Books that don’t make the cut

Probably not for book club

Here are some books that I have recently read and enjoyed to some degree. Others will have loved them. They miss the cut of my recommended books because something is lacking: elegant writing, spirit, a character to love or simply they don’t add up. Or they may be just too weird for your regular group of bookies. If you see a book you love here, please tell me what I missed.


The Cartographer’s Secret by Tea Cooper

This is an Australian saga sent in two times: in 1880 and in 1911. It misses out on my ‘recommended for book club list’ because it doesn’t quite add up. Several characters fight to be the story’s key and, quite honestly, I never worked out what the cartographer’s secret was, or which cartographer it was that held the secret. Letitia is the main narrator, who in 1911 goes to chase an inheritance from a great-aunt and learns that her aunt Evie hadn’t died in childhood but had gone missing while searching for a lost explorer called Leichhardt (an historic character lost in the outback), with whom her dad was fixated. Letitia investigates and a series of coincidences have her stumbling on what may have befallen her aunt (who might have been better finishing the story herself?) but the family stuff was all unnecessarily complicated and the wasn’t much historical detail. Enjoyed the stuff about the explorer, Leichhardt, though and enough colour to keep me reading.


A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler

“Tyler’s best book yet, which must make it pretty much near perfection.” Great cover quote but backfired as means I’ll never dive into the others. I was in the mood for a good chick-lit: intriguing characters with dilemmas, fast plot, a climax or twist or at least major turning points. But it was boring. Never quite understood where the narrator was coming from or what he wanted, no idea where I expected the story to go so couldn’t really be surprised by anything.
The hero is a young, handyman type bloke who looks after elderly people, though he’s meant to be an edgy bad-boy. He falls for a frumpy woman, then decide he fancies his edgier work-mate. There is a moral issue about money with a confused resolution. Didn’t add up to an engaging read for me.


Before you knew my name, but Jaqueline Bublitz

OK, may well get slammed for this as so many friends recommended it and it’s a sound crime thriller. The structure of the book is clever, with the point of view that of a dead girl telling both her story and also the story of the girl who finds her body. But I don’t want to recommend another book about a vulnerable young woman who gets raped and murdered. Sits with Pomare’s book In the Clearing about child abuse. Smart writing, shocking topic. Let’s move on.

16 Sept. Further to this, I’ve just read Jean Sergent’s interesting review in the Spinoff with a very different take on the deliberate handling of the woman’s side of this story, and I kind of agree but still stand by my dislike of trauma for entertainment. See if you agree with Sergent here: Before You Knew My Name


Sound silly to say this is too unbelievable when it’s about time travel — I actually liked that bit—but a bit tired of clichéd kick-ass heroines. Send them all back to Tomb Raider for kicks with Angelia Jolie. Here’s a shy first year university student, and she happens to be a 7th dan (!!?) world champ katateka who beats up a whole line up of Russian thugs. Even though she hasn’t trained for a while ‘cos she’s busy. Karate is a life. Seventh dans are old and venerable. Oh, and she speaks fluent Russian, well enough to whisper to her flailing assailant:

“I’m sorry you’ve got wankers in charge! So have we! Let’s go downstairs and talk about Colonel Gagarin. I used to have a poster of Yuri and thought he was magnificent!”
The heavy blinked momentarily…


I’ll bet he did. What language school did she go to??
So all that’s a bit silly and makes the book more a young teen read.

OMG, just realised that Robert Webb is half of Mitchell & Webb who I love and now I feel so bad dissing his book.
So here are the things I did like about Come Again: The pace really picks up when she goes back in time as The Girl Form The Future to try to prevent her husband dying of a brain tumour. It all goes wrong. Of course twenty-something boys are twits, of course anything you do will change the future, of course your friends will think you are odd. Hang on, not sure about snogging the wrong bloke…
All that part is great and could have been developed into a fine, intelligent book. I just wish Webb hadn’t stuck in a whole irrelevant sub-plot about evil Russians and a hacked encrypted file. And the cringey karate…

Nope. Still can’t recommend it. But do heartily recommend That Mitchell & Webb Look for the funniest comedy on the screen.


