Book Review: The Earth Cries Out, by Bonnie Etherington

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_earth_cries_out.jpgI’m getting harder to please in my old age but The Earth Cries Out has done it. It’s a surprising and quite wonderful novel.

Eight-year-old Ruth moves from Nelson to West Guinea with her parents after her younger sister’s tragic death. Her parents had been drifting apart even before all this happened, and the way we see their pain through Ruth’s eyes is so well done: they’re closed off and hurting, and now even more isolated, literally.

Ruth, though, carries on her childhood. This is the aspect of the book I loved the most: despite the obvious difference between 1990s Nelson, NZ and jungle-surrounded, mountain-top West Guinea, Ruth keeps being eight. Things are as odd and normal as ever: she gets on with learning a new language so she can get on with play and understanding; she sees a dead newborn baby, and comes face-to-face with disease; she invents her own superstitions, and listens to or discards the superstitions of the village.

Life thrums around Ruth – the incredible flora (wonderfully described), the people, the mosquitos – but there’s a stillness to her. She describes scenes so immaculately that, often, it’s almost as if the story isn’t moving forward. It’s compelling, but not because of its action, necessarily; it’s compelling because of how spot-on the author captures childhood’s tiny cruelties and guilts that we never let go of. It’s rounded out by grief and growing up, and a background of politics and history.

This is an impressive, moving, often unflinching debut.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

The Earth Cries Out
by Bonnie Etherington
Vintage/Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143770657

 

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Book Review: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hag-seedIn my 35 years, I’ve learned a thing or two about life. Put cold water in the pot after making porridge or you’ll be scrubbing concrete. Set up bill payments to go out on payday so you don’t run out of money and have to pay late fees. Eat before you start drinking, especially if you’re mixing beer and tequila, because no matter how huge and delicious the 2am kebab, you’ll feel terrible all day tomorrow.

And don’t get excited about a new Margaret Atwood as you might be setting yourself up for a major disappointment.

I mean, it would have been really, really hard not to get excited about a re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by the psychologically shrewd, mesmerising writer of Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale and other novels I devoured and recommended to everyone who’d listen. I feel like you can’t hold it against me. It’s, like, a natural law: Margaret Atwood’s an objectively great novelist.

But with Hag-Seed it’s as if we’ve snuck into her study, rummaged through her bottom desk-drawer, and read an early draft that she did to get Ideas out of her system before starting on the actual book.

If I hadn’t known who wrote it, I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years who did. Not that Atwood’s books are, or should be, all the same – but Hag-Seed, for me, was missing so many of the things I read Atwood for. Sub-plots and layers, and characters that feel so real you could slap them. Themes that are hidden and smart and unsaid. Ideas that are a bit too clever for me but compel me on anyway because they’re wrapped up in writing that’s effortless and magnetic.

I’m so sorry. Who do I think I am.

Maybe I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t like this book. Maybe I’m the most special of snowflakes!

You’ll probably like it. Flash reviewers do. People are raving about it all over the internet, in The Guardian and New York Times and Washington Post and Publishers Weekly, using words like “ingenious”, “delightful”, “funny” and even goddamn “triumph”.

Mate, I don’t agree. If I were being forced to describe it in those kind of terms, I’d use “obvious”, “average”, “a bit lame” and kinda “forgettable”. Sorry. I found one – just one – review that was more in line with my feels: Kirkus Reviews said, “the bulk of the novel can feel like spending some 300 pages in a high school English class.” I loved high school English, but, yeah. Wouldn’t want to be back there. Wouldn’t want it to fail to live up to my memories, like a disappointing book by Margaret Atwood.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

Hag-Seed
by Margaret Atwood
Published by Hogarth
ISBN 9781781090237

Book Review: The Pickle Index, by Eli Horowitz, with pictures by Ian Huebert

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_pickle_indexI had no expectations before reading The Pickle Index. I only knew: it looked pretty and I like pickles.

Now I’ve read it, and to help with your expectations – think Welcome to Night Vale meets The Travelling Restaurant meets A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy plus circus performers plus pickles, set in a world where everyone must submit – via pseudo-fax steampunk-style tech – daily pickle recipes to the Pickle Index. If that helps. And apparently Miranda July said this about it: “The Pickle Index is full of life and everything else — rowdy and sweaty and heartbreaking and funny.”

The Pickle IndexThe story opens when circus ringleader Zloty Korn has been arrested following an unintentionally hilarious performance. The townspeople and authorities are calling for his head; his crimes being “mockery, destabilization, and anarchy, blurring the serious with the comical and the comical with the unintentional.” In the meantime, the rest of Zloty’s troupe eventually realise what has happened and set out on a ridiculous and unlikely adventure to try and rescue him.

It’s told across two separate (very pretty, illustrated hardback) books which are read in alternate chapters. First, you read a chapter of absurdly non-impartial (partial?) reportage from the local paper, The Daily Scrutinizer. Then you read a chapter from the point of view of Flora Bialy, the youngest and most recent member of the terribly bad circus troupe.

Nothing is subtle in this book. Jokes are over-the-top, characters are outlandish, and every turn of events is full of buffoonery. But this is the point of the book – and it works really well. It’s a great book to read aloud, and even though it’s not a “kids’ book” I reckon you could use it for family storytime (as long as they’re are old enough – there are a few bawdy jokes). Otherwise you should totally buy it as a gift next time you’re stumped for what to get someone who likes nonsense and absurdity, or adventures, sci-fi, circuses and pickles.

Pics from www.thepickleindex.com

Review by Jane Arthur

The Pickle Index
by Eli Horowitz, with pictures by Ian Huebert
Published by Sudden Oak Books
ISBN  9780996260800

Book Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_thirteen_ways_of_lookingThe novella and three short stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking each centre on a character in search of a lost connection – a lost intimacy – with another person, or God, or hope. Or, rather, the characters aren’t seeking to re-connect so much as learn to live without connection. They’re learning how to be alone, which can be lonely but not necessarily: the stories flash back through memories, childhoods and relationships. These are the parts I enjoyed the most, more than the meanderings the stories sometimes go through on the way to these memories.

It’s not a passive read, which is good. You’re presented with puzzles (the first story is a whodunit) and confronted with some morally tricky choices (some brutal abuse and the question of forgiveness), which is also good. It would probably be a great Book Club choice – it’s short and full of “things to discuss” and will “make you think”. But…

I guess here I should be upfront: I didn’t like this book very much. I found it irritating, more often than not. The writing was too close to the surface – it was Writing – and I prefer for writing to be invisible so I can get lost in the story and characters. Not that I don’t like it when writers do great or interesting things with language – I love words! and language! and experimentation, sometimes! – but, hmm. Something about these stories made it seem like they were writing exercises rather than stories. And because each of them dealt with quite hefty issues – Issues – it all felt a bit heavy-handed to me.

I’m sure there are dozens of readers out there who’d disagree with me. In fact, going by the boatloads of fancy accolades on the cover of the book, I suspect I’m a bit too much of a grumpy or cynical reader for this writer. (I could barely stop myself from rolling my eyes at the earnest, black & white, gazing-out-the-window, chin-on-hand, scarf-wearing author photo inside the back cover. In fact, I think one look at that photo sums the book up – if you’re on-board with its tone, give the book a go; if it gives you the giggles, step away.)

If you’re going to read something with this title, I’d suggest the Wallace Stevens poem, which opens each chapter of the novella, for showing new ways of looking at familiar things (and it’s shorter). Or if you’re interested in writing, seek out the excellent documentary about Wellington’s creative writing school, IIML.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

Thirteen Ways of Looking
by Colum McCann
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408869840