Book Review: The Doll Factory, by Elizabeth Macneal

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_doll_factoryIris and her twin sister Rose Whittle work for Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium. They make the costumes for china dolls. Often the dolls are ordered by clients to celebrate the death of an infant or some significant event in their lives. Iris was born with a twisted shoulder as a result of her shoulder being stuck in the birth canal when she was born and her sister Rose was disfigured as a result of  smallpox. The girls paint the features on the dolls, but Iris dreams of becoming a painter. A fantasy that can never be achieved through lack of money for lessons, paints and canvases.

Iris catches the eye of a pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost who wants her to be his full-time model. Iris, after some persuasion, agrees, but only on the condition Louis gives her art lessons. Rose and their parents think she is nothing more than a whore and they cut off any further contact. Louis also finds accommodation for Iris which also is a matter of contention with her family, further fuelling the fire of her being a “kept woman”.

Iris also has another admirer, the rather odd and creepy character Silas Reed. Silas catches vermin then with the art of taxidermy presents them on stands, dressing them in clothes. People have a morbid fascination with them, with many displayed in drawing rooms. Silas is also a butt of jokes as he is an odd- looking character often found in public houses muttering into his tankard. Silas, over time, becomes more and more obsessed with Iris, imagining her returning his infatuation.

The author has put together some fascinating characters together in this engrossing book, and it is a rather intriguing and at times spin- chilling read. I had to put it down at times and catch my breath before continuing. A great novel.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Doll Factory
by Elizabeth Macneal
Published by Picador
9781529002416

Book Review: Lonely Asian Woman, by Sharon Lam

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_lonely_asian_woman.jpgA series of small, yet misjudged decisions by Paula escalates into a surreal period of her life, an honest representation of the years following university.

Sharon Lam’s Lonely Asian Woman is the culmination of all her best work; the hilarious everyday commentary of ‘Single Sad Postgrad’, the insight from a break from expectation in her architecture thesis and of course, the surrealism of her Starling poem ‘Everyone at the Pool Looked like Ewan McGregor.’

Lonely Asian Woman is Sharon Lam’s debut novel. She has already made a mark on Wellington; after completing her Masters of Architecture, for which she was a finalist in the NZIA student design awards for her thesis ‘Architecture for you, me and the bees’, she went on to study at Victoria’s International Institute of Modern Letters, for which this book was written. She has been published in Starling Magazine and wrote for Victoria University’s Salient student magazine including a weekly column ‘Single Sad Postgrad’ in 2016.

Sharon’s Salient column, with titles such as ‘Eulogy for My Love Life,’ ‘I Found Myself, You Can Ask Me Out Again Now,’ and ‘Boys (I Never Dated) But Am Definitely Over’ is a taste of the comedic surrealist tone of Lonely Asian Woman.

Our main character Paula, comes to a point of self-realisation as a ‘lonely Asian woman’. She is in her mid-twenties, unemployed and generally lacking in motivation. The blurb warns that this ‘is not the story of a young woman coming to her responsibilities in the world.’ This is an understatement.

Don’t expect a story focusing on the everyday life of an unemployed twenty-something to become a coming of age arc. Rather than acceptance of adult life, Paula’s series of misjudged decisions, patchy attempts at normalcy along with the occasional moment of joy is an honest representation of the years following university.

The struggles of Paula, which I have felt in this week alone:
1. Wanting financial independence but not wanting a job.
2. Wanting cheesecake but not being able to afford cheesecake.
3. Lack of motivation do something other than stay at home all day watching reality TV.

Lonely Asian Woman sets the bar or perhaps lifts the standard for the ‘coming of age’ genre. It is honest, it is genuine in its moments of friendship, loneliness, and mistakes. There is no clean arc and resolution, but small, everyday successes shine a hopeful light on the mundane reality of our own lives.

