Book Review: Roar, by Cecelia Ahern

Available in bookshops nationwide.

roar.jpgWe have probably all had moments of feeling overwhelmed and just wanting to stand and roar, frustrated with a task in hand or a more complex issue affecting many women in the world.

Cecelia Ahern has recognized this and written a stimulating collection of short stories which focus on many of the issues the modern woman lives with today.

The quotation by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton at the beginning of the book ‘I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers to big to ignore’, sets the theme for the book.

Each of the thirty stories in Roar concentrates on a woman at a different stage of her life, and facing a situation challenging to them at that particular time.

The author has chosen not to give these women names instead she refers to them as ‘the woman’. Each chapter is given a title such as ‘The woman who was kept on the shelf’, or ‘The Woman who forgot her Name’ which gives you an idea about the storyline. There is an element of fantasy in many of the cleverly written tales some of which I could relate to. By exaggerating the situations ‘the woman’ finds herself in, Ahern highlights and celebrates the strength and resilience of women and all their differences. Her punchy writing style accentuates the ideas she is trying to convey, ‘She starts by slowing down, taking timeout so she can read a book…

She goes away for a night with Paul.

She has a weekend away with friends.

She starts jogging….

She blows the feather off until everything is clear again, and she emerges from her fog.’

I enjoy a book of short stories, but I was quite overwhelmed with some of the messages in this collection so did not read more than one at a time, to give me time to absorb and reflect on the writing. It is a very worthwhile read and will appeal to a wide age group especially those who enjoy a quirky fairytale, which is sometimes sad but at times is also a witty exploration of what it is to be a woman in today’s world.

Cecelia Ahern is an Irish novelist whose first work was published in 2004, and since then she has won a number of book awards. Her books are now published in over forty countries and two of her books have been adapted as films.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Roar
by Cecelia Ahern
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008283537

Book Review: The Binding, by Bridget Collins

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_bindingThe Binding is a novel which immediately seduces. Like the hardback books of the nineteenth century, it has deckle edging, quality paper and an embossed spine – its bronze, navy blue and glossy gold cover will entice you with its strikingly classic yet magical design.

The first adult novel from acclaimed London-based writer and playwright Bridget Collins, The Binding is a novel about bookbinding – a booklovers’ dream.

After volunteering with the Samaritans and listening to people’s stories, Collins began to wonder what would happen if she could simply take the ‘traumatic or painful’ memories away from a person. The idea collided with the practical bookbinding courses she was on, and so The Binding was born.

Set in rural England in the late nineteenth century, books in the world of The Binding are not revered or commonplace objects. Instead, books are reviled by most, despised by many, hoarded and protected only by a few. By decent people, they are not sold or put on display: instead they are kept in locked vaults. Only those with corrupt motives persist in the illegal trading of books or the collection of vast libraries. When the main character, Emmett Farmer, picks up a book for the first time, his father panics, rips the book away from him, and shouts ‘Don’t ever let me see you with a book again!’

Why are books so dangerous in the world of The Binding? Emmett soon finds out – instead of stories, bookbinders bind memories. Memories of living people, who, once they have had a memory bound, can no longer remember anything to do with it. Much like witches, bookbinders are seen as suspicious, mysterious people – even evil. When someone wants to forget something – be it terrible or beautiful – they can go to a bookbinder and have the memory removed. As long as the book is not destroyed, the memory remains safe. If the book is destroyed, the memory returns to its owner – often with dire consequences.

Emmett Farmer knows his future: he will continue to work his father’s farm and one day take over the land. But when a mysterious letter arrives summoning him to a bookbinding apprenticeship, his life rapidly dissolves into a confusion of strange events, odd happenings and pounding headaches. Emmett learns from his elderly mentor Seredith that bookbinding is not what it first appears. In each beautifully hand-crafted book is a memory, and he is to learn how to bind them.

When the mysterious character Lucian Darney appears and throws everything into disarray, Emmett makes an astonishing and terrifying discovery: one of the books in Seredith’s workshop has his name on it.

