Book Review: Gabriel’s Bay, by Catherine Robertson

cv_gabriels_bayAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

At 426 pages, Gabriel’s Bay is a book that promises to fill a good few hours of reading time. So well written are the characters and the lives they lead, that I read it in just one and a half days. Catherine Robertson tells us in the book’s accompanying media release that she decided, after three hilarious chick-lit style novels, to try a new tack, focusing on what she feels good at: humour, characters and dialogue. As these are the things that most interest me when well executed, I can say that Catherine has succeeded in her stated aim.

I like that the novel is set in a recognisable New Zealand. The character who holds the whole cast together is a young man from the UK who, after making a shambles of his life at home, answers an ad for a home help in the small township of Gabriel’s Bay. Unlike some books of similar ilk, the people who live there are not cheerfully stoical and determinedly positive. They are a more realistic portrayal of the people who live in the little townships down the road from where you live, or perhaps, even, your next door neighbours in your own little township.

We get to know the characters well as as the young man becomes involved in the fabric of the village throughout the novel. Issues that we are familiar with in our own lives are dealt with in a way that fit into the story being told without dominating it or detracting from the tension the reader experiences.

Not all the ends are neatly tied at the finish just as they never are in real life, but the author has written a book that is so well tuned to real life that I, as the reader was satisfied that the characters had ended their tales on a note of optimism. I identified with each and every one of them, even the not so nice, and to me that is the mark of a story well told.

New Zealand can be proud of the work of our authors and poets. Catherine Robertson has written a novel that testifies strongly to that. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Gabriel’s Bay
by Catherine Robertson
Published by Black Swan
ISBN 9780143771456

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: Absence, by Joanna King

cv_absenceAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

I was reluctant to face the four of us being together, and for a long as two weeks. It felt too close to what had been destroyed eighteen years ago.

Four sisters are getting together in beautiful Cinque Terre at Rose’s instigation. It is to be a holiday of relaxing and discovering the delights off the tourist track in some modest Italian villages. When Rose does not appear for dinner one night, she sets in motion an unveiling of the past and a dissection of present relationships. Each sister’s personality is displayed by their reaction to the alarming news and, in turn, the dynamics of the sibling relationships are also revealed.

Initially fearing what may have befallen her sister, the narrator and youngest sister, is greatly relieved to finally hear from her, particularly as she had been the last one to talk to Rose. The reason for Rose’s absence brings an unpleasant history back to the fore. The parents’ divorce eighteen years ago is still keenly felt, if not acknowledged, by each sister and has shaped how their own relationships are played out. Over the course of a few days, following Rose’s disappearance and shocking news, the narrator is forced to look closely at her own current relationship with Adrian – a man she cannot claim as her own. A keen-eyed observer of her sisters’ lives, she closely examines her own expectations of love, and reaches a conclusion she feels necessary.

As the story unfolds, so too does some of the family’s history, particularly that of Rose and the narrator; these two are the closest and share a secret that goes a long way to offer an explanation for Rose’s actions.’Laugh, laugh. I didn’t join the mirth. Where they saw subservience, I saw Rose seeking shelter from the storm of herself.’

Joanna King’s wonderful prose is at times full of imagery:
Along the stretch of beach below, the waves hardly appeared to make an effort to shrug their shoulders before they subsided in tranquillity.

At other times, it is lyrical stream of consciousness:
Breathe the night.
Oh, yes.
It’s not often I’m this light.
It’s not often the past has so little hold. I possess the present. That’s all I can live.
That’s all that possesses me…
… Light brain, sly brain, light head, I hardly know what to do.

This makes for vivid and thought-provoking, if somewhat challenging, reading and it pulls you into the lives of these sisters, compelling you to immerse yourself in the intrigues and dynamics of the family, making you hope that they all find contentment and happiness.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

by Joanna King
Published by Black Swan (Penguin Random House NZ)
ISBN: 9781775538653

Book review: The Not So Perfect Life of Mo Lawrence by Catherine Robertson

This book is in bookshops now

Catherine Robertson hasn’t suffered at all from the famed writer’s curse of struggling to follow up on a best-selling first novel. Less than a year after her first book was released, and raced up the New Zealand charts, she’s done it again!

If you liked last year’s The Sweet Second Life of Darrell Kincaid, you will find Mo Lawrence’s not-so-perfect life an equally entertaining and enjoyable read. (And
if you’ve been living under a literary rock and haven’t yet read Darrell Kincaid, you should.)

Michelle “Mo” Lawrence was the acerbic wit at the other end of the Skype and IM chats with London-based Kiwi Darrell in the first story. Michelle was clearly crying out, loudly and belligerently I’m sure, for her own book. And it’s funny, sweet and very very entertaining.

Michelle has what appears to be the perfect life : husband from a wealthy Southern family, “pigeon-pair” children, a happy “drink and bitch” mothers’ group, and a very comfortable life in Charlotte, North Carolina. Perfect that is until her husband, Chad, accepts a lucrative high-powered job in San Francisco. Surrounded
by tanned, toned blonde yummy mommies, Michelle has to start all over again to build the sort of life she wants. She has spent years putting her own wants at the centre of everything and sees no reason to change. Chad meanwhile isn’t sure what sort of life he wants anymore. Michelle’s perfect life is in upheaval: “If she could no longer be Chad’s wife, Michelle had no idea who she would be.”

Fortunately, Michelle is not alone in her struggle. She quickly makes new friends: Aishe, the most angry woman in California, and Connie, possibly the sweetest. She would also have old mate Darrell to console her if only Darrell wasn’t so selfishly busy running away from her own problems.

It would be a disservice to refer to Robertson’s work as “chick lit” unless that means wickedly funny, clever and well-written. Although the book is a very entertaining read, it is by no means light and fluffy. The characters are flawed and human, and it’s easy to spot elements of oneself and friends in Michelle, Aishe, Connie and Darrell. Though, hopefully not too much of Aishe – she really is a scarily hostile, yet witty, character. The reasons for her fully-deployed defensive shield are never fully resolved. With any luck, she will appear in a future book. There is much yet to be explored with that character.

Robertson has set both her books overseas, for, I can only presume, very commercially-sensible reasons. There are however, more than enough references to New Zealand to give her local readers a parochial frisson of excitement. “’… Are you saying this is some kind of rite of passage in the psychological development of a human being? That I’m lacking something vital because no one close to me has bitten the big kumara?’ ‘I’m sorry – bit the what?’”

It would be great to see some of the Kiwi characters return “home” in future books. We New Zealanders do like to read about ourselves. It’s the literary equivalent of bombarding a tourist with “what do you think of New Zealand so far?” as they step off the plane.

The Not So Perfect Life of Mo Lawrence deserves to enjoy the same success as Robertson’s first book. With any luck, a third book is already underway.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Not So Perfect Life of Mo Lawrence
 by Catherine Robertson
Published by Black Swan
ISBN 9781869799366