The Naturalist – book review

The naturalist, by Thom Conroy (more fan fiction than book review!)

I feel a bit cheeky writing a review of Thom Conroy because he is a teacher of writing and I am a student (different institutions and I’ve never met him), but also because he’s writing about my blokes. Or I’m writing about his.

It’s something you do need to come to terms with, when you write historical fiction, that your characters are not, in fact, your blokes. Thom Conroy’s book, The Naturalist, is the story of Ernst Dieffenbach, who was a member of the New Zealand Company’s 1839 colonial expedition.  He sailed on the Tory with The Colonel and Jerningham Wakefield, Charles Heaphy, Captain Chaffers and their gang.

They’re all historical characters (and my goodness, they are characters) and Thom Conroy has written a wonderful fictional account of how they all got along together. Which is not very well, most of the time, except for the rather gracious Charles Heaphy, who got along with everybody.

I’m a student this year, of creative writing, and I’m writing a book about the above mentioned Jerningham Wakefield, one of the more outrageous characters in Conroy’s tale. I have my first draft of 100,000 words and Jerningham has romped through them, heartily pissing off Dieffenbach, the Colonel, Captain Chaffers and even the mild mannered Heaphy. (No one, anywhere, has ever written a bad word about Heaphy. He’s one of God’s good men, everyone says so, and every story needs one good man.)

But I am writing about Jerningham and I love him very much, in the way a mother loves her son; with indulgence and exasperation and a hope that he will, one day, grow out of the booze.  Conroy doesn’t love him so much. I’m glad I wrote my book before reading Conroy’s, because I formed my judgement first and when you meet a new bloke, first impressions count.

They’re up for grabs, these characters, and I’m starting to realise that using historical people in a novel is a bit like writing fan fiction.  There’s no copyright, they’re been dead well over 100 years and any author can take them anywhere.  Dieffenbach, Jerningham, Heaphy and co. all wrote compelling journals so there is plenty of source material, and once you get gripped by the Victorian character of these extraordinary men a kind of magic takes place – they come alive, start arguing with one another and acting up.  I know Jerningham comes down at night and raids my booze cupboard.

Thank you, Thom Conroy. Reading The Naturalist makes me feel we’ve met through mutual friends, and you’ve told me a story about them in a new way, and added to my understanding of the lives of these tenacious, complex men.

Beware the Thesaurus

How to ride a thesaurus

A thesaurus can be a marvelous animal to help find an appropriate word for your writing, the perfect little word to contain everything you’re trying to say elegantly and so simply your readers will understand immediately the mot juste.

The Economist’s vocab survey of 2013 says most native English speakers have a vocabulary of 20,000–35,000 words which seems a lot to choose from without needing to reach for a thesaurus.  Readers (particularly fiction readers) will have a much wider vocabulary than non-readers, see below.  If you want to write with an authentic voice, the word in your head is usually the best.

Writers, I know, often have an inbuilt thesaurus, but this is a very personal thing. Innocuous word such as “member” or “lay” will flash different alternatives in the lexicon of a parliamentary writer and a writer of bodice-rippers, and I mean flash there in the sense of display, not flaunt, show off, or expose one’s genitals.

For most of us, good writing is about taking words out. Edit until a thought is clear on the page, and perhaps then a thesaurus might help with precision.

Tame your thesaurus and use him to gobble up your prose and spit only the good bits out, perfectly regurgitated.  Never ride your thesaurus at a gallop. Walk him through your writing in reverse, to condense long, complicated descriptions into clean, tight text.

You are not in a confrontational predicament on meeting a Thesaurus in the wild. You’re in the shit.

Vocabulary by age reading habit.jpg

economist.com/johnson/2013/05/29/lexical-facts

The Eight Mountains – book review

The Eight Mountains, by Paulo Cognetti

I’m often asked to recommend books for blokes.