Matt Haig is an extremely popular modern writer and I can see why. He writes about the idiosyncrasies of being human and what makes us tick. What is normal, what are other people’s lives like, what are we here for, what’s the point? And he covers these big, existentialist questions in a blithe, chatty way to disguise where he is taking you. I’ll be slammed for suggesting that he diminishes important ideas to the level of pop culture, but there we are. If you want to spark a deep conversation when you’re sitting with your mates on sofas and pouring out the chardonnay (and that’s a yes from me), this book might start you off.

SPOILERS FOLLOW (not because I want to spoil the story but because the book is not a light as it looks).

Here we have a miserable girl, Nora, who is so unhappy with her life she decides to end it. There is not one specific thing, just a general meh that she doesn’t amount to much and nothing worked out the way she planned. (A delicate subject and I wonder if Haig knows his potential audience and is qualified to write this story? Anyway, moving on…). Apparently, when you attempt suicide (another term which rings alarm bells) and are hanging between life and death (not sure how you hit that fine balance), you get to go to a fantastical library (not in real life, you don’t), where someone in your past who you have respected and trusted will offer you the chance to explore all the permutations of what you could have done with your life and you can choose which one you’d like to go on with.

Rock star, glaciologist, academic with an adorable husband and child, motivational speaker and Olympian, dog handler with a sweet but dim boyfriend who lets the dogs sleep on the bed. Anything you want. So our suicidal girl explores every possible thing she could have done with her life and … you guessed it.

There’s a lot of philosophy here, well pitched for non-philosophers. In one life Nora discusses Schrödinger’s cat being, like her, both alive and dead. (I assume she is in hospital but that’s all a bit hazy and there is no concern for the people watching her life support machines). God gets a look in, as does physics (not scarily): “If I was religious,” [this is said by another person also exploring other lives; watch out for them, there may be millions of us in all our parallel universes] “I’d say it was God. And as God is probably someone we can’t see or comprehend then He—or She—or whatever pronoun God is—becomes an image of someone good we have known all our lives. And if I wasn’t religious—which I’m not—I would think that the human brain can’t handle the complexity of an open quantum wave function and so it organises or translates this complexity into something it understands…”

So Haig has translated this complexity into a librarian offering books in a library. Little bit of mansplaining here?

We get to the crux near the end, though we’d worked it out way back. “She realised that she hadn’t tried to end her life because she was miserable, but because she had managed to convince herself there was no way out of her misery.” Again, I don’t offer this as a spoiler but a suggestion that this light look at suicide might not be appropriate for all readers. It has the slight tinge of a bloke saying to a young woman, “Snap out of it, love, could be worse.”

The end is simple and cosy and even has the suggestion that Nora might invite the handsome doctor out for a coffee. A man doesn’t always have to make the first move, right?


I don’t know why I feel so guilty about not liking The Famished Road. I’ve been out of step with public opinion before and usually I stick to my guns and send everyone to hell, but in this case I’m inclined to think perhaps there is something missing in me. Booker Prize winners are often experimental — I’ve said before the runners-up usually make better reading. This novel has brilliant narrative technique perhaps, but all those spirit people wandering around, the myths and dreams never coalesced into anything I could make sense of. It’s not Okri, it’s me. My dreamier friends loved it.



Stephen Taylor’s The Calaban Shore is the story of the wreck of the East Indiaman (and don’t you love the imperiousness that goes with the ship’s type?), the Grosvenor in 1782. She wrecked on the coast of Pondoland, East Africa and 123 survivors made it ashore. Many, including the women and children, were abandoned (nice work, captain), others wandered off and died. A handful made it through to Cape Town and back to England. The story is in three sections: an introduction to the character’s lives India; the voyage and the wreck; and the centuries of investigations afterwards tracing the ship’s booty and the strange sightings of white women and their descendants in what is now East Cape province of South Africa.