The drifting of Paula’s thoughts as well as striking moments of self-reflection make her an utterly believable and sometimes tragically relatable character. Throughout the day to day of Paula’s life, we have insight into her thoughts; weighing up the Taoist definition of peaches as the ‘fruit of immortality’ and cost on a supermarket trip, reading the brand name HEAVENS SAKE in the voices of a geriatric Finnish man, Barney and a drive-thru speaker. An interesting figure was Paulab, a disturbingly autonomous corporeal representation of the side of Paula she may prefer to ignore. Paulab appears abruptly at random times throughout the book, almost like a flatmate who you put up with despite their sheer lack of likeable qualities.

However, in moments of weakness and general lack of common sense, Paula left me in disbelief. The plot line became increasingly bizarre, even more so for the slow normalisation of all that was happening to Paula. A series of small, yet bad decisions by Paula escalates following an incident in which she steals a full supermarket trolley. From that moment on, one must be careful not to overthink as they read. Believe me, Paula doesn’t.

The strength of Lam’s writing, as with ‘Single Sad Postgrad’ is her ability to simultaneously make the mundane hilarious and insightful. She excels in short form writing, elaborating on small stories or a train of thought. Lonely Asian Woman switches between conventional slice-of-life structure to lists, tables and sets of instructions. A personal favourite of mine was the comparison between Paula and her boyfriend, Eric according to the idea that ‘while there are two types of people in this world, there an infinite number of types of people in this world.’

I went into this book with high expectations from Lam (her memory at architecture school, her Salient writing). I came out slightly confused as to what exactly Paula had actually experienced. When one attempts to read Lonely Asian Woman with ‘real world’ logic, the result is confusion and disbelief. My advice is to read the book in the same way in which Paula navigates her life; take it as it comes with an eye for the humorous side, and you will eventually come to normalise the surreal. While the plot shocked me in places, it was an unusually satisfying read. One which left me looking at everyday life with an almost alien perspective of the ridiculous situations we normalise. Refreshing and relatable, a definite recommendation.

by Lara van der Raaij

Lonely Asian Woman
by Sharon Lam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473470326

Book Review: A Dream of Italy, by Nicky Pellegrino

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cv_a_dream_of_italyBestselling author Nicky Pellegrino’s latest novel, A Dream of Italy, is a celebration of some of the most delightful things in life: travel, food, and love.

The book addresses the present-day phenomenon of small towns facing abandonment in the “Old World” of Europe. Salvio Valentini, mayor of Montenello in southern Italy, is determined to revive his “ghost town.” He comes up with a simple, albeit ambitious, plan: sell the houses of Montenello for one euro. In renovating and inhabiting these abodes, the prospective buyers would be contributing to the restoration of the entire mountain town and its future. This project is not the only big issue in the life of the young mayor. His mother Donna Carmela is now urging him to marry and have children, desiring to be nonna (“grandma”) to the future generation of Montenello.

The emails start pouring in. In London, the illustrator Mimi Wilson is looking for a change. Recently divorced, and with her sons now at university, she comes across a newspaper article about Salvio’s proposal for Montenello. The same advertisement reaches Edward Roberts in Sydney, who loves all things Italian, while his Italian partner, Gino Mancuso, does not. For the young relief teacher Elise Hartman, who lives with her partner Richard Lynch in Bristol, Montenello might just be the chance to get on the property ladder. All three look towards this curious, historical town for a fresh, new start.

Pellegrino’s storytelling is rich and tasteful. She weaves together the details of Italian life through the eyes of locals and foreigners, describing the unique gastronomic offerings of the local trattoria, a traditional Italian eatery. Through its narration, setting, and characterisation, the novel also reflects on the contemporary tensions between tradition and modernity.

Pellegrino’s reverie of a novel would appeal to anyone who has read, or even watched the cinematic adaptations of, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Pellegrino’s A Dream of Italy marries both foreign and familiar experiences. Italy is and always will be a dreamscape on tourist brochures and travel websites. For others it can be a true home.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

A Dream of Italy
by Nicky Pellegrino
Published by Hachette NZ
ISBN ‎9781409178989

Book Review: Attraction, by Ruby Porter

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cv_attractionThe winner of the inaugural Michael Gifkins Prize, Attraction is the debut novel of New Zealand prose writer, poet and artist Ruby Porter. Written as part of her Master of Creative Writing thesis at Auckland University, Attraction was published by Text Publishing in May 2019.