While I hesitate to divide literature into shades of pink and blue, I’m going to put my neck out here and say I think there is a difference in the way men and women experience books. I could probably draw an intersection pie chart with a crossover middle bit (there is a big chunk that belongs to women alone and a smaller chunk for hard-core boys – and I don’t mean that in  top-shelf kind of way, I mean car chases and adventures and explosions).

I belong to a bloke’s book club, which is very different to the all women clubs I have belonged to where we talk about the symbolism and the metaphors and the lovely writing. The boys are a bit more nuts and bolts and they want the ideas without particularly worrying about the package.

Paulo Cognetti doesn’t wow with fancy writing here.  This is sparse prose, cleanly cut, cool and clear as the mountains (oops – a simile, cut it out!) It’s the coming of age story of a nice Italian boy called Peitro who gets irritated by his father and doesn’t seem able to find a way back to him, which is very sad but so very real, I thought.

He also loses his childhood friend during adolescence, a local peasant boy from the village where Peitro’s family holiday so his father can climb the mountains.  But he finds Bruno again and they climb over a few obstacles into an adult friendship and the kind of kinship that escaped Pietro with his dad.

Pietro’s father goes uphill and his son chooses the path of less obsession, as most teenagers would, down in the village and then out in the world. But he is his father’s son and later in life his mountain backdrop is the Himalayas.  It is Bruno who manages to meet Peitro’s father on his own terms, you can’t blame the old man for welcoming the company of the substitute son.

What a lot father and son would have had to talk about together if a) they could articulate their feelings and b) they would talk to each other. See why I think this is a bloke’s book? Blokes know this.

Later, Bruno and Peitro together build the Italian mountain equivalent of a man cave but they take turns in their isolation, the lonely setting begetting lonely lives. You know it can’t go any other way.  Don’t go there blokes, go back down to the village, don’t lose your community. Reach out. Arrgggh. Blokes!

No car chases or explosions, but plenty of adventures up mountains and into the soul.

 

 

 

 

Decline & Fall on Savage Street – book review

Decline & Fall on Savage Street, by Fiona Farrell

A lot happens. It says this in the blurb.

So don’t go thinking you can just whizz through this as you would a normal novel. You need to go in with the right attitude, with a predisposition to enjoy Fiona Farrell (I do!) and a realisation that some novels don’t have obvious characters you get to know and love and follow on a journey.

The character on a journey in Farrell’s Decline & Fall on Savage Street is a house.  It took me a while to understand this, (and apparently she has written a non-fiction book about this house so perhaps I should have come better prepared) so for a while I floundered around with characters disappearing just as I got interested and a whole new set of people coming in. It reads more like a set of short stories, chronologically spanning 100 years, with each story bringing characters who live in the same house with their personalities and tribulations – from our perspective we see a house, but of course for every new arrival it is their home, they move their baggage in and own it.

As a collection of short stories this book is very rewarding and the format works really well, I love the fact that we get to know the house better than the characters themselves because we’ve been inhabiting it, along with all the former tenants, since it was built.

But she’s clever, Fiona Farrell, and this is also a story of another character that lives under the bank of the river, undisturbed (mostly) by the turmoil of change and war and earthquakes. In contrast to the lot that happens to the humans above, nothing happens to the eel for a very, very long time. Or if something happens, it is the drop of a leaf onto the water. We feel her ageing not in the time it takes to read the pages, but in the span of frantic, scrabbling activity that happens ashore. Her story made me feel old. But every story has a climax, and even for the eel, eventually something happens.

Each human chapter starts and ends with a missing line which drove me mad. I guess it is to show we are dipping in and out of a story, but this is a book for intelligent readers and we know that. A kind editor should have said, let’s not do this.

I wont specifically remember any of the characters in this story, they passed by too fast,  but the house and the eel will stay with me forever.