The Binding is a lush read. Told in three parts: the first and second by Emmett and the third by Lucian, this is a sweeping tale that will hold you entirely in its grip. It is effortlessly readable, with beautiful descriptions (‘Quietness spread out around me like a ripple in a pond, deadening the hiss of the wind and the scratch of the flames’) and vivid characterisation.

Beware if you are going into The Binding looking for a fantasy adventure, however. Primarily a novel that is (self-admitted by Collins) ‘shamelessly romantic’, some readers might be unhappy when the novel prioritises the romance above all else. From the second part onwards, the novel keeps the fantasy elements but its focus shifts from fantasy adventure to fully-fledged romance. It is a tale about people who find love with each other despite the odds.

The Binding has very dark content at parts, particularly in part three, and requires some content warnings including rape, abuse and murder.

One of the most interesting part of The Binding, for me, was the moral discussion over whether bookbinding (i.e. memory-binding) is a good or bad thing. Although a person must voluntarily give up their memories, there are societal implications – people with more power want others to forget what they have done, and, inevitably, it is the poor who are the most hurt and targeted. If a poor person needs money or food, they can choose to ‘sell’ a memory to a bookbinder, leaving them incomplete. It is almost impossible to regain their memories – and they can be irrevocably hurt in the process.

Considered evil by most, Emmett’s tutor Seredith considers bookbinding as a life-saving act, a ‘sacred’ art that ‘eases the pain’ of her clients. She essentially amputates the painful memory and leaves the person able to start life anew. Others have more corrupt intent because they make books for ‘trade’. Seredith is horrified by this idea: ‘You become each person you bind, Emmett … Just for a little while, you take them on. How can you do that if you want to sell them at a profit?’

With bookbinding, romance, fantasy, wit and humour, Collins has created a magical tale that booklovers will adore. The lyrical language and engaging characters ensure The Binding is an immersive read. Be careful though – perhaps your lost memories are hiding in a book somewhere, too …

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

The Binding
by Bridget Collins
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008272111

Book Review: Wild Journeys, by Bruce Ansley

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cv_wild_journeysThis book is a good read, and an example of excellent local publishing with New Zealand stories. But, somewhat frustratingly, it could have been an essential read in the tradition of Kiwi adventure stories, with its hard cover and illustrated dustjacket.

Bruce Ansley, the former writer for The Listener, turns out to be something of an adventurer and sailor. But, by his own admission, he is not an intrepid sailor, or much of an adventurer. His tales are mostly about following in other people’s footsteps, often forgotten men who came to an untimely demise on foolhardy missions. He is a more enthusiastic sailor, but one who knows the risks and his own limitations.

In a way the tales of the voyages are the more personal stories. Ansley ends up sailing around North Cape, and the South Cape (in Stewart Island), and as a Dunedin resident even worked on a crayfishing boat in Fiordland. As a young man the crayfishing went well, but getting back to a safe harbour did not, and he almost missed his own wedding in the process. Fortunately, he did marry Sally and they remain together, though she doesn’t appear to have accompanied Bruce on most of these journeys.

Ansley does, of course, meet up with some interesting characters. These include Rhys Buckingham, former wildlife ranger who has pursued elusive the ‘grey ghost’ of birdlife, the South Island Kokako, for 40 years. Then there is Colin Gavan, or ‘Wobbles’, the skipper of the boat that gets Ansley to the South Cape, and back again, despite the wild weather in Foveaux Strait that has claimed so many local mariners.

But it is really the ghosts of pioneering men, or their own mythology, that Ansley seems to be pursuing here. He begins with the adventures of the folk hero prison escapee, George Wilder, and his habit of staying in baches around Lake Taupo. Other adventurers are less well known, such as John Whitcombe, a Canterbury road surveyor. His journey through the Southern Alps ended badly, but he did find the Whitcombe Pass first, even if those that came later could mostly not follow in his unfortunate footsteps. Ansley also finds a lost adventurer of sorts in the German sea captain, Count Felix von Luckner, who was captured in the Pacific during the First World War. After several escapes he ended up on Motuihe Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

All of this is entertaining and fun, with some useful turns of phrase: sailing up the North Island’s west coast, Taranaki’s ‘graceful shape’ appears, and Cape Egmont ‘turned into its cracked and crenellated self.’ But Ansley’s writing about the South Island comes across as the more convincing and soulful. And a couple of times his North Island geography lets him down, such as when the Tangiwai railway bridge is described as a little way east of Waiouru, when surely it is to the west of the village.

