Book Review: Where the fish grow, by Ish Doney

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_where_the_fish_growIsh Doney packs love and longing into her first collection of poetry, Where the fish grow. Describing Doney’s own move from New Zealand to Scotland, her writing resonates deeply through its portrayal of how bittersweet it is to leave old memories behind while making new ones.

One painful aspect of departure is leaving loved ones behind, and Doney expresses this in her poem Family. She beautifully describes the process as ‘packing up / grey Christchuch days… Folding up streets and parks’. The restraint of her language results in a tone that is modest and almost shy. In this way, the final verse of the poem is heartbreaking yet subtle. Here, Doney spends her time ‘remembering what it was like… to lie on the lino… under a hospital bed / and listen to my brother cry’.

Similarly in the poem Miscarriage, Doney describes a different kind of leaving, and one that she can’t quite fathom. Unable to comprehend what has happened, she repeats her chances like a plea: ‘Five percent. / We should have been okay’. The precision of Doney’s writing portrays a deep yet intangible kind of loss with no flamboyance or excessive description. She is simply a poet capturing an event for what it is: a loss that leaves pools of emptiness rippling through her life.

The heart is placed obliquely in the chest, is another beautiful poem that describes the heart and all its emotions as a literal concept. Some hearts are ‘bent or partially broken… hence, fracture takes place more readily’, suggesting that constant leaving and settling results in small cracks in a person. The use of short and simple lines presents these observations as strong and sturdy structures for the rest of poem. However, in the end, ‘The substance of the heart / is uncertain’; its complexity is left inexplicable.

Doney finds a constant through the ritual of making tea, and she uses this to find that sense of home again. She describes the motion as a process similar to making mud pies, of ‘mixing the garden together / and covering it with petals’. This is her way of grounding herself: through the imagery of the earth. Tea reappears throughout the collection and so does the sea; it is where the tang of salty air and fish becomes a prevalent memory for Doney. In the final poem, Seaside, she imagines ‘collecting the ocean / in coffee cups’, of being able to bring bits of home with her wherever she goes. It is an innocent way of making the unfamiliar seem familiar, of adjusting a new home in relation to the old.

Where the fish grow portrays the many of emotions of departure when home is so close to someone’s heart. The heart is a complex and difficult thing and Doney’s attempt to understand it is through the description of a magical world, a world where the smell of tea brings back certain memories and the tide brings in layers and layers of the past. Where The Fish Grow is an enjoyable poetry collection that captures both the wonder of the new and the bittersweet feeling that comes with leaving the old.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Where The Fish Grow
by Ish Doney
Published by Makaro Press (Part of the Hoopla series)
ISBN 9780994123718

Book Review: The Sea Detective, by Mark Douglas-Home

cv_the_sea_detectiveAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

‘What is a sea detective?’ I hear you ask. Well, it is not a police officer who is based on a police launch that is part of a country or city’s policing unit: pulling bodies out of the water, dealing with stolen boats, drug runners, carrying out search and rescue. No, this sea detective is a completely different type of problem solver.

Edinburgh based oceanographer and environmentalist Cal McGill, is basically a scientist. As a young boy he became fascinated with the sea, its currents, its movements, and how something put into the water at one place can end up days, months or years later in a totally different place. There is a map at the beginning of this book that gives you an idea of the ocean currents in the North Atlantic, particularly around the west and north coasts of Scotland, where much of this novel is set.

The intriguing thing about this novel, is that although it sounds like a mystery or a thriller, it is really a number of stories or plots that are quite skilfully intertwined. Firstly, the body of a young Indian woman is washed up, which piques Cal’s interest, as he attempts to ascertain where it entered the water, and as a result where she may have originated from. In terms of crime and crime-solving, this particular mystery is the moral heart of the story.

As an aside, Cal also finds he is putting his unique skills into use when two severed feet wash up miles apart from one another, and one of the feet actually matches a third foot in a different shoe washed up somewhere. The day after I finished reading this book there was a story on the NZ Herald App from Canada about severed feet, still inside shoes, mysteriously washing up on the coastlines of Canada and the US. Quick, call Cal McGill. Here is the link –http://nzh.tw/11588325 Very bizarre.

At the same time as all this is going on, Cal finds himself taking steps back into his family’s past. An elderly woman is dying and she has some secrets she needs to share with Cal concerning his grandfather during the second world war. Cal always knew there was something not quite right with his family history, and using his specialist knowledge of ocean and wind currents he has the opportunity to put right a terrible wrong.

With the exception of a very small section, the whole novel is set in Scotland, much of it on the Outer Hebrides islands and west coast of Scotland. Cal leads a very solitary existence, this wild untamed environment suiting his temperament, and his slightly subversive nature. For he never lets a chance to annoy the authorities go by. As an environmentalist, he has got himself offside with the Edinburgh police HQ, an interesting little sub-plot that becomes quite crucial in his investigations into where the severed feet and the young Indian woman came from.

