Book Review: All Day at the Movies, by Fiona Kidman

cv_all_day_at_the_moviesAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

I can honestly say that this is one of the best books I have ever read.  I began to read it on a Sunday morning around 11:30 and finished it at 7:48 the same evening. I couldn’t put it down.

Dame Fiona Kidman has captured the New Zealand I grew up in, her words drawing pictures of the way we lived, the issues we faced and the people who accompanied us on our journeys as we grew. She does this so thoroughly, it was as though I was looking at a box of photographs dug out from the back of a closet. Dealing as it does with the members of one family, it never becomes mired in sentimentality, nor does it veer off into pathos.

Many readers of an age to remember the issues the characters face will find feelings being stirred that were perhaps long buried or forgotten, such is the reality evoked by Kidman’s writing. Life could be harsh for those who were vulnerable, (it still is of course) and society pretended to live by a stricter moral code than is followed today. All members of the family portrayed in the book live within the constraints of the same society, yet all are affected in different ways. The roads they travel are as random and arbitrary as most of ours turn out to be and we can identify with them because of this, our interest held by the very uncertainty of their destinations.

At the same time, the familiarity, the beautiful familiarity, of their lives holds us in thrall. Introduced to the mother at the beginning of the book we follow her children as they deal with the circumstances they encounter. The siblings take different paths, growing apart due not only to distance but also to life experiences. Their reactions to what happens to them are entirely believable, and I found myself identifying with them often, so skilfully are they drawn.

The book is 320 pages in total and so perfectly written, the reader comes to the end of them satisfied with the final glimpses we are given of the characters and their fortunes, while still carrying a lingering sense of loss.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

 All Day at the Movies
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Vintage NZ (PRH)
ISBN 9781775538905

 

Book Review: My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_sister_rosaMy Sister Rosa, the latest from YA author Justine Larbalestier, is a superlative example of how damn good today’s YA fiction can be. Engaging from the first page, packed with a diverse and distinct cast of characters, smart, real, and insanely creepy, My Sister Rosa is a psychological thriller where the character that makes you squirm with fear is a ten year old blond girl with dimples—a Shirley Temple psychopath.

The story is told from the point of view of teenager Che, who loves his little sister Rosa even as he worries about her lack of empathy, her manipulativeness, and her tendency to use her formidable intelligence to play ‘pranks’ on people—pranks that start off as not quite harmless (like stealing a passport) and escalate to alarming, near lethal heights. The tension in this novel is skilfully ratcheted up, chapter by chapter, to the point where you start to fear for the safety of almost any character Rosa talks to. Just knowing that Rosa has found out that one of Che’s friends is afraid of heights made my stomach churn.

One of Larbalestier’s strengths is clearly her characterisation. Her portrayal of Rosa teeters right on the line between truly creepy and melodramatic, a tough balancing act but one she pulls off to uncanny, sinister effect. Despite Rosa being the flashier character, I was (even) more impressed by Larbalestier’s drawing of Che. Here was a deeply felt representation of the kind of young man I could recognise from everyday life: close to his friends, self-conscious about his acne, yearning or home, yearning (and horny) for a girlfriend, an inveterate texter and messager on his phone, and full of love and care for his family. Despite his family being any other family’s worst nightmare.

In general, this novel (like so many others) is shaped such that we steadily climb a steepening slope of tension towards the climax, and then we topple down the other side into the denouement as the tension relaxes and all our remaining questions are answered. The building of tension and ramp up to the climax are handled expertly, but the handling of the climax and denouement seem slightly off somehow. Without giving too much away, the climax seems somehow less forceful than one might expect, and given how much our tensions have been ramped up,  the denouement feels a little too extended (perhaps understandably, given how many plot threads needed to be tied up).

Nevertheless, My Sister Rosa is a great read—well-written, fast-paced, exciting, engaging and eminently re-readable. This book is a keeper.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

My Sister Rosa
By Justine Larbalestier
Published by Allen and Unwin
ISBN  9781760112226

 

Book Review: One Hundred Days of Happiness, by Fausto Brizzi

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_one_hundred_days_of_happinessIt’s a maudlin thought that’s crossed everyone’s mind: what would YOU do if you had 3 months left to live?

Well it’s not just an abstract maudlin thought anymore for Personal Trainer Lucio Battistini. He’s just found out he has terminal liver cancer. His wife has just found out he’s been having a fling with a client at his gym. And his father-in-law has just found out Lucio will be living in his bakery’s storeroom for a while.

Lucio really doesn’t know why he cheated — it meant nothing; it means less than nothing now. What DOES matter is that he has 100 days left on this planet and he’s going to make the most of every single of one them. And that means making things right with his wife, his children and moving out of the storeroom.

Flippant at times, this sweet, genuinely funny book may skim over the grim realities of death by cancer, but still manages to address the emotional realities that come with a terminal diagnoses.