There is in fact a complete absence of any kind of map in the whole book. Moreover, some of the chapters could have been enhanced by a photo or two which display the landmark that Ansley is trying to reach. This is certainly the case for the lost mining settlement of Serpentine, somewhere in central Otago, and for which it takes Ansley two attempts to find the little church (which is apparently at the highest altitude of any churchin New Zealand). Another example would be the pillar at Tuturau, in Southland, erected on the centennial of the battle between the northern chief Te Puoho and Ngai Tahu.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Wild Journeys
by Bruce Ansley
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775541202

Book Review: Sam Hunt – Off the Road, by Colin Hogg

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cv_sam_hunt_off_the_road.jpg‘Tell the story. Tell it true. Charm it crazy’. So says Sam Hunt as his maxim for writing. In Off the Road we have an extended conversation between the author, Colin Hogg and the subject, Sam Hunt. But this book is not just ‘this is your life’, oh, but you’re not dead yet.

Colin Hogg has been a long-time friend and has already written about Sam Hunt in Angel Gear: On the Road with Sam Hunt. This was 30 years ago and the book cleverly includes some chapters from Angel Gear telling background stories and on the road tales. The friendship between Hogg and Hunt is the basis of the book and their interviews range from deep thinking introspection to alcohol-induced babble. It is all here.

But it is wonderful. The gems start on the title page with a 1987 photo of author and subject. The black and white photos support the rambling text. There are images of Sam, the sea, the shelf, his toes, the trees and his poems. The poems are right through the text, old and new. The references to other poets, to writers, to academics to drinkers and to inspiring women. This book is a celebration of the collection of things which give us meaning and beauty.

While there is biographical information included, it is part of a story and not just a listing in the dictionary. Hogg allows Hunt to recall his Father, and his Grandfather, but keeps him on track with questions to shape the responses. I learnt a lot about Sam Hunt but also began to see that the poems were part of who he is, not apart from him. As Hogg commented ‘poems fall from him like leaves from a tree’.

There is a darker side to the book. The process of aging is a constant companion and Hunt seems to see death stalking him. Sam Hunt’s decision to stop touring was a huge one. Over half his life has been lived on the road. His gigs cover every possible dot on the New Zealand map. Solitude is also mentioned as he lives almost as a recluse. As Hogg says, ‘mortality bounces through his conversation like a big black beach ball’.

And this leads to the parting comment at the end of the book. After reading the first drafts, Hogg received a phone call with a clear instruction from Hunt.

‘Sam is happier than earlier reported. Put that at the end.’ So he did.

I enjoyed catching up with a poet who has greatly influenced my life. As a young writer, I sent him my offerings, along with every young aspiring schoolkid. He replied a number of times, and some poems were published. Those letters are my treasure, much to my adult children’s amusement. Is Sam Hunt a National Treasure? You just need to listen to the lilt and lift of that voice to know the answer.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Sam Hunt – Off the Road
by Colin Hogg
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775541226

Book Review: That F Word, by Lizzie Marvelly

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Icv_that_f_wordt seems like Lizzie Marvelly is someone everyone has an opinion on – a tall poppy who is poking sticks at a vast range of societal issues which are pertinent not just to the sexual and emotional health of women young and old, but also to those in the LGBTQIA community, as well as to men young and old who she sees need to be re-educated on how to treat women and girls in our society.

