Book Review: The Forrests, by Emily Perkins

This book is in bookstores now, and is aImage finalist in the Fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Reading this book some time after its release and well after the first reviews, I feel privileged to not be influenced by other comments. I have few expectations. Seeing comments like ‘sad, pointless lives’ and ‘nothing happens’ made me wonder, did they really read THIS book? Of course others (more like me it seems) said it was ‘exquisite, carefully crafted and entrancing’. And it was all of that and more.

The Forrests are an almost normal family that move their family halfway across the world from an affluent New York lifestyle to what ends up being a challenging lifestyle in New Zealand. Emily Perkins is a master of observation and detail. The snippets of the family’s life that are revealed are believable and delicious. My book is dog-eared from all of the times I read a sentence that I wanted to treasure. For example, when describing the first view of the decrepit house where their estranged father was living,
The no-colour paint on the windowsills and door frame was crackled…
and, ‘Evelyn unpeeled her sandwich and tweezed out the alfalfa sprouts with her fingertips and dropped them into the sea.
and, when making a cake,
In the bowl they created a separated viscous swirl with the creamed-butter mixture, the yolk trailing through the pale butter, the transparent whites floating jellyfishy around the surface.

Emily Perkins is observant beyond belief, and her descriptions based on these observations, are absorbing. Utterly so. I loved this book that led me through this family’s seemingly ordinary life in a subtle and engrossing way. The reader is drawn into family and invited to fill in the blank between the episodic narrative.  This family is neither boring, nor ordinary, but it could be yours or mine. The ending is sad, but so is the ending of most lives. Dot, the mainly main character leaves these pages in a slightly confused way, but I suspect that, too, is the way in which many lives come to the final end.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

The Forrests
by Emily Perkins
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408831496

Book review: Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager

cv_dear_vincentThis book is in bookstores now.

I was drawn to the bright cover of this book, but immediately fearful that it might be a dark teenage read about suicide. It most definitely is not the latter, and I should say at the outset that I loved it. I loved the story, I loved the characters and I loved that it made me cry.

The book’s main character is 17 year old Tara, an ordinary young woman with extraordinary artistic ability. Her family background is bleak – there is not just financial poverty but a poverty of spirit, which is not quite explained until near the end of the book. Tara’s mother is emotionally hard, brutal to her daughters, and pretty unlikeable. Her father is bed-ridden by a stroke. Tara and her mother are the main bread-winners and care-givers. Northern Irish immigrants they are making the most of their lot, but sadly leaving the emotional needs of their two daughters unmet.

One of these daughters has already removed herself from this world, and Tara with a robust fascination with Vincent van Gogh finds herself unravelling both van Gogh’s tragic life, and her sister’s short life (conveniently named Van) at the same time.

This book has a theme of death running through it – both self-inflicted and natural – but it never becomes burdensome or heavy to the reader, although it does for Tara who does tackle it head-on.

Tara and her family are utterly believable, and the story that unfolds helps to explain why Tara’s family are paralysed by their own lives. Tara however is a survivor, and she finds support where she needs it, and crucially when she needs it the most.

This is a powerful and emotional story, with characters that felt real, and a resolution that was satisfying and believable, and just unanticipated enough to be a surprise.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

Dear Vincent
by Mandy Hager
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781775533276 (paperback)
ISBN 9781775533283 (e-book)

Book review: Two Girls in a Boat by Emma Martin

cv_two_girls_in_a_boatThis book is in bookshops now.

I’m not really a fan of short stories. I often find them lacking – I get to the end and feel dissatisfied that the story stops, with so much unsaid and so much more to be said. I had attributed this to my love of longer fiction and decided I just guiltily wanted more. But reading this debut collection from Emma Martin, I have discovered that great short fiction is in another league altogether. That’s is possible to connect with a character and still feel satisfied when they leave your conscious after only 20 pages.

This collection is about women, young and old, all at different stages of their lives, all with different challenges to conquer. The characters are recognisable in a way that many could be me; my friends; or my family. Or yours. I felt I knew them all by the end of the book. And although I cared enough about the fate of many, I did not crave more pages since these life segments were complete. Exquisitely complete.

Strong and interesting women of all ages populate this book – a woman who returns to NZ after an exciting OE and settles for a nice and good man; a 1960s teenager who finds herself whisked off to the city to await the imminent birth of her first child; a contemporary couple whose mildly dysfunctional relationship results in unpredictable disaster.

The events that unfold are simple everyday occurrences that many of us could find ourselves sin the midst of, but the observation of the fallout of these seemingly simple activities, events and decisions, is perfect. Emma Martin is an adept observer of the interesting titbits of which everyday life is comprised. It is perhaps not surprising that she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the story from which the book takes its title.