Attraction follows three young women: Ilana, Ashi, and an unnamed narrator. On a road trip between Auckland, Whāngārā and Levin with her almost-girlfriend and her best friend, the narrator is haunted by the memory of her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, New Zealand’s troubled history of colonisation, and the pressure she feels to make art in order to call herself an artist.

Attraction is an exquisite story. Told in flickering images where the past is interspersed with the present, the North Island’s various landscapes unfold in tandem with the unravelling of the narrator’s personal family history. The landscapes are sketched in meticulous detail, such as this description of distant hills: ‘… get close enough and they reveal their lines to you: wrinkles, creases, the staves of music. Cows dot the ridges like a child’s attempt at drawing crotchets, black and squat.’

While the plot itself is relatively straight-forward – three friends on a road-trip around the North Island where jealousies swirl and personal histories untangle – there is a constant intensity that pulsates beneath. This intensity is driven by the many mysteries of the novel, the largest of which is the first-person narrator herself. Her life feels so real, so distinct, that the novel almost reads like an autobiography. Yet the reader is never fully allowed to know her, nor to trust her. Her emotions and responses are always held at a distance. The narrator finds it difficult to connect with and share her own feelings, so the reader is made to feel this same disconnect – she remains stranded in the abstract, with even her name withheld.

The novel begins with an order: ‘Don’t write this down.’ In a te reo class with her tutor and friend Pita, the narrator is reminded that learning is about the kōrero. Despite ‘learning to speak,’ the narrator withholds the truth about her relationships, her family history and even present events. While Attraction is largely about the stories we tell about ourselves, about our family histories and about our nation, it is also about what we choose not to share. The reader is reminded about the infallibility of memories, and about the danger of trusting the person telling the story. ‘Every time you remember something,’ the narrator repeatedly warns, ‘you’re only remembering the last time you thought of it.’

The prose is emotive and artistic. At Whāngārā, the night ‘seems to bend over and the stars just fall. I walk along the beach, cracking sand like a crème brûlée.’ Yet it is raw and honest – sometimes blatantly so. Clutching at a small motel soap feels like ‘clutching at the foetus of a mouse, small and slippery.’ Each line comes as a shock, to either startle or impress.

Attraction highlights how New Zealand’s ‘clean and green’ landscapes are not what they are marketed to be. Auckland ‘hides behind its concrete shapewear,’ the countryside has a ‘real ugliness’ to it, Lake Horowhenua is contaminated by run-off and fertiliser, Foxton has ‘dead expanses of driveways,’ and every town they pass looks ‘worn out, or half finished, expired.’

The novel captures the truth about small New Zealand towns within small interactions between onlookers, family friends and the three main characters. While Ilana and the narrator are assisted in a moment of kiwi kindness when their car breaks down, this kindness is intermingled with terse moments of homophobia and racism. The ugly underbelly of New Zealand society is often exposed.

Attraction is about belonging and not belonging. As a Pākehā with conflicted emotions about living on Aotearoa land amidst a troubled colonial history, the narrator feels significant ‘white guilt.’ As a Pākehā, she feels like ‘someone imaginary, someone who only resembles a person.’ In Whāngārā, her whiteness is no longer invisible, its like ‘wearing another skin, one that isn’t stuck on right. Or it’s wearing nothing at all.’ The narrator is consistently challenged in how she sees herself and how she relates to the land. Alongside revelations about the New Zealand Wars, the narrator begins to feel overwhelmed by the landscape around her, feeling ‘something stronger than memory, something bone-deep. It warms me and pains me.’ Her tenuous connection to the land is often connected to her inability to speak.

Told in short lyrical snapshots, Attraction is impossible to put down. There are so many quotes to savour, it is impossible to choose just a few. In what is a distinctly New Zealand novel of road-trips, a family bach getaway, hidden histories, small towns and kiwi kindness, Attraction is also queer, feminist, and a blatant examination of what it means to be Pākehā. It is a brilliant, beautiful novel.