If it all sounds a bit quirky and light, it isn’t. Far from it. You know from the first page that some pretty awful things are going to be happening. The plot does wander a bit, weaving these various threads together, the tension being slowly turned up as the story gathers pace. Cal is an extraordinary detective, uncovering some very bad things, putting his own life in danger.

A great story, well told.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Sea Detective
by Mark Douglas-Home
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN  9781405923569

Book Review: Coffin Road, by Peter May

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_coffin_roadCoffin Road
starts with a man washed up on a beach on the Isle of Harris, half-drowned and with no idea who he is or how he got there. As he staggers off the beach a woman calls him by name and helps him into what he assumes must be his home.

A search of the cottage uncovers a bill in his name – Neal Maclean. The following morning, a couple arrive and greet him warmly. They ask how a book he is writing on three lighthouse keepers who went missing a century earlier is going, but after they leave he looks for evidence of the book and finds none, nor anything to suggest he is writing one.

It soon becomes apparent there is more than a friendly connection between Neal and his neighbour, Sally, and he confides in her about his memory loss. After finding a track marked on a map of the Coffin Road, he begins to think there is some connection so they set out to investigate. He comes across some beehives and surprises himself with the amount of knowledge he can recall about them. But why are the hives hidden and what have they got to do with him?

The discovery of a man’s body on a nearby island draws police attention to Neal and, just like the police, he begins to wonder if he killed the man.

Three separate stories run through the book – that of Neal Maclean, or at least the man who uses that name, detective sergeant George Gunn, who is investigating the murder, and a sullen and rebellious teenager called Karen Fleming, whose research scientist father committed suicide almost two years ago. What connects the three doesn’t become clear until late in the book, by which time the reader knows a lot more about Neal and what he really has been doing at the remote cottage.

The ending to Coffin Road came fast and furious. While it did tie up a few loose ends, it felt contrived and confused. There were several small flaws that a good editor should have picked up and I found May’s overly descriptive style a tad flowery for my liking.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Coffin Road
by Peter May
Published by Quercus
ISBN 9781784293093

Peter May appears at Dunedin City Library tonight at 6pm, head along and enjoy tales from a Scottish master storyteller. See the piece about the name of Coffin Road on our blog here.

Book Review: The Pretender’s Lady, by Alan Gold

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_pretenders_lady“Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.” So wrote the famous diarist and biographer James Boswell of his compatriot Flora MacDonald, the never-to-be-forgotten heroine of Scotland, for her single-handed role in the perilous escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie from the clutches of the rampaging English.

What a woman. Born 1722 in the Scottish Hebrides, her life is well documented. Her passion for a Scotland free from the iron grip of the English led her into many adventures and many troubles – not just risking her life to save the Prince, but also spending time locked up in the Tower of London on a charge of treason. In the 1770s, she lived for a time in North Carolina with her husband and children, only to be caught up in the War of Independence, and then surviving a raid by pirates on the return journey to Scotland. By any account she was an extraordinary woman, and her legendary place in Scottish history is well deserved. And hardly surprising either that there is a mystique and aura about her, that continually fuels the fires of independence, resilience and fierceness so part of the the Scottish identity.

In this novel, the Australian author has taken the bones of Flora’s life and created a rollicking good read that will appeal to a wide variety of readers, and not just those of Scottish descent or can lay claim to being descended from a MacDonald of the island of South Uist of the Outer Hebrides. She will be forever known as the saviour of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, aka the Young Pretender, and this is the central narrative of the story. Plus what would a good historical novel be without a bit of romance and bodice ripping in the Scottish highlands surrounded by heather and blustery winds? The background to all this however is just as important to the story. The author has thoroughly researched the history of the time – King George II, his son the Duke of Cumberland whose army famously defeated Charlie at Culloden in 1846 (later known as the Butcher Cumberland for his murderous treatment of the Scottish after this uprising), Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, the American War of Independence – and tells it in very rich and exciting detail.

Comparisons of the author’s writing style have been made with Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl) and Alison Weir who both write historical novels from the view point of key characters. As a result, fact is used as the starter for the story, but is not necessarily 100% factual in its content. The key word here, emblazoned on the front cover of such books is ‘a novel’. A great starting point for further research and reading.

For me, the key point of such historical novels, is that we learn so much – these books are page turners, they draw us in, real people and real events become vivid in our imaginations, history comes alive. And more importantly, these novels provide background to the nature of the world we live in now. For example, why did thousands leave Scotland from the mid-18th century onwards for the greener pastures of unknown lands in America, Canada, and New Zealand? Aside from the weather…

This is a terrific story, well told, great characters both good and bad, and in the light of the referendum that took place last year for Scottish independence, very timely. The relationship between the two nations may be cordial now, but it has not always been so, in fact many times over the centuries completely the opposite. Such a story makes me very proud of my Scottish heritage, and has sparked a wish to go to the Hebrides. My only criticism? Some pictures of Flora and Charlie would not have gone amiss, and a couple of maps would also have helped greatly in conjuring up images of the intrepid journey that Flora and her prince made.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Pretender’s Lady
by Alan Gold
Published by Yucca Press
ISBN 9781631580482