I am already eager to read her next collection.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

Two Girls in a Boat
by Emma Martin
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864738851

Book review: Red Rocks by Rachael King

cv_red_rocksThis book is in bookshops now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

It takes quite a lot of trust and faith in your reader to mix a thoroughly ancient legend, in this case about mythical selkies, with a modern of coming of age story. Half of the main characters in this book by Rachael King are in fact seals; seals that, in keeping with Scottish legend, turn into beautiful young women when they cast their skins aside to walk on land. The mythical selkies. The other characters are one half of a modern day separated family trying to get on with life as best they can. It also takes a good storyteller to pull it off.

Surprisingly perhaps, I found myself suspending disbelief; and I became entranced by this book and its characters. And it happened so subtly that I didn’t even notice. The main character Jake is a little lost – his parents are divorced, his mother remarried with a new baby. He visits his father who is living a nomadic writer’s existence on the Wellington coast. But the school holidays are never much fun without friends, so the adventurous Jake takes off to explore the rocks of the Wellington coastline. He makes friends with another equally lonely young girl and an old man and attracts the interest of some local bullies. But it is when he finds an abandoned seal skin which he hauls home that the trouble really begins. The taking of the skin is the key turning point in this book as it unravels the story and importantly prevents its rightful owner from going to back to the sea.

Hindsight is a great thing. And of course, I can tell you now that I knew all along which characters were human and which were seals, but what’s clever is the way this realisation subtly unfolds. There is not a moment of mass revelation, you just suddenly begin to understand who the characters are and how they inter-relate and it feels natural. I guess that’s why it easy to believe in all of the characters in this book; they just work.

Interestingly, I just handed the book to my eleven year old saying it was great and I think you will like it. He read the back (which mentions seal skins but nothing about selkies) and he asked “What’s up with selkies? This is the third book this year that’s had slekies in it.”

Really? I had no idea. Apparently, his teacher has been reading these books to them in class.

“What time period have they been set in?” I asked.
“Ancient of course” was his reply. “And all in Scotland.”
“What about one set in Wellington in modern times. Could that work?”
“Hmm, maybe.”

But there is no maybe about it. This book works and it’s a gripping page-turning tale.

The book should appeal to any reader (young or old) who is able to suspend reality briefly, but after all isn’t that what reading is all about?

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

Red Rocks
by Rachael King
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869799144 (paperback)
ISBN 9781869799151 (e-book)

Book review: A Winters Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

cv_a_winters_day_in_1939This book is in bookstores now

It’s always interesting when you read a book about a well-known event and an entirely different perspective is presented that makes you pause and think. As the cover of this book suggests, it is set in World War II and the narrator is Adam, a 12 year-old Polish boy whose family are uprooted and relocated to various labour camps in Russia.

Reminiscent of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the main character, an adventurous boy named Adam, has no idea what is actually happening to him; the political background remains unspoken. Of course, as readers in 2012 we know the unspeakable terrors of World War II are not far away.

I really like the authentic voice that this character has – he is undeniably his age, and he never quite comes to grip with why the events that unfold in this book (and his life) actually happen. It’s easy to believe in this young character, who is in fact the author’s father.

Melinda Szymanik has skilfully managed to recreate her father’s young persona and avoids any temptation to preach, inform, or explain this war. Adam never becomes bitter and jaded, he still notices the small wonders of life and is resolute in his will to survive.

The book opens with the family’s idyllic life on a farm awarded to Adam’s father for military service. They are hard working, and enjoy a comfortable and fruitful, if not wealthy, life. But the new authorities have decided the farm should be re-gifted to another man and rather suddenly, the family are ousted from their farm and find themselves heading to places unknown. Their imposed long train journey starts in a cattle wagon and finishes in what appears to be a concentration camp albeit without the gas chambers. Disease, death and hunger accompany this family through their enforced journeys through a vast area we would know as Russia and Persia.

Weeks, months and years pass. The end, when it comes, is thrust upon Adam’s family as suddenly as that first train trip was thrust upon them. This plight of displaced persons during World War II makes a sobering read, but this is a tale of survival and although Adam’s family is changed beyond recognition through their experience, there is a happily ever after.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

A Winters Day in 1939
By Melinda Szymanik
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775430308

Book review: Anticipation by Tanya Moir

cv_anticipationThis book is in bookshops now.

Remember the 1980s when there was a rash of family sagas spanning generations in a single volume? The books were bricks and the TV series went on for weeks. For me, a lover of historical fiction, this was a great time in TV history that this century’s reality TV simply does not even come close to.

