Book Review: The March of the Foxgloves, by Karyn Hay

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_march_of_the_foxglovesThe March of the Foxgloves is a carefully crafted work set in the late 1800’s, mostly in New Zealand but also with some key scenes ‘back home’ in England, following protagonist Frances Woodward. We follow Frances’ footsteps as she escapes a restrictive and troubled existence for the chance to start afresh in the antipodes. Frances is a keen and technically savvy photographer – an enjoyable aspect of this text – and Hay has satisfyingly researched and written an authentic artistic voice with the internal dialogue and third person understandings of Frances’ art.

Karyn Hay has an excellent ear for dialogue. Her characters’ interactions are clear, crisp and believable. When main character Frances talks to the children of her hosts at Dunleary in Tauranga, Hay creates convincing and sometimes madly humorous conversations. She obviously has children of her own and one can assume that she has partaken in many such maddening back-and-forths. After taking a photograph, agreed on by both adult and child, one interaction goes like this:

“What shall we call it?”
“What shall we call what?”
“The photograph.”
“What photograph?”
“The photograph I’ve just taken.”
“Can I see it?” Tussie asked eagerly, running towards her.

This Monty Python-esque exchange between the Frances and Tussie suggests that maddening conversations with the young are not, at least in Hay’s mind, restricted to the 21st Century. In fact, the dialogue presented around the children is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Hay’s novel.

A lot of the book moves at slow pace. The plot seems incidental to the finely crafted characterisations and moments – almost vignettes – which are accurately and deliberately described. Minor character Wolf’s descent into the opium den (‘ … behind their eyelids all vision was purely chimerical.’) and Marshall Harding’s feelings for love-sick hostess Hope and his fiancee Callista (‘Her aperture was more compelling than a plate of mutton stew to a sailor.’) are well-crafted moments, but the rhythm of these anecdotes moves the story with unusual rhythm. By the end of the book, though, I hardly cared: the final sections make up in pace and structure for the slow build, as Frances becomes a true heroine and seemingly random moments are shown to be anything but trivial.

There is no doubt that Karyn Hay can write very well. I’m looking forward to seeing what she puts her finely-honed ear to next.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

The March of the Foxgloves
by Karyn Hay
Published by Esom House Press
ISBN 9780473365820

Book Review: The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter, by Deborah Challinor

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_cloud_leopards_daughterSet in 1863, the story begins on the Otago Goldfields where the daughter of a Chinese Tong master is kidnapped and whisked off to China and a forced marriage.

We meet up with Kitty and Rian Farrell sailing into Dunedin harbour in their schooner Katipo 111 to meet with their friend Wong Fu who is based at Lawrence, very unwell, and concerned for the wellbeing of his daughter Bao.

The couple agree to sail to China to find the girl and the reader is taken on a fascinating journey which includes pirates, another kidnapping and the opium trade into China.
When their daughter Amber is taken from a hotel in Cebu, Phillipines, Kitty is devastated as this is the fourth time in her life that Amber has been kidnapped. She wonders if she “were being made to pay for plucking Amber from the streets of Auckland when she had been tiny”.

This is the fourth book in the The Smuggler’s Wife Series which are all based on the high seas in the Pacific. This title is easily a stand alone book as I had not read any of the previous books and was soon absorbed into the adventures of the very real, colourful characters brought to life by the descriptive writing.

The author has done a great deal of research into the opium trade into China which has given an interesting depth to the story of an era which has almost been forgotten. In the author notes at the rear of the book Challinor says, “The British reluctantly paid for their pekoe, teacups and bolts of silk in bullion, but, concerned at the amount of silver in particular leaving England, soon realised there was a ready market for opium in china”.

The peaceful but rugged coastline on the front cover of The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter enticed me into this book, I learned a lot about the opium trade, and I believe anyone who likes a family saga with some adventure in it will enjoy it as much as I did.