Review by Rosalie Elliffe

Attraction
by Ruby Porter
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925773552

Book Review: The Julian Calendar, by William Henry

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_julian_calendarI must confess – when I picked up this book I did something I don’t normally do – I read the author’s note in the back first and I’m so glad that I did. The postscript written in September 2018 particularly struck me: ‘On Saturday 12 May, I placed in John’s unsteady 89-year-old hands an advance review copy of The Julian Calendar. I was overcome with immeasurable relief; John just beamed. He was content. He knew this book would again change my life. He knew it had already changed his. Eleven days later, on a chilly Wellington evening, and only minutes after I had kissed his forehead and whispered suggestions for the sweetest of dreams, John died. An angel heading home…’ It made me cry then in anticipation of a novel that might change my life, and makes me tearful now, knowing that it has.

‘To own a beautiful new book is a tactile treat. The smooth feel of the jacket, the firmness of the hard cover, the quality of the paper, all make the fingers move over the book and seek out more messages than the words themselves can provide. The next best thing is to give such a book to someone who you know will appreciate it in just these ways.’ (page 173). This certainly is one such book, one such reading experience that I am grateful to have received to review, and I cannot easily compare it with any other.

Set in a period of history before mobile phones were everywhere, and before social media sites came to both join us and also disconnect us from real life, The Julian Calendar commences at the official start of the English Summer, June 1992. Daniel Jamieson is a heart-broken kiwi twenty-something looking for distraction in London, while Julian Marriot is a sixty-something classical music loving ex-patriot looking for companionship (whether he’d admit to that or not). The world is a place still reeling from the discovery and deaths of the horrific AIDS epidemic that began to sweep the world in the 1980s. Julian has watched friends wither and disappear from his life. When Daniel turns up at his door, an old university friend of his nephew’s, he is both nervous and attracted by the young man. What ensues over the length of the book is the blossoming of a friendship that despite sexual persuasion and forty-year age gaps, ever deepens, aided by the sharing of books and music between them.

This work is beautiful, the journey of two men (Simon Hertnon and John Henry Garmonsway), with two viewpoints, released under one made-up authorial name, William Henry. It is a kind of fictional record of the writer’s own experiences, twenty-five years in the making. That’s right, this book took twenty-five years to put out, and it is clear that the twenty-five years it took to write, re-write and edit were not spent idly. The two voices entwine wonderfully, giving complexity to the characters and to their wonderings about the friendship between them. The question is posed, ‘what is love and who can share it?’ Can a loving friendship between two men exist and flourish when one of them is heterosexual and the other is not? There are no boring moments here, every scene had me wrapped up in their world as if it were my own, or rather, as if I were somehow a part of their experience. When Daniel was bogged down in longing for the wrong woman I was right there with him, and when Julian gave his advice full of wisdom, I felt like I learned with Daniel too.

Then of course, there was the music. The book literally dripped with it. So I was pleased to discover that a soundtrack has been put together to go with the novel. You can find the playlist on Spotify under the title William Henry: The Julian Calendar. I thoroughly recommend downloading and listening to it while you read. It certainly heightens the experience of prose that flows like the poetry of music.

I feel blessed to have read this book and shared this experience. If I could, I would buy the whole world this well-written novel. So help me out readers of good kiwi fiction – go out and get a copy yourself. You can find or request The Julian Calendar from any good bookstore.. As ‘love will be my ink’ too, I promise you will not be disappointed.

Review by Penny M Geddis

The Julian Calendar
by William Henry
Publisher: Marsilio Press
ISBN: 978-09582355-5-6

Book Review: One Single Thing, by Tina Clough

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_one_single_thingJournalist Hope Barber disappears two weeks after returning to New Zealand from an assignment in Pakistan, leaving her front door open and her bag and phone in the house.

Hope’s brother Noah contacts Hunter Grant and his partner Dao, to investigate her disappearance as the New Zealand police are reluctant to become involved. The reader is soon drawn into the mystery with the author cleverly incorporating details about Hope’s time in Pakistan which seems to raise more questions.

When I received One Single Thing, I was intrigued by the cover, a plain black background with a white wheelie bin on the front cover, but it was soon revealed within Hope’s blog why this simple design was used by Tara Cooney Design.