 

Also by Fiona Farrell, if you love good New Zealand writing, is:
Mr Allbones’ Ferrets – Book Review

 

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets – Book Review

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets, by Fiona Farrell

If you’re a library browser, pick this one up – although in the Hastings City Library you’ll have to look in the Science Fiction category (and I’m not sure whether to be the smart-arse and tell them or not).

Fiona Farrell’s Mr Allbones’ Ferrets is lovely historical fiction set in my favourite era, mid-19th Century, when those Victorians were exporting their exuberant passions all over the globe and wreaking havoc on the balance of things.

It’s a strangely paced book – all build up to the journey, and then the shock and resolution is hasty. Farrell wrote this over a decade (and many books) ago and I’ll review her latest book next (Decline and Fall on Savage Street) which is a masterpiece of pace – though again, unconventional.

There’s lots of unconventionality to enjoy in Mr Allbone. He is a young poacher and his speciality is ferrets, which he uses to flush out rabbits for the pot. He has a clutch of young ‘uns at home to feed – brothers and sisters. His mother lies beneath the wild garlic outside St Peter’s wall (a typically understated, but telling phrase). Along with the nest at home Allbones himself is ferret-like; a “skinny lad, the runt of the litter who had grown quick and cunning and able to squeeze his way though any gap or cranny, scaling soffit and drainpipe, up trees, under hedges.”

Farrell gives us lots of fascinating detail about ferret life: catching, keeping, illnesses and breeding. Lots about breeding, how to put the cob to the slut, never the other way around or he could kill her, leave them for a couple of ferocious hours and then sometimes it is necessary to drag the cob off because they don’t know when to stop. Etc.

Allbones has the job of collecting ferrets to take to the colony of New Zealand because previous settlers took rabbits. You can sing it to the tune of:  I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.

He (of course) falls for the beautiful and enigmatic Eugenia, whose thoughts and feelings remain obscure. She is the granddaughter of Allbones’ employer and is both extremely observant of animals and beguilingly naive of people. Poor kid.

The period detail is expertly executed and full of sound and colour. Farrell is particularly evocative with her smells; the stench of 412 humans, 202 caged ferrets, 66 stoats, 82 weasels and 3200 pigeons (plus stray rats, mice, seabirds and the odd shark dissected on deck) in a tub in the tropical heat seems to be part of my memory now, as if I had been on board the Adam and Eve as she sailed south. It is as unpleasant as the story that is unexpectedly burst open as they race across the roaring 40s to New Zealand.

There’s an earlier name swap which hangs over the book and for which I expect a resolution which doesn’t happen. That’s distracting. And the whimsical, rather emotionless ending is disturbing. But the Victorians were a disturbing lot, with their twisted morality and God given authority to take what they want and rearrange the world to their liking.

And, often as not, they got away with it.

It’s a quick book, a good one as a Book Club read on the lighter side but still with lots of fascinating topics, big and small, to discuss and excellent writing from a very polished New Zealand author.

 

Here’s another Fiona Farrell, very different, equally good: Decline & Fall on Savage Street – book review

 

 

 

Golden Hill – Book Review

Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

Oh, what a lot of fun this book is! Step off the ship in the  New York harbour of 1746 with Richard Smith, an entertaining young wag with a cheeky way about him, as he looks and smells and gets into all sorts of trouble hanging around town for 60 days waiting for his £1,000 cheque to clear.

Finance was complicated in those days – lots of currencies in paper and coin and gold – and Smith had a very large cheque. Why? He’s not telling. Not us, not the merchants to whom he presents his cheque and not any of the worthies about town who think perhaps, he is a French spy.  This is the puzzle that keeps us turning the pages and the American gossips on their toes.

I would have been happy with a few more clues to the mystery, though some of the blokes at book club claimed to have been suspicious in the right direction, so maybe I was just being thick. It was one of those annoying plots where the almighty twist is revealed in the last chapter and you have to read the whole thing over again in the know. Sometimes I want to know the score before the game, especially if it’s a brilliant win.  I was irritated by  Life of Pi  for this reason – did anyone [spoiler alert] guess the tiger was the cook all along? Or who the annoying guest narrator was in Chidley’s The Wish Child?

