Voyages in America by James Robinson

Voyages in America: A Story of Homes Lost and Found by James Robinson, ISBN 9780692223659, ask your favourite bookshop to order or buy from Amazon.

When you encounter America for the first time it’s an odd experience. Our culture, despite our insistence on experiencing “overseas” mostly through the UK, is saturated with images, ideas and entertainment from America. It’s the country that has overwhelmed the world.

So when you arrive there for the first (or even second or third) time everything is at once intensely familiar and strangely foreign. After spending 6 months in the States in 1996, I remember having the vivid experience of watching The Simpsons back in NZ and thinking about how realistic it is. It is strange as a non-American to realise you have so many shared experiences with Americans, we know so much of their history and their stories, yet they know so few of ours.

It’s easy to be disdainful of America but when you go there it’s very, very hard not to fall in love.

James Robinson’s Voyages in America captures these contradictions and comforts almost perfectly. Voyages in America started life as a blog on Stuff before Robinson decided to turn his thoughtful musings into a book. He did a damn good job of raising the funds to publish on Kickstarter and has produced a very polished tome. Normally collections of previously published columns (as we used to call them) can have a stop-start tone, or a disjointedness but Robinson has avoided this by reworking his blog posts, ordering them around several themes and providing personal background and context to anchor his thoughts.

What results is a meditative reflection on the familiarity and “otherness” experience of travelling and living away from one’s home, and particularly in America, peppered with some insightful personal and cultural observations. Robinson is not just an observer but is a thinker too, addressing a number of stereotypes (both perpetuated by Americans and of Americans).

Testament to the popularity of the blog, Voyages in America is a good read, fun and moving in equal measure. Robinson has a ear for the absurd and maintains a healthy sense of humour throughout the book, never allowing it to be weighed down with cynicism.

Highly recommended reading for actual and armchair travellers and thinkers.

The Sovereign Hand by Paul Gilbert

The Sovereign HandThe Sovereign Hand by Paul Gilbert, Steampress, buy now.

Fans of Gormenghast and China Miéville should drop everything and get themselves a copy of The Sovereign Hand as soon as they can. An amazingly detailed and hugely ambitious tale on an epic scale, it’s the debut fantasy novel from New Zealand writer Paul Gilbert.

We are taken into the world of Thorn, the gilded capital, a city at the centre of a world of supposed freedom and opportunity for all. In prose that is almost overwhelming at times, Gilbert gives us the tale of Alexa, prophesised hero against the Evil that is coming for Thorn and its citizens.

The above review appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Sunday, 7 September 2014.

NZ Herald on Sunday review imageAnother impressive release from Steampress, The Sovereign Hand is billed as pure fantasy and it really is. The language can only be described as “full on” which matches the epic scale of the world Gilbert has created.

What I love about Steampress is everything they release is interesting and a step forward. Again, brilliant stuff from one of our best indie publishers.

Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Of Things Gone Astray cover imageOf Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson, The Friday Project (Harper Collins NZ)

A highly original debut novel from a New Zealand writer, Of Things Gone Astray is witty, moving and thoughtful. On a normal morning in London things start disappearing for a small group of characters. Things like a sense of direction, a workplace and the front of a house. In the midst of this the relationship between a young boy and his father slowly starts to disappear. Referencing the Christchurch earthquakes, Matthewson creates a magical world with some stunning writing. A book that lives in the reader’s mind long after it’s finished.

The above review first appeared in the NZ Herald on Sunday, 31 August 2014.

Image of the NZ Herald on Sunday review

Disclaimer: I am a total sucker for books like this. Literary, quirky, pulling at your heartstrings, making you laugh books. I mean, if you don’t like books like this WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU, DO YOU HAVE LITERALLY NO HEART???? And I couldn’t leave it at just my small Herald on Sunday review above – I want people to read this book SO BAD YOU GUYS.

I knew right from the first page that Of Things Gone Astray was going to be something special and magical.

Mrs Featherby had been having pleasant dreams until she woke to discover the front of her house had vanished overnight.

They had been dreams of when she was younger and more energetic, dreams of a time when she had full use of her knees.

And now I have to tell you, so far, it is my best read of 2014. The story is like nothing you’ve read before, the writing is intense and incredibly satisfying, and the ideas explored are thought-provoking. It’s also wonderfully hilarious.

She sighed, and resolved, not for the first time, to be less judgemental of how stupid all the young people were.

Matthewson uses her cast of characters to explore modern life, in all its glory and goriness, exposing those thoughts we all keep private, because we think no one else has them.

There are no wrong or right choices, necessarily, just those you make or don’t make and the consequences. And by extension, how you deal with the consequences.

I loved how many feelings Of Things Gone Astray brought out in me, the reader: sadness and laughter and enjoyment and contemplation. I wish I could quote all of it at you but that would be silly: go out, buy it, and read it over and over.

Glory Days magazine – Issue 7

Glory Days magazine issue 7 cover imageGlory Days vintage lifestyle magazine, issue 7, RRP $16.90.

Buy or subscribe online

Issue 7 of Glory Days magazine is out and, lucky me, I received a copy in my mailbox!

Issue 7 coincides with commemorations for World War One and so has a focus on wartime – specifically WW1 and WW2. As you can see to the left, the cover girl is Antonia Prebble who is starring in Anzac Girls, which has just started on Australian TV and comes to Prime in New Zealand later this year.

Much like the previous issue this is a nice looking magazine, with lots of fantastic imagery and a very nice feel – this is a magazine you’ll want people to see you reading! And they’ll probably ask you about it because it’s eye-catching.

Issue 7 has some great features, my favourites being The Way We Wore, a collection of images of people from wartime curated by the NZ Fashion Museum (more photos are also available online), This Vintage Town which in this issue takes us through Dunedin and surrounds, and The Beauty Spot: Making Waves which brings back the art of the curl set!

One of the strengths of Glory Days as a magazine is it’s variety of content. I really like that the editors interpret the term “vintage lifestyle” to not just encompass clothes and beauty but to also include vehicles, aircraft, music and some serious history.

Glory Days is a great read and I’m now going to be looking forward to every issue!

Buy or subscribe online

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.