I was given this book for Christmas and was so excited. Right up my street. Historical—1600s—a sea journey, Norway, an island setting, a storm, a bunch of women surviving remote and desolate lives. What’s not to like?
I was well into this story before I read the blurb a bit more carefully and discovered what’s not to like. The witch trials. They’re based on fact.
What is it with these blokes in power who see strong women as such a threat that they have to burn them at the stake? A woman has poppets in her house. She wears trousers. Burn her!
A brilliant story teller on the birth of Biafra and the war, the war, the starving millions. This is a hard book.
I was a child in Wellington during the Nigerian civil war. We learned about the starving children of Biafra and I am still haunted by those first images of black children with distended bellies, held by women with arms so thin they seemed to contain no flesh at all. I didn’t then know the reason for the big bellies but I do after reading Half of a Yellow Sun. The systematic malnutrition of babies and children by the Nigerian generals, aided by British weapons and ammunition was causing acute protein deficiency, leading to the condition known as kwashiorkor.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story is centred around five linked people, who lose all control over their lives as Nigeria erupts into civil war and they become “Biafran” for the three long years of the secessionist state’s existence. All are interesting and fully engaging characters and we walk with them as their stable and happy world disappears fast into chaos and brutality.
There are a whole lot of things to unpack in this book; I feel like I’ve come home from holiday and the case has exploded open on the bed. Books and memories and clothes falling out and there’s Egyptian sand through everything. Here is a great novel for chatty book clubs — but perhaps not recommended if you have judgemental grumps (like me).
The Egypt thing first — it’s magnificent. A great setting for a book, we see writing on the walls and dip in and out of caves and uncover stories thousands of years old. Picoult’s son is an Egyptologist and I bet the pair of them had some great mother/son talks on the original, ancient “Book of Two Ways”. Feels compellingly authentic and pretty wonderful. A simple story in situ would have been perfect.
The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall
I’ve just spent a year writing a book about castaways on a remote, southern New Zealand island in the early 1860s and sent it off for consideration, when a friend told me about Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of My Condition, set about 50 years earlier on the Snares, with seals and storms and miserable conditions. I almost died. She’s already written my story – I wailed.
But of course, she hadn’t. There is more than one story set in the frozen southern oceans and many ways to tell ’em.
Randall’s is based on a true story of four convict men who have escaped Norfolk penal colony, without much planning or foresight, stowing away on a sealing ship. The captain drops them on a desolate island with a trypot and some basic necessities and tells them to collect a payment of seal skins. He’ll pick them up in a year. The felons are so pleased to be free of the jail that this seems a reasonable exchange. A decade passes.
Is there a genre called Atmospheric Historic? If so, Pure, by Andrew Miller must be near the top. Set in an overflowing Parisian necropolis in 1785 this novel is so packed with creepy images and smells and sounds you need to hold your nose as you submerge.
This is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer given a government contract during an impersonal meeting at Versailles. He is tasked with clearing out the cemetery and church of Les Innocents, which is so ancient and in such bad repair it taints the air in Les Halles. A subterranean wall has collapsed and the stinking effluent of centuries of rotten things is leaking onto the streets, a metaphor if ever there was. They will clear the city of the stench of the past and pave the way for a grand new future. Jean-Baptiste takes a room adjoining the cemetery, where the breath of his hosts carry the smell of the dead.
Yes, you should probably read this because it is lyrical and lovely and is the story of Shakespeare’s dying son Hamnet, who he (apparently) honours as Hamlet, in a round about way which may be stretching the truth somewhat.
O’Farrell writes passages of such amazingly close detail that I felt my heartbeat slow in the reading. She spends one whole page describing a woman walking two steps. It’s extraordinary.
Definitely my book of the year so far. I’m a Keneally fan (since Schindler’s Ark all those years ago) and a Dickens fan with a keen interest in Victorians and colonial history and here’s The Dickens Boy with all that wrapped up in a gloriously written novel. Keneally is a master storyteller with characters I can really care about and a honesty that makes me believe that everything here could be true (and quite a lot of it seems to be). Just goes to show you don’t need clever literary devices or pretentious language to write a captivating book, you just need to tell a bloody good story.
This is a book club book if you are a group of readers with a fanatical interest in the minutiae of colonial immigration in the 1850s. In which case, I salute you. Invite me along to join you, sometime.
Veitch, though, might be a bit much of an enthusiast, even for me. The cover and title promises a book set on the high seas but there is way more than that. Most of the detail is of the societal conditions and politics behind the immigrations: the Wakefields, the lure of colonial wool and gold, the Scottish clearances. There is a full chapter about the Birkenhead emigration depot in Liverpool where the passengers collected before departure and the last quarter of the book covers the crisis in immigration that followed the ship’s arrival in Port Phillip and its quarantine.
I love a good YA fiction that goes deep, and The Telegram by Philippa Werry certainly delivers. A young reader will enjoy the story of Beatrice cycling around her small kiwi town on her bike, changing from a schoolgirl to a young woman with the harrowing responsibility of delivering telegrams during the first world war. She makes and loses friends, delivers news of celebration and (more often) tragedy to families, writes letters as she waits for the boy next door to return from the front, and celebrates the war’s end just as the ‘flu rolls into town. Continue reading “The Telegram – book review”
We launched my novel Jerningham this week to coincide with the young Wakefield’s 200th birthday. The book launch in Wellington was at Unity Books and it felt so right: beneath our feet in colonial times was the beach, before all the infill began. Jerningham would have leapt ashore from the whale boats right there onto the shingly sand, walked along the beach to Dicky Barrett’s pub and ordered a bottle of his favourite Hokinaga red. I had been a bit worried that no one would come out to help celebrate but there was a good crowd, in a big part because of our three wonderful kids who brought along every friend who had ever sat at our table over the years and made them buy a book. They probably came for the wine, but that’s ok. It was Decibel. Can’t blame them.
Then we moved up to Hawkes Bay and had a bit of fun dressing up like Victorians at Duart House. Decibel again sponsored the wine along with Maison Noire so we were guaranteed a good turn out. People drank local, read local and our local Wardini Books sold the book.
To all those who came along, thank you very much. And what did I tell you? Everyone looks better in a top hat (though the ladies rocked the flowers, too)