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: I Don’t Have Time, by Audrey Thomas and Emma Grey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_I_don't_have_time.jpgIt took quite a long time to read this book, rather ironically, because it contains material that needs to be well thought over. It is written, according to Audrey and Emma, the authors, for ‘women of a certain age, splashing dramatically in a sea of self-inflicted over-commitment’ who need to realise that they do have time to do the things that will add satisfaction to their lives. The sub title of the book is “15 -minute ways to Shape A Life You Love”.

A quick flick through it offers some quick-flick ideas common to self-help literature, and this book fits into that genre. But a deeper reading reveals that Audrey and Emma have lived much of what they write about. It has an honesty about it which appeals and which prevents the material from being slick or glib. As some other reviewers noted, this is ‘a time management book for real people by real people.’

It’s a book that not only encourages us to look for ways to engage in activities that we enjoy, but gives us the motivation and energy to do so by recounting the success of others, detailing their efforts and their thoughts. It covers areas of life that matter most to us, exploring the excuses we make to keep us from achieving happiness and satisfaction. I enjoyed it even though I felt older than the intended readers (it is primarily, but not exclusively, written for the younger woman overwhelmed by the pressures and self-inflicted commitments of career building, child-rearing and home-making), because it enabled me to see how I’d managed my life through that time, and feel a little smug that I’d come through it reasonably well-adjusted.

Having said that, I enjoyed it also because of its approach. It appeals to the person we are, to the humanity we share and to the burdens and problems we suffer under, and it offers solutions that we can see will work.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

I Don’t Have Time
by Audrey Thomas and Emma Grey
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593218

Book Review: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, by Bernadette Brennan

cv_a_writing_lifeAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

The litmus test of a good book about a writer is whether reading it makes me want to revisit the subject’s work – and visit the works I haven’t yet. Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work does both in spades.

Brennan, an academic and researcher in contemporary Australian literature, approached the prospect of mapping the landscape that created Garner, author of some of Australia’s most contentious and beloved writing, with understandable nervousness – shared by Garner herself:

‘She established at the outset that she did not want a biography. I did not wish to write one, but I knew that the intersection and overlap of her life and art made discussion of the biographical essential to understanding her work. Garner gave me access to the NLA [National Library of Australia] files, but went further in answering every query that I have put to her. She has admitted to anxious rumblings about this book.’

But Garner’s work itself is so closely tied to her own life that it’s impossible not to read any discussion of her forty years of writing alongside one of her personal history; her fiction and non-fiction both tap into her own experience, sometimes revisiting the same situation or character over and over again, tilting the mirror or camera slightly for a different angle on the same scene. Brennan was given full access to the NLA archives, Garner’s diaries and Garner herself. One of the main resources from the archives, setting the scene for Part I of A Writing Life, are the ‘Letters to Axel’. Garner was a prolific letter writer and shared everything with Axel, her companion and confidante from a young age:

‘As a twenty-year-old, Helen joked to Axel Clark: ‘One day these letters will be famous¬ – “The Life, Loves and Letters of Helen Ford [her name before marrying writer and actor Bill Garner]”. She envisaged neither her fame nor that Axel would keep and later archive her early correspondence.’

‘Famous for her letters, postcards and, more recently, her emails and texts’, Garner is notoriously self-interrogating, the letters and her own journal entries revealing anguish over the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip – now considered an Australian classic, it’s a thinly veiled self-portrait of a life of share houses and shared parenting in inner city Melbourne in the ‘70s – as well as her trajectory in the Australian lit scene following the sudden success and dissection of that book. That trajectory has not always been upwards, and Brennan goes deep into the controversies that have dogged Garner and in turn been subject to dogged unpacking by her on the page, in fiction and non-fiction.

Garner ‘redefined and shaped literary genres to accommodate her material’, she’s a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, lyricist and essayist, and a boundary-crosser whose championing of interior lives and the domestic sphere in turn suggested a structure for Brennan’s book, where ‘each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing’. Brennan uses this framework to walk through the ‘rooms’ of Garner’s literary house, considering her work along the way: from Monkey Wrench to Everywhere I Look. It’s a comprehensive and compelling way to travel through an exceptional quantity of material, and, fittingly, the bookend to this story is that Everywhere I Look won the best non-fiction category at the Indie Book Awards shortly after publication of A Writing Life.

Now I’m off to re-read Monkey Grip, which I haven’t read since I too lived in a house in inner city Melbourne, and I expect I might spend the next few months walking through the rest of Helen Garner’s house.

Reviewed by Mitch Marks

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
by Bernadette Brennan
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925410396

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: Bright Air Black, by David Vann

Available now in bookshops nationwide.
cv_bright_air_black.jpg“Her father a golden face in darkness … face of the sun, descendant of the sun. Betrayal and rage.” So begins David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a creative interpretation of classical Greek figure Medea and her life of extremes: betrayal, rage and the symbolic sun all feature strongly throughout.

Vann’s poetic title comes from Robin Robertson’s translation of Euripides’ Medea, which was actually written 800 years after Medea and Jason’s historic journey in the Argo: “When mortals hope, the gods frustrate./From our dull lives and loves they make/an unexpected passion play./They turn the bright air black …” For those familiar with the Euripidean classic, Vann notes that his own text is set 3,250 years ago ‘following the archaeological evidence and never straying from realism.’ This means that magic portrayed here is less ethereal and surreal: Medea’s servitude to Hecate and her intelligent sorcery around the betrayal of another King, Pelias, feels rooted in human behaviour and realism.

Medea is a rich imagining as a character; Vann writes her in a way that captures the complexity of the human condition and the dichotomies we all have and live with. At once brutal and sensual; loving and hating; gentle and rage-filled, Medea is both godlike and fundamentally human at her very core.