Lucio is refreshingly normal. Flawed, average, clumsy and desperate to make things as right as he can be. Frantically making lists, I suspect you’ll see flashes of yourself in Lucio — I certainly did; and that’s the brilliance in Fausto Brizzi’s writing.

I expect to see a film adaptation of this sometime soon so get in first and read it now.

Reviewed by  Sarah McMullan

One Hundred Days of Happiness
by Fausto Brizzi
Published by Picador Australia
ISBN  9781743533116

Book Review: Possibility of flight, by Heidi North-Bailey

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_possibility_of_flightPossibility of flight feels like a path through personal history as Heidi’s family and friends walk through it in turns. Old loves return in ‘Too long in Wellington’ and ‘If I could take you there’, and friends are revisited in ‘Wicked Things’. Four generations make themselves present, from the grandparents in ‘The departed’ and ‘The Women’, to fathers and mothers in ‘Secrets’ and ‘My father is Santa’, until finally the collection ends with a new generation, your small heart / beats a small song / the sound of tiny / firecrackers exploding. The people that inhabit the poetry give life to it and help the poet to recreate and relive the past.

Lost love and heartbreak define the past quite heavily for Heidi. In ‘Love song to Mulkern Rd’ Some boy has thrown my heart out the third-floor window / Mulkern Road accepts it with indifference / The youths on the street don’t pause to watch their step. There is no intensity in this heartbreak, instead we find indifference which is soon swallowed up by the activity on the street below. In ‘Too long in Wellington’ this turns into annoyance as I want to be able to walk / into a stranger’s house / and not see / my ex-boyfriend’s couch / and him lying on it. These attitudes towards love run throughout the start of the collection, where the reflective nature of the writing turns these past experiences into episodes of loss.

Her family also features heavily in the poetry, grandparents and parents haunting the words, ghosts living / and dead, coming back out of the past. In ‘Letter to my grandfather,’ Heidi finishes the poem with some wonderful lines that point towards the influence and power her family and past have over her writing. I turned my back / and you reached out through twelve years / to touch me for a moment, that’s all. Her family is always present, asserting themselves as an important part of the poet’s life, no matter how hard she tries to get away from them. In the middle of my night he’ll call me / and still be surprised at the time.

The possibility of flight points to many different things. The possibility of moving on, of flying to a new place and reconciling with the past, and there is also the flight of a more survivalist world, of running away, a refusal to deal with the past or present. In Possibility of flight, Heidi is enacting this in its many facets, working in the dual spheres of running away from the past while also accepting it and moving forward. Her writing reflects on the past, she relives her past with family and friends and lovers, allowing her to fly towards the future, towards the firecrackers exploding in ‘Baby’.

This collection is a culmination of her past, her journey from childhood to parenthood. The poetry itself is a flight of reconciliation, even if the subject contains the flight of survival.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Possibility of Flight
by Heidi North-Bailey
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780994129925

Book Review: Speed of Light, by Joy Cowley

Speed of Light will be launched at the Children’s Bookshop Kilbirnie on Thursday 14 August. To attend, RSVP to matariki@geckopress.co.nz by the end of Tuesday 12 August.

There’s no question that any novel by Joy Cowley will make you think and suck you incv_speed_of_light. She’s not only a great story teller but a clever narrative architect. This is a simple tale of a boy whose life is surrounded by chaos. He is visited by a mystery, only he doesn’t comprehend the meaning or the rationale. Not yet, anyway. This book is a classic building of layer upon layer, keeping the tension right through to the end.

Jeff is a boy from a privileged household. But his family are not perfect. His brother is holed up in a Thai prison for drug smuggling. His loving, but promiscuous sister is constantly blurring the lines and pushing the boundaries, despite looking out for her little brother – when it suits her. His father is the archetypal rich dad – grumpy, business-obsessed with a real estate deal that goes foul, and blind to what’s happening in his own world, to his own family. His mother works, if only to escape boredom of a rich captive lifestyle.

Jeff can’t rely on anything – except mathematics. Numerology and mathematics are the only truths he knows. This interplays with a mysterious woman who appears in his garden during a storm. She appears again and again, and passes on strange messages, indicating that she is not who she appears to be. Everyone else passes her off as a strange deluded old lady but Jeff is not so sure. Is she an angel? Or something else?

Cowley’s interplay between the false façade of adult authority and a child’s interpretation of reality is imminent here. It’s wonderful to see how, as the story plays out, the adults all fall over each other as the main character, Jeff, remains true to himself to pull it all together. It’s a story that will appeal to boys who don’t necessarily want to blow everything up. Perhaps they might want to spend some time dealing with the complications of growing up without the puberty blues. In many ways this tale is very real and ordinary. To me, that gave it more authenticity. I also enjoyed the bus trips and walks that Jeff took around the city of my childhood, Wellington. I particularly enjoyed the tiny insignificant details that carry the story along. It’s a delightful, understated story.

