Dear Vincent – book review

Dear Vincent, by Mandy Hager

In a dysfunctional family, Tara McClusky grows up isolated. There is no other kid in school who has to spoon feed and change her father, work in a retirement home to help pay the basics and tip-toe around a mother who seems to have no instinct to mother. Her mum works nights, so they cross paths without ever really communicating, in a perfunctory routine. “‘How was school?’ ‘Okay.’ We’ve got this pseudo-Mass thing going on, where Mum chants through her litany and I respond with practised care. It doesn’t pay to go off-script.” There are no hugs or comfort. Tara’s older sister has died after being sent away to family in Ireland to sort herself out. She had gone wild: promiscuous and druggy. But she was always a tower of love to Tara and now she has gone.

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Auē — book review

Aue, by Becky Manawatu

“Taukiri and I drove here in Tom Aiken’s truck. We borrowed it to move all my stuff. Tom Aiken helped. Uncle Stu didn’t. This was my home now.”

Brave words from an orphaned boy dropped with remote, dysfunctional whanau. He watches his brother drive away. He says he’ll come back as soon as he can, but we wait with Ārama as the story unfolds and Becky Manawatu breaks our hearts. “Uncle Stu made people doubt they existed, and when you doubted you existed long enough, you started to disappear.” But even this lost little boy finds friendship with Tom Aiken’s sassy daughter (as good a depiction of kids’ friendship as you’ll find in any classic) and comfort with the dog, Lupo, until Uncle Stu fucks that up, too. Uncle Stu does a lot of fucking up. And he’s just the start.

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Cook’s Cook – book review

Cook’s Cook, by Gavin Bishop

Cook’s Cook is a picture book story of James Cook’s journey on the Endeavour, told through the eyes of his one-handed cook.

I’ve just come off a voyage on the replica Endeavour, sleeping in a hammock next to the stove where much of the action in this book takes place, so it all seems very real to me. We heard the stories of the salted meat being dragged behind the boat to wash off the salt and soften the meat, and we checked the barrels for remnants of rum. There was none. It had been licked clean by sailors long ago. Cook’s men subsisted on a diet of poorly packed supplies from home—by today’s standards—and things they scavenged on the way. Gavin Bishop has uncovered recipes that filled bellies. Along with the inevitable pease pudding hot or cold, treats included:

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Taking the Long Road to Cairo – book review

Taking the Long Road to Cairo, by Ann Balcombe

Ann Balcombe’s story is of a fearless young woman who gets on a boat in Auckland and ends up, a couple of years later, in Cairo, via lots of big seas and a whole lot of road. It’s the 1970s.

There is a special place in history for intrepid women who sail across the world into the unknown and go exploring with open minds and courage. I’m in their boots in spirit.

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Attraction – book review

Attraction, by Ruby Porter

This is a fabulous looking cover, which compelled me to buy Attraction on sight. I dived in and found the writing as terrific as the presentation. I am now going to read everything Ruby Porter writes on any subject at all. Attraction is just such an incredibly stylish read and I loved every page.

I mention the subject of the book, because although the kiwi setting appealed, the story itself wasn’t for me. Three young women are on a coming-of-age roadie around small-town New Zealand, with lots of well-thrashed issues about relationships and sexuality and illness and colonial angst. I felt out of place with the characters, perhaps a little voyeuristic, a bit bored with the self-obsession, and the plot took me nowhere new. Didn’t matter. The fact that these conversations aren’t mine did not in the least detract from the beautiful way Porter expresses herself. You might not love the subject of a painting or way it is framed, but the power of the artist can still blow you away.

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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.

Decline & Fall on Savage Street – book review

Decline & Fall on Savage Street, by Fiona Farrell

A lot happens. It says this in the blurb.

So don’t go thinking you can just whizz through this as you would a normal novel. You need to go in with the right attitude, with a predisposition to enjoy Fiona Farrell (I do!) and a realisation that some novels don’t have obvious characters you get to know and love and follow on a journey.

The character on a journey in Farrell’s Decline & Fall on Savage Street is a house.  It took me a while to understand this, (and apparently she has written a non-fiction book about this house so perhaps I should have come better prepared) so for a while I floundered around with characters disappearing just as I got interested and a whole new set of people coming in. It reads more like a set of short stories, chronologically spanning 100 years, with each story bringing characters who live in the same house with their personalities and tribulations – from our perspective we see a house, but of course for every new arrival it is their home, they move their baggage in and own it.

As a collection of short stories this book is very rewarding and the format works really well, I love the fact that we get to know the house better than the characters themselves because we’ve been inhabiting it, along with all the former tenants, since it was built.

But she’s clever, Fiona Farrell, and this is also a story of another character that lives under the bank of the river, undisturbed (mostly) by the turmoil of change and war and earthquakes. In contrast to the lot that happens to the humans above, nothing happens to the eel for a very, very long time. Or if something happens, it is the drop of a leaf onto the water. We feel her ageing not in the time it takes to read the pages, but in the span of frantic, scrabbling activity that happens ashore. Her story made me feel old. But every story has a climax, and even for the eel, eventually something happens.

Each human chapter starts and ends with a missing line which drove me mad. I guess it is to show we are dipping in and out of a story, but this is a book for intelligent readers and we know that. A kind editor should have said, let’s not do this.

I wont specifically remember any of the characters in this story, they passed by too fast,  but the house and the eel will stay with me forever.

 

Also by Fiona Farrell, if you love good New Zealand writing, is:
Mr Allbones’ Ferrets – Book Review