Worse things happen at sea, by John McCrystal
Worse things happen at sea is probably the most appropriate book title ever. Whatever catastrophe happens on land you can crank up the Richter scale of disaster if it happens out on the briny. Flood, fire, psychopath, injury, grandstanding, storm, starvation, getting lost – put a ship in the background of any of these and they become so, so much worse.
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Harbouring, by Jenny Pattrick
I’ll admit to being nervous in approaching this book. I love Jenny Pattrick’s rousing stories of colonial New Zealand communities and I’ve walked through the mud with her characters. Like many others I was introduced to her books through Denniston Rose and Heart of Coal and Denniston became part of my mental map. The same thing happened with Landings, and Catching the Current. Pattrick offers lively characters as guides to explore our colonial history.
Her new book, Harbouring, is set amid the NZ Company’s arrival in Wellington and the establishment of the colony there. Hence the nerves. Two years ago I published Jerningham. It’s the same story, wrought from the same material. What would an expert storyteller like Pattrick make of it?
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Diving for gold and buttons
Mrs Jewell & the Wreck of the General Grant is the story of the survivors of this most famous of shipwrecks. In 1866 the General Grant, carrying miners, their families and gold home from Melbourne struck towering cliffs that reared out of the sea at night. She was sucked into a cave and sank. Fourteen men and one woman (Mrs Jewell) made it ashore on the remote, sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands where they lived as castaways for eighteen months. This is the base for my new novel, due in June with Cuba Press, best-guessing to fill gaps in the survivors’ testimonies and reading between the lines in the context of the times and situation. Everything we know about the story has been told to us by the survivors and despite numerous searches along that wild coast for over 150 years, the ship and her gold has never been found.
But—and here we go again with history reasserting itself— that might be about to change. For that I blame swashbuckling shipwreck fanatic, Bill Day.
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Hokitika Town by Charlotte Randall
A while ago someone told me their cousin/sister-in-law (can’t remember) Charlotte Randall wrote New Zealand books and I so wish I could remember who it was because I want to thank them profusely. I’m reading my way through all Randall’s novels and thoroughly enjoying every page.
The Curative is set in Bedlam and is funny. I’ll reread it before reviewing, but thoroughly recommend it. The Bright Side of my Condition , again, is bleak and hilarious. Both of these books are told by people who, after some life-changing event, have little of anything left other than the insides of their heads but what goes on there is imaginative as hell. Randall seems to enjoy exploring the inner madness of men.
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Rangitira, by Paula Morris
What a great book to follow my previous read, This Thing of Darkness. Both Thompson and Paula Morris’s book relate to the 19th Century notion of taking indigenous people from distant lands back to England to “civilise” them and show them off as curiosities. In Thompson’s book, Captain FitzRoy uplifts three Fuegians to ship home, and in Morris’s book the Rangitira travel voluntarily to England. Whichever way you look at it, this is manifest colonial exploitation.
Paula Morris is a descendent of Rangitira’s narrator, the wonderful Paratene Te Manu, Ngāti Wai, and she writes her tupuna with a sure voice. He comes across as a thoughtful and gracious man who, in 1886 while having his portrait painted by Gottfried Lindauer, relates the story of his voyage to England some twenty years before.
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This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson
Sometimes you have to stick your hand up and here we go.
I hereby award This Thing of Darkness the title of my best book ever.
For sheer meatiness, immersion, characterisation, research, story telling, and adventure. For the immensity of history involved. For the reach of these lives and the illumination of their development over the years and the way things build and unravel – all understandable in retrospect but so uncertain and risky at the time. For all the surrounding stuff that comes with historical fiction and the extraordinary passing detail. For the way it made me re-evaluate my life and life in this century generally. For the way it made me feel.
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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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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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Hell Ship by Michael Veitch
This is a book club book if you are a group of readers with a fanatical interest in the minutiae of colonial immigration in the 1850s. In which case, I salute you. Invite me along to join you, sometime.
Veitch, though, might be a bit much of an enthusiast, even for me. The cover and title promises a book set on the high seas but there is way more than that. Most of the detail is of the societal conditions and politics behind the immigrations: the Wakefields, the lure of colonial wool and gold, the Scottish clearances. There is a full chapter about the Birkenhead emigration depot in Liverpool where the passengers collected before departure and the last quarter of the book covers the crisis in immigration that followed the ship’s arrival in Port Phillip and its quarantine.
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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”