to be tried and condemned as a witch.

    Zigri’s daughter Ingeborg sets off into the wilderness to bring her mother home. Accompanying her on this quest is Maren – herself the daughter of a witch – whose wild nature and unconquerable spirit gives Ingeborg the courage to venture into the unknown, and to risk all she has to save her family.

    Also captive in the fortress is Anna Rhodius, once the King of Denmark’s mistress, who has been sent in disgrace to the island of Vardø. What will she do – and who will she betray – to return to her privileged life at court?

    The Witches of Vardø are stronger than even the King. In an age weighted against them, they refuse to be victims. They will have their justice. All they need is show their power.

  • Bookshelf spotlight: Jaz Parks

    I first came across the Jaz Parks series by Jennifer Rardin in a charity shop in Saffron Walden when I was living there. Books 1-6 were a ridiculous 50-75p each, so of course I was going to get them. Plus the blurb of book one sounded just fun enough that I thought I might like the series.

    Turns out, I was correct, so tracked down the last two books. Sadly, the author had passed away before I discovered this series, and before the last book was published. But thankfully she did get the final volume completed beforehand – I know, I’m heartless, but priorities; and with Jordan dying before he could finish Wheel of Time, it’s definitely a concern.

    Jaz Parks works for the CIA. She’s a black ops agent and assassin, with a twist. Jaz has been assigned to protect the CIA’s top assassin – a vampire. Why does the top assassin need protecting, or was this just the excuse she was given? She is still struggling with an event that happened in her recent past when an operation went horribly wrong and almost her entire unit was killed by vampires. I want to say that she has some memory gaps about that night and what went wrong, and you come to know the full story through several books. But it’s been years since I last read these books, so my memory is a tad unreliable. There’s also some stuff around her mother, that is interesting to uncover. And you know that there is something different about Jaz, but you’ll go on a journey to discover what that is.

    Vayl is the CIA’s top assassin. A master of black ops, he has never failed. He’s also a 291-year old vampire. Assigned to protect Vayl, if such a formidable creation can be said to require protection, is Jasmine Parks – ‘Jaz’ to her friends. A young lady with exceptional talents and secrets of her own.

    In a world where the bad guys aren’t always human, the CIA needs some very specialised help.

    Book one blurb

    Jaz is snarky and generally fun to read, which is helpful as the books are all written from her point of view.

    “Get outta my way, you old bat”, I muttered under my breath as an elderly woman who shouldn’t have been driving a golf cart much less a Lincoln Town Car at this time of night putt-putted down the street in front of me, her blinker announcing she meant to make a right turn sometime before she reached the ocean.

    Each book in the series has it’s own set of events that need to be dealt with, so each have a natural ending. However, there is also a larger story being threaded through each book, and I enjoyed finding the answers and seeing how that played out, just as much as the individual stories for each book.

    I don’t read much urban fantasy, but this is a series that has earned its place on my bookshelf and will be read again in future. It’s great to pick up when I want something a bit lighter, and a bit more fun – despite that the content can also be quite heavy at times.

  • Decision at Doona

    By Anne McCaffrey

    Decision at Doona

    Ok, I admit, it was the cover that made me pick this one up. I can’t help it – the idea of cat people intrigues me (and I still have Cherryh and Norton to read more of in that vein). But I’m very glad I did.

    An advanced cat-like race, the Hrrubans, discover a planet that would be perfect for colonising. The project is one that the First Speaker (the highest of their ruling group) puts forward as a potential resolution to the apathy that has arisen from a civilisation too advanced and too greedy, and they plan to make the colony low tech. Meanwhile, humans (Terrans) also discover the planet and determine it fits the limited criteria for colonisation – top being that there is no native sentient race on the planet. Earth is over-crowded and people live very subjugated lives trying to minimise their presence. Some members volunteer for deprivations in the hope that they will be able to be in a group that gets to leave earth and head somewhere they can truly live.

    The men of the chosen families have spent the ten-month winter on Doona building their village, learning practical skills to survive, and unlearning their conditioning, in preparation for their wives and children joining them in the spring. Mere days before their families are due to arrive, they discover that they are not alone. There is a village of cat-like natives across the other side of the river. This brings a great deal of consternation as this means they must leave Doona and return to Earth, as they have broken the Prime Rule.

    So begins an interesting look at the interaction of the two races, and the events that lead to whether or not the Terrans can stay on Doona. There needs to be some very quick learning of languages and this is explained by advanced subliminal learning. I wouldn’t mind learning a language that way if I could learn it that quickly. But this does mean that the communication barrier gets taken away and instead we focus on the interactions.

