Book review: Wake by Elizabeth Knox

Cover image of WakeWake by Elizabeth Knox, Victoria University Press, ISBN9780864737700, RRP $35

I have to confess: I have a huge reader and blogger crush on Elizabeth Knox. Not only has she given me some amazing and mind-blowing reads (Black Oxen, The Vintner’s Luck, the Dreamhunter series), she’s accomplished at that literary/genre/audience hopping trick AND she’s amazingly accessible and generous on social media.

Do I sound starstruck? I can’t help it. Elizabeth Knox is awesome. When I grow up I want to be exactly like her.

Anyway: Wake. Wake follows a small group of characters – people who survive a mysterious and sudden affliction that descends on their very localised area of Tasman Bay. The affliction turns the bulk of the population into crazed killers, singlemindedly and relentlessly focussed on harming themselves and others. The afflicted who survive this initial violence then also die suddenly. The unafflicted survivors find themselves locked in to the town by something entirely unexplainable. Locked in with literally hundreds of dead bodies, other people who they don’t know (and maybe can’t trust), and with no way of contacting or being contacted by the outside world.

The reader’s journey mirrors the characters’; the immediate and shocking horror of the story’s beginning followed by the slightly numb “come down” and then the dawning reality of the practicalities of the situation they find themselves in.

The beauty of Knox’s novel is not only is the story absolutely compelling from a plot point of view (zombies! gore! blood! love! mystery! childhood trauma! mental imbalance!) but the writing is absolutely bloody gorgeous.

It wasn’t his thought. It was malicious and perverted and savage and clever, and had come as a soundless whisper from the centre of his skull as if there was something inside him, something that wasn’t him, stirring like a hatchling in an egg.

Knox’s world is full of language, full of beautiful words, even when describing the most basest and hideous circumstances.

In a nearby house a window shattered. An old man slumped through it, skewering his throat on the shards left in the frame. He moved only feebly while his blood unfolded like a concertinaed red banner down the weatherboard wall.

In Wake, Knox takes us from inhuman all the way back to human. It’s not fun or easy but it is very, very exceptional.

I think I saved the best read of 2013 for the end.

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.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life after Life cover imageLife After Life by Kate Atkinson, Random House NZ, RRP $36.99, ISBN 9780385618687, Available now.

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

11 February 1910, a baby girl is born dead with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, the doctor stuck in snow.

11 February 1910, a baby girl is born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, the doctor has made it through the snow to ensure she breaths her first. And so we meet Ursula (“little bear”), whose life after life we will follow. Ursula is a soul afloat in life, beholden to the dangers of one small choice, one small change that can spell her end. She is born dead, she drowns, she falls out a window, she gets influenza – there are a myriad ways to die but each time she does it’s 11 February 1910 again and it’s snowing.

Oh, how I loved this book! At first thought the premise didn’t seem like one I would enjoy but Kate Atkinson handles it so incredibly deftly that I found myself completely drawn in to Ursula’s lives, shocked each time she died, waiting to see how she would get through the next life, the choice she would make that would see her navigate the danger.

Atkinson is also a master of characters, hers are so beautifully drawn. She makes sure her characters are human, likeable, dislikeable and capable of so many emotions.

“To war? You are going to war?” she had shouted at him when he enlisted and it struck her that she had never shouted at him before. Perhaps she should have.

If there was to be a war, Hugh explained to her, he didn’t want to look back and know that he had missed it, that others had stepped forward for their country’s honour and he had not. “It may be the only adventure I ever have,” he said.

“Adventure?” she echoed in disbelief. “What about your children, what about your wife?”

“But it’s for you that I am doing this,” he said, looking exquisitely pained, a misunderstood Theseus. Sylvie disliked him intensely in that moment.

There’s also a generous amount of humour throughout Life After Life. Ursula struggles through the Influenza epidemic following WW1, dying several times before she finally finds a way to avoid contagion, and it becomes almost slapstick.

Darkness, and so on.

Then Atkinson hits you between the eyes with a moment so touching, so human you just thinking about weeping.

“We cannot turn away,” Miss Woolf told her, “we must get on with our job and we must bear witness.” What did that mean, Ursula wondered. “It means,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.”

“And if we are killed?”

“Then others must remember us.”

Such a tour de force.

My Book Watch for the NZ Herald on Sunday, 21 October 2012

Naked Truth coverNaked Truth: Lifting the lid on the New Zealand sex industry

By Rachel Francis (Penguin, $35)

An engaging and eye-opening social history of the New Zealand sex and adult entertainment industry, this is a fascinating read that tells the stories of several figures from the industry, from Flora MacKenzie of Famous Flora’s to Steve Crowe of Boobs on Bikes furores. Rachel Francis writes with an insider’s view, treating her subjects with honesty and admiration, letting them tell their own stories.


By Sid Marsh (Wooden Shed, $39.99)

As a reader I can tell when an author has gone above and beyond the call of duty for researching their books, and Greyhound is one of those. A compelling, strange war novel, written in thick Kiwi slang and focusing on a Kiwi tanker crew at the end of WWII, it is a difficult but ultimately rewarding read, filled with period detail of New Zealand and Italy.


By Tessa Duder (Whitcoulls, $19.99)

A fantastic new edition of one of New Zealand’s most beloved young adult books, Alex is still a great read after 25 years. It focuses on a wonderfully Kiwi heroine, Alex, who is trying to balance teenage life and love with trying to qualify for the swimming events at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. I loved reading Alex again, almost as much as I loved reading it in 1989! A piece of New Zealand literary history.

Catching Fish coverCatching Fish

My Dad’s a Dragon Catcher

By Tanya Batt (Clean Slate Press, $19.99)

Educational publishers Clean Slate Press have launched a new imprint with new titles, including these two fantastic picture books from Tanya Batt. Catching Fish (illustrated by Natalia Vasquez) is a great read-aloud romp with beautiful collage-like illustrations, while My Dad’s a Dragon Catcher is full of colourful cartoonish illustrations and has the cutest heart-warming story. Perfect bed time story books.

Book Watch 211012 scan

Reprinted courtesy of the NZ Herald on Sunday.

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.

Book Review: Greyhound by Sid Marsh

Greyhound cover imageGreyhound by Sid Marsh, Wooden Shed, ISBN9780473200008, RRP$39.99, Available now.

I have to admit, this novel was a strange beast for me to review. As unsure as I was when I first saw it, I’m even more unsure now I’ve actually read it.

Imagine a war yarn written in authentic war-time Kiwi slang, detail heaped upon detail, with shades of both Catch-22 and All Quiet on the Western Front and a sense for the reader of a Pynchonesque “What the hell is going on”… yeah, you can see why I’m unsure.

Greyhound follows a Kiwi tanker crew (Dad, Mutha, Digs, Smiler and Reay, I think ), as the Allies make their way slowly but surely up the Italian front, ending in Trieste where they become mired in post