Book Review: Passing Through by Coral Atkinson

Passing Through cover imagePassing Through by Coral AtkinsonDancing Tuatara in association with Whitireia Publishing, ISBN 9780473262693, RRP $34.95

It’s no surprise that, along with a good portion of the rest of the world, New Zealand is reassessing and revisiting its role and shared history in World War One, now that we are into the period of 100 year commemorations (please, please NEVER use the word celebration in this context). So it’s fitting that Coral Atkinson’s new novel, Passing Through, is a thoughtful and extremely readable human drama set in post-WWI Christchurch and Lyttelton.

Passing Through takes us inside the intersecting lives of four sympathetic and likeable characters: Ro and Harry, both returned servicemen from France, both highly scarred by their very different experiences; Louisa, a New Zealand nurse who during the course of the war became a wife, widow and mother (in that order); and Nan, a young housemaid with a gift of talking to the dead that Ro looks to exploit to make his fortune.

These characters, and accompanying minor ones like Poppy, Louisa’s daughter, are the heart and highlight of the book. They are all haunted by ghosts of the dead and Atkinson deals with each of them so gently yet so unflinchingly that the reader becomes highly invested in their stories. Ro, for example, is a total cad but I couldn’t help but have a strong sympathy for him, and he is as much a victim of his own circumstance as the other three.

Atkinson is a simply fantastic writer, with a wonderful turn of phrase and a deeply believable eye for detail and landscape.

The port was crowded with overseas ships at anchor, along with trawlers, tugs, launches and dredges; beyond the docks, the harbour stretched between islands and headlands, the rumpled khaki land like an old army overcoat, sleeves dangling into water.

Moving from scenes of appalling battle life on the French western front in WWI to moments of deep human intimacy to dubious “spiritual” seances, Atkinson takes all of these and delivers a story with a New Zealand heart and sense of place and time that is hard to beat.

It’s wonderful to have such a story told and by such a talented author. Passing Through is a superb book that deserves a wide audience.

 

Book Review: The Auckland Book

The Auckland Book cover imageThe Auckland Book by Nigel Beckford, Michael Fitzsimons, Patrick Fitzsimons, Alisha Brunton, Jess Lunnon, Sandi MacKechnie, Cynthia Merhej, Ivy Niu, Sarah Ryan, Ezra Whittaker-Powley, FitzBeck Creative, ISBN 9780473286033, RRP $45.00

From the team that brought us The Wellington Book and the brilliant The NZ Book there’s now a similarly beautiful The Auckland Book. Written and illustrated by the team at FitzBeck along with seven fantastic young illustrators from AUT, The Auckland Book does an outstanding job of capturing what’s unique and best about the city New Zealanders love and hate.

Page spread from The Auckland BookThe illustrations are quirky, fun and particularly gorgeous in many cases (the Auckland University clock tower and the Grafton page are my favourites). Along with the visual appeal there is also a range of fun facts and observations. And not just for visitors, there was plenty here that I didn’t know (and will now commit to quoting annoyingly), such as:

  • Alice [the tunnel boring machine] travels at up to 8cm a minute, about as fast as a snail;
  • Ponsonby was originally called Dedwood;
  • within a 20km radius of Auckland there are 49 discrete volcanic cones.

Page spread from The Auckland Book 2

The Auckland Book reflects the continuously changing face of our most cosmopolitan of cities, in an affectionate and fun manner.

Book review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Queen of the Tearling cover imageThe Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Random House, Available now.

The Queen of the Tearling arrived on my doorstep in some simple but elegant little packaging, with warm grey tissue paper wrapping tied in a red bow, a little card attached with the title and author. The accompanying marketing blurb was nicely printed on a creamy laid paper with a satisfying weight¹. What book blogger could resist such presentation? (Not this one, I’m a sucker for the pretty).

Now, this is all very well and good, and reminds me how lucky I am to blog about books (well, reminds me why I put the time in to blog about books) but like the accompanying hype about this new title (It’s going to be made into a movie! Emma Watson loves it! And the Harry Potter films producer is producing it so lightning will strike twice!) it’s just pleasant frippery around the edges. The proof is in the reading.

The Queen of the Tearling delivers to a large extent on that, being a story with some of the best sort of characters and a gradually revealed backstory and universe that promises big things. Kelsea Glynn is heir to the throne of Tearling and has been in hiding since she was a baby. The book opens with the Queen’s Guard arriving at her modest foster parent’s home to escort her back to her castle to take her rightful place as Queen, as her mother has died. Along the way she learns many horrific and hard-to-hear truths about the state of play in Tearling, and the relationship with neighbouring Mortmesne and its ruler, The Red Queen (definite shades of the Red Woman from Game of Thrones), and The Queen of the Tearling is mostly taken up with this “beginning to be a queen” tale. Yes, it’s the first in a series.

I enjoyed many things about this part of the tale. The characters are fantastic; the likeable, worthy and intelligent Kelsea, her head guard The Mace, a solid and virtuous warrior, and the crazed Red Queen. These are just a few of the universe of characters that Johansen is beginning to create and clearly this is her strength. She also gives us plenty of hints and slow reveals about just where the Tearling universe is, an Earth-but-not-Earth, with talk of Europe and the Continent and the New World. I’m very keen to learn more about that.

There are also some things about the book that don’t work, with two main gripes from me. The tone is a little weird at times and this sense of dissonance meant there where times I struggled to stay engaged by it. Moments where the characters and writing screamed “young adult” were suddenly broken when the characters and writing screamed “you might wanna read this yourself before you give it to your young adult” and that made it hard to get a handle on who exactly the book is aimed at. This might not be a major issue for the average reader but tone is so important, and one of the reasons why editors are similarly important.