There’s masses of technical details and years of very thorough research. I haven’t included this in the Books I Love section because the slightly patronising writing style has dated — the handling of race/women/class feels inappropriate in 2020 and the book needs to be read with the attitudes of 2004 in mind (which is fine, that’s part of history, too). But also because, like other books I’ve reviewed that are heavy on the research (eg The Hell Ship), Stephen Taylor has linked gaps in the facts with choppy fiction and a medley of quotations from various sources so we’re left with a book not one thing nor the other.

Shipwreck enthusiasts — go for it.


They told me Mantel had sorted out the pronoun problem that killed Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She hasn’t. I got to page seven, got lost trying to work out who was speaking seven times and thought: the book is 882 pages long. Not this time, Hilary.


Mars Room

Recommended by a good friend who knows I love a well-written yarn but obviously doesn’t know my absolute belief that every book need to be uplifting in some way. Even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is the most miserable stretch of dismal apocalyptic reading, was more hopeful than this story.

Here we have the surprisingly articulate Romy Hall telling her life story. I say surprisingly because although she apparently did OK at school, in early teens she headed for a life of drugs and prostitution and abuse. If she was as clever and insightful as her character appears, maybe she would have had the smarts to see some of this shit coming. She fights back and ends up in jail with no hope of being reunited with her young son. Still, she tells a good yarn with lots of interesting characters, also tragically fallen and nothing much good happens to any of them. The future is bleak. End of story.


Once again, I fine myself applauding Martha Jane Kelly for her research and her passion and railing against a poorly edited book (can’t believe I just said that. Who am I to criticise Penguin? And yet, here I go.) This could have been a great read. It has all the elements: a fascinating period in history with the Bolsheviks being bolshy and the White Russians fleeing their palaces. A cliffhanger at every chapter end. There are interesting characters with some power to change their lives and a workable plot line. But there are easily fixed flaws that spoilt the read for me. Just me, perhaps, so don’t worry, Penguin. You’ve got a million other readers for this. Continue reading “Books that don’t make the cut”

Damascus. Sex, violence & empathy

Damascus, by Christos Tsiolkas

This isn’t a book review as such because, a) I only review books I love, and, b) it is full of gratuitous violence which I abhor. The gratuitous violence, however, is the point of this post. And on a more positive note, in the real world we have progressed from the days when such violence was accepted without heed. Time to move on with our books?

Continue reading “Damascus. Sex, violence & empathy”

Call Me Evie – book review

Call Me Evie, by J P Pomare

Generally speaking I avoid books with red and black covers and an image of a traumatised girl. So much crime/horror treats murder, rape, kidnapping of young women as entertainment.

But I met the intelligent and likeable J P Pomare at the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival and realised all the fuss about his book might suggest I have my genres confused. “A top-rate psychological thriller,” said a friend in the know. “Literary suspense” said another. I decided to overcome my prejudice. I picked up red-and-black Evie.

I realised at once I had opened an unusual book.

Continue reading “Call Me Evie – book review”

Our History

Learning through stories

Its so exciting to get two Opinion Pieces on this topic within days of each other in the Dominion Post. Are we beating ourselves up about this, or what?

Karl du Frense (19.09.19): “I remember almost nothing of the history I learned at Secondary School.”  That’s because your teacher was bored witless, Karl! Brian would rather go off topic than do the dull stuff about what Governor George Grey did.

Lana Hart (23.09.19): “New Zealand history is boring, says my daughter” Lana explains that her poor child, by year 8, has done nothing other than the Treaty of Waitangi four times, which really is the wrong place to start.

Always start a history lesson with the people. Continue reading “Our History”

Taking the Long Road to Cairo – book review

Taking the Long Road to Cairo, by Ann Balcombe

Ann Balcombe’s story is of a fearless young woman who gets on a boat in Auckland and ends up, a couple of years later, in Cairo, via lots of big seas and a whole lot of road. It’s the 1970s.

There is a special place in history for intrepid women who sail across the world into the unknown and go exploring with open minds and courage. I’m in their boots in spirit.