What I loved about those multi-generational family sagas was the passing on of traits, secrets and folklore, and the longer term implications of behaviours. The contemporary family are clearly linked to their ancestry through the story. Of course, we are all linked in this way, but for the most part I suspect we ignore this expect for a few family occasions each year – Christmas, funerals, octagenarian’s birthdays. And, even then, the stories are often limited to two generations.

Tanya Moir has taken the generational family saga and modernised it. Her approach to writing, which is really unique, was a little difficult for me as a reader to comfortably fit into at first, but soon the book enveloped me and I became as attached to the ancestors of Janine (the narrator of this story) herself. And I grew to appreciate Moir’s mastery of her craft.

Janine and her mother have turned researching their family into a lifetime mission. They traverse the globe (from Invercargill to London) to search the archives (white gloves in situ) and visit the substantial homes of their ancestors – they find a fortune made from hard work, and acquired through wily acts; and personal characteristics and flaws that they can tangibly recognise. What consumes both mother and daughter is an apparently genetic neurological disease. And, a good dose of madness.

Janine interweaves her ancestors into her own story, which is one of escape and isolation. She lives on an island (in Auckland) that is surrounded by a tidal waters and mangroves. Hence the eye-catching underwater photograph of mangroves on cover of the book. But the mangroves are sort of a metaphor (for me at least) of how this story unfolds – mangroves are hardy plants growing in the tidal estuaries; their branches are far reaching and convoluted; new roots and branches keeping popping up all over the place; and the plant (not unlike this family) has to survive the ever-changing tides.

It’s obvious really when you think about it, although I guess I had not before now, that when anyone researches their ancestry, a certain dose of fiction comes into play. Deeds, documents and photographs only provide the skeleton of the story. The rest needs to be filled in. And how well this is filled in determines just how interesting ones’s ancestry is. I guess this is the difference between a researcher and storyteller. And Janine (or perhaps more correctly Tanya) is a great story teller. Her story is peppered with scandal, love, sadness, despair and it all remains believable. This could be your family or mine, but it is definitely Janines’s story and she is very lucky to have Tanya Moir tell it for her. Very lucky indeed.

Is it obvious that I loved this book? I hope so.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

by Tanya Moir
Published by Vintage New Zealand
ISBN  9781775532019 

Book review: The Good Doctor – What Patients Want by Ron Paterson

cv_the_good_doctorThis book is in bookstores now.

The back cover of this book begins with three thought provoking questions:

  • ‘What makes a good doctor?
  • Why are there bad doctors out there still practising?
  • And how can we protect patients, increase trust and improve medical care?’

Important, critical questions that should be of interest to health professionals, patients, and in fact, everyone. As a health professional, I was immediately intrigued. Every health professional knows of someone they would NOT recommend to the family, or worse, someone they would advise their family to avoid at all costs.

Ron Paterson (Professor of Health Law and Policy at The University of Auckland) knows better than most what makes a bad doctor; he was after all the New Zealand government’s Health and Disability Commissioner for the first decade of this millennium. He has dealt with many complaints, some substantiated, against health professionals. Paterson draws upon this experience in a balanced and rational way; he interweaves international research and cites numerous New Zealand and international examples and in doing so illustrates the complex situation that health professionals find themselves practicing in.

There is little doubt that as the title suggests patients seek (and indeed deserve to have) a good doctor. It is this subjective criterion of good that is challenging and not universally defined  There are many definitions of perceived “good” from a patient perspective: good is a doctor who listens to me; good is a doctor who tells me what I should do; good is a doctor who allows me to make an informed choice; good is a doctor who makes no mistakes.

What is clear is that many of the high profile cases of medical incompetence are in fact criminal acts, and no credentialing nor registration process will prevent those. So what remains to be devised is a system that protects patients and is supportive and not overly onerous on health professionals. Paterson the HDC adopted the motto “Learning , not lynching, Resolution, not retribution”. A rather balanced view don’t you think? And this should be thoroughly achievable? Not easily.

Ron Paterson weaves his way through this complex situation where individual patient management is sometimes not obvious; that a measure of creativity is required; and some mistakes are inevitable. He presents good arguments on all sides.

For readers who are not health professionals, this book will cast some light on a professional that they interact with as patients but possibly know little about other than what they see on American-based hospital dramas. He also delves into the area of web-based medical advice and cautions that whilst it is probably okay to take advise about a hotel from, the internet may not be the best place to gain individualised medical advice where the inherent risk is potentially much higher. But many health professionals face-off against Doctor Wiki each day, adding a new burdon to their already challenging job.

For readers who are health professionals, much of this information will not be new; but the collation of data and encouragement to think beyond today will be refreshing. It’s a relatively easy and thought-provoking read, but not one to consume in a weekend. In fact, I think the longer the book is allowed to percolate through your conscious the better.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

The Good Doctor – What Patients Want
By Ron Paterson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869405922