I also suspect that there is a feeling there too, of how dare she – a talented, privileged middle class girl who has been wildly successful as an international recording artist and who has performed at the Royal Albert Hall, suddenly turning her nose up at all those who put her there, supported her, bought her music, watched with tears in their eyes as she proudly sang the national anthem. A slip of a girl suddenly coming out with all this feminist zealot stuff, ranting, exclaiming and sweeping the curtains open, on all issues relating to being female in the 21st century. And that of course is her very point – her branding has needed re-branding to expose some much needed truths about the type of society we are currently living in, and whether this is what we really want for our children. Whether people like it or not, this young woman is challenging us to take a closer look at the community we live, work, socialise and raise our children in.

I knew I had to read this book with a very open mind. I am not the target demographic that she has written for, but I have grown up in and lived in NZ for most of my life, so understand the culture she is talking about and can identify, some of it from personal experience, with much of what she has to say. I also have two daughters in their early 20s, navigating the society that Lizzie is writing about, in fact her whole section on rape culture is something that a young woman we know is currently having to deal with. So extremely topical. How does she do?

Overall I think she has done very well. She is an excellent writer, does a superb job at getting her point and argument across with many illustrations and examples to support what she is saying. For someone so articulate though, with a great command of the language, I was annoyed at the overuse of the F-bomb especially in the first few chapters, and that word is not ‘feminist’ or ‘female’! I see her point – she is very angry. By crikey she is angry, angry at the sexist treatment she has received from boys at school, young men, people of power in the recording industry. And above all the insidious damaging power and reach of the internet.

It has to be said that her path to adulthood has not been the norm, and as interesting as it is, I do wonder how relevant or topical it will be to the majority of young women who may start to read this book. I doubt very much the average 29-year-old has accumulated such a range of life experience. I gave the book to a 16-year-old girl to read; she has read the first couple of chapters and is already bored with reading about Lizzie’s life to date, none of it really relevant to her. I am telling her to keep going, it gets better!

However her story does the set the scene, it being her own personal experience of much of what she writes about in the rest of the book. Once I had got through the first third to half of the book, she really pulled the guns out focusing on how girls and young women in NZ are portrayed in the media, advertising, social media, broadcasting, the perils of having the courage to have an opinion, the access of impressionable young teens to on-line porn (and we aren’t talking Playboy or dirty videos), the rape culture so deeply embedded in our society, abortion, the patriarchy. Not much of it is good I am afraid, it’s a scary world out there for young women.

And this is why I think it is an important book for the young women in our families and friends to read. Young women need to know that what they are seeing, reading, listening to, having to deal with in their social/sexual/work lives, is not uncommon, that many others are having similar experiences and reactions to it. This book will normalise the experiences that many, many women in New Zealand have experienced. There is power and reassurance in the sharing of information. There is no big call for unity or protest marches or petitions to Parliament. But there is power in knowing that you aren’t alone when unpleasant or bad stuff happens.

My one criticism – the title puts people off. I work in a bookshop and we haven’t sold a single copy, even though the book is right at the counter. There is no way people are not seeing it – based on the comments people make about Lizzie, her newspaper column, her persona. My theory is that it is actually that word ‘feminist’ putting people off, and my 21-year-old daughter concurred.

But don’t let this ‘judging a book by its cover’ put off the young women in your life or yourself for that matter, from reading this. In light of the #metoo movement, the ongoing drive for pay equality, the anxiety and self esteem issues many women have about their image, the savagery and trolling on social media/internet to anything related to female empowerment, I think this book is compulsory reading. Go Lizzie!

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

That F Word
by Lizzie Marvelly
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775541127

Book Review: The Blood Road, by Stuart MacBride

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cv_The_blood_road.jpgThis is the first Stuart MacBride book I’ve read, although I have several of his older books waiting their turn in my bookcase.

The story centres on detective inspector Bell, who supposedly committed suicide by setting fire to his caravan two years earlier. When he turns up dead in the driver’s seat of a crashed car, questions start being asked – especially when it’s discovered he was stabbed before the car crashed.

