The Luminaries, or How Much I Hate Victorian Literature

Before starting it’s important to be clear that this is not a review of The Luminaries. The Luminaries is extremely well written and I can have no criticism of it in that respect that would be worth a jot. Just re-read that last sentence and it’s clear why.

But here’s the thing: I got no enjoyment reading it. I so wanted to love it and I so wanted to be all OH EM GEE RAVY DAVY GRAVY about it but OH EM GEE the reading was a chore. Seriously, I do NOT expect to feel about my reading the same way I feel about vacuuming, and I do not mean like I feel when I see that video of the cat on the Roomba.

It was like vacuuming a house of infinite rooms, every time I thought I’d got to the end of the hallway there’s another room! And another! And another! Ad infinitum.

It’s my own fault. Despite it being a Booker Prize winner (almost guaranteeing my undying devotion because I AM SNOB), despite it being a New Zealand author (Kiwis represent!), there are two words associated with The Luminaries that should have instantly seen me politely clapping from the sidelines but not actually getting involved.

Victorian. Literature.

It’s enough to send a chill down one’s spine.

18th century literature? Love it. Regency lit (Austen, et al)? A measured fan. Victorian erotica? Hilariously tacky, juvenile and often disturbing. Serious Victorian lit, a la Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, Gaskell… sorry, I snoozed off for a moment there.

Basically I find it tedious and way too self-important, and, ironically, verbose. As with everything, there are exceptions – Thackeray and Stoker – but in general what you find is the literary equivalent of the Mona Lisa reduced to a paint-by-numbers version. Greatness, ruined.

William Makepeace Thackeray photo

This man is a comic genius.

The mysteries are the worst because the “ghostly vision” always turns out to be someone sleep walking and the bad guys are naughty foreigners trying to steal the treasure. They’re like every plot EVER of Scooby Doo.

So my problem with The Luminaries is no matter how well it is written, no matter how much of a “pastiche” it is, no matter how brilliantly it managed to take the Vic Lit format and turn it on its head, by the time it got to that point I was staring at nothing and nodding slightly.

The Luminaries cover picture

It does have a fantastic cover though.

Do I think people should read it? Absolutely, if only to make up your own mind. Do I think it’s an important contribution to books in general and New Zealand books in specific? Yes, there is NO doubt. Did it deserve The Booker Prize? Yes, because they don’t judge it on my taste. Am I going to read other books by Eleanor Catton? Yes, absolutely, and keen to get my hands on a copy of The Rehearsal actually.

But The Luminaries will always remain a big, black hole in my reading life.

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman's Tale cover image

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922079336, RRP $37, Available 26 June.

Billed as “a novel of obsession” and “a tale for book lovers”, The Bookman’s Tale should be a delight for anyone who loves history, books and good writing.

I say “should”, because sadly it’s not.

Insert REALLY SAD FACE here.


The Bookman’s Tale followers Peter Byerly, antiquarian bookseller who’s deeply mired in grief for his late wife, Amanda. Peter opens a book in a musty bookshop, only to discover a watercolour miniature bearing a startling resemblance to his late wife. From there we’re on a murder mystery journey that takes in Shakespeare (and the old “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” conspiracy), book forgery, Victorian art and a really, really idealised woman.

Here’s my list of things what I wished weren’t part of this book:

  1. Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Shakespeare at all. The Shakespearean age passages in particular have no air of authenticity. Instead they read like an Elizabethan name-dropper. Oh look there’s young upstart Shakespeare! There’s Robert Cotton! There’s Christopher Marlowe! And they’re all drinking ale and whoring and writing and almost saying “fie”.¹ Also: sonnets! Hilarious! It’s all way too obviously winky-winky, history comes together, for me to enjoy. Bah.
  2. Murder mystery. The butler did it in the kitchen with the candlestick. Or not, but you’ll feel like that at the end, everything is just so nicely wrapped up. And so conveniently it feels like the ending to an hour mystery drama. Bah.
  3. Idealised woman. Maybe I am heartless and unromantic but Amanda (dead wife) is only seen through Peter (on account of the deadness) and in her eyes she is the most beautiful, most angelic, most sexy, most intelligent, most rich woman you’ll ever meet. And not in the least oiky, irritating and privileged. She hangs on his every word, loves it when he watches her from afar for weeks in a library and she has monogrammed stationery. At college, in the ’80s she wears:

…in place of the unofficial uniform of jeans and a T-shirt, an impeccably tailored black suit, with pleated trousers and a crisp white blouse.