Continue reading “Taking the Long Road to Cairo – book review”

Hurt Upon The Sea

Poetry in law

Where any Person,
being feloniously stricken,
poisoned,
or otherwise hurt upon the Sea,
or at any Place out of England or Ireland,
shall die of such Stroke,
Poisoning,
or Hurt
in England or Ireland, or,
being feloniously stricken,
poisoned,
or otherwise hurt
at any Place in England or Ireland,
shall die of such Stroke,
Poisoning,
or Hurt upon the Sea,
or at any Place out of England or Ireland,
every Offence committed in respect of any such Case,
whether the same shall amount to the Offence of Murder or of Manslaughter,
or of being accessory to Murder or Manslaughter,
may be dealt with,
inquired of,
tried,
determined,
and punished in the County or Place in England or Ireland in which such
Death,
Stroke,
Poisoning,
or Hurt shall happen,
in the same Manner in all respects as if such Offence
had been wholly committed
in that County or Place.

__________________________
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Congratulations Isabel Thorne

It’s just 150 years too late

I’m writing a book about a young student who goes from New Zealand to England to study medicine. Nothing unusual about that now, but this was 1883 and the student  – shock horror – was a woman!

My heroine, an invented young woman called Lenne, meets up with Isabel Thorne, a real pioneering women’s activist and one of the Edinburgh Seven, a group of feisty women who had been blocked from graduating from the University of Edinburgh because of their sex. The seven women go on to form the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874 and Thorne, still unqualified, becomes Honorary Secretary. She devotes her life to helping other women achieve the goal denied to her.

Continue reading “Congratulations Isabel Thorne”

Birds without wings – book review

Birds without wings by Louis de Bernières

God, this is horrific. If you’re looking for a sweet but deep sequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is what the bloke in our book club thought he was giving us, this is way out of your depth.

This is Turkey before, during and after WWI, the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t voluntarily read war stories, but this was for book club and having been brought up on the glorious allies, I was interested to read the perspective of the other side’s glorious allies. But I was sickened by the brutality and inhumanity in this story. De Bernières writes with such clarity and perception there are images painted in my head I will never wipe clean. Continue reading “Birds without wings – book review”

Running the Oromahoe Traverse

and killing characters on the run

I’m on a bit of a roll with my running around Paihia series. Here’s a good, one way, one hour run. The Oromahoe is a ridge-line run through the Opua Forest which ends in Paihia. It’s a little over 6km one way, with a few short, sharp ups and downs. You can’t get lost.

I went early for a gorgeous start to the morning. There are a few glimpses of view through the trees, but no real lookouts to the spectacular Bay of Islands, tantalisingly out of sight below. Continue reading “Running the Oromahoe Traverse”

The art of letter writing

Shipwrecks in cross-hatch

I spent a happy day in the Alexander Turnbull Library yesterday researching colonial goings on, and discovered that, in the 1850s, lots happened by letter. Introductions, demands, gossip, flirtations. News of shipwrecks and love wrecks and conflicts and strife. Thank-yous for gifts, shared notes on botany and invitations to the Governor’s ball.

These were original letters to hold carefully, from Governor and Lady Grey, Governor Fitzroy, colonial secretaries and adventurers and all their various correspondents. I found their loopy writing both marvellous and completely illegible.  There’s a skill or art to deciphering them that I think might require many hours. Luckily, most had transcripts into fuzzy typewritery courier – still a few generations behind the digital.

The Victorians wrote with great sweep and flourish, with confident and well practiced hands. Paper was precious, and yet they had very large writing on small pages, I’m guessing because they were using unwieldy nib pens and ink which needed long continuous strokes.  In order to economise they often cross-hatched, creating intricate designs of patterned penmanship, slanting gracefully across the page one way and another.

Today there seems to be an accepted truth that hand written letters are different to screen or typed letters. Do we believe a hand written love letter carries more love?  I think so. These weren’t love letters I was studying at the library, but there was a spooky intensity in them that I’ve never felt from a transcript. There has been a recent  resurgence in interest in letter writing – in the non-digital generally – but I don’t think the art will come back. These cross-hatched masterpieces are relics of a slower time, and when has a culture reverted to the less convenient?

A day wandering through a collection of 19th Century letters is moving and strangely restorative – it’s like time spent in an art gallery where stories and art come together as a whole.

 

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