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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Down from Upland, by Murdoch Stephens
This is one of those books that is so close to home it hits the cringe spot and makes me judder all over. I don’t mean the bit about the open marriage, but geographically. Kelburn. This is my childhood and these are my people and not much has changed over the years. Stephens nails it. There were families like this back in the 70s, where the parents thought they were cool and liberal and who massively over-shared with their kids in a way that was hideously embarrassing. Poor teenage Axle is trying to be accepted at Wellington High, (he left College because of bullying, so no change there, either) while at the same time accepting mum’s boyfriend sleeping over while dad’s male lover gate-crashes. And his father, who can down five passive aggressive bottles with his wife’s young squeeze, ‘helps’ Axle negotiate parties and sex and alcohol by lecturing him, grounding him or buying him a shopping trolley of low alcohol beer, so the lad can ‘fit in’ at parties without getting smashed. There are some great scenes where the lads, naturally, run experiments on getting drunk on low alcohol beer.
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Violet Black, by Eileen Merriman
This is Merriman doing what she does so well, pacy adventure writing for young adults. Violet Black is a story that begins in the near future of Auckland with two late teens – Violet and Ethan – hospitalised with M-fever, a measles derivative that makes Covid seem like a runny nose. This virus targets teenagers. Ten percent of those infected with M-fever will develop encephalitis. Ninety five percent of those with encephalitis will die. Wow. Kids, this is fiction, OK? Ignore the fact that it is written by a doctor who we generally trust to tell us the truth about medical matters and that the whole scenario sounds pretty convincing at the beginning. If you feel your stress levels going up while reading, take several deep breaths. This nightmarish stuff–pandemics, sinister government organisations, anti-vax terrorism–is all imaginary.
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The Telling Time by P J McKay
We meet Gabrijela stuffing sardines into tins at a factory, greasy and fish-stinking and dreaming of life beyond her village on an island off the Dalmatian coast. It’s 1959 and there is no bright future for a girl like her: it’s a family or the fishery. She’d like to be a teacher.
She loves her mother, her brother and her friends; her father is domineering but she accepts this and it’s a happy childhood. Then her mother’s half-brother, who has been distant for years and is now an official in Tito’s party, comes to oversee some work on the island and takes up residence in the household.
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I read Waitapu over a couple of leisurely evenings and loved it. It’s a beautiful book, elegantly written and so evocative of every small town in New Zealand that we know from a drive past, or a dip into when we visit a grandparent. I remember going with a Wellington friend home to small town NZ and this takes me back there, the interconnected community, the talk across the fence, the visits. There was a sort of pride that everyone knew each other but an embarrassment, too. My friend couldn’t wait to be away again.
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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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This pākehā life — an unsettled memior, by Alison Jones
What does it mean to be Pākehā?
There are hundreds of answers, all of them right. I am Pākehā. I know it, I feel it, though I wouldn’t presume to categorise anyone else, and I stand to be corrected at any time. To me, being Pākehā assumes some kind of relationship with Māori (even as simple as not-Māori) without necessarily defining what that relationship is.
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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 Adventures of Tupaia, by Courtney Sina Meredith and Mat Tait
Tupaia has shot to fame these last months as the pin-up boy of our history. Neither Māori nor Pakeha, the Tahitian ‘ariori (priest) and navigator who travelled with Cook bridged two very different cultures in 1769. If we approach the study of Aotearoa/New Zealand history through his eyes we develop a fresh understanding of our first encounters.
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See you in September, by Charity Norman
I was so pleased to win this last week (and thank you Wardini Books, I’m sure you give donations all the time for fundraisers, and I want you to know this one ended up in appreciative hands). Charity Norman lives up the road. She’s quite famous but I’ve never read her before. Where have I been? This was great.
Some books are page-turners because of the writing, some for the plot or the characters, and some books just have a magic hook that drags you through the night (just one more chapter, just one more) because you are in so deep you just have to know how it ends. Arrggh! I put my life on hold while I gripped this book in my clammy hands. Continue reading “See you in September – book review”