Logan McRae is now working for the Professional Standards division of the police, meaning most officers don’t want anything to do with him. He needs to find out where Bell has been since he was thought dead, and who stabbed him. Why did he disappear – and more importantly, what made him return from the dead?

Deaths start piling up as Logan works tirelessly to discover Bell’s secrets. If it wasn’t his body in the caravan, whose was it – and was Bell responsible for his death?

That’s only one of the storylines weaving their way through The Blood Road. Alongside this there are a number of missing children and rumours start flying about them being stolen to order for something called the livestock market. Witnesses aren’t telling the truth and Logan also has to deal with a young police officer who goes off on her own, seemingly reluctant to share any leads she has with her superiors.

Logan has a lot to do with the parents of the missing children, one of which is hiding her own secret, a secret that could put her life and the life of many others in extreme danger.

This book took me a few pages before I really got engrossed in it, but that may be down to the fact I had to keep looking up some of the words MacBride uses that may only be familiar to the Scots! It kept me guessing until close to the end, the mark of a good thriller, and as soon as I finished it I started on one of his earlier books, which showed how much I enjoyed it. (That and the fact he has cats, which instantly made me like him!)

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Blood Road
by Stuart McBride
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008208240

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_eleanor_oiliphant_is_completely_fine.jpgWhat an absolute joy to read this was, definitely one I will keep, share with others, and put into book club.

Eleanor is almost thirty, she lives in Glasgow, she works for a graphics design company in what could loosely be termed admin, she has worked there for nearly ten years. She has no friends. Her work colleagues think she is odd, they know very little if anything about her and can’t really be bothered to find out more. Every Friday night she leaves work, goes to Tesco, buys two pizzas and two bottles of Vodka. She goes home, demolishes the lot over the weekend, then turns up at work, bang on time Monday morning for another week the same as the previous. She is completely fine. These are her good days.

To the reader, her loneliness is extreme, the walls she has built around herself painful to see. It is hard to fathom the depth of loneliness that people can feel in their lives, and if this is a voluntary state, an enforced state, or a combination of the two. Is there a mental illness of sorts going on here, does she have a personality disorder, has something happened to her to have her life turn out like this at not even thirty? Slowly, page by page, we learn about Eleanor and the carefully structured life and walls she has built around herself over the years. We learn that from about the age of eleven she was in foster care, that she had a boyfriend who was violent to her, that she has a very controlling mother in prison with whom she talks once a week.

Life takes a sudden turn when she bizarrely falls madly for a wannabe rock star, her perfect man. To attract said man’s attention she pays a visit to a beautician, buys some swanky new clothes. She also befriends a work colleague who is forced upon her as the repairer of her work computer. By chance they are out during their lunch hour and assist an elderly man who falls over in front of them. These minutely small human connections are the beginning of the budding and flowering of the wonderful Eleanor. There are some hiccups along the way, as she struggles with her reconnection with the world, letting people into her small tightly held bubble – there are bad days, until finally we reach better days. And of course, we find out all about Eleanor’s early life that put her into foster care at eleven and explains why she has become this strange, out of touch, and odd person.

Eleanor is a wonder to behold. Being so little involved in others’ lives, having no social network or friends, having no need to deal with people in her work, she has lost all the social filters that most of us develop over the years of interacting with others. Our socially conditioned and finely tuned antennae tell us when we say or do something out of kilter, not so Eleanor. Her conversational exchanges are hilarious and endearing, if they weren’t quite so sad; her observations of those around her and how they behave equally wicked and funny, although of course she does not see it like that!

The writing is wonderful, and being narrated in the first person the reader is right inside Eleanor’s head. We root for Eleanor all the way even when she is frustrating the whatever out of us, as do the people she meets in the course of this story. She may be tetchy, difficult to talk with, unpredictable, but all the characters love her, from her colleague Raymond, to the elderly man, to her hairdresser, to her boss – it is as if they can all see the potential in this young woman, but just don’t know how to tap into it. I want to read this book again, it is just great, and gives a tender and sensitive insight into the loneliness that many people must live in. Heart-warmingly wonderful.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008172121