Small Things Like These – book review

Small Things like These, by Claire Keegan

The Magdalen laundries, tool of the Catholic Church and Irish state, was closed down in 1996, to abject disgrace. In 2013 the Irish government gave a much belated apology to the women who had suffered in these prisons of forced labour. Women who had ‘fallen’ and needed to be removed from society. Some thirty thousand women are estimated to have been incarcerated, their babies adopted out. A shocking number of babies died.

Fallen. That word. Young women ‘fell’ pregnant. Their fault for being a bit clumsy, tripping up because they weren’t paying attention.

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Kāwai – book review

Kawai, by Monty Soutar

We seem to have been waiting such a long time for this book. Kāwai is truly groundbreaking and I hope that it clears the way for more stories in this historical and cultural setting. So what’s the big deal with Kāwai and why has it been so phenomenally successful?

Firstly, no one has published such an epic saga of Māori life before, and the timing now is impeccable. It seems Soutar has been coming all his life to be writing this story now (for such a time as this), when not only does he have the necessary contacts and learning and experience, but there is an audience with a huge appetite for stories and discussions of our history and people. Just look at how the bestsellers lists over the past three or four years have been dominated by things Māori. We’re open and primed for a big, readable Māori story that would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten years ago. And here it is and it’s fascinating.

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The Axeman’s Carnival – book review

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey

Last book of the year and an absolute favourite. I devoured this in a couple of long sessions after Christmas and it’s a splendid read, just perfect to take on holiday (or mooch in the hammock at home ignoring things, as I did). I hand on heart recommend this to anyone. It’s such a great yarn. Very rural kiwi.

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Demon Copperhead – book review

Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver

Yes, yes, yes. Can Barbra Kingsolver write yet another ground-breakingly brilliant novel? Can this intellectual powerhouse of a woman, at 67, write convincingly as a troubled, drug addled, abused orphaned boy? And finally: how on earth does she do this – is she a shape-shifter? As to the question: do you have to read David Copperfield first to understand Demon Copperhead? The answer is no. The book stands on its own, the nod to Dickens a realisation that the societal blindness of 170 years ago hasn’t changed. The bottom of the pile still stinks.

Hillbillies. They’re a bit of a joke, surely? It’s an historical term for unsophisticated, rural folk who live in the boondocks and marry their cousins. This story takes us there, into the hills of Lee County, Virginia, to the deprivations of trailer-life poverty and a boy, Damon, growing up hungry in a fully dysfunctional life. They try to own the word “hillbilly” but it still owns them.

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Through the Lonesome Dark–book review

Through the Lonseome Dark, by Paddy Richardson

It’s the early 1900s and Pansy is living poor on the West Coast in Blackball, which apparently is a charming town these days. Pansy’s a smart kid. Smarter than her pa. Today you’d hope this would be a positive thing and she would be given every opportunity to make use of her talents, to be educated and offered the chances that would help a small town girl rise to fulfill her potential. You’d hope that someone would notice the bruising on her face and not turn away.

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The Fish – book review

The Fish, by Lloyd Jones

This is a family story where an off-the-rails daughter living in a caravan gives birth to a fish. Our narrator (first person, never named, so I’ll call him the Fish’s uncle) is pretty clear about this. The thing being held up to be admired is an oddity, slightly revolting, not quite human. A thing with a gulping lips, a rubbery mouth. With gills, and an overwhelming fishy smell. What kind of creature the baby is we never really learn and this makes the whole story intensely curious. Although the Fish’s uncle refers to ‘it’ and ‘the Fish’ or ‘our Fish’ throughout, the others give it a masculine pronoun and the Fish is named after his grandfather, Colin Montgomery. The Fish grows up and goes to school, leaves school, goes to work in the family junk yard, goes on holiday. He may be a boy with some kind of horrendous congenital disability or the horror may belong to the view of the Fish’s uncle but we, the readers, are unwillingly (for me, anyway) made complicit in the relegation of the Fish to ‘freak’. The Fish is part of the family and loved even, with a kind of every-family-has-its-cross-to bear embarrassment, but an object who is is given no internal life of his own. We meet him as onlookers – never communicate directly with him, never try to understand.

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Still Life–book review

Still Life, by Sarah Winman

After a strange first chapter this book leaps into absolute gorgeousness and oh God! It helps that I read it in Italy. The Allied Troops are waiting to enter Florence. With them, is a young man, Ulysses Temper, and his Captain Darnley. Darnley has seen to it that the younger man should fall in love with Italy. “A little over a month before, they’d driven up to Orvieto, a city built on a huge rock overlooking the Paglia Valley. They’d sat on the bonnet of the jeep and drunk red wine out of their canteens as bombers roared overhead towards Mount Cetona, the boundary of Tuscany. They’d stumbled into the cathedral, into the San Brizio chapel, where Luca Signorelli’s masterpiece of the Last Judgement could be found. Neither of them believers, the images had still held them to account.” As they drive away their jeep is waved down by Evelyn Skinner, art historian, who needs a lift.

The dialogue between Evelyn and Ulysses is perfect. English, clipped, wry funny, understated. You can tell these two are going to be friends for life. In the fast way of two people who click but realise they will probably never meet again, Evelyn sums herself up.  Kent. Sixty-four. Unmarried. Childless. We feel she’s also posh, independent and full of zing. He’s: London. Twenty-four. Married, no kids. He tells her he’s the son of a globe maker. “Find a Temper & Son globe and you’ll find my mum’s name hidden somewhere on the surface.” Lots of little villages called Nora. How romantic is that?

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The Reindeer Hunters-book review

The Reindeer Hunters, by Lars Mytting

It’s been a while since I read The Bell in the Lake (which I loved). The Reindeer Hunters is the second in Mytting’s Sister Bells trilogy and I do recommend you read/refresh the opening novel first, mainly because it’s so damn good but also because this next would be hard to navigate without the earlier history of the Stave Church and how it came to be in Dresden and what happened to Astrid and the bells and who were the Henke Sisters…and so on. It is a complicated plot spanning a few generations and secrets.

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Oh William! –book review

Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout

I read this in one sitting (long haul flight) and was totally consumed. Our narrator Lucy talks directly to the reader, repeating herself, I mean, repeating herself like a speaker would, telling you what she’s going to tell you, and then telling it, and there’s an easy rhythm to her chat. This is an intimate memoir of New Yorker, Lucy Barton, and her ongoing affection for her ex-husband, the titular William, with the oh! representing all the times she feels sorrow for him, or frustration, or exasperation, or pathos. There’s a lot of Oh Williams! because she does still care, deeply, about this man, the father of their two daughters who, after they split, went on to other wives and lovers and then found himself, in his seventies, alone, with no one to tell him his trousers are too short. Oh William!

(My kids ‘oh Mum!’ me. I know how many different ways there are to say it).

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A Fish in the Swim of the World – book review

A Fish in the Swim of the World, by Ben Brown

Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī, Ngāti Paoa) is a story teller. His stories are philosophical and luminous and funny and intellectual and they plunge from one mood to the other without missing a beat. I spent a week in a van driving around Taranaki with him recently and our conversations changed me, though it’s hard to say exactly how.

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