    I would have liked to have read more from the Hrrubans point of view. The opening chapter did make me expect more than we got. But I can see why at just 200 pages there was a limitation to that, and possibly also a desire for the reader to learn things alongside the humans on Doona.

    Overall, I enjoyed this book, even though I had to pause at the introduction of the snakes and question whether I could finish it before sleep without triggering my snake phobia. Thankfully, the pace when they were around was fast enough that I spent little time with them and was safe. My imagination was captured and I was completely engaged. And thoroughly captivated by the 6 year old human boy who desperately wanted a tail.

  • Bookshelf spotlight: Age of Five

    After reading The Black Magician by Trudi Canavan, I went looking for what else she had written, and borrowed her Age of Five trilogy from my local library. Wow, just wow. I loved so much about this series and have since purchased my own copies and reread them a couple of times. It’s also one that I recommend a lot. I don’t currently have my copy of book one, Priestess of the White, as a friend is reading it.

    First, I have to say that this series is Trudi Canavan’s best (though I haven’t yet read Millenium’s Rule). It starts of with Auraya. She is raised in a small village and while she has a firm belief in the gods and religion of the land, she has a friendship with a Dreamweaver. One day, she comes to the attention of the priesthood and the voices of the gods, through her dealings with people taking her village hostage. This leads to her entering the priesthood and just ten years after her entry, she is raised to the White, becoming the fifth and final member of the highest rank. Auraya faces some challenges in her new role. She is the youngest, and was raised the quickest, and she has a tolerance and friendship towards Dreamweavers that her fellow Whites do not have. But she also has a talent for negotiation and a unique power that makes her critical for some of their responsibilities.

    There are five Gods to the Circlians, and they speak to the White, giving direction on how to lead the land. They also provide great magical power to each of the White. It is understood that these are the last five living gods after the War of Gods. So when a heathen land in the south that worships five, obviously false gods, invades the land (I think from a position of wanting to bring their gods to the heathen lands to the north), there is a feeling that they cannot lose, as they have the power of true gods on their side.

    In this series, we learn a lot about the Circlians and the White, but also about the Pentadrians to the south. We read about the persecution of the Dreamweavers and Wilds by the Circlians. We meet a delightful race of small winged people, the Siyee. And most of all we see that not all is what it seems.

    I can’t tell you any more about the series without risk of spoiling your enjoyment. All I can say is that this series is a must read. You will rejoice and you will be heart broken. Some events and reveals you may see coming, others you may not – and those that you see coming are generally ones you are meant to, so you can then have the additional knowledge as you see events unfold and characters learn things. Kind of like knowing a car crash is about to happen, then standing back and watching how it plays out.

    I love how the themes of politics, religion, persecution and defence of one’s home is covered. The characters are built so well, and you will come to feel strong emotions towards them and both their actions and what situations they are involved in. Do yourself a favour and dive in.

  • Ockhams Awards – My pick

    Tonight the winners of the Ockham Awards will be announced. I thought it would be fun to read all of the finalists for the Fiction prize and then pick who I thought the winner should be before they are announced. The plan was good, but alas I have only read three, not four.

    The four finalists are:

    I have yet to read Kawai. I have a lovely hard cover copy that I bought before the finalists were announced, but I knew when I bought it that I would need to be in the right mood to read it. Since I haven’t been in that mood, I didn’t want to risk my enjoyment of the book and therefore judge it unfairly because it wasn’t the right book for the right time.

    So while I can’t tell you who would be my pick for winner, I can at least tell you which book from these three I would choose.

    While I thoroughly enjoyed Better the Blood, and thought the author did a great job of conveying his message without pulling the reader out of the story, or bludgeoning us with his point, I felt that the story was merely a very good read, and not an award-winning one.

    So it’s down to The Axeman’s Carnival versus Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant. The former told a tale of rough views in rural towns, especially when it comes to animals seen as predators to crops, but more especially about domestic abuse as seen through the eyes of a child (represented as the magpie). The latter, a tale of hardship while trying to survive a shipwreck, imagining what real-life survivors might have gone through. The former had some parts of the story that felt a little shoe-horned to progress plot, the latter did not. And the part that I was most impressed about in The Axeman’s carnival – where I thought the magpie was a stand-in and a commentary on what the situation is like for a child – turns out not to have been the author’s intent (according to a friend who has been to an author event). Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant however has a story that holds true. So true that I would believe it if I was told this was actually a published diary. It pulled me in and kept a hold over me for the entire book. The level of writing was also just that step higher than The Axeman’s Carnival.

    So my choice of the winner would be Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant.

    It will be interesting to see if my choice would hold after reading the fourth finalist.

