Lincoln in the Bardo – book review

A caveat before I put this on the book club list. It may be just too weird for many people, and there is no shame in that. It won the Booker in 2017 and follows my usual rule: read everything on the Booker short-list and avoid the winner, which will be be too edgy for its own good (it is sandwiched between Milkman & Sellout, two obvious cases in point).

However, if you’re willing to try something a bit different, and your book club has been a bit samey for a while and needs a re-boot: here you go.

Lincoln in the Bardo is the kind of book best read drunk. Continue reading “Lincoln in the Bardo – book review”

The Smuggler’s Wife – book review

Kitty, Amber & Band of Gold, by Deborah Challinor

These books are a lot of fun. I defy anybody to read just the one. And I’ve just seen there is a fourth, published after a six year (and at least 5 book) gap. Hooray! I’m going back in. Continue reading “The Smuggler’s Wife – book review”

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke – book review

The Imaginary lives of James Pōneke, by Tina Makereti

Interesting book!
Tina Marereti is long listed for the Ockham Book awards and I so hope she wins. That’s unfair, because I haven’t read any of the others, (yet, but if you send them, I will, I will!)  But if you’ve been following my book reviews you’ll know by now that I’m a sucker for Victorian era fiction and this one’s a corker. Continue reading “The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke – book review”

Unsheltered – book review

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

Other reveiws of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered focus on the political; the coy way that Trump shadows the book but is never mentioned by name, the crisis in mid-America in employment, health, etc, our hurtle towards ecological crisis. It has all this; it is trademark Kingsolver.

But I read the book very literally.  To be unsheltered is a primal fear. Unsheltered gave me goosebumps. It is as threatening as a horror story, more so because the menace lies in the undercurrents while things on the surface look good enough. Continue reading “Unsheltered – book review”

Elizabeth and her German Garden – book review

Elizabeth and her German garden, by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Here’s my pick for a Christmas gift for a woman who likes reading and gardening, and doesn’t go at things in a rush. It’s for someone who takes time over words and soil, someone who stops to look at dew on a spider’s web and who, when you drop by over Christmas, is invariably in a flowering sunny nook with a book.

It’s a turn of the Century book (20th Century, that is) in which a young English woman marries a German count and bucks established conventions, opting to leave city society and live in his country pile, where she is obsessed with being outdoors and working in the garden.

She refers to her husband as the Man of Wrath though he is a long suffering dear, who humors her and visits when he can and gives her a generous budget for her mulches and compost though appears quite bewildered by the oddball he has married. She says it must be agreeable to have an original wife, he counters that she is eccentric.  Her three daughters are the April baby, the May baby, and the June baby and are all “inoffensive and good” and are released by the nurse periodically to wander the gardens with their distracted mother.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, is learning how her garden grows. Her gardener has planted rockets right along the very front of the two borders and now the plants behind are completely hidden.  “No future gardener shall be allowed to run riot in quite so reckless a fashion.” But she is charmed by the delicate colour of the rockets and their scent, she picks them to bring inside to the room is filled with their fragrance. She experiments with planting in long grass, she puts pansies in the rose beds and makes a great bank of azeleas in front of the fir trees to brighten up a gloomy nook.

The extent of Elizabeth’s garden and obsession is far beyond what most of us consider gardening, but between monologues about over-wintering of tea roses and the planting of annual larkspurs around the privet hedge she does consider wider issues of a woman’s place in the world, the foibles of society and the benefits of me-time (my words, she calls it wintering all alone, which is disapproved of by the German matrons).  She has visits from two friends, one she likes, the other they pick on, and when the visitors get too much, Elizabeth escapes to her garden.

Elizabeth and her German Garden is a lovely read. It has a gentle pace and a spirited heroine, through she does little other than walk around her flower beds. I’m no large-scale gardener and was a bit overwhelmed by the plants and flowers she describes in all their glory and through every season, but very much enjoyed her enthusiasm and love for them all, the poetry of the writing and the fact that a woman can be so happy in her eccentricity.

Mr Peacock’s Possessions – book review

Mr Peacock’s possessions, by Lydia Syson

Lydia Syson’s Mr Peacock’s Possessions sets the characters and the scene slowly – you need to understand the background before you can follow the story. So don’t be impatient, sit quietly as the curious and impulsive Kalala introduces you to his life in the Pacific, his brother, the pastor Solomona, and their small group of god fearing men who are shipped to an island where a white man and his family are struggling to settle.