Deborah Challinor lives in New Zealand with her husband. While at University she did a PhD in military history and when her thesis was described by one of her university supervisors as readable she sent it to a publisher, and came away with a book deal. She has now published fourteen novels in fifteen years. She has also written one young adult novel and two non fiction books.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter
by Deborah Challinor
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460751572

Book Review: Lewisville, by Alexandra Tidswell

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lewisville.jpgOur stories are an important part of who we are. This is especially so in New Zealand, which really was the ends of the earth to our brave and intrepid forebears. Why would someone choose to travel in appalling conditions to a land of promise but little fact, far away from all their family, friends and culture?

Alexandra Tidswell has taken on the challenge presented by her own family to answer this question. As a seventh generation New Zealander, she had the initial stories, a 1960’s search and some 1980’s genealogical data as a starting point. From this, she has created a story which gripped me to the end.

Martha Grimm escapes to New Zealand with her daughter Mary Ann from Warwickshire in 1814. She left behind parents, other children and a husband, who had been transported to Australia. She leaves to follow her dream of escaping poverty and make a new life. While the novel is based on true events, the setting and characters are beautifully rounded and add real depth to the story. This is not a poetic foray into the beauties of the New Zealand landscape. At no time was I bogged down in treacle description. Rather, the storyline is strong and urgent. Martha has a determined and ambitious plan which she works hard to bring about. The tension in the story arises with the tale of her husband, as he too tries to escape the poverty and injustice of convict life in Australia. As his wife has remarried and become something of a society lady in Wellington, will her past catch up with her?

Tidswell has treated each part of the story with a genuine honesty and sympathy for the characters and their response to events. While we could view Martha as a selfish woman who cares little for her children left in the workhouse, we are drawn into the dream of a better future. The possibility that she might claim her children when she has succeeded, is always there. However, the stories of the children are also handled masterfully as they make their own way without the care of their parents. We cannot help but share the dream of Martha.

Likewise, the role played by the indigenous people, both in Australia and New Zealand, in supporting the naïve and unprepared immigrants in this new environment, is handled well. It is not overplayed but the information is there as part of the overall view.

Wellington residents will enjoy the description of early Wellington streets and suburbs as the settlement grows and the early homes are replaced by more substantial residences.
I see Lewisville as a coming-of-age book. The family story in integral but it is a really gripping story with real characters and identifiable places. This is a valuable contribution to the backstory of our country. It is well-told, excellently edited and researched and very readable. A great way for me to start my holidays.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Lewisville
By Alexandra Tidswell
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994137906

Book Review: The Wish Child, by Catherine Chidgey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_wish_child_nzI don’t quite know where to begin – this book is a tour de force, a work of art, an insightful commentary on the horrors and pointlessness of war and violence, a love story, a shocking peephole on to the Nazi modus operandi and so beautifully written that it hurts.

I found that I was by turns immensely saddened, then amused, horrified, having moments of “Oh, I know THAT person”, and caught up in the stories of the main characters and the enigmatic voiceover who pulls it all together.

I don’t want to give any spoilers at all, it’s far too good a novel for that.

However I will tell you that the stories are told through the voices of the children, Erich and Sieglinde, who live with their families in Leipzig and Berlin respectively. Chidgey’s descriptions of life under bombing and destruction is a poignant reminder that in war everyone suffers, regardless.

Catherine Chidgey has written a novel which is gripping from start to finish, which has twists and turns and surprises, and which I consider to be one of the best novels I have read this year. Actually, maybe one of the best novels I have read, period.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Book Review: The Last Time We Spoke, by Fiona Sussman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_last_time_we_spokeTwo boys, born two years apart in Auckland. One, Jack Reid, born to white middle class parents, Carla and Keith, teacher and farmer respectively. A much longed-for only child, born when his parents had long given up hope of ever becoming parents. Now 18 years old, Jack works in a bank in the city, has a girlfriend and has come home for the night to help his parents celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary, plus to break the dreaded news that he doesn’t want to be a farmer like his dad.

Not too far away geographically, but very far away in every other respect, lives Ben Toroa, 16 years old, survivor of an abortion attempt, living in poverty and chaos with his younger siblings, under the care of his mother who is a punching bag for her latest partner. Unlike Jack, for Ben there is no hope, little education or skill set for adult life, no order or structure, no love. Belonging to a gang, and proving yourself to that gang are the major sources of self-esteem, belonging and making it in this world.

