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

Love Letter to the Bookshops I have known, from Catherine Robertson

Dear Bookshops I Have Known,

How can I choose my favourite amongst you, when you’ve all meant so much to me?

Whitcoulls in Wellington’s James Smith’s department store gave me a job while I was at university, and access to bargains from the $1 bin (it was 1986), such as Cynthia Heimel’s Sex Tips for Girls, which I still have.

Parsons was the Bond Street jeweller of books to a struggling student – all those art books to covet on the way upstairs to an endless filter coffee, only fifty cents and with the added bonus of whipped cream and listening to Mike Bungay hold court at the next table.

The Women’s Bookshop in Courtenay Place, where I bought my collection of Viragos (Willa Cather, Vita Sackville-West) and flicked through Broadsheet.

Capital Books, my go-to for how-to books – no subject too obscure. All these particular shops gone now, but remembered whenever I look at my bookshelf.

My old favourites, who go from strength to strength:

Unity, I found you first in Willis Street, in a building that’s been replaced by something flash and glassy, and have followed you around faithfully.

Marsden Books, who make the trip to Karori always worthwhile.

The Children’s Bookshop, who opened the year after my first child was born, and have let me re-visit my own childhood (Frances the badger, Orlando the Marmalade cat!) and discover new joys with my sons. My boys are grown-up now, but I still shop there – you’re never too old for great children’s books. Ruth and John were some of the very first people I told when I finally sold a novel, and I’m so grateful for all their support.

The newer shops that, of course, have opened just for me: Ekor. Vic Books. And out of town, The Women’s Bookshop, Wardini’s, McLeods. The pleasure of shelves stocked with care and discernment. The whole vibe of delight in creation and language, and in the beautiful, magical objects that are books.

Thank you all

Catherine Robertson

Catherine Robertson is a number one New Zealand best-selling author. She lives beside the sea in Wellington, New Zealand, with her husband, the one son still at home, two rescue dogs and a Burmese cat.

Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?

I was really looking forward to this session, and I was not disappointed: authors Catherine Robertson, Witi Ihimaera, Paul Cleave and Paula Morris in conversation about the fiction of Aotearoa.

witi ihimaeraAlmost immediately, we ran up against the problem of nomenclature. Ihimaera talked a lot about ‘New Zealand literature’, by which he seemed to mean ‘New Zealand literary fiction’. He was obviously reveling in the role of provocateur, and delighted in lobbing conversational grenades such as “I write New Zealand literature, they [fellow panellists] don’t”; “New Zealand literature is dead (when you think about it statistically)”; “I can’t write crime fiction because it’s too far below me”. It was (mostly) received in good humour, though, and it was gratifying to see Bats Theatre packed out with people keen to join the conversation. The room was buzzing for the whole hour.

Cleave articulated a common problem when he said he was put off NZ fiction at school by being forced to study Owls Do Cry, which was not the kind of story he was after when he was a teenager. It gave him a long-lasting (but, he realises now, erroneous) impression that that’s what all NZ fiction is like. Cleave suggested that we need to get into schools and educate kids about the entire spectrum of our writing. Morris pointed out that the new initiative Hooked on NZ Books aims to help do that by providing a forum for young people to review NZ YA literature.

We heard a lot of ideas about what young people should or should not be doing and reading. Ihimaera suggested that literary festivals should have two-for-one tickets where adults have to bring a young person with them. He said “our young people like to see things, they don’t like to read things”, so we need to use visual media to reach them. He worries that the whakapapa of NZ literature isn’t being passed on. Morris bemoaned the fact that she sees tertiary students who still have Harry Potter notebooks, and says young people need, at some point, to put the things of childhood away and graduate to adult literature.

paula morrisI see her point, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with Morris there. During this session no one mentioned fan culture, and how it influences NZ readers’ behaviour. One of the reasons young adults continue to read Harry Potter despite no longer being children themselves is that they value being part of the fan community: it’s much wider than just the books. Perhaps some fruitful questions to consider in future literary festivals might be, which NZ authors are inspiring a fan community? How does that influence New Zealanders’ reading behaviour? Who is reading NZ fan fiction? How does NZ fan fiction fit into the wide and diverse landscape of NZ literature?

My fellow festival reviewers Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer – both in their 20s – have also made some interesting points about young people at literary festivals, which I think are pertinent to the question of who’s reading NZ fiction.

Graham says: “everyone wants to know both how we get more young people (a) along and (b) buying books, so that the industry will not die, but at the same time they don’t REALLY want young people there because they enjoy the whole Q and A at the end just being about how young people are crap and obsessed with their phones and Breaking Bad (which would be awkward in a room full of young people).

