Book Review: Leap of Faith, by Jenny Pattrick

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_leap_of_faith_bigPattrick, an experienced New Zealand historic novelist, brings the Volcanic Plateau to life in her latest book Leap of Faith.

Set in 1907, Pattrick takes the reader on a journey on what life may have been like for those drawn to the area by the railroad work, to construct the Makatote viaduct. This pioneering work made it possible to travel the whole length of the North Island, from Wellington to Auckland, by train.

Working on the railroad is somber and tough, with co-op gangs incentivised by targets to ensure the railroad is completed on time. It’s also a harsh and, at times, perilous environment. Despite these conditions, the railroad attracts a variety of characters.

At the heart of the novel is young and impressionable Billy, only 14 years old when he goes to join the camps at Makatote. He’s later joined by his siblings Maggie and Freeman, and quickly becomes good friends with Ruri, one of a few Māori working on the railroad.

It’s not long till Billy is swept up by the gospel and charm of Gabriel Locke, a preacher with a dodgy past, who passes through the town hoping to build a community of dedicated followers. Gabriel also quickly charms Amelia Grice, a prohibitionist who is determined to figure out who’s supplying sly grog to the workers.

This novel develops over two years switching between perspectives of the different characters. It also switches between past and present, which I found a little confusing at times. The pace of the book is fairly slow but finally picks up a quarter of the way into the book when an unfortunate event ties several of the characters together. This helps to move the plot along and adds some suspense to the novel – in such a small community, secrets don’t last long.

Historical novels aren’t a genre I read often and with this book I longed for more of a connection with the characters. That being said, I admired the amount of research Pattrick has clearly done. Pattrick shows a deep knowledge of not only the area but also in the construction of the railroad and the time period. She expertly weaves New Zealand’s native bush and unique rural landscapes throughout the novel:

‘The mountain appeared for the first time in months, while majestic at the head of the valley. Woodpigeons erupted from what was left of the bush, flying from ridge to ridge flashing their blue-green wings’.

Anyone interested by the New Zealand railroad or with connections to the area will find this an intriguing and enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Leap of Faith
by Jenny Pattrick
Published by Black Swan – PRH
ISBN 9780143770916

Book Review: East, by Peri Hoskins

Available at selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_eastThis is the second book by Peri Hoskins featuring the character Vince Osborne, a suburban lawyer who has the feeling life is leaving him behind. Disillusioned with representing petty criminals, he chucks in his job and decides to go on a road trip.  A journey to reconnect with who he is and what he should be doing with his life.

Vince drives back to the city, visiting old friends and haunts from his university days, before setting off.  He bunks down with a friend of a friend to make a plan.  He sorts out supplies, getting his car fitted with an LPG tank but leaving the petrol tank in place, realising that not every small town will have an LPG supply.  There is an easy familiarity, as he slots back into old friendships before heading east to begin his journey, writing a journal along the way.

He starts off picking up hitchhikers, to break the monotony of the barren countryside. Each town/city changes, as does the accommodation available, but somehow, they all seem to merge. The only changing detail is the people he meets along the way as he makes small talk with staff and fellow travelers at the various places he stays. Some just drifting from one place to another.  He starts to wind down and get into the zone.

Old mining towns with hardened characters that seem to always go with hard places: this is a journey of self-discovery for Vince.  He applies for a job in one of the gold mines – hard, hard, physical work but one where he finds satisfaction.

At first I thought – oh hell, another one of “those books” where it just goes nowhere, but how wrong I was.  This is a book that ended up even questioning my own life and where I was heading – how I could change the mundane into something a lot more exciting. As Vince discovers, dreams aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

East
by Peri Hoskins
Tane Kaha Publications
ISBN 9780473251284

Book Review: The Earth Cries Out, by Bonnie Etherington

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_earth_cries_out.jpgI’m getting harder to please in my old age but The Earth Cries Out has done it. It’s a surprising and quite wonderful novel.