No, not irritating at all.

Sigh. I think lots of people will like The Bookman’s Tale, especially if they don’t think too hard about it. Unfortunately I found it too trite and too convenient.

¹Bugger. Just found this:

Fie on you, then fie.

Book Review: Two Little Boys by Duncan Sarkies

Two Little Boys cover imageTwo Little Boys by Duncan Sarkies, Penguin, ISBN9780143567882 , RRP$30, Available now.

Two Little Boys… an apt name really because, seriously this story really only works if you imagine that the two protaganists are 9-year-old boys stuck in the bodies of 30-year-old (ish) men. And even then I’m thinking I’m being too harsh on 9-year-old boys. Maybe 13-year-old boys.

This new edition is a tie in for the film so I’m not going to waste too many words doing a plot recap. Nige kills a backpacker. Nige freaks out and goes to his ex-friend Deano for help. Deano turns out to be creepily, stupidly and implausibly mental. And also insanely jealous of Nige’s new friend, Gav. Hi-jinks and further criminal activities ensue.

The difficulty with black humour is it only works if the humour is really, really funny. Otherwise you’ve just got black chuckles, and they don’t work at all. Two Little Boys has this vein of really creepy “repressed homosexuality” combined with the aforementioned not-really-that-funny mentalness¹ that just makes it more unpleasant than anything else. Neither Nige or Deano are at all likeable characters and while Gav brings some much needed normal intelligence to the party, it’s all too little.

Women characters? Nah.

The Catlins deserves a better class of fiction, surely. Great cover image though!

¹And seriously, I’m not referring to mental illness here. This is a whole ‘nother kind of fictional mentalness that bears no resemblance to reality.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo coverI don’t really have to introduce this do I? I mean, I think we all know the book I’m talking about. Heck, you might have even seen the movie. Or even the second movie. All I’m saying is, this book is NOT a secret.

As per my contrary nature (I was a terrible child) I hadn’t yet read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (or sequels). The bigger deal people make of a thing, the less I feel like joining the group (I was totally insufferable as a teenager). But the noise has died down slightly, so when Whitcoulls kindly furnished me with a copy to celebrate their new Top 100 it seemed like time to give in and find out what I’ve been missing.

Unfortunately what I seem to mostly have been missing is a really bad translation job. At least I hope it’s a bad translation, otherwise I have no clue how this book got published, as is. Most of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reads like a 10 year old’s creative writing attempt. I mean, hey, you’re not going to knock the little guy back but you wish he’d find a new way to start (and conjoin) sentences. (“And then I met Ritchie McCaw and then I got to see the World Cup and then a giant unicorn appeared and gave me the power to fly. And then I flew home.”) This makes the writing so incredibly tedious that I spent the first 50 pages in disbelief.

Then on page 55 I hit the jackpot:

He was relaxed, and the anxious knot in his stomach had eased. She had that effect on him. She always had had. And he know that he had the same effect on her.

The effect “She always had had.” had on me however, was probably not what the author intended.

And then it was a struggle not to spend the next 100 pages laughing hysterically.

Finally he opened his shoulder bag and put his iBook on the desk in the office. Then he stopped and looked about him with a sheepish expression. The benefits of living in the countryside, forsooth.

Forsooth, FORSOOTH I SAY COUNTRYSIDE BENEFITS! Forsooth, and possibly fie!

And then I got really really depressed because I’ve clearly wasted my life, and I’m poor and I didn’t write these books, and really, how hard can this be:

Mikael got out of bed and went to stand naked at the kitchen window, gazing at the church on the other side of the bridge. He lit a cigarette.

Nakedly, presumably.

And then (damn you Larsson) Mr Writer Man got me with plot instead. Because despite the fact that I utterly hated the writing, by the middle I was hooked, and I remained hooked right up until the plot denouement (and then I ended on a really angry note because the actual end couldn’t be more predictable). You have no idea how angry it makes me that I had to waste hours wading through acclaimed dross TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED.