Underlying the story is the moral theme of hope, which we need when adults are too obsessed with themselves to understand their children. It’s not an original theme but its one worth revisiting. If boys, who notoriously shun any emotive, sensitive literature can be encouraged to pick up this book, then there is some hope of getting through and perhaps changing a destiny or two. Let’s make that happen.

by Tim Gruar

Speed of Light
by Joy Cowley
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781877579936

Book Review: The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick.

Available in bookstores nationwide.

The Good Luck of Right Now tells the story of a recentlycv_the_good_luck_of_right_now bereaved 38-year-old man, whose whole word had revolved around his mother. Through a series of deeply intimate, reflective letters written to actor Richard Gere, to whom he feels a sort of cosmic connection, Bartholomew Neil tries to make sense of his life and his future.

Bartholomew has a sweet, innocent outlook on life; he has been very sheltered and yet is well-read and curious. His point of view is this story’s hook; he can be both extremely insightful, and terrifyingly naïve (you wonder how he can possibly survive without his mother taking care of him). Quick endows Bartholomew with a beautiful turn of phrase, so that his letters to “Dear Mr. Richard Gere” at times have an almost lyrical quality.

Bartholomew is an observer, and a watcher. He is forced by his circumstances to become a participant in other people’s lives, from a self-defrocked priest to a therapist in desperate need of therapy, from an f-bomb dropping alien believer to a shy and damaged library assistant, and as he attempts to help others Bartholomew confronts his own insecurities and fears as he finally comes of age.

My favourite character was Max, a devout believer in alien abductions who uses the “f-word” in a way that may put off readers who aren’t comfortable with oft-repeated profanity. For someone described by his sister as “simple minded”, he often had a clarity and sense of joy that I really enjoyed.

The book touches on multiple themes: religion and the mysteries of life, how to define family, mental illness, domestic abuse, belonging, fate, the occupation of Tibet, “normality”, and self-acceptance are all covered in a story that takes the reader on a journey from Philadelphia to Ottawa’s Cat Parliament (it is a real thing). I felt many things while reading Bartholomew’s letters to Richard Gere; sadness, joy, hope, and empathy. By retelling events through Bartholomew’s letters, Quick moves the story along at a good pace, and even though I saw a major plot resolution coming way before Bartholomew did, I was right there with him as discovered a truth about his life, rather than groaning that it was so obvious.

I was expecting a light and fun book; what I got was a book that made me think, made me care about the characters, and made me question some of my own world views. That’s not a bad bargain. I wonder what Richard Gere thinks.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore.

The Good Luck of Right Now
by Matthew Quick
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447247500

Book Review: In the Absence of Heroes, by Anthony McCarten

This book is in bookstores now, and is a finalist in the Fictioncv_the_absence_of_heroes category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards

In The Absence of Heroes is a sequel to Anthony McCarten’s earlier internationally acclaimed novel Death of a Superhero.  The original 2005 published version of Death of a Superhero was set in New Zealand but was transported to London when republished for a wider audience.  It was widely praised by critics and readers alike, it won several awards, and was made into a film starring Andy Serkis.

How have I not heard of Anthony McCarten before?  How had this very clever Kiwi writer so completely slipped under my admittedly rather imperfect literary radar?  I can however personally attest to the fact that you do not need to have read Death of a Superhero to enjoy In The Absence of Heroes but, like me, you will probably want to add it to your ‘to read’ list soon after.

In The Absence of Heroes revisits the Delpe family one year on from the death from cancer of son and brother Donny at the tender age of fourteen.  The family is struggling to come to terms with the loss and they are all falling apart in their own painful lonely, but very modern, way.  Mother, Renata, seeks solace and advice from a friendly faceless “God” on a Catholic confessions website.  Eighteen year old Jeff is simultaneously losing  – and finding – himself in an online role-playing game, Life of Lore (LOL, anyone?).  Father, Jim, whose video game experience is limited to Tetris, forces himself to go online to try and keep tabs on his son, in an attempt to act like the father he’s failing to be in real life.

How very far this is from picking his child up at the school gates, a hundred thousand miles from kicking a ball back and forth… Instead, Jim meets Jeff via a game no father in history could have played with their child until a half dozen years ago…

Meanwhile, Jim’s career and marriage are crumbling around him.

McCarten’s gritty, witty writing reminds me at times of Jonathan Franzen (whose books I alternately love and loathe).  It’s honest, clever, and acutely observant of modern family life.  However, despite its many moments of humour, this is not a happy story.  This is a family in crisis.  Maybe the book will serve as a powerful reminder to some readers to switch off the laptop or put down the iPad, and re-connect with their flesh and blood family.  As McCarten tells us at the very beginning of the book, “use of the internet is a contributing factor in nearly 50% of all relationship and family problems” (source: the internet).

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

In The Absence of Heroes
by Anthony McCarten
Published by Random House
9781869797232