Eight-year-old Ruth moves from Nelson to West Guinea with her parents after her younger sister’s tragic death. Her parents had been drifting apart even before all this happened, and the way we see their pain through Ruth’s eyes is so well done: they’re closed off and hurting, and now even more isolated, literally.

Ruth, though, carries on her childhood. This is the aspect of the book I loved the most: despite the obvious difference between 1990s Nelson, NZ and jungle-surrounded, mountain-top West Guinea, Ruth keeps being eight. Things are as odd and normal as ever: she gets on with learning a new language so she can get on with play and understanding; she sees a dead newborn baby, and comes face-to-face with disease; she invents her own superstitions, and listens to or discards the superstitions of the village.

Life thrums around Ruth – the incredible flora (wonderfully described), the people, the mosquitos – but there’s a stillness to her. She describes scenes so immaculately that, often, it’s almost as if the story isn’t moving forward. It’s compelling, but not because of its action, necessarily; it’s compelling because of how spot-on the author captures childhood’s tiny cruelties and guilts that we never let go of. It’s rounded out by grief and growing up, and a background of politics and history.

This is an impressive, moving, often unflinching debut.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

The Earth Cries Out
by Bonnie Etherington
Vintage/Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143770657

 

Book Review: Brushstrokes of Memory, by Karen McMillan

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_brushstrokes_of_memory.jpgCombined with the perfect timing for Mother’s Day, the pretty and colourful cover, the by-line ‘a novel of love, lost memories & rediscovering dreams’, this really looks like a great piece of enjoyable reading, in rare and craved for moments of solitude, cat or dog curled up next to you, glass of wine, cup of tea, piece of cake! Bliss.

Karen McMillan is a North Shore, Auckland based writer. She has previously written, to popular acclaim, two novels themed around WWII in Poland and America – The Paris of the East and The Paris of the West. This novel is quite, quite different in every possible way from her two previous novels.

The writer has tapped into the now (getting a little worn) theme of ‘woman losing memory’, focusing on Rebecca, who loses the memory of ten years of her life, from her 32nd birthday to present day. She is now 42, when she wakes up in hospital, concussed from a fall down some stairs. She is still married to Daniel – a once successful NZ rock star-now music tutor, lives in Browns Bay on Auckland’s North Shore, and works in the city in some sort of graphic designer capacity.

In the ten year period that she can’t remember, many things happen to her and Daniel –illness, death, loss, good times and bad times. None of this of course is known to Rebecca when she wakes up, seeing her adorable and adoring husband by her bed and her best friend Julie. Life is peachy, other than a bit of a headache. Not so.

The novel, of course, then sets about revealing what has really gone on in those ten years, working towards a well managed climax, and subsequent resolution. Well crafted then, with plenty of tension, some curve balls, a mysterious stalker, the horrible boss, ageing parents, health issues, and at the core of the novel, the state of Daniel and Rebecca’s marriage.

So much of this novel is good, with a straightforward story, some very insightful writing on grief, the nature of memory, the brain recovering its memories, the complications of every day life and relationships, and especially the sections on Rebecca’s serious brush with breast cancer, which I understand are strongly based on the author’s own experience of breast cancer. I learnt a lot, not just about the physical experience of the disease but also the emotional experience. Very, very good.

But, for me, and I stress most strongly that this is my own personal reaction to this book, it is just average. There are a number of unfinished threads, and I just could not relate to Rebecca or Daniel. I couldn’t understand, and there is no explanation in the book, why such a talented and successful artist as Rebecca was ten years ago, is now working in some horrible unpleasant design firm doing reworks of work she has already done; we never find out how the accident happened even though decent sized chunks of Rebecca’s thoughts are taken up with this mystery; how serious is this head injury, how long had she been in hospital for, concussion can take months to recover from – she is back at work seemingly full time two weeks after she becomes conscious again with nothing but the odd headache.