I didn’t find even a single thing to like about the characters either. Blomkvist is Uber Amazing Man, a friend and instant lover-man to all the ladies. Just forget he’s got a young teenage daughter who he remembers about once a year. Lisbeth Salander is Intelligent Revenge Outcast Girl, according to the other characters she either has super duper photographic memory and skills or she’s “mentally retarded” (not my words). She behaves and reasons like a 12 year old girl, and Blomkvist at one point mentions Aspergers, but hey, when she wants the sexy times, what’s a Blomkvist to do? She so crazy. The rest of the characters just really revolve around, only doing anything that furthers the plot.

And then I remember that this was the book that a majority of people said is the BEST BOOK EVER and perfectly nice people like Phillip Pullman said very nice things about it, and then I thought Well, what’s wrong with me? And frankly, that’s the worst thing. A book should not make you wonder what’s wrong with you. Sigh.

My final summation? All TGWTDT has is plot. And even then it gets more distracted than an ADD guinea pig on V.

Larsson was not a great writer. He came up with a good story, then he drowned it in HIS MESSAGE. Women are SO OPPRESSED. Men are SO ANGRY. Swedes are SO UP FOR SEXY TIMES. And here is an historical exposition paragraph that sounds like it was lifted word for word from Encyclopedia Britannica. Because I am SERIOUS AUTHOR.

Taking away a person’s control of her own life – meaning her bank account – is one of the greatest infringements a democracy can impose, especially when it applies to young people. It is an infringement even if the intent may be perceived as benign and socially valid. Questions of guardianship are therefore potentially sensitive political issues, and are protected by rigorous regulations and controlled by the Guardianship Agency. This agency comes under the county administrative board and is controlled, in turn, by the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Thank god a relatively interesting point about Swedish society and politics got lost amongst the bits that made me fall asleep.

In the end, the truth is that because I ams who I ams I wouldn’t have hated this so much if other people didn’t like it so much. If I hadn’t been told how good it was, I would just accept it has a cracking plot and not really cared about the very obvious, very many flaws.

Which, it seems, is really what the writer was going for.

Berger thought that the book was the best thing Blomkvist had ever written. It was uneven stylistically, and in places the writing was actually rather poor…

The Whitcoulls Top 100 2012-13

Whitcoulls Top 100

Media release                                                                                                  

July 16, 2012

Murder, lust and revenge top the list

From murderous thrillers to scandalous love affairs, New Zealanders have revealed their favourite reads in the Whitcoulls Top 100 of 2012-13.

The Whitcoulls Top 100 has been the go-to guide for reading enthusiasts for more than a decade and with 20,000 votes this year, it’s proof Kiwis still love to have their say on their favourite books.

The number one spot this year remains the award-winning crime series the Millennium Trilogy, with popular teen trilogy The Hunger Gamestaking the silver medal and classic series The Lord of The Rings coming in at number three.

The timeless love tale of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice was voted in at number four.

New to the Top 100 at number 5 is the controversial heated passion saga of Anastasia and Christian in the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy.

While the undiminished popularity of the top three comes as no surprise, Whitcoulls book manager Joan Mackenzie says the rest of this year’s list showcases the variety of New Zealand readers’ tastes.

“We are seeing a real diversity coming through in the books New Zealand adults are reading which is fantastic,” Joan says.

“There are classics that appear on the list year in, year out. But with hundreds of thousands of new books published every year, it’s exciting to see some new titles winning over New Zealand readers.”

“The Fifty Shades trilogy has taken the international reading world by storm and it appears New Zealanders are just as caught up in the hype.  28 books have made it onto the list for the first time so it’s good to see Kiwis like to mix it up a bit!” Joan says.

For the first time readers were also asked to vote for their favourite author.  The top three further showed a range of reading tastes with drama queen Jodi Picoult taking out the top spot, children’s fiction guru JK Rowling coming in at second and the master of thrillers Lee Child being voted to third place.

