Book Review: Leap of Faith, by Jenny Pattrick

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_leap_of_faith_bigPattrick, an experienced New Zealand historic novelist, brings the Volcanic Plateau to life in her latest book Leap of Faith.

Set in 1907, Pattrick takes the reader on a journey on what life may have been like for those drawn to the area by the railroad work, to construct the Makatote viaduct. This pioneering work made it possible to travel the whole length of the North Island, from Wellington to Auckland, by train.

Working on the railroad is somber and tough, with co-op gangs incentivised by targets to ensure the railroad is completed on time. It’s also a harsh and, at times, perilous environment. Despite these conditions, the railroad attracts a variety of characters.

At the heart of the novel is young and impressionable Billy, only 14 years old when he goes to join the camps at Makatote. He’s later joined by his siblings Maggie and Freeman, and quickly becomes good friends with Ruri, one of a few Māori working on the railroad.

It’s not long till Billy is swept up by the gospel and charm of Gabriel Locke, a preacher with a dodgy past, who passes through the town hoping to build a community of dedicated followers. Gabriel also quickly charms Amelia Grice, a prohibitionist who is determined to figure out who’s supplying sly grog to the workers.

This novel develops over two years switching between perspectives of the different characters. It also switches between past and present, which I found a little confusing at times. The pace of the book is fairly slow but finally picks up a quarter of the way into the book when an unfortunate event ties several of the characters together. This helps to move the plot along and adds some suspense to the novel – in such a small community, secrets don’t last long.

Historical novels aren’t a genre I read often and with this book I longed for more of a connection with the characters. That being said, I admired the amount of research Pattrick has clearly done. Pattrick shows a deep knowledge of not only the area but also in the construction of the railroad and the time period. She expertly weaves New Zealand’s native bush and unique rural landscapes throughout the novel:

‘The mountain appeared for the first time in months, while majestic at the head of the valley. Woodpigeons erupted from what was left of the bush, flying from ridge to ridge flashing their blue-green wings’.

Anyone interested by the New Zealand railroad or with connections to the area will find this an intriguing and enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Leap of Faith
by Jenny Pattrick
Published by Black Swan – PRH
ISBN 9780143770916

Book Review: The Earth Cries Out, by Bonnie Etherington

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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

 

Book Review: Brushstrokes of Memory, by Karen McMillan

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_brushstrokes_of_memory.jpgCombined with the perfect timing for Mother’s Day, the pretty and colourful cover, the by-line ‘a novel of love, lost memories & rediscovering dreams’, this really looks like a great piece of enjoyable reading, in rare and craved for moments of solitude, cat or dog curled up next to you, glass of wine, cup of tea, piece of cake! Bliss.

Karen McMillan is a North Shore, Auckland based writer. She has previously written, to popular acclaim, two novels themed around WWII in Poland and America – The Paris of the East and The Paris of the West. This novel is quite, quite different in every possible way from her two previous novels.

The writer has tapped into the now (getting a little worn) theme of ‘woman losing memory’, focusing on Rebecca, who loses the memory of ten years of her life, from her 32nd birthday to present day. She is now 42, when she wakes up in hospital, concussed from a fall down some stairs. She is still married to Daniel – a once successful NZ rock star-now music tutor, lives in Browns Bay on Auckland’s North Shore, and works in the city in some sort of graphic designer capacity.

In the ten year period that she can’t remember, many things happen to her and Daniel –illness, death, loss, good times and bad times. None of this of course is known to Rebecca when she wakes up, seeing her adorable and adoring husband by her bed and her best friend Julie. Life is peachy, other than a bit of a headache. Not so.

The novel, of course, then sets about revealing what has really gone on in those ten years, working towards a well managed climax, and subsequent resolution. Well crafted then, with plenty of tension, some curve balls, a mysterious stalker, the horrible boss, ageing parents, health issues, and at the core of the novel, the state of Daniel and Rebecca’s marriage.

So much of this novel is good, with a straightforward story, some very insightful writing on grief, the nature of memory, the brain recovering its memories, the complications of every day life and relationships, and especially the sections on Rebecca’s serious brush with breast cancer, which I understand are strongly based on the author’s own experience of breast cancer. I learnt a lot, not just about the physical experience of the disease but also the emotional experience. Very, very good.

But, for me, and I stress most strongly that this is my own personal reaction to this book, it is just average. There are a number of unfinished threads, and I just could not relate to Rebecca or Daniel. I couldn’t understand, and there is no explanation in the book, why such a talented and successful artist as Rebecca was ten years ago, is now working in some horrible unpleasant design firm doing reworks of work she has already done; we never find out how the accident happened even though decent sized chunks of Rebecca’s thoughts are taken up with this mystery; how serious is this head injury, how long had she been in hospital for, concussion can take months to recover from – she is back at work seemingly full time two weeks after she becomes conscious again with nothing but the odd headache.

I honestly thought Daniel was pathetic, a wimp of a man. He can’t bring himself to tell his wife of one terribly tragic event, or that they were on the verge of separating, because suddenly, what-ho, his newly conscious wife is a sex-goddess! What man in his right mind would want to lose that!

Best friend Julie is by far the best character. Forever berating Daniel for his inability to talk to his wife, she spends most of her time protecting Rebecca from herself, looking after Rebecca’s elderly mother in the rest home she works in, and generally trying to keep one step ahead of all those around her.

This is a very Auckland-city novel, depicting the city’s love affair with real estate – big modern homes and quaint Devonport villas, cafes, the hideousness of the transport infrastructure, the whole glossy magazine feel about the place, the people, the lives they lead. Even though I live in Auckland, I found all this quite cliched and cringing. We get this in the papers, on TV and media every single day, surely there are other aspects of the city that the author could also have found to illustrate her novel.

It reflects what I feel overall about this novel – that despite the serious and important themes, much of it lacks depth and insight, too glib, things are just brushed over instead of going just a little deeper. There will be people who love this, I appreciate that, and for an easy, lazy Sunday afternoon read, it will definitely fill the gap.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Brushstrokes of Memory
by Karen McMillan
Published by McKenzie Publishing
ISBN 9780473374358

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

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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

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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