    I’m looking forward to seeing who the winner is this evening. Do the judges agree with me, or have their criteria been different from mine.

    If you want to read more about my thoughts for each of these three finalists, follow the links above where you shall find my reviews of each.

    Have you read the finalists? Which book would you choose for the winner?

  • Song of the Mysteries: publication date

    This morning, I awoke to find a most excellent update in my Facebook feed: a publication date for Song of the Mysteries, the final volume in Wars of Light and Shadow by Janny Wurts.

    I had been hoping it would be December, though I knew it was unlikely given all the delays and shortages right now. I can wait a little longer.

    Preorders open in September. Like the last two volumes, I’ll be getting my order in for a hardcover as soon as they open.

    With a year to go for the release of volume 11, you have time to start from the beginning and experience this masterpiece if you haven’t already. Or enjoy another reread if you have.

  • Rotorua Quilting Show

    Despite having taken a hiatus in patchwork and quilting since I returned to Rotorua (life and getting used to sharing a house and the weekly commute), I was thrilled to go to The Great New Zealand Quilt Show in Rotorua this weekend. Given the name, I could be forgiven for expecting it to be bigger than Quilt Symposium which I attended in Lower Hutt last year. Alas, it was not. There were probably a quarter of the vendors (or possibly even less) and the numbers of quilts on display were somewhat small. With a skew towards art quilts. I was also somewhat confused by the categories in which quilts were entered: the winner of the traditional quilt category wasn’t a traditional quilt; and contemporary was a category that caused some confusion of what it meant – I think it was supposed to be a replacement for modern, but got lost in translation. Despite that there were some that I loved and I took photos so I could share them here.

    First up, was this beautiful rendition of one of Michelle Hill’s appliqué patterns – not sure on the name of this pattern but it is the feature quilt in her book More William Morris Appliqué. Though I was disappointed to see that the designer and pattern had not been attributed. This was sewn by Elvene Mitchell.

    There was this rather intriguing quilt made by Debra De Lorenzo based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes.

    This quilt made up of one inch 60 degree diamonds made by Jocelyn Thornton was my favourite and the one I voted for in the Viewer’s Choice. I liked how she had used the same fabric for several different stars within her overall layout, and some of the photos below show some of the collections of them. Plus I love fussy cutting kaleidoscopes, so it’s no surprise I loved this one.

    This applique quilt of New Zealand birds caught my eye. This was made for the retiring president of Aotearoa Quilters Christchurch. The blocks were adapted from Margaret Mathews patterns in NZ Quilter magazines and made by committee members.

    There were a couple of art quilts with an amazing level of skill in machine thread painting by Sonya Prchal. Both which one prizes. First up this amazing work of a dog near a stream.

    But her Red Panda quilt was my favourite of this style.

    And finally, there was this work in progress piece in one of the guest exhibitions by Simone Michaux. When finished, there will be twelve sections completing the circle – one for each month of the year.

  • Bookshelf spotlight: The Celestial Triad

    I enjoyed The Ancient Future by Traci Harding enough to pick up the sequel trilogy, The Celestial Triad. Knowing how the earlier series ended, I was intrigued where she would (or could) go next with this story.

    I remember that I enjoyed this series, though not as much as the first trilogy. And with my memory being no longer what it was, and having only read it once, about 12-15 years ago after I started having those memory issues, I have very little recall of what this series is about. I think this series is a mix of the “now” (the chosen ones being on their new planet) and the past (as past lives and the alternate history of Britain has always been a key part of the story). From memory, I think there is also a thread related to the elevation of the two halves of the chosen one pairs, similar to what we saw at the end of The Ancient Future. But for now, I’m going to have to rely on the blurb for book one.

    The children of the Chosen Ones have been tutored in the origins of their kindred by myself, Noah Purcell, the author and keeper of the ancient records.

    Since landing on Kila I have been dedicated to compiling a complete history of every branch of the Serpent’s family tree. My ‘Chronicle of Ages’ is a full account of the life and times of all the Chosen Ones, or so I thought – until the discovery that three key eras were missing from the Dragon’s family line.

    Little did I realise when volunteering to chase up these tales, that I would be enlightened to my own soul-quest and made privy to the true history and purpose of all the Chosen Ones.

    If you have read and enjoyed The Ancient Future, it is definitely worth picking up The Celestial Triad to continue the story of Tory and the team. But if you haven’t read the first series, you’ll be confused I think.

  • The Magician’s Daughter

    By HG Parry

    I stumbled across The Magician’s daughter last week when I stopped into Whitcoulls to pick up a pack of cards. One cannot just walk into a bookshop and not browse. This caught my eye in the NZ fiction section and sounded interesting. Lucky for me that I picked it up, as that evening I decided I wasn’t in the mood for the literary fiction novel I was reading and now had a book I could read instead.