Lizzie’s story comes next, she tells of family life on an isolated island, the difficulties faced by her mother and many children as they live castaway style, and the struggles of her delicate older brother, who is a disappointment to their very physical and driven father. Lizzie is her father’s favourite and she loves him unreservedly. Until she has to confront a truth that questions all she believes of him.

The family are swindled by a ship’s captain, they suffer rats and weevils and have some small successes, but there is an undercurrent of suspense growing. There are bones on the island, pigs’ bones, says Mr Peacock, as he hastily buries them.  Kalala and the Islanders arrive, Lizzie’s brother goes missing and they all spread out over the island to search for him.

Mr Peacock is a possessive man. Lydia Syson makes his frustrations seem understandable in the rough and rugged man’s world scattered around the very edges of Victoria’s imperial petticoats. Peacock had struggled for years, as many did, slowly realising through constant failures that the dream of owning colonial land was not a promise for everyone. He owned his wife and his children and when the opportunity came to buy and island he owned that, too.  Our main story begins when he brings in his “Kanaka boys,” to work his land and gradually young Lizzie and the rest of the family begin to question her father’s possessive attitudes.

Kalala and the Islanders’ story merges with Lizzie’s and a story that has gone before them on the island, and the mystery of the missing brother hangs over them all.

The reading just gets better and better and the story becomes utterly compelling.  My advice is to set aside a good chunk of time when you get near the end, there are some things that need to be finished.

Mr Peacock’s Possessions is a terrific book for a book club read, there are lots of questions around possessiveness and ownership, success and failure, compassion. You can discuss colonial attitudes to women, race, land, the power of religion. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying Monday Island, where the Peacock’s live, is in fact Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, and now a marine reserve and a place of extraordinary biodiversity. It featured on the migration route for early Pacific voyagers and for those of us who love islands it has a fascinating history all of its own.

Head’s up for my book club – this one is my next choice.

 

The Captive Wife – book review

The captive wife, by Fiona Kidman

This is a whale of a tale set in the days when a whaler could take a child bride to a remote New Zealand whaling station – when marauding war parties, cannibalism and shipwreck were common and life was fragile – and he could wonder why it all went so wrong.

Fiona Kidman’s The captive wife is a real New Zealand legend.   Jackie Guard was 40 when he married the spunky 14 year old Betty and took her from the Garrison town of Sydney to the whalers’ den of Te Awaiti in the Malborough Sounds.  Theirs is a real history and journals and letters of the time often mention them, particularly after the events recounted in this book that turn Betty into a bit of a celebrity.

Of course things often do go wrong, in a number of ways, but the main action of the story is based on a shipwreck when the Guards are returning to the station after a trip to Sydney and are smashed up on the Taranaki Coast. This is in 1834, before Governor Hobson and the Wakefields, before any kind of systematic colonisation of New Zealand or any semblance of British law, when the only force driving the foreigners in the country was exploitation.  The castaways are attacked, many killed and Betty and her children are captured by the Ngāti Ruanui Māori.

Jacky Guard is released to bring a ransom, but returns four months later on the Royal Navy’s man-o’-war Alligator from Sydney and a captain hell bent on teaching the Māori a lesson. This is England’s first armed conflict with Māori, and we are still learning from the lesson today. 

I guess you want to know what happened to Betty in those four months she spent in captivity, the book is called the captive wife, after all.  Well, first she witnessed the cannibalism of her murdered crewmen. And then she was struck by a tomahawk, which was deflected by a comb in her hair (so the legend goes, and you can view both the comb and Jacky Guard’s pistol at Te Papa) then her infant son was taken from her to be trained in Māori ways. And then … well, things changed.  She fell under the protection of a chief called Oaoiti who was kind to her and a man in extreme contrast to her rather nasty husband Jacky…

The story starts, like most stories of the time, with a male voice, and Jackie is wondering where he can lay his poker. But soon we hear Betty’s voice and female viewpoint, and later she tells her story to an older, sympathetic friend. I really like the duality of this, she and Jackie have very different eyes on the same world.

The research Fiona Kidman has done for this book is spanking and I never doubt that the fictionalised parts could well have happened in that time and place, though the telling of the story is often deliberately one-sided and told by unreliable, limited or misunderstood narrators.  The complexity of the telling sure make this a great read and I highly recommend it for an intelligent slap of New Zealand’s wild history.

If  The captive wife is a suggestion for a book club read, Elizabeth Welsh of Auckland University gives an excellent academic summary review on the themes, metaphors and perspectives here: The captive wife. But do read the book first.