Prianesi, by Susanna Clarke
“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule.” As a first sentence that’s a big turn off for someone jaded by fantasy. But the book was recommended by my friend Tess, who is a sensible woman and a journalist and unlikely to send me off to some hokey warring kingdoms where women with shining braids and medieval gowns face boy warriors with superpowers who are battling some evil psycho. Happy to say this turned out to be one of the most original novels I’ve read since…oh, lets go back a lifetime to John Fowles’s The Magus. But without the horror.
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Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly
This is so refreshing for a New Zealand book—hooray for getting away from the cliché that all kiwis are boring monoglot parochials. Here’s a great new cast of characters, a whole blended extended Vladisavljevic whanau of Russian, Māori, Catalans, some other eastern Europeans I think – Romanian? There’s a complicated relationship with this lot, academics and students at Auckland Uni woven around the main unit of Greta and her brother Valdin, who are our storytellers. I’ve never met people like them but wish I had. The dinner time conversations are epic. ‘The first time I brought you round to my parents’ house I told everyone to act like regular people and V threw the remote out the window so no one could change the channel from Eurovision and a squid had exploded on my dad at work.’ There’s a confusing series of relationships across the group, bi, straight and gay—an uncle’s husband’s brother is the boyfriend of Valdin and a brother-in-law’s husband a straight ex-lover (ex?). I had to draw a curly family tree to get it straight. Like life. It’s complicated.
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Sorrow and Bliss is a lively and intelligent book. The author uses her vocabulary well and can summon up a hundred ways to describe ‘awkward’. A lesser author might tell you that a couple sat on sofa and she felt awkward. Mason says: ‘He was sitting at one end of the sofa. I sat down and folded my legs underneath me. Facing him, the posture felt beseeching and I put one foot back on the floor.’ How wonderful is that complicated word–beseeching, and how perfectly it describes this character. There are words and descriptions to admire all thorough this book. ‘The Germans have a word for heartbreak, Martha. Liebeskummer. Isn’t it awful?’
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Slow Down, You’re Here, by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Well, there’s a lesson in this narrative. Mothers, stay home with your children. If you stray from the natural order a ghastly comeuppance will be visited upon you.
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Catching the Current, by Jenny Pattrick
If you have read and enjoyed Jenny Pattrick’s latest, Harbouring, do go for a romp around her backlist. They’re consistently good. I’ve just reread Catching the Current and enjoyed it the second time around even more than in 2005 when it was first published.
This is a prequel to Denniston Rose, but reads as a stand-alone story based on the early life of Faroe Islander, Conrad Rasmussen—known to Denniston fans as Con the Brake. He’s tall, fair and handsome, playful, talkative, a renowned singer and teller of tales, and pretty full of himself. He excels at everything he turns his hand to, a man not to be ignored. He’s quick to temper and loyal to his friends—a lover, a hero.
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Down from Upland, by Murdoch Stephens
This is one of those books that is so close to home it hits the cringe spot and makes me judder all over. I don’t mean the bit about the open marriage, but geographically. Kelburn. This is my childhood and these are my people and not much has changed over the years. Stephens nails it. There were families like this back in the 70s, where the parents thought they were cool and liberal and who massively over-shared with their kids in a way that was hideously embarrassing. Poor teenage Axle is trying to be accepted at Wellington High, (he left College because of bullying, so no change there, either) while at the same time accepting mum’s boyfriend sleeping over while dad’s male lover gate-crashes. And his father, who can down five passive aggressive bottles with his wife’s young squeeze, ‘helps’ Axle negotiate parties and sex and alcohol by lecturing him, grounding him or buying him a shopping trolley of low alcohol beer, so the lad can ‘fit in’ at parties without getting smashed. There are some great scenes where the lads, naturally, run experiments on getting drunk on low alcohol beer.
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Worse things happen at sea, by John McCrystal
Worse things happen at sea is probably the most appropriate book title ever. Whatever catastrophe happens on land you can crank up the Richter scale of disaster if it happens out on the briny. Flood, fire, psychopath, injury, grandstanding, storm, starvation, getting lost – put a ship in the background of any of these and they become so, so much worse.
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Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
Woman’s liberation in the 1960s has never been so powerfully portrayed as in this book, where a woman is up against the male world of scientific research. Elizabeth Zott wants to study abiogenesis for God’s sake, no less than the origins of life, but that goes pear shape because she’s a woman and the very worst obstacles are thrown in her way along with endless casual misogyny. So she makes her name on the telly, teaching cookery as you’ve never known it before – as a science.
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Violet Black, by Eileen Merriman
This is Merriman doing what she does so well, pacy adventure writing for young adults. Violet Black is a story that begins in the near future of Auckland with two late teens – Violet and Ethan – hospitalised with M-fever, a measles derivative that makes Covid seem like a runny nose. This virus targets teenagers. Ten percent of those infected with M-fever will develop encephalitis. Ninety five percent of those with encephalitis will die. Wow. Kids, this is fiction, OK? Ignore the fact that it is written by a doctor who we generally trust to tell us the truth about medical matters and that the whole scenario sounds pretty convincing at the beginning. If you feel your stress levels going up while reading, take several deep breaths. This nightmarish stuff–pandemics, sinister government organisations, anti-vax terrorism–is all imaginary.
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All the light we cannot see, by Anthony Doerr
This is another war story (they are so unavoidable). It’s the story about the frog in the pot of water: the one where the frog will jump out of boiling water, but won’t take action if the heat is applied slowly, and so cooks. Here it’s used as a metaphor for complacency as the Germans move in and occupy France, and also, I think, of the German people themselves becoming immune to the violence building in their own country. Interesting in that we are invited to have sympathy for both the main characters as victims of war, even though one is a blind French girl and the other a partly radicalised Nazi youth. If you’ve wondered how nice kids were turned into Nazis, here it suggests they were put in the pot when the water was cool and inviting, and were cooked from the inside out.
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