    This book is set in an alternative history in the early 1900s. It centres around Biddy, a 16 year-old living on a magical, hidden, island somewhere off the Irish coast. The island is all she has known all her life, and she lives there with her guardian Rowan (a mage) and his familiar Hutchincroft (a rabbit, most of the time). She’s never been allowed to leave the island, and knows little of the outside world. As she grows older, she is pulling at the reigns somewhat and longing to see the world, but Rowan tells her “not yet”. Rowan regularly turns into a raven and leaves the island at night to do important and mysterious things in the world, but he is always home a couple of hours before dawn. Until one night, when he is not. Biddy helps him to come home (you’ll have to read the book to see how), and so begins her first steps off the island, to discover the danger that lies beyond and the truth behind her past and her link with Rowan.

    While the main character is just 16 years old, and one could call it a sort of coming of age story, I would not class this book as YA (and did check it wasn’t before I bought it). Yes, it is suitable for readers of that age group, and many others, but it doesn’t have the simplicity of style, prose, plot, characters and motivations that are generally present in YA books. Or even “adult” books by YA authors. There is a richness and depth to the story that I have found missing in these. So those like myself who don’t like YA can happily go into this novel knowing you are safe.

    The book, is entirely from the point of view of Biddy, and yet it is interesting how the author is also able to share with us pivotal events as seen by other key characters. There are villains in the story, as all fantasy novels tend to have, and there are also the characters that you can’t quite tell which side they are on. But there are also sides of the “good guys” that are far from pure – this is after all real life, where people have layers.

    While I was intrigued from the beginning, it took a little bit for me to become hooked. Once I was, I was loath to put down the book. Alas work kept getting in the way. Happily, a rainy Sunday afternoon encouraged a lazy sofa session to devour the last 150 pages. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this world, and while the story sums up nicely, there is a delightful openness about the ending that leaves room for my imagination to wander some more. Or perhaps for a second book.

    In the meantime, I might try reading another of this author’s books as she does have a beautiful way of telling a story.

    Off the coast of Ireland sits a legendary island hidden by magic. A place of ruins and ancient trees, sea-salt air and fairy lore, Hy-Brasil is the only home Biddy has ever known. Washed up on its shore as a baby, Biddy lives a quiet life with her guardian, the mercurial magician Rowan. A life she finds increasingly stifling. One night, Rowan fails to return from his mysterious travels. To find him, Biddy must venture into the outside world for the first time. But Rowan has powerful enemies – forces who have hoarded the world’s magic and have set their sights on the magician’s many secrets. Biddy may be the key to stopping them. Yet the closer she gets to answers, the more she questions everything she’s ever believed about Rowan, her past, and the nature of magic itself.

  • The King’s Seal

    By Amy Kuivalainen

    The King’s Seal is the concluding volume in Amy Kuivalainen’s The Magicians of Venice trilogy. At the end of the second book, we know that there is a ring prophesied to be used to defeat Thevetat, if only Penelope and the magicians can find it. Tim has left a large amount of information on Penelope’s laptop about the visions he had during his “curse”, but they are in a very jumbled order. Thus begins a great task to find clues within the text, trace them to a figure/event in history and thus slowly put the path together to find the last location of the ring. At the same time, Thevetat and his forces are strong and moving towards the goal of harvesting the approaching high tide to give Thevetat a body and bring forth more demons to rule the earth. Every step that the magicians and their allies take is met with even more retribution. But Kreios is fighting his possession, anyway he can – will this give them the edge they need?

    Penelope learns more about her magic, and gains even more. We find out why she was chosen by Nereus as her heir, and why she and Alexis have been drawn together from the very beginning. Unsurprisingly, there are some rather pat answers to questions in the book, but overall this was a pretty good conclusion to the series. It does feel like the ending was left open though for a potential return to the characters – especially for Marco, Constantine and Kreios.

    This book wasn’t groundbreaking, nor was the series, and it definitely won’t be up there with those that I have loved. But it was a fun and engaging read. I wanted to learn more and I read it through quite quickly wanting to know what would happen to different characters. It felt like the romance side of the story was getting stronger and stronger with each book, and there were times in this last volume that I wanted it to hurry up and get on with the story, but it didn’t detract too much from the story.

    I think the author shows some promise, and it would be interesting to see where she goes next, but there will be many more authors ahead of her in my reading queue. If you are interested in an easy read series based on magic in the real world, and if you love the idea of visiting (or revisiting) Venice while you’re at it, it’s a series worth giving a try.