It is on the night of Carla and Keith’s wedding anniversary dinner that these two widely opposing worlds collide in the most brutal of circumstances, leaving one person dead, and another who may as well be. Carla is faced with her world, everything she has known, loved, and given herself to completely destroyed; Ben is facing a life in prison. What follows unfolds over eight or nine years, as both Carla and Ben deal with the enormous fall out of this arbitrary act of violence. The process, as you can imagine, is fraught. For both of them.

Carla is overwhelmed by grief, anger, hopelessness, fear, loss. Ben, only 16 we must remember, is also overwhelmed by the violence in his prison world, the impact on his mental health, the hopelessness of his situation. The one thing, however, deep inside his memory that might, just might offer the slenderest of hopes for him, is that he does remember a mother who once loved him, when he was very small, before the endless cycle of pregnancy, poverty and punching bag took over.

And yet, in small baby steps, some forward and some back, both Carla and Ben rediscover life, a purpose for living, make connections, and begin to find a way forward. One would think this would be easier for Carla living outside the physical confines of a prison, but it is actually Ben who grows the most, finding within the close confines of the prison system the basic human needs of love, respect and in turn self respect that enable him to create a life of value and meaning.

This novel has been some years in the making. A number of rural home invasions in New Zealand in the 1990s were the catalyst for Fiona Sussman’s immersion into the violent world of youth offending, gang initiations, prison life, childhoods of deprivation, violence and dysfunction. She spent time visiting prisons, meeting with prisoners, speaking with police, victim impact organisations, It must have been very confronting for her to spend time in the underbelly of our society, an underbelly that the vast majority of us do not want to know about or ever had any exposure to. It is easy for most of those who read this novel to identify with Carla and her grief, but not so easy to begin to have any understanding of the world that Ben comes from.

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff was very confrontational for many people, lifting a veil from what most of us either chose not to see, or simply did not think existed. This novel takes us deeper into the violent and despairing life of many Maori in this country, essentially a result of colonisation by the British in the 1800s, forfeiture of land, and breakdown of traditional mores, cultural and family bonds. It is not a novel written in anger, but there is a certain despair and powerlessness that has allowed such a deprived strata of society to develop. Fiona Sussman digs deep into the essence of the wounded and damaged themselves, in this case Carla and Ben. Time may not heal, but it certainly dulls and softens the pain, suffering and despair, our natural healing processes allowing for hope and optimism to enter and begin to work their magic.

This really is a remarkable book, I cannot praise it enough. It touched something deep inside me. As a 6th generation New Zealander, who has had a very comfortable and easy ride in this country, I am ashamed that at the same time my predecessors have done well in this country, there are many who have not. The author is a new citizen of this country, and yet she has such insight and compassion into such a big issue. New Zealand is of course not the only British colony to have its indigenous population decimated, the author’s own country of South Africa with its more turbulent and disturbing history. But New Zealand is her country now too, and she has done what good writers do – educate and inform, open our eyes, show us a different way of looking at things and ourselves. Transport us. Read this, be humbled and see how we can all make a difference.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Last Time We Spoke
by Fiona Sussman
Published by Allison & Busby
ISBN 9780749020262

Book Review: Hunters & Collectors, by Matt Suddain

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hunters_and_collectorsThis book has been described as experimental. I agree with that, but I could add a whole host of extra descriptors to go along with experimental.

Suddain has created a fantastical work of sci-fi, horror, black humour (and I mean REALLY black humour). I was caught up in the weirdness from the first few pages, and although I am not and have never been a sci-fi aficionado, I was enjoying myself; although struggling a bit with the complexity of the plot lines, and the other-worldliness of the whole story, I persevered. But there’s more….

There are many levels in this huge novel– there’s the narrator, Jonathan, who is a self-styled “forensic gastronomist” whose life’s work and passion is food and drink. He travels through the many cosmic worlds which make up the particular planetary system he inhabits, in search of the perfect meal. Because his work is apparently fraught with danger (he is a critic!) he has a minder (Beast) and a bodyguard (Gladys). Gladys is a wonderful character. She is apparently part Water Bear, and sleeps like a duck – never entirely asleep, which in this book is a useful trait.