“Most of the young people I know read literary fiction (yes, on their phones) and also watch Breaking Bad. Yesterday, I finished a book of literary fiction and tonight I plan to binge-watch House of Cards. It’s just that a lot of us don’t feel like literary festivals are really for us. I don’t know how exactly this happened, but it is important when, as Witi pointed out, book awards and writers fests are the main ways that New Zealand writers get attention and promotion.”

Falconer said she really valued the Taking Form event at Writers Week (a panel discussion with writer Courtney Sina Meredith, graphic novelist Mariko Tamaki and artist and curator Kerry Ann Lee, chaired by Sarah Laing) because “the speakers are about 5-10 years older than me, and ask themselves a lot of the same questions about their work and life as I do my own.”

Catherine_Robertson_150There is also the problem of elitism. Robertson made the point that YA fiction is presented as all being on par, but when we become grown-ups, we’re expected to specialise and distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ qualities of writing. Ihimaera criticised literary festivals for being elitist, but at the same time insisted that we must have a literary canon to “write New Zealand into existence”. He said we’ve only a had a 30-year window (in the mid-to-late twentieth century) to say ‘this is New Zealand literature’. He finds it frightening to let that go. I was glad when Morris pointed out that there are lots of writers engaging with New Zealand-ness still, and producing all kinds of really interesting work.

It was fascinating to see the ways in which the panel members made value judgements about their own work. Morris, who has written both YA and literary fiction, frankly admitted that she considers her work for adults to be worth a lot more: people will forget her YA books but “Rangatira [a literary novel] is my contribution to the conversation about NZ literature”. She notes that authors have much more freedom in writing adult literary novels – but the penalty you pay is that publishers may not publish them and readers may not read them.

Cleave, PaulCleave, who writes crime fiction, said he would leave writing NZ culture to others. He has made a conscious decision not to market his books as NZ novels. Robertson, who writes romantic and contemporary fiction, pointed out that many commercially successful NZ authors are not well known here because we tend to celebrate the literary authors more.

Robertson made the excellent point that people read for many different reasons and should have all kinds of different books available to them to fulfil their varying needs. She said we need to scrutinise our own biases and our leftover colonial mentality that tells us that NZ writing isn’t as good as writing from overseas.

On the subject of internationality, I was intrigued to learn from Morris that in May she will be launching an Academy of New Zealand Literature. It will include genre-crossing work and Pasifika writing, and will help position and promote NZ writing overseas. Watch this space for more news on that.

Towards the end of the session, Ihimaera graciously told Cleave and Robertson that, contrary to what he had said earlier, “you do write New Zealand literature”. I agree with Morris that our books should and can contain everything about Aotearoa – and every Writers Week I discover a new aspect of that. Huge congratulations and grateful thanks to everyone involved in making it happen. See you next year!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?
2pm, Sunday 13 March, BATS Theatre
Part of NZ Festival Writer’s Week

AWF15: The Bone clocks, with David Mitchell; and Beauty of the Everyday, with Kim Thuy


The big gift of writers’ festivals is that they stimulate the brain, combining the pleasures of reading and conversation. One of the things this Auckland Writers Festival has really got me thinking about is the way that being on stage with an author and getting the best out of them takes both chemistry and skill.

This morning we were treated to a lovely session where the host/guest mix was just right: British novelist David Mitchell in conversation with Catherine Robertson. Conversation flowed naturally; they seemed to be enjoying each other’s company; there were a lot of big laughs; the audience was on side; and we all learned something about topic of the session (Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks).

Mitchell was charming: articulate, witty, relaxed, and knowledgeable. No one could accuse him of modesty, but he stopped just short of arrogant. He’s a very talented writer – and a good public speaker – and he knows it.

One of the first topics Robertson brought up was metafiction. It’s an intriguing area, and one that Mitchell explores very fruitfully in The Bone Clocks. He pointed out that the simultaneous broadcast of the session on the big screen behind them was a metafictional projection. Mitchell then said to Robertson “it’s a great interview and it’s going swimmingly” – that is, he talked about the way they were talking about a book that he has written that is (partly) about a writer who writes books and goes to literary festivals to talk about the metafiction in his books. (And, of course, in this review I’m adding another layer again.) Such metacommentary can be absolutely maddening in the wrong hands, but Mitchell brings a genuine joy to this kind of knowing layering that saves it from pomposity. Again, he’s just on the right side of the line.

