Milkman – book review

Milkman, by Anna Burns

Milkman was destined for my Books that don’t make the cut list, but I’ve had second thoughts and decided I really do love it. A year after nearly expiring from the sheer weight of reading it the first time I’m ready to go again. Eagerly ready, in fact, which is the sign of a good book. I don’t know many people who loved it straight off. It takes a bit of distance, perhaps.

To be sure (to be sure) this is one for a book club ready for a bit of a shot in the arm. It’s not a beach read. It’s one girl yabbering non-stop into your ear endlessly. She gives you it all, Northern Ireland in the 1970s through the eyes of a teenager who is trying to go about her life: work, family, boyfriend and avoid the big picture unavoidable stuff – like car bombs and the paramilitary, tribalism and her disturbing stalker, the Milkman. “He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him.” No, he’s a gang-boss thug and one of the creepiest characters I’ve met in recent literature.

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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 Secrets of Strangers—book review

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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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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The Telegram – book review

The Telegram by Philippa Werry

I love a good YA fiction that goes deep, and The Telegram by Philippa Werry certainly delivers. A young reader will enjoy the story of Beatrice cycling around her small kiwi town on her bike, changing from a schoolgirl to a young woman with the harrowing responsibility of delivering telegrams during the first world war. She makes and loses friends, delivers news of celebration and (more often) tragedy to families, writes letters as she waits for the boy next door to return from the front, and celebrates the war’s end just as the ‘flu rolls into town.  Continue reading “The Telegram – book review”

American Dirt – book review

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

The book opens with a mass-shooting at a family gathering in Acapulco, Mexico. Luca, eight years old, is in the toilet. His mother, who has been waiting in the corridor, bundles him into the shower enclosure and “is clinched around him like a tortoise shell”.

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Pachinko – book review

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko does exactly what a good book should; it takes you somewhere else and shows you the world through different eyes. A story has to make normal to us what may seem strange, and to explain the world enough so the reader understands the observations without the narrator being too “telly”.  This is hard to do across a cultural divide but in this epic story, Min Jin Lee gives us full immersion.

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Lenny’s Book of Everything – book review

Lenny’s Book of Everything, by Karen Foxlee

I was up at 3am crying this morning. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep and I thought I’d read a quick chapter of Lenny’s Book of Everything, ended up finishing the book and bawling my eyes out. Some books do that to you. This is one of them.

Audience-wise it’s a cross-over book, equally for teens and adults, about a young girl’s world. The voice is so honest and appealing, I can’t imagine anyone starting to reading this and not want to sit down with Lenny and hear her story. She is totally engaging.

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Spearo – book review

Spearo, by Mary-anne Scott

If you’re a kiwi and you go to the beach, here’s a tip: read this story and learn about spear fishing. I had no idea it was a thing. I thought fishing at sea involved sitting passively for hours on a boat until a tug on the line left you dealing with whatever Neptune sent you. But a “spearo” goes beneath the surface, free diving, and gets to know the fish in their own environment. This is not someone sitting comfortably on a boat having a random tug of war with some poor fish they may not even want. A spearo goes out to get dinner. Continue reading “Spearo – book review”

The Dutch House – book review

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

The portrait of the girl in the red coat is of Maeve, and this is her story.

We come at this fact obliquely, as the narrator is Danny, her much younger brother.

I love this painting, presented on the cover of the book. I referred back to it many times as I read to bring Maeve into the room with me. She looks a damn good kid, but with a bit of spirit. Sharp. Initially, the painter is brought to the Dutch House to paint Maeve’s mother, who decides she is having none of it. So Maeve stares out at the painter throughout several long sittings, a little bit in love with him, but she keeps to her seat, steady and calm, the still focus of the house while things go on around her.

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