Actually, an odd narrator jumps into Golden Hill too, just a couple of times, and appears at the end as the unlikely author. I bet Spufford had to argue to get that one past his editor.

But read this book for the creaking of rigging from the ships riding at anchor and the stink of the town: “A little fish, a little excrement; guts here, shit there; but no deep patination of filth, no cloacal rainbow for the nose in shades of brown, no staining of the air in sewer dyes.”  Yum.

Look up cloacal if you don’t know what it means. I love a book that has better vocab than my spell check.

And here’s a description of a staircase that puts you inside an old, dark, Dutch house (think of the rich tones in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring): “Stray gleams of polish showed the placing of the banisters and newel posts; picture frames set faint rumours of gold around rectangles of darkness or curious glitters too shadowed to make out, as if Lovell had somehow collected, and drowned, a stairwell’s-worth of distant constellations.”

Lots of his descriptions are like this; layered, multi-sensual, slightly chaotic.

There is a character cast that reflects the theme of the book, which boils down to the fact that things are not what they seem. “I know why a magician claps his hands,” says the inconstant Tabitha, who begins as the pretty daughter of the banker but turns into so much more: trickster, betrayer, love interest, caustic fence, forgiver, and eventually – well. Read the book. She is one of the most interesting characters I have met for a long time, but you have to work it out. They didn’t know in the 18th Century.   Septimus is not just the foppy Governor’s man, Terpie takes her clothes off, Smith shocks the town and the slave Archilles – but here again the author claps his hands and your attention is diverted elsewhere.

I am respecting the tradition of book reviews here by keeping mum, but there is a VERY BIG ELEPHANT on this page and I want to tell you to come back when you have read the ending so we can discuss what a £1,000 buys in the market in New York and what it all means. Did you think it was just a romping travel story?

Clap clap. Think again.

 

 

 

Sticking with Pigs – Book review

Sticking with pigs, by Mary-anne Scott

A fourteen year old boy, wrapped lovingly in cotton wool, goes out into the New Zealand bush with his uncle on a hunting expedition.

His parents have good cause to worry. The boy’s named Wolf, so you know they’re not precious by nature (named for Wolfgang Mozart, but sounds like his parents love a rough diamond to me). But Wolf has a chronically sick brother whose illness, as it would, dominates every safety decision and going hunting is not a walk in the park.

Lots of kids say they’d like to go hunting. I’ve never hunted, but I have friends who say they’d like to come tramping with me – a shadow version of a hunt but involving going bush with plenty of frightening-lite experiences. Mostly the friends are all talk and no trousers; when you start describing the hill tracks and the bare huts and the long-drops the enthusiasm wanes.

To Wolf’s credit, he trains up and off he goes with his uncle Jem and the dogs and the knife (no rifle, because to appease Wolf’s gun-shy parents, as the title says, they’re sticking with pigs), up the long haul to the ridge line, deep into the NZ bush. Scott doesn’t give a location, could be anywhere, but feels like the Ruahines to me.

If a kid can learn instinct, this is where he learns it.

There are wasps and pig shit, steeper and steeper hills, gullies, water and bush. I won’t give the story away but yes, there’s a pig. Then the trouble starts and Wolf gets his coming-of-age challenge slammed down on top of him, as raw and as kiwi as you like.

There’s a girl and a man’s mate at the edge of the story. I recognise both these characters. She’s an outdoor chick, handy with a GPS and long treks up the hills, practical, good in a crisis. I can see why Wolf fancies her. Uncle Jem’s mate has a pre-packed rescue kit and will walk through the night, no question, not much conversation. Everyone needs a mate like him.

Sticking with Pigs is probably aimed at reluctant young teen readers. But it’s also great entertainment for avid middle aged story-gobblers.