A compulsory topic when talking to Mitchell about his writing is his concept of the ubernovel; the way all his books fit together – without being a series – and feature recurring characters. He said “I do have this impulse to make something enormous”. Mitchell wants to give the reader “that cool throb of recognition” when they spot a character from one of his previous books in The Bone Clocks, and said those characters bring with them a suitcase of credibility. He said there are doors, wormholes, tunnels and bridges between books. The Bone Clocks is the only one of his I’ve read so far, but I bought Cloud Atlas this morning, and, when he signed it for me, Mitchell said he was glad I was reading them in that order.

One of the big things of The Bone Clocks that Robertson rightly spent a lot of time on, is the way it’s written in six different genres. The general critical consensus is that Mitchell largely succeeds, except in part five, “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”, which is written – badly – as high fantasy. In my review, I concluded that this was a deliberate parody, but I was wrong. When Robertson questioned Mitchell about it, he admitted it was fantasy (as though that was something to be ashamed of?), saying “I hope the benefits of putting [fantasy] in there outweigh the costs”.

The other time Mitchell really got my hackles up was when he claimed that it’s easier for women to write male characters than for men to write female characters, on the grounds that women spend more time thinking about male minds than vice versa. The gender gap, Mitchell claimed, is bigger one way than the other. This bizarre, sexist statement was an unfortunate bum note in an otherwise enjoyable session.

Talking about the writing process near the end of the session, Mitchell referenced the scene in Shakespeare in Love when the poet writes something, sits back, reads it, and exclaims with deep satisfaction “god I’m good”. That’s it, for Mitchell. That’s what keeps him writing – the confident recognition and enjoyment of his own talent. And suddenly all the metafiction, all the self-referentiality – even the living quietly “in a cave” in Ireland away from everyone else – made perfect sense. If you loved writing and were able to unashamedly love what you write, why would you not want to celebrate that? Why would you not want to build a world of your own writing, constantly connecting it back to itself and to you, its creator? Why would you not just want to always experience that joy? In a way, it’s selfie culture writ large – and very, very well.

I wrote the above, and then I met Kim Thuy.

Her session, Beauty of the Everyday (in conversation with the wonderful Kate de Goldi), was to be my treat to myself; my little rest. I took no notes; I gave myself permission to switch off from the high-speed absorption, analysis and publication of information that reporting on a writers’ festival requires. I tweeted no tweets, I booked no face, and this is not a review.

This is just to say: Kim Thuy is an extraordinary gift to the world. She survived the American War (in Vietnam), communism, hunger, refugee camps, privations epic and personal. And she is the most joyous person I have ever seen in my life. The legacy of all that horror, she says, is that she must be happy, every minute of her life. I loved her story of trying therapy one time and being asked not to come back. She seemed to think it was her failure, but I imagine that therapist, whoever they were, spent that time with her and then wept.

The physicality of her joy, the dance-like gestures, the bubbles of laughter, the sitting forward, the touches on de Goldi’s arm. Her speech, her unself-conscious poetry, blessing us with beautiful phrases even as she honestly bemoaned her poor English.

I will buy her books, and I will eat them like guava. And then I will pass them around the table to my family as a mark of love.

reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage 

Mitchell will be part of the session at 9am Sunday 17 may, on the art of the novel. It will be well worth catching! 

Book Review: The Hiding Places, by Catherine Robertson

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_the_hiding_placesI have previously enjoyed Catherine Robertson’s more chick-lit-styled titles, and thus eagerly snatched up her latest publication. It is not like the earlier ones, this is more of a foray into the merging of historic and contempory, in a similar manner to Belinda Alexander and Kate Morton – two of my favourite “women’s literature” authors. Two time-streams alternate here: the modern storyline, in which April Turner, a grieving mother, has sentenced herself to a life devoid of any beauty and colour and the historic. This follows the childhood of Sunny, Lady Day, whom April meets when she is drawn to Empyrean, a long-abandoned country house. The two are woven together skilfully.

April’s self-inflicted penance is tested sorely when she undertakes the responsibility of restoring Empyrean. Firstly, by Sunny, who as she approaches the age of 90, has a no-nonsense, hands-on sensibilities and will do her darndest to lure April out of her shell. Then there is Oran, red-haired, impulsive and quick-witted (sometimes to his disadvantage), with a deep dedication to his errant and unfaithful wife. And lastly, Jack, the mysterious man who lives in the woods with his dog and brings with him the wisdom and the compassion that just might help save April from herself.

Wonderfully written, with engaging (albeit frustrating at times) characters, a light mystery and a heart-warming, enchanting plot. This is a delicious and comforting read, that will intrigue, engage and possibly even inspire.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Hiding Places
by Catherine Robertson
Published by Black Swan NZ
ISBN 9781775536420

Catherine will be doing a reading from her new book at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. 

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