Book Review: 4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster

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cv_4321.jpgPaul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1, his first in seven years, is a sweeping river of a book, taking us on a ride through the heady events of America’s 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, and all told through the eyes of one young man called Ferguson. Or, rather, told through the eyes of four different versions of that young man Ferguson. Ferguson’s genetic makeup and personality stay the same, but from the moment of his birth, Ferguson’s life splits four different ways and the novel travels down four increasingly divergent paths, following four increasingly different Fergusons. In so doing Auster writes four versions of the great American novel, all running alongside each other at the same time.

Written in alternating chapters, the first Ferguson’s life story focuses on his romance with Amy Schneiderman, the great love of his adolescence and young adulthood. By contrast, Amy never even enters the story of the second Ferguson, and in the third Ferguson’s story, Amy is much longed for but eventually set aside in exchange for the confusing and exhilarating experiences Ferguson 3 experiences in Paris, where he eventually moves. In Ferguson 4’s story, his home life is vastly different — eventually his family becomes a blended melting pot of step-siblings and step-uncles.

Having said that, each Ferguson stays in many ways the same — baseball and books seem like the most important things in all the Fergusons’ lives, as well as his family, especially his mother. As such, Auster doesn’t seem interested therefore in seeing how much he can make each Ferguson’s path diverge from the others (though they do in some cases diverge widely). Rather, Auster is interested in the ‘what if?’ What if I had journeyed down the path less traveled? What if that relationship I wanted so badly had actually worked out? What if I had moved to Paris like I always wanted to? What if I had been born rich? What if I had been born poor? What if my father, or my grandfather died, or I died when I was a child? How would things be different? Who would I be, and what world would I be living in?

4 3 2 1 always gives you the feeling of movement – flowing or running through the years like a boat borne on a swift tide. Auster’s long spinning sentences, some of them lasting a full, hefty, paragraph, contribute significantly to this effect. But these sentences never become annoying or tiresome. They only speed you along, making this novel something of a page turner (which sure helps to make this 800-page tome more digestible). And the pace of the book itself is quick without being rushed. We move swiftly through the fifties, sixties and seventies but we still manage to get a good sense of how those decades felt — especially the sections set in the late sixties, where scenes of young anarchists marching on campus and disenfranchised black New Jerseyans rioting in the streets were hair-raising to read, and in some ways hair-raisingly familiar.

I cannot pretend that I didn’t get a bit confused between the different Fergusons, especially in his adolescent years when the Fergusons were all living fairly similar lives. But that confusion was never enough to make me want to stop reading. And amazingly, after having made my way through all 800 pages, my first thought was: I want to read it again. A great plot, written in an athletic style, with above all the central character of Ferguson, a Jewish everyman whom you grow to love. Why wouldn’t I want to read it again? I can’t think of a single reason. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
Faber and Faber
ISBN 9780571324620

Book Review: We’re All Wonders, by R. J. Palacio

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_wereallwonders.jpgThis is a beautiful reflection on difference and how we react. While as a Mum, I wanted my three children to be curious and ask questions, I always struggled with the loudly voiced,’ Why does that girl have…?’.

This simple but clear picture book gives the perspective from the inside. The opening statement declares, ‘I know I’m not an ordinary kid.’ The story follows the everyday actions which all children enjoy, but being stared at, left out and bullied becomes the norm.

R J Palacio wrote the novel Wonder from this perspective and has followed it with a number of related tales. Here we have a simplified version of Wonder, where the message is easy for all to follow. I can see this book being a useful starter in classrooms at all levels. My Year 11 class engaged in a robust discussion about appearance and pressure to conform. As a parent and grandparent this is a treasure to share.

The final statement is a heartfelt message for child and adult: ‘I know I can’t change the way I look BUT maybe, just maybe, people can change the way they see…’

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

We’re All Wonders
by R. J. Palacio
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780141386416

Book Review: Leap of Faith, by Jenny Pattrick

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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: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

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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: Did You Hear a Monster?, by Raymond McGrath

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cv_did_you_hear_a_monsterWhat do you do when you hear a thing go ‘bump’ in the night? A very good question, especially if you are Clarice Caroline who is afraid of EVERYTHING. No kidding, this dear wee girl is scared of a mighty list of things ranging from the usual spiders, wasps, loud noises, heights and snakes to the not so usual broccoli, balls, carrots, and bicycles.