There are rafts of more-than passing-strange characters, most of whom are integral to the story. There’s a writer/psychoanalyst/crossdresser/villain who gets into Jonathan’s head in very manipulative and clever ways and is to my mind quite evil. There are giants, nymphs, chefs, thugs, all with their own peculiarities. The characters in general are brilliantly drawn and in a very weird way entirely, unexpectedly, credible.

There’s the temporal aspect – where and when, and in which worlds, are we? Is any of this real? Could it ever be real? All questions which I cannot attempt to answer until I find someone who actually grasped all of the plot and storylines!

So back to the “wait, there’s more…” Following a series of unfortunate incidents, Jonathan and crew journey to find the perfect meal, for which Jonathan has booked. This is where the horror kicks in. The location is yet another world, where people are seemingly killed for alarmingly minor reasons.

But are they in fact killed? Are they real? How much of what we see is merely hologram? Does Jonathan ever get that meal?

No spoilers in this review, you have to see for yourself.

What is real, for the less bloodthirsty readers like me, is the horror and absolute gruesomeness of the killings. At least at first…but as it goes on, and the bloodbaths continue, the warped humour of it all comes through.

I kept picking this book up, and then, particularly before bed, putting it down rapidly! Finally I just powered through the last quarter of the book, determined to see what happened. It’s probably a flaw in my reading that I am still uncertain if any of Jonathan’s story is in fact true .

Recommended to readers with strong stomachs!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Hunters and Collectors
by M. Suddain
Published by The Bodley Head Ltd
ISBN 9780224097048

 

Book Review: Billy Bird, by Emma Neale

“…If sex can accidentally make something as wild, complex, erratic, dogged, miraculous, sensitive, vulnerable, solid, unaware, bizarre, intractable, awful and joyful as a human child, why, in a specific instance, couldn’t it be said to help make love?”

cv_billy_birdThis is the voice of somebody who understands children, and parenthood. Billy Bird is a magnificent book. It’s sad, and happy, and funny, and brutal – and paradigm-breaking. As you will already know if you have read the blurb, or indeed the title: Billy is becoming a bird. He doesn’t want to be a bird, he is starting to behave as one would, for hours sometimes. This story is about how a family operates emotionally – and how important communication is when it is time to heal.

This is the point where I wonder – how much of a spoiler is it to say somebody significant dies? I think I can say that, and possibly that that somebody is a child. Because I get a bit sensitive around the death of a child, so if this is something you do not like to read about, here is your warning. But yet. Even if you do, and it triggers, this book may be the book that starts your healing. So don’t be shy of it. I will go just one step further and say: this is not a murder mystery. But you could probably tell that from the marked lack of black and red on the cover.

So this happens, and nothing changes. Well, not quite. Everything changes. But it takes awhile for their emotional power to be understood by our protagonists, who as we start driving towards the solution, are Billy, aged 8 or so, and his mum Iris and dad Liam. Iris’s voice: “Maybe…death had turned up her sensitivity to these things: The daily news-alarms of storms, acidic seas, dwindling species, drought, energy wars, religious wars, civil wars, avenging blood with blood, as if that ever brought the dead back…This sense of the world on the precipice…was it worse than it had ever been, or was she losing her own equilibrium?”

After events in the novel come to a head, the family finds a safe space to talk, with a Psychologist and her nurse. Billy is wondering about his dad “…if he’d be like that when he was a man. Did he have to be? What if you didn’t want to be like your mum or your dad? Was there some third person he could be?” The space created by his mum and dad’s non-communication fills with a pile of worries, big and small; and a lot of bird-feelings for Billy.

I’ve used a lot of quotes in this review, because there were so many times when I thought ‘Exactly!’ and ‘man how can I explain what this writing does to you.’ Writing this wonderful is unusual and rare, though it sometimes happens when poets turn to prose. There are sections of the novel in verse – the initial sex scene, ingeniously –and this adds an otherworldly brilliance to the writing.

I know of Emma Neale as an excellent editor: now I am going to go back and read everything else Emma Neale has written. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Like all truly good books, it fills you with empathy, and a sense of joy in words and in life. I hope this makes it onto the longlist for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053