I honestly thought Daniel was pathetic, a wimp of a man. He can’t bring himself to tell his wife of one terribly tragic event, or that they were on the verge of separating, because suddenly, what-ho, his newly conscious wife is a sex-goddess! What man in his right mind would want to lose that!

Best friend Julie is by far the best character. Forever berating Daniel for his inability to talk to his wife, she spends most of her time protecting Rebecca from herself, looking after Rebecca’s elderly mother in the rest home she works in, and generally trying to keep one step ahead of all those around her.

This is a very Auckland-city novel, depicting the city’s love affair with real estate – big modern homes and quaint Devonport villas, cafes, the hideousness of the transport infrastructure, the whole glossy magazine feel about the place, the people, the lives they lead. Even though I live in Auckland, I found all this quite cliched and cringing. We get this in the papers, on TV and media every single day, surely there are other aspects of the city that the author could also have found to illustrate her novel.

It reflects what I feel overall about this novel – that despite the serious and important themes, much of it lacks depth and insight, too glib, things are just brushed over instead of going just a little deeper. There will be people who love this, I appreciate that, and for an easy, lazy Sunday afternoon read, it will definitely fill the gap.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Brushstrokes of Memory
by Karen McMillan
Published by McKenzie Publishing
ISBN 9780473374358

Book review: Lifting, by Damien Wilkins

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.cv_lifting.jpg

Lifting follows Amy, a store detective working at a famous historic department store in the last few weeks that it is open before closing for good.  The store is called ‘Cutty’s, but it is difficult not to replace that with ‘Kirkcaldie and Stains’ in your head.  The setting is so unabashedly Wellington, and as a person suddenly surprised to discover she has lived quarter of her life there, I enjoyed the very present Wellington setting.

Lifting is a character study of Amy, with a plot that moves you towards an ominously shadowed ending.  Amy is introduced as a busy working parent  balancing a baby, finances and work with her husband, a supportive but not robust mother and a new challenge  looming unemployment as the store is about to close.  Amy is a store detective, and is very good at her job  how did she get the skill set to do this?  Why is she being interviewed by the police?

Past and present are all mixed together as Lifting is told from Amy’s perspective  uncensored and with her whole life narrative available at any one time to inform the story.  I found Amy a very honest character, without the superficial heightened self-perspective given to many characters in books.  Amy is Amy, she makes no great discoveries about herself  but she is very interesting and approachable.  Definitely one of the best written characters I’ve read in quite a while.

The slow deconstruction of Cutty’s is mirrored with the deconstruction of Amy  so much time is given to her description, and thoughts.  While there is a sense of foreboding as the book draws to a close, the plot is not allowed to take over the exploration of Amy.  It was a very compelling read.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Lifting
by Damien Wilkins
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561025

Book Review: Mulgan, by Noel Shepherd

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_mulganIn 1945, John Mulgan – soldier and author of the New Zealand novel Man Alone – committed suicide. The reasons behind his actions are still unknown today. But one of the many magical things about fiction is how it allows us to speculate. We can wonder about a different world, an alternative end. And this is what Noel Shepherd does in his novella Mulgan; he seeks to give John Mulgan an ending that will explain his death.

The novella begins with Mulgan’s life in Greece. There he meets Johns, an enigmatic figure with the same name as the main character in Mulgan’s own novel, Man Alone. Johns and Mulgan become partners in crime, working together through the war-stricken landscape of Greece. Shepherd has evidently done his research, and this shows through this text’s little details where he makes references to exact people and places. These details help bring precision to a world so far away from modern New Zealand.

The language of Mulgan was easy and enjoyable to read; Shepherd interpreted the last two years of Mulgan’s life with clarity. The story of Mulgan’s life in Greece was also interesting in itself. The constant pressure and threat of war overhung the whole novella and often there were short bursts of violent scenes, serving as a reminder that this danger could come at any moment. I got so caught up in the scenes of war that I forgot, from the beginning, that I knew what ending this story would lead to: Mulgan’s own suicide. The many snapshots of war developed Mulgan into the full figure of leadership that he is known for, but Shepherd made it clear that the horror of consistent violence leaves scars. When the all-revealing plot twist appeared, Shepherd stated it modestly, letting the reader’s own realisation wash over the text.