That Clarice Caroline is a ‘shy and timid little girl who is neither courageous nor adventurous’, is nicely built up with examples of her reactions to scary things and serves to draw us into questioning just why she is up in the middle of the night. In the dark. This tension is further drawn out with spooky illustrations and word imagery: floorboards c-r-e-a-k-i-n-g and tall, whispery walls and echoey halls. The scenes and book design add to the building drama – she’s going down the dark hall… she’s opening the door… she’s peeking into a dark, dark room… you get the idea.
She reaches for the light…

And here we see just why this scared, timid girl has braved the night. To say more would spoil the surprise. Suffice to say it turns out that Clarice Caroline can indeed be brave when she needs to.

This is a great story to read aloud together; lots of opportunities for shrieking, squealing and screaming along with Clarice Caroline (apologies if it gets too loud!) as well as pauses for dramatic effect. I also enjoyed the vocabulary introduced here, words young readers wouldn’t often see these days: woozy, nor, mettle, pluck (as in courage), bottle (as in brave), and chutzpah.

Most kids enjoy a bit of a scare and Did You Hear a Monster? delivers them a monster story with just the right amount of drama and spookiness, well balanced with comic relief in the form of funny facial expressions in the illustrations and the surprise ending. This edition comes with a CD which includes a read-along version of the story, as well as two songs from the author. Pitched at littlies, they are cheery and catchy ditties that tie in with the story.

A lot of young readers may relate to Clarice Caroline and her numerous fears. How reassuring for them to know that others are also scared of things which may seem silly to our friends. And how reassuring to see that even though we might be scared of things, we can still be brave when it really counts.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Did you Hear a Monster? 
by Raymond McGrath
Penguin Random House 2016
ISBN: 9780143309130

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

Book Review: Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

cv_vinegar_girlThe latest modern retelling of Shakespeare’s timeless stories, released by Hogarth and written by Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler, lovingly carries within it the bones and shape of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, clothed in quintessentially twenty first century, easy breezy beach read trappings.

Vinegar Girl is the compulsively readable story of Kate Battista, the daughter of a socially inept research scientist who hatches a mad plan: his Russian research assistant Pyotr should marry Kate in a green card marriage, thus allowing Pyotr to stay in the country to continue helping Dr Battista with his work. Inevitable shenanigans ensue. The absurdity of this plan is nicely balanced by the fantastically ornery Kate. As shrews go, Kate makes a really engaging one. Kate is blunt to the point of rudeness, charmingly oblivious to social cues, eternally exasperated and prickly as a hedgehog but probably less cute. But as we get to know her, we do get to see her vulnerable core, which helps to explain her (inevitable) softening towards Pyotr.

Kate is the most well-rounded character in the novel, but the whole cast of characters is equally entertaining. Kate’s much younger sister Bunny is an excruciatingly annoying teenager with a tendency to end all her sentences as if they were questions (you might be forgiven for thinking she was Kiwi!) Pyotr, interestingly, is not depicted as a dashing and skilled wooer of women, as in the play – instead he is an awkward, slightly galumphing, hyper-intelligent nerd (whose Russian accent Tyler captures so perfectly, and whose proverbs make almost no sense at all. “In my country they have proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’” Sure, Pyotr. Whatever you say.)

You don’t have to know The Taming of the Shrew to enjoy Vinegar Girl. Written in a clear easy-going style, with highly amusing characters and a plot that follows the shape of both the Shakespearean play and also, somehow, every satisfying chick lit book, this novel is fun comfort-food reading. Despite the vinegar in the title and in the character of Kate, Vinegar Girl won’t leave a sour taste in your mouth. If anything, you’ll gobble it down in one go.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Vinegar Girl
by Anne Tyler
Published by Hogarth Shakespeare
ISBN 9781781090190