Ribbons of Grace by Maxine Alterio
‘Early this morning the sun rose round as an orange and hot as the fires of love, warming the already dust-dry ground outside Con-Lan’s schist cottage, while inside the whitewashed walls gleamed like skin on a pail of milk.’
Maxine Alterio’s writing is transporting. I copied phrases of this evocative elegance onto scraps of paper and peppered my desk with them. How’s this to set your mind soaring?
‘In the gorge the ice-heavy river resembles a mass of broken glass. On either side poppy seeds, dropped from the soles of boots worn by miners from California, germinate in pockets of dirt and shingle. Soon they will flower again and hang like coloured lanterns from the cliffs.’
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The Rose Code by Kate Quinn
Bletchley Park is all about the Enigma machine and Alan Turing who broke the German codes and won the war, pretty much single-handedly, right?
It’s quite alarming how a good story comes to dominate the historical narrative. On the periphery of Turin’s story is a cast of thousands, and The Rose Code, with barely a mention of Turin, brings these outsiders to the core and shines a light on their extraordinary achievements.
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I haven’t been up the Peak for a while. Always an excuse: my run buddy’s busy, haven’t got time, too unfit, too bloody cold. Easier to do a quick run around the reserve and tell myself I’ll get back on the Peak tomorrow.
I went today. It was hard. I was on my own and unfit but it was a pretty beaut winter’s afternoon — couldn’t complain that it was cold. I had my head down on the steep bits.
When I looked up, there were a couple of eyebrows lifting over the Peak, elegant as Judy Garland’s. Paragliders. Drifting on some warm air cushion that rises up under the cliffs on the other side of the hill. They belonged up there in the air, lazily cruising the blue.
It’s good to stop and look up. There are lots of reasons for running, far more than there are for not running. Paragliders on the Peak is one. I’ll remind myself of the others as I get back out onto the trails.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This is a story about twin teenage girls who escape small town life and head for the city. It is about identity and judgement and racism is on every page, much of it ostensibly black on black though the lynching of the girls’ father shows this colour preoccupation is far more than cosmetic in the context of 1950s Louisiana. There’s a lot in this small book.
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History is people, and it’s the charismatic ones who live on in our imaginations. Today, to celebrate Jerningham Wakefield’s 201st birthday, here is an extract of his journals from August 1841. Some of his assumptions are uncomfortable today, some of his observations prescient, but judge the boy in context (where he is still problematic) and enjoy his lively voice. He was twenty-one when he wrote this.
In Wellington, progress had been made in the signs of civilisation. A large and well-furnished chemist’s shop, with the due allowance of red bottles and blue blue bottles, and glass jars full of tooth-brushes and sponges, and gay labels of quack pill and ointments, showed a broad front to the beach near Barrett’s hotel.
As this shop, which gloried in the sonorous title of ‘Medical Hall’, was close to the usual place of disembarkation for passengers, it became a much frequented morning lounge; especially as Dr. Dorset and another of our oldest medical friends were partners in the establishment. Many other equally gay shops began to ornament the bustling beach. Two clever rope-makers had begun the pursuit of their trade on a large scale, using the phormium tenax as prepared by the natives; and they received ample support from all classes, there being a considerable demand for small rope for the running rigging of ships, fishing-nets, and whale-lines for the stations in the Strait.
Rangihaeata and his followers had destroyed some of the bridges on the Porirua bridle-road, and in some places trees were purposely felled across the narrow path with a view to prevent the easy passage of travellers.
Tonight we’ll be putting on top hats (instant power) and eating pork, potatoes and puha and we’ll toast him a happy birthday. I’ll see if I can find a bottle of Hokianga red.
The Secrets of Strangers, by Charity Norman
Next time you are in a café, pretend to be Charity Norman and imagine a backstory for everyone in the room. I heard her talk last week and she explained that this was how she came to write the The Secrets of Strangers, just looking around patrons in a café and imagining their stories. One customer knows she has just failed IVF again and is waiting for the confirmation, she’s on a timeline for court and has four minutes to pick up a coffee. Another is an ex-teacher with a gambling addiction, sleeping rough. A boy comes in for breakfast with his grandmother and he will need saving first. There’s a woman who has escaped such atrocities in her homeland it is hard to believe she still functions but she is rock solid and kind to strangers. The girl behind the counter plays too easily with others’ emotions; one man gaslights and manipulates and is about to get shot and one is so traumatised he will pull the trigger.
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A Room Made of Leaves, by Kate Grenville
John Macarthur was a British lieutenant who sailed on the second fleet to Botany Bay in 1790 with his wife and child. By all accounts he is a thoroughly nasty man, quarrelsome and jealous. As he manipulates his way to grants of land and stock his influence and holdings increase dramatically. This much is recorded history. But he is not the hero of this story.
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Shackleton’s Endurance, an Antarctic survival story, by Joanna Grochowicz
Complained about the cold lately? Snowflake! Shackleton’s Endurance will knock that out of you. Comparatively, you have never been cold.
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We are all completely beside ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Second time round for this book. I read it when it first came out in 2013 and it took a while to recognise it because the title sounds too frivolous for the book it becomes, and the story starts on a bit of a side note. A couple of girls in a canteen meeting and becoming friends. But then our narrator mentions her sister, Fern, and it all came flooding back and made me very uncomfortable all over again.
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Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
I was so excited when I saw the new Ishiguro on the bookshelf. His previous: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are wonderful books, full of insight and character that leave you thinking deep philosophical thoughts and spark great conversations.
Sadly, I found Klara and the Sun — seems almost sacrilegious to say so — boring.
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