While reading the novella, I also felt a constant undercurrent of homesickness. Before the war, Mulgan studied the Classics and this was what brought him to Greece. There were moments when Mulgan described the ancient sites he saw: “crumbling pieces of the often conquered and sacked ancient Greek world”. However, being in Greece and in the thick of war also meant always being ready to leave. And the switches from place to place – Greece to Cairo, Cairo to Greece, but never home to New Zealand – was rendered so heartbreakingly in a single piece of dialogue from Mulgan: “I’m not sure who I am any more. I have no country, or maybe I have too many countries.”

After the revelation near the end of the text, I wanted the story to slow down; I wanted to understand Mulgan more. I soon realised that this could be my own flaw, too. The true cause for Mulgan’s death will always be a complex mystery. The speculation of Noel Shepherd’s novella is brilliant because, as Shepherd explicitly states in his introduction, the novella not claiming to be any sort of non-fiction. Instead, Shepherd shows an ending that you may have never considered, one that makes you pause and think. He invites you to wonder.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Mulgan
by Noel Shepherd
Steele Roberts Aotearoa
9780947493387

Book Review: The Internet of Things, by Kate Camp

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_internet_of_thingsThe title of poet Kate Camp’s latest collection is telling. The Internet of Things is the latest phrase being bandied about by technology bloggers. According to the Internet (funnily enough), it was first coined by someone called Peter T. Lewis as far back as the end of the late 1980s. It refers to a future where physical objects are connected via, you guessed it, the Internet. Alternatively called ‘smart’ technology, the phrase evokes objects speaking to one another without the need for human intervention.

With that context in mind, we delve into Kate’s poems, where objects do indeed speak and tell stories, beginning with the title poem. Here, the narrator visits John Lennon’s aunt Mimi’s home in Liverpool and the surrounding ports (ports of course having a double meaning, pops up in several poems).  The cover picture of the seemingly miniature kitchen evokes the objects of a children’s tea party, with its symbolic collection of objects for various dining rituals. There is a feeling of unreality to the photograph, like a staged home in a museum. Each object is clean, with no traces of the ‘eggs and chips’ or the whistle and steam of the kettle as Mimi made John his cups of tea.

As we move through the poems, we are presented with an array of objects, from the most banal (the contents of a rubbish bin), to the paintings of Rembrandt and the subject, St Jerome’s slippers (Like those white towelling freebies from a hotel). The poet imbues the mundane with a cheeky questioning and likewise grounds the typically austere objects of the art world with connections to the everyday. It is a rich source of subject matter for a poet and one that Kate surveys with skill and ease.

Poems such as Lego Lost at Sea, offer a glimpse of how absurd some childhood objects appear in different contexts. Based on a true story where millions of pieces of Lego were lost overboard in 1997, the poem sketches a scenario where a diver is depicted in the wooden fashion of a Lego person and the cartoonish stories those of us who played with Lego created.

Utilising the metaphor of the title again, we find Kate describing the body as being made up of channels, tunnels and space (a light elusion to the idea of cyber space perhaps?) In the poem Woman at Breakfast, Kate writes:

as most of us is empty space
around which our elements move
in their microscopic orbits. 

Then, we find gems such as the line, the dull miraculous privacy of the human mind. Much like the internet, Kate renders the body as repetitious and boring, but also a thing of wonder. As the book progresses, we are treated to natural imagery as well, so that we are not given a mechanical treatise or a metallic insight into a dystopian future. Rather, the works are often miniature nostalgias; poems that are objects in their own right; speaking to us and connecting with each of us silently and dynamically, wherever we might be.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

The Internet of Things
by Kate Camp
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561063