Other interesting facts about the Top 100:

  • General fiction is by far the most popular genre in 2012-13 with well over half the books coming from this category
  • Adults are reading some of the same things their children read – Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and the Twilight series
  • The most popular book since the Top 100 started in 1996 is The Lord of The Rings

The Top 100 books are available now at Whitcoulls stores nationwide and the full list is available online at

Dear New Zealand

All in all, you have pretty good taste in books. I’m not saying you don’t make some mistakes. I mean sure we loved the LOTR movies but Tolkein did not write the books about us, so can we let that go? And, ok, we like new and exciting things but lord above, the internet has been around for a while now and we’re only JUST discovering “women’s erotica”? Fifty Shades of Grey is not the fifth most enjoyable book in the world. It’s not even the fifth most enjoyable porn book (let’s just call it like it is) in the world. And Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series at 3-fricken-3? 33?? 33???

 Aaanyway, at least you got it right with Pride and Prejudice. And The Book Thief. And The Time Traveller’s Wife. And Shantaram and The Great Gatsby and Dune and The Poisonwood Bible and 1984 and The Catcher in the Rye and the Edmonds Cookbook. 

And at least you gave me a giggle by rating The Secret above Ian McEwan. Good one.

But I guess I just have to accept that this is your Top 100, not mine alone. So I’m okay with the things you got wrong and happy with the things you got right. And glad to see such a great mix of books being read by happy readers.

Cheers and see you next year,

P.S. Speaking of next year, would you care to place a wager on how quickly Fifty Shades of Grey drops off the list? :)


Three Short Book Reviews – History, Loudmouths and More History

Three books that have passed over my desk recently and I have passed my eyes over recently… with varying results.


People, People, People : A Brief History of New Zealand by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Bateman Publishing, RRP $24.99, ISBN 9781869538132, Available now.

A short and well-produced history of New Zealand, the best part of People, People, People is by far the excellent selection of illustrations, paintings, and photos. The text is aimed at younger students or international students but I’m not sure how well the book will fare in that sector, considering the fairly obvious political bias at work (not surprising with Eldred-Grigg – you get what you get).

Does what it says on the cover and does it well.


The Two of Me by John Dybvig, Hurricane Press, RRP $29.99, ISBN 9780986468445, Available now.

Both publisher and author clearly know the public’s opinion of the subject of The Two of Me, billing it very much as a “don’t make your mind up before you read” book. Which is fair enough, The Two of Me has a lot going for it – it’s pacy, it’s lively, it’s easy to read – but the story doesn’t really bear out the premise – that John Dybvig has changed as much as he says he has. Centred around a health scare the “inspiring story” really is not actually that inspiring at all. Man has health scare, determines to take better care of his health and he does. Man decides he is alone in the world, determines to meet someone and coincidentally does shortly thereafter. Man determines not to act like so much of an a*sehole. Man fails. This isn’t overcoming great obstacles, people.

At one point Dybvig tells an editor “I don’t need to know anything to have an opinion.” Yes, indeed. General sports autobiography type readers will probably enjoy.


The Spanish Helmet by Greg Scowen, Whare Rama Books, Available on Kindle and Kindle Apps for US$0.99, Paperback RRP US$16.99, ISBN 9781463558482, Available now.

A conspiracy thriller with a New Zealand twist, The Spanish Helmet centres on Matthew Cameron, archaeologist and historian, who travels to NZ to investigate findings that point to an alternative history of New Zealand, in particular that the Spanish were in NZ before the Dutch and that Celts had travelled to NZ before the Maori arrived.


The story itself is reasonably well-written and for people who don’t want to think too hard (so most of your conspiracy thriller types then) it’ll be a fun and quick read.

But for me there was way too many moments of clunk to enjoy reading. My favourite happens right at the beginning when Dr Cameron is convincing his fellow academic to cover for him while he travels to NZ to “investigate”.

“Anyway, Warren believes that New Zealand was settled by someone other than the Maori,” Matt said, “his particular studies follow the theory that the Celts discovered New Zealand some thousands of years ago. He’s struggled to find evidence to support his theory and believes the government is out to stop him, but now he thinks he has something and wants me to go and look.”

“Sounds great.”

That’s academic inquiry, that is!

The idea that academics have a vested interest in stopping New Zealanders from knowing the “true story” of New Zealand habitation is more than a little laughable. Not quite as laughable as the shady secret-police style organisations in The Spanish Helmet who are busily tailing said academics, but still.

The Spanish Helmet isn’t going to re-write New Zealand history any more than The Da Vinci Code rewrote Christian history. Let’s just hope that Tom Hanks doesn’t get hold of it.