This is the first book by this New Zealand-based author I have read and I found it a thoroughly absorbing read. Hunter had appeared in a previous book by Clough, The Chinese Proverb, when he used his front-line Army experience to save Dao.
I soon picked up the background to the earlier book as Clough recaps key facts at intervals in the early chapters of One Single Thing, so I did not feel at a disadvantage picking up the story at this stage.

The novel highlights a number of modern global issues, such as ‘honour killings’ which Hope Barber had been investigating in Pakistan; and Clough skillfully incorporates how surveillance can affect someone’s life without them being are of what is going on.

The story moves along at a steady pace, the chapters are short and I enjoyed Clough’s descriptive style: ‘The rain starts as we drive on to the Harbour Bridge; within minutes it is a downpour of tropical proportions. The windscreen is a blur of running water, cleared for only a fraction of a second by each sweep of the wiper blades.’

Anyone who enjoys crime/ mystery novels will find this an engrossing read and I am wondering if Tina Clough will find another assignment for Hunter Grant, Dao and their dog Scruff, as she has established solid characters which will appeal to not just New Zealanders but a worldwide readership.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

One Single Thing
by Tina Clough
Published by Lightpool Publishing
ISBN 9780473469139

Book Review: Necessary Secrets, by Greg McGee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_necessary_secrets.jpgNew Zealand-born playwright and award-winning novelist Greg McGee delivers a powerful examination of life in his new novel Necessary Secrets.

The story follows Dennis Sparks (Den), recently diagnosed with dementia, and his three adult children as they navigate the joys and hardships of their seemingly individual – yet ultimately connected – lives. Each sibling is allocated a season in which their lives unfold and unravel. Starting from eldest son and meth addict Will, we then move to ‘guarding angel’ and social worker Ellie, and the narrative concludes with self-sustaining and soul-searching Stan.

McGee’s characters are bold and distinct, and he does not shy away from revealing their flaws. A line which comes from Den about his children early on in the novel captures the essence of their development: ‘[W]hatever we’ve become out in the world, we always come home to be what we were.’

Eldest son Will is snarky, cruel and materialistic. We assume this is an effect of his drug addiction and broken marriage. But, even in recovery, his chances to redeem himself turn out to be self-serving or corrupt, betraying not only his siblings, but the reader who can’t help but urge him to turn his life around.

Ellie, at first, appears to be a do-gooder – she volunteers, she fosters children in volatile situations, and she helps women escape brutal domestic violence. Yet she faces her own challenges too, and her good deeds end with cynicism. The charity she volunteers at turns out to be a corrupt commercial operation and she is constantly aware of the repetitive cycle of violence. She is afraid of bringing her own child into the world and confesses that killing all abusers would be an easier (and safer) solution than the uncertain process of the New Zealand courts.

Youngest sibling, Stan, who has lived ten years of his life in a self-sustaining community, finds himself unsatisfied and yearning for more. Although he’s always detested commercialism, he is lured back to the city by the opportunities that inherited money gives him in modern society.

McGee creates deep connections between the three siblings and the reader. We are constantly learning and being challenged by what we know as each sibling becomes more complicated and (sometimes disturbingly) real. Their lives speak to the dark desires of the human condition, to the constant lurk of mortality, as well as to the joys of growth, perseverance, and human connection.

What is most affecting in Necessary Secrets, and certainly what lingers most, are the scenes blended among the seasons. Den’s battle with his disease, as it takes his memories, judgement, and understanding, is distressing. From seeing his care home as a “strange” hotel, to forgetting names, faces, and how to use cutlery, McGee captures Den’s desperation and confusion in his hauntingly simple prose. Den’s perspectives don’t exist in periods of time like his children’s, because he no longer has any determination of it. They float between the seasons, detached but heavy with fear – a fear no longer of his own mortality, but for losing his sense of self and home.

Necessary Secrets is an intimate yet stark story which focuses on societal issues that New Zealanders face every day, and it handles them with upfront honesty. It is a beautiful yet hard-hitting novel.

Reviewed by Susanna Elliffe

Necessary Secrets
by Greg McGee
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781988516639