Vann has rich material to work with, but he also has a wicked imagination and uses this creativity to access dark places. The book opens with Medea slowly and deliberately tossing parts of her dismembered brother’s body overboard as Jason’s boat – the classically famous Argo – makes its way slowly away from Medea’s pursuing father and her homeland. This visceral treachery continues over 100 pages. The slow release of her sibling’s mortal flesh is vividly described – ‘Medea takes a piece of her brother, a thigh, heavy and tough, muscled, and licks blood from it, dark and thick.’ – until, finally, ‘she levers the spoon beneath while grabbing his shoulder with her other hand, peels him back finally, and is able to roll him overboard.’ Other gloriously vivid descriptions include: ‘misshapen lumps adhered to the wood’ and ‘a rotted heart liquified. The spoon emerging shiny with drool’. Medea’s murder of her brother is paid for by the reader in absorbing the length and constancy of these relentless descriptions.

Jason is portrayed here as a bit of a wimp, really. He lets Medea down several times throughout the book – betrayals – most obviously at the end, when she experiences total rejection. But perhaps she doesn’t think much of him either: ‘Young and muscled and false, not to be trusted, but he is beautiful and he is all she has.’ She, in turn, has betrayed her father, brother and homeland and thus has limited choices.

Vann uses sentence fragmentation consistently and with force throughout the text. Whilst at first this feels jarring, eventually it creates a rhythm that echoes the fragmented journey of the Argo and the doomed relationship between Medea and Jason. Coupled with first person narration, it also maneuvers the reader towards a state of claustrophobia; this is relentless and confrontational and really well done.

The end of the book is a fitting one. In utter chaos and climax, and with a mouthful of blood manifested in the most shocking of ways, Medea ‘lurches forward and sprays the air to turn it dark. Bright air black.’ And so it ends as it starts, a story cycle of death, despair and escape. Vann has written a doozy of an interpretation here, and one which challenges a reader’s perception of both right and wrong and concepts of good and evil. For, in the end, despite her murderous ways, Medea still feels like a heroine in this story. Just a really violent, complex one.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Bright Air Black
by David Vann
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355208

Book Review: Good Sons: A Novel of the Great War, by Greg Hall

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_good_sonsOver the past three years, a lot has been written about the Great War. The major events have been highlighted as 100 years was marked for each one. Families have unearthed letters which bring a more personal view of the war. Distance and time soften the horror of those stories.

Greg Hall has written Good Sons to highlight the impact of war on ordinary people. In this case, three friends from Oamaru. The story is told by Frank Wilson from his schooldays and adventures as a young boy, to the battlefields of Europe. The detail of his life is minutely drawn. My 90-year-old Father was quite taken by the descriptions of ordinary life: going camping, riding bikes, playing rugby and the importance of family life.

While Frank and his best mates, Tom Davis and Robert Sutherland eagerly await their birthdays so they can sign up, we read small press clippings at the start of each chapter detailing the progress of the war. These are at times shocking in their paternalistic and biased interpretation of events. It is a clever device to contrast the reported and the real.

The trust, the naïveté and the courage of these three is undeniable. I loved the details of the train ride through Timaru, the training camps and the night out from Trentham to Wellington. On arrival in France we are led to the battlefields and horror of war.

Greg Hall has taken on War commentary through his writing, poetry and research. He is the director of the Passchendaele Society. His superb knowledge lends credibility to the events and descriptions in the book. Even the cover photo communicates contrast of three fine boys, and three battle weary soldiers. This is a very readable account from a New Zealand perspective. While more academic tomes appeal to some, I loved the accessibility of his writing. This is a novel of war, both heroic and horrendous.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Good Sons: A Novel of the Great War
by Greg Hall
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473383787

Book Review: Under the Almond Tree, by Laura McVeigh

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_under_The_almond_tree.jpgLaura McVeigh’s debut novel, Under the Almond Tree, tells the story of a refugee family leaving Kabul, Afghanistan, to escape the Taliban in the 1990s. The narrator is Samar, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on the stories of others while she and her family struggle to continue theirs. From her parents’ stories of Taliban severity after the Soviet invasion, Samar contemplates the atrocities of militant regimes and their destructive ideologies.

The repercussions of the Taliban presence impinge individual freedom. Samar’s affected family is represented, therefore, as a microcosm of a fracturing, imploding society. Apart from inflicting pain and death, the surveillant Taliban regime also severs family ties by sowing seeds of distrust and hatred. Consequently, Samar’s mother (Madar/Azita) and father (Baba/Dil) face many challenges as they strive to protect Samar and her siblings Omar, Ara, Javad, Little Arsalan, and Sitara. The novel also explores the influence of cultural standards and norms on relationships, and conveys a yearning for the past freedoms of Afghan women in particular, such as education and personal liberty, before the Taliban came about.

To cope with the destruction of her homeland and family, Samar finds strength through her talent for storytelling, which equips her with a passion for instilling hope by creating new lives for her family and for herself. What she learns is that while the Taliban can oppress women by banning their education and imposing stringent rules on their manner of dress and daily affairs, they can never take away the intangible, the universal, and the ideals of hope, love and beauty. Such a world lies in the pages of her encyclopedia, grammar books, poetry anthology, travel guides, and her favourite Tolstoy novel, Anna Karenina.

Under the Almond Tree is an emotional, descriptive, and wistful story about the power of ideas and stories, depicted as a form of quiet resistance. Imbued with literary and historical references, this book would appeal to teenagers and young adults. I particularly recommend it to those who have read a thematically similar novel, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief: a story of resilience which takes place in the same century but in a different place and time.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

Under the Almond Tree
By Laura McVeigh
Published by Hachette NZ
ISBN 9781473640849