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

Helen Wadsworth going for a global perspective in Denver, CO

Helen Wadsworth from The Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop in Ponsonby is one of two booksellers from New Zealand on a plane to Denver, Colorado for the 11th Winter Institute conference, where she will network with booksellers from all over the USA and the world. The Winter Institute is run by our American cousins, the American Booksellers Assocation, and Booksellers NZ is very grateful to have our scholarships sponsored by Canadian eReader company, Kobo. 

pp_helen_wadsworthWe asked Helen (above) a few questions including why she became a bookseller, what she is most looking forward to about the experience, and what she’ll be reading on the way there.

What made you want a career in bookselling?
Books are special – they enrich our lives so much and I love being surrounded by them. I also love the interaction with so many diverse people that book selling provides. And, unlike some jobs, most of the interactions are positive and happy.

Tell us the three main things you hope to get out of your attendance at the Winter Institute?
I’m hoping to be inspired and to come back with lots of ideas for our shop, particularly in terms of events and marketing.

As I’m the book buyer at our shop I’m also really interested in getting some tips from people who have been in the industry for awhile about how they go about choosing and managing their stock. As a relative newcomer to the book business, I’m still learning a lot about the book trade, and I’m looking forward to hearing about how things work in the States and hoping to get a more global perspective on bookselling.

What sessions during the conference are you looking forward to the most, and why?
Well, that’s a tough one because there are so many. One that has caught my eye is the breakfast keynote on the first morning. The speaker is Martin Lindstrom who is the author of Buyology and Small Data: the Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends – all about the psychology of buying. something I know very little about so it should be fascinating.

Another one is about event management for small stores and there’s also Bookselling 101: Introduction to Buying, both of which should be very relevant to my roles at The Dorothy Butler Bookshop.
Vromans
What do you know about the bookstore you will be working with while over there? What will be your focus as a take-away?
I only know what I’ve been able to find out form their website but it looks amazing and big! It’s the oldest and largest independent bookstore in southern California and the guy who started it (Mr Vroman) sounds like really interesting man. He was a photographer and philanthropist as well as a book shop owner. I used to be a photographer, so I hope I get to see some of his photos. He supported all sorts of groups in the local community including Japanese American prisoners in the 2nd world war. He had no children and when he died he gave the shop to one of his employees – the great-grandfather of the current owner.

They have 3 sites in Pasadena, LA and put on over 400 events a year. Obviously I’m interested in how they run their children’s department – I’m keen to see how their systems work as well their marketing and how they communicate with their customers and community.

What are you planning to read in the plane on the way there?
I’ve just downloaded Jandy Nelson’s I’ll give you the Sun onto the Kobo and I’m hoping it will keep me occupied for most of the journey.

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Kiran Dass, from Unity Books on High St in Auckland, is the other recipient of the Booksellers Kobo Scholarship to the Winter Institute. Read her Q & A – and check out our article about the scholarship.

 

 

Book Review: My New Zealand Story: Harbour Bridge Auckland 1958-59 by Philippa Werry

Available in bookstores now. 

“My New Zealand Story” is a series of books ofcv_harbour_bridge fiction about life in the past, by various authors, published by Scholastic.

My eyes lit up when I opened the courier package with my latest offerings to review. The building of the Auckland Harbour Bridge is an event that happened during my early childhood and so I have quite a few memories from that time. This book is a fascinating read and very well written.

Author Philippa Werry is a librarian and a children’s author. She has written non-fiction, poetry, stories and plays plus a number of pieces for the School Journal. One of her recent books, Anzac: The New Zealand Story, is shortlisted in the non-fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

Mrs Hobson, Simon Robert Campbell’s teacher at Northcote intermediate asks the children in his class to keep a diary. Simon finds an old exercise book and starts writing. His teacher then becomes sick and the children forget about the task at hand, but Robert decides he quite likes keeping a diary and so from February 1958 – August 1959 he records things that interest him.

This is the 1950’s – a time of rock n’ roll, milk bars, night clubs, Bodgies and Widgies (I must be old if I can remember these terms!) and Johnny Devlin. The Auckland Harbour Bridge is finally going to be built. Living on the North Shore and close to the building site, Simon takes a great interest in all the activities. His uncle Alan is a construction worker and part of a gang of young men employed from all over the world to work on the bridge.
Originally a 5 lane bridge was proposed, but this was deemed too expensive, so the proposal was to build a 4 lane bridge – 2 lanes each way.

Simon’s interest in the bridge becomes an obsession, his friend Marty, on the other hand, becomes obsessed with the Space Race between the USA and Russia, his younger sister Jo can’t stop worrying about the animals used as the first space travellers, and his elder sister Linda is obsessed with Johnny Devlin and her parents lack of understanding for her “need” to go to the dance halls to listen to her idol.

I enjoyed revisiting this time in New Zealand history, and it brought back many memories.   The suggested age range for this book is 10+, and it is written in such a way that you couldn’t help but be drawn into the story.

At the back of the book are several chapters that help the younger reader with the facts surrounding the building of Auckland’s Harbour Bridge. These include, historical notes with a timeline from 1860 when the building of the bridge was first proposed. They also include interesting facts, regarding the ferries, The Space Race, Rock ‘n’ Roll era of the 1950’s. Also there is a Glossary with meanings of words used in the story e.g. aggregate, arched bridge. There are also a number of photos from Archives New Zealand.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

My New Zealand Story: Harbour Bridge – Auckland 1958–59
by Philippa Werry
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775431664