Ribbons of Grace – Book review

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 – book review

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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A Room Made of Leaves—book review

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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We are all completely beside ourselves—book review

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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All our Shimmering Skies — book review

All our Shimmering Skies, by Trent Dalton

Like the gorgeously lush cover, this book is almost too sumptuously overgrown with luxuriant succulents to be true. If that sounds a mouthful, you should read Dalton’s descriptions of the Australian outback.

Molly, our spunky but naive child heroine, walks away from the bombing of Darwin and I was expecting Australian desert. But she walks through many variations of the cover picture. “… a stand of black wattles and soap trees with flat round black fruits and then down an avenue of trees with mottled cream-grey bark and stiff leaves exploding with small ripe red fruits. These tree clusters are all canopied by a dense climbing vine with orange-yellow flowers shaped like starfish …” I’m wondering what to make of this dreamy psychedelic landscape and the vividness of the descriptions, which are offered in stark contrast to the city in the background. The voice is often passive: “Seen from the orange-red sky above and looking down and closer in and closer in, they are three wanderers crossing a vivid floodplain cut by sinuous rivers and wide freshwater channels dotted with lily-fringed waterholes. The sun low and honeyed.” (Love that repetition and the honeyed sun.)

It seems a strange response to trauma. Unexpected, perhaps intriguing.

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The Mercies—book review

The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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!

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Half of a Yellow Sun —book review

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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.

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The Book of Two Ways – book review

The book of two ways, by Jodi Picoult

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.

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The Bright Side of My Condition — book review

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.

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Shuggie Bain — Book Review

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart

The poor wean. There’s love, but it’s inconsistent and unreliable, a selfish love given up in tiny doses. There’s food, occasionally, perhaps a tin of custard. I’m thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and realise Shuggie doesn’t even get off the ground floor. He can’t tick off a thing.

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