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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Girl, Woman, Other – book review

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

This is not so much a novel as a commitment. There are a lot of lives here and they all ask you to take the time to read, to listen, to understand. Don’t skimp on this book. Don’t try to squeeze it in with quick gulps when your mind is elsewhere.

I found the level of intimacy from strangers a bit overwhelming to begin with. These are straight talking and honest women sharing their experiences from a cross-section of black Britain. They take you right into the living room and sit you down. There are twelve main characters who tell their stories in separate chapters, up and down the generations and all loosely linked. The bunch is tied together at the end in a party.

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Pure – book review

Pure, by Andrew Miller

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.

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Happiness — book review

Happiness, by Aminatta Forna

This is the story of two people who meet on a bridge crossing the Thames in London. He is from Ghana, a speaker at a psychology conference. She’s an American biologist making a study of urban foxes.

Different disciplines, different backgrounds and different food preferences, but in everything that matters to the heart and soul, these two hum the same tune. Rather beautifully, as the reader can see, but it takes them a while to be aware of this, which of course is the achingly poignant crux of any great love story.

And this is a love story, though a slow burning one that branches out and back to previous loves, and encompasses a lot else besides.

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This Farming Life – book review

This Farming life, by Tim Saunders

Wake up and smell the sheep shit. Seriously. This book is so full of the smells of childhood I’m twelve years old again and on a farm holiday, awake before dawn in a drafty room excited about bottle feeding the lambs.

It’s different, of course, because this isn’t a holiday for Saunders and his family but their full-time lived experience; five generations on this land that they tend with deep affection and with a longevity that gives perspective to the everyday problems of farmers. There’s time. The budget can wait until after lambing. The planting will wait till the rain clears. The price for wool wont pay for the shearing this year and the crop prices are falling — these are long term problems they’ve faced before and they’re still here. They’ll sort it.

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