There were also some things that frustrated me about Kelsea as a character, she’s strong and intelligent, and I fervently hope that Johansen isn’t going to turn her personal story into “ugly duckling becomes a swan”. Some of the comments about her appearance and, yes, the news that Emma Watson is signed to play her in the movie, do worry me that rather than concentrating on the aspect of her journey into being a leader, we’ll be subjected to a standard “girl leader must be beautiful” story. The book doesn’t need it, so I do hope not.

So does this live up to the aforementioned edge-frippery hype? Not entirely but it’s still a very good read, one which will gain plenty of fans, including me. I’m definitely looking forward to finding out more and staying a part of the intriguing Tearling world.

¹ Yes, all right, I’m a paper geek.

Book Watch, New Zealand Herald on Sunday – 13 July 2014

The Martian

By Andy Weir, Random House

This science-fiction adventure thriller is up there with the best in edge-of-your-seat reads, combining imagination, science and a healthy dose of humour. Mark Watney is a botanist and astronaut stranded on Mars, left alone to survive on the Red Planet because of a mixture of bad luck and catastrophe. Will he make it back to Earth? It’s no surprise that a movie adaptation is already in the works.

Sand

By Hugh Howey, Random House

A new world and a new story from Howey, the best-selling writer of the Wool trilogy. The author’s strength is his prodigious imagination and he makes use of it again with Sand, combining apocalyptic vision with a story of family and survival. Like Wool this is a highly enjoyable read; I became so immersed I could practically feel the grit and wind.

Purgatory

By Rosetta Allen, Penguin

A fantastic new book from a talented New Zealand author, Purgatory is based on the 1865 Otahuhu murders. Exploring ideas of spirituality, colonial dispossession and the dehumanising effects of poverty and alcohol, the story moves between Ireland and New Zealand, and between bereavement and redemption. Allen’s expressive story-telling will appeal to readers looking for the best home-grown narratives.

At War with Satan

By Steff Metal,  Grymm & Epic Publishing

Another homegrown author but with a completely different focus, At War with Satan is a fantasy tale in the best tradition of Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin, with a lot of heavy metal thrown in. Plenty of puns and gentle jokes at the expense of various musical genres keep this a fast and furious read. The author’s love of the subject matter is infectious, making the war between heaven and hell anything but grim.

My Book Watch column for 13 July 2014, courtesy of the New Zealand Herald on Sunday.

scan of printed Book Watch column

Three Quick Reviews

Here’s some quick looks at other books which have passed before my eyes recently.

 WellywoodStyling Wellywood by Kate O’Keefe, available on Amazon

Jess has returned home to Wellington from her big OE in London, and is going into business as a personal stylist with her best friend Morgan. Throw in a bit of snobbery, two good looking men and a sad back story, and some “hi-jinks with a message” should ensue.

Styling Wellywood has a promising premise but it just doesn’t deliver. The main character is seriously unlikeable, and the overall storyline is too predictable to really deliver any punch. Do young NZers really suffer this level of cultural cringe anymore? Unfortunately this book just wasn’t to my liking.

Dating Westerners cover imageDating Westerners: tips for the new rich of the developing by Richard Meros, Lawrence and Gibson

A dating guide for the nouveau riche of the developing world, looking to “break into” the West via love. Truly. Dating Westerners is alternately hilarious and completely weird, which pretty much sums up the entirety so far of Richard Meros’ publishing portfolio.

Dating Westerners is the book rejected for funding by Reactive/Creative New Zealand (both the application and rejection letter can be seen in $30 Meat Pack). Put air quotes wherever you see fit in that sentence.

Seriously, I don’t know what more to say!

The Possession of Silver cover imageThe Possession of Silver by Corey Leigh, available on Amazon

A hybrid fantasy/pirate novel for kids and young adults, The Possession of Silver follows our eponymous hero and budding pirate, Silver, in a hunt for treasure on a very strange island.

The tone of this book is a little odd, not always hitting the mark and jumping around a little too often to be entirely convincing to its target audience. However it’s pulled along by a quick and original plot, with enough surprises to keep me reading to the end.

Book Review: Ad Lib by Thomasin Sleigh

Ad Lib cover imageAd Lib by Thomasin Sleigh, Lawrence and Gibson, ISBN 9780473274849, RRP$23

Right from the epigraph I had an idea of where Ad Lib is going, with two quotes: one from TS Eliot and one from Kim Kardashian. As I got further into the story it became clearer and clearer how these two, seemingly juxtaposed people, were perfect roles for the deeply thought out journey that Sleigh was taking me on.

Ad Lib follows Kyla Crane, daughter of celebrity Carmen Crane who has died suddenly. Carmen was supposed to have been starting to film a reality TV show and her manager and the networks are now keen to have the show follow Kyla. And so a camera crew appears in her house, “friends” she doesn’t quite remember start calling, and a status of celebrity is suddenly conferred upon her.

To say Ad Lib is lyrical and literary is almost beside the point – it is both of those things while being imbued with a strong sense of exactly how low-brow celebrity and reality television works in our wider culture. There are strange touches such as a camera crew that acts as a Greek chorus, and Carmen Crane’s sordid tale of celebrity à la Judy Garland. This overwhelming sense of culture clash kept me unsettled as a reader while drawing me further and further into Kyla’s story.

Her mother was beautiful in these printed photographs. Before anybody had looked at her, she was still beautiful.

What is celebrity and how does it change those who feel its sticky fingers? What about those who seek it out? Sleigh moves dreamily between these questions, sometimes giving the reader clear clues and sometimes keeping us in the dark. Kyla’s grief becomes submerged in the “story” of her show.

Ad Lib is a surreal read, intriguing and beautiful, leaving more questions behind than answers.