Book Review: Purgatory, by Rosetta Allan

This book is available in bookstores nationwide.

According to Catholic doctrine, when you are in cv_purgatorypurgatory, you are destined for heaven. But you require the purification of your spirit, so as to achieve the requisite holiness before paradise is reached. Unfortunately for John Finnigan, the 10 year-old murdered youth of this book, purgatory is also a place of suffering or torment. He can’t touch anything, and he finds himself alone once the bodies of his mother and two brothers, who initially share purgatory with him, are discovered.

Perhaps purgatory is being left alone, abandoned by those closest to your heart. Or maybe it’s eternal boredom, the ultimate lesson in find-something-to-do that mothers have mouthed from time immemorial. ‘It’s so boring out here, we’re all getting ratty … nothing to do but fight,’ declares John on the second page. His journey, whilst in this state, from utter boredom to appreciation of the smallest things − owls, cats, pohutakawa trees − is an interesting one.

Rosetta Allan uses first person, present tense ‘ghost narration’ to place us dead in the centre (pardon the pun) of John’s world. ‘No one knows we’re dead, except him,’ states John in the first 50 words of the novel, ‘We’re the dead Finnigans’. So of course, the next question is, who killed John and his family in 1865?

And so John’s story is alternated with James’. James Stack, whose life seems tough from the start. But not as tough as John’s − John is dead, after all, and James has the gift of life. James’ story is told in third person, past tense. This creates distance and gifts a traditional voice to the events of his life. Nothing really seems to go well for James, who follows his sister across the world, with her woollen, lace collar in his pocket. As the collar disintegrates, so do aspects of James’ life. But all the while we are reminded: he is alive, at least. It speaks to Allan’s skill that important moments, such as how John and James’ lives intersect, are subtlely rendered and not easily guessed. Well, I was pleased by this, anyway.

My over-arching fascination with this book came from the knowledge that these events actually occurred. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was the most recent book to remind me of the richness of our history and how untouched it has remained, in literature, until recently. Or, maybe it is only just starting to be explored in fiction well.

Living in Dunedin means hours can be spent perusing the settler exhibitions at Toitu (Otago Early Settlers’ Museum), Allan’s book is another reminder of the lives of characters in old photos that otherwise could remain historic artifacts of a time long-gone. Allan has explored her family history in a fictional way that reminds those of us from ‘other’ places (be it two or five generations back) that we were once settlers, that life was hard, and the world was a very different place.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

by Rosetta Allan
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143571025

Publishers brag about their fantastic short-listed books!

We have an amazing spread of Kiwi (and Aussie) publishersJunior Fiction finalist poster 348KB_display with books shortlisted in the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. If you are keen to see what everybody is saying about their own books, please click on through.

Allen & Unwin and HarperCollins Publishers (NZ), as well as Walker Books Australia  have Young Adult Fiction finalist poster 270KB_displayalso got shortlisted finalists. There are two self-published titles, Watch Out, Snail! by Gay Hay and Margaret Tolland, published by Page Break Publishers and, Taka Ki Ro Wai by Keri Kaa and Martin Page, published by Martin and his wife Tania.

Please let us know on this post if you have seen any other bits of news from the publishers about their finalists. We catch most of it, but the more eyes the better.

We look forward to carrying on our coverage of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in the coming weeks. I hope you all love children’s books!

– Sarah Forster


Book Review: The Boring Book, by Vasanti Unka

Available now in bookstores.

The first thing I thought when I opened thiscv_the_boring_book book was – wow, this was published by a New Zealand publishing company! It is very rare you get a book with this many bells and whistles – several books within the book – published by a New Zealand publishing company. Mainly because usually the quantities we print in here mean they cannot make enough of them to be economic – somebody has to fold these things, after all.

The Boring Book is a very clever book. Similar to Oliver Jeffers’ The Book Eating Boy, it uses graphic effects to give the impression of being an old cancelled book from (in this case) Whakatane Public Library (see p2). Vasanti Unka is a designer, a craft-person, an illustrator and a writer. And she is one very talented lady.

The theme of the book is how words come to life for different people in different ways. Starting with the very boring book (which is actually not boring at all if you are a person who likes witty books about typography and suchlike), the words then break free and dance all over the pages in a wonderful explosion of colour. Until everybody gets sick of them, and reins them in.

My favourite page has the words ‘slimy slop’ and ‘sloppy plop’ on it. My favourite spread has a ‘Hug Stop’, ‘Don’t Walk, Boogie’, and a ‘Stop and dance’ sign. This book succeeds beautifully as a celebration of words.

While it is fun and fantastic to look at, the audience is a bit indistinct. It is pitched somewhere between a picture book and a sophisticated picture book, and it doesn’t feel like anybody really quite made their mind up. The theme is certainly for everybody, so perhaps that is okay. I urge you to go and pick it up in a bookstore. If you fall in love with it instantly, it is for you!

Well done to Penguin NZ for showing they are world-class, in publishing such a stylish piece of work. As Unka develops her craft further, I hope we see more exciting designs, with strong stories to go with them.  Age recommendation 5+

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

The Boring Book
by Vasanti Unka
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143505754

Book Review: A History of Silence, by Lloyd Jones

Available in bookstores now.

I had the most peculiar reaction to reading this memoir bcv_a_history_of_silencey the very highly regarded Lloyd Jones. For the first five years of my life I lived 1.7kms in one direction from where the author was living out his childhood, and for the next 15 years I lived 1.7kms in the other direction. Our paths never crossed, (he is a few years older), but everything he writes about the place of  Lower Hutt, and the sense of place is very strong in this book, had a startling ring of truth about it. From Stellin Street where I learnt to drive, to his days at the intermediate school, to the shop in the High St his school uniform was bought at, to his descriptions of Petone, the Hutt River bed, Eastbourne and the bays – I could see it all so clearly and in his retelling of his memory, he made me remember too. Just as wonderful was the quite amazing thought that just up the road a writer of such genius was slowly incubating!

Every family has its secrets, its stories that change over the years to accommodate new narrators and the mores of the time, its black sheep. Often full truths never come out because they are too painful, considered too shameful, or quite simply just too hard to deal with. Lloyd Jones’ parents, Joyce and Lew, were both extensively scarred by the circumstances of their childhoods, carrying their burdens into their marriage and the parenting of their five children, of whom Lloyd was the youngest by some ten years.

Lloyd grows up in a household of silence, pp_lloyd_joneswhere he and his siblings know very little about their parents’ early lives. All they really know is that there was a fair bit of sadness. There is a complete lack of family stories, no photos on the walls, what he calls ‘wilful forgetting’. Because he has nothing to compare this with, he grows up thinking nothing much about this lack, and is puzzled only momentarily when he goes driving, from time to time, with his mother to a house that they sit outside of for a while and then drive away again. His siblings are adults long before he is, and so he lives alone in the house with his parents, about whom he knows very little. One Christmas his older sister produces the results of her own research into their parents, a myriad mix of birth, death and marriage certificates which doesn’t really answer any questions and leads to a whole lot more.

The devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011, was the catalyst Lloyd Jones needed to kick start his search for where he came from and what made him. Throughout the book, Jones uses Christchurch repairing itself and rebuilding its foundations as an analogy for him finding his own base and putting the pieces of his family puzzle into place. The narrative takes the reader from Christchurch to Lower Hutt, as far away as Wales, Wairarapa, the backblocks of North Canterbury, Wellington, backwards and forwards, to and fro, weaving and threading the story of a family through these places.

It is very moving to read such a personal account of a family’s story, or more to the point, the stories of Joyce and Lew. This memoir reads more as a tribute to the parents, and Lloyd himself finally seems to find out from whom he has inherited aspects of his own self and the influences that have shaped him. This is writing written with love and longing, and all the more poignant for that. The storyteller in the author comes shining through as he expands on the lives of the people he is writing about, as they react to the events taking place around them. There are some threads I just could la-et-film-014not figure out the relevance of  – the boxing bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Gentleman Jim Corbett springs to mind. But boxing was a big thing in the house he grew up in.  Maybe I was just too tired to fully comprehend the significance. Never mind, such a tiny criticism, it barely matters.

This is a book I will treasure, not just because of the eloquent writing, but because he has given honour and integrity to the lives of two people who were unable to really find it for themselves during their own lifetimes.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

A History of Silence
by Lloyd Jones
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143569473