A Fish in the Swim of the World – book review

A Fish in the Swim of the World, by Ben Brown

Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī, Ngāti Paoa) is a story teller. His stories are philosophical and luminous and funny and intellectual and they plunge from one mood to the other without missing a beat. I spent a week in a van driving around Taranaki with him recently and our conversations changed me, though it’s hard to say exactly how.

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The Promise – book review

The Promise, by Damon Galgut

Like I often say with the Booker – read the shortlist.

I didn’t find any joy in this novel. It is set in South Africa in the 1980s as apartheid falls apart, but we don’t venture out into the country much. The action, such as it is, concerns a white family who live on a farm. The characters are all unlikeable. The only one with any shred of decency is the youngest daughter, Amor, who cannot stand up for her beliefs and opts out, not only of the family but also, by being so damn wet, pretty much out of her own life as well. To call her uncharismatic is being kind. She is moderately interesting because she was struck by lightening as a child and lost a toe, but that’s about it. She’s absent for most of the book.

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Under a Big Sky–book review

Under a Big Sky, by Tim Saunders

I’ve been back with Tim and his family for another farm holiday and it’s been great. I spent about a week in the book this time, not much has changed since I met them all in This Farming Life, but I think I will always enjoy the shepherds dragging astonished sheep from their pens for a morning shear and the way the magpies gargle with laughter when his dad tells a joke, and the big bird, Kāhu, who clutches the new day in rust coloured talons. These are the author’s expressions, of course. Who else could write so evocatively about daily life on a farm?

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Piranesi – book review

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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Slow Down, You’re Here–book review

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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Down from Upland–book review

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–book review

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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All the light we cannot see—book review

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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The Lincoln Highway—book review

Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

The Lincoln Highway follows Amor Towles’ masterpiece that is A Gentleman in Moscow, which I highly recommend. That’s a hard act to follow and this new novel is bigger and more ambitious with a wide cast of characters, multiple viewpoints and a storyline that deliberately goes in the wrong direction. Where the Moscow gentleman was confined to one hotel for almost the entire book, this 580 page monster of a story roams halfway across America.

It is in the style of a classic 1950s American roadie and features a group of footloose young men and a couple of cars.

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The Tomo—book review

The Tomo, by Mary-anne Scott

Another great adventure story from Hawke’s Bay writer, Mary-anne Scott, who has cornered the shelves in my house for books for boys. Again, she nails it, on-point for pace, topic and characters. The Tomo, hot off the press and in good time for Christmas, is aimed at boys who can read for themselves (8-14 ish) and fancy themselves heros of the great outdoors (at least in their imaginations). Oh, and you have to love dogs to understand this book. I mean, how can you possibly relate to a boy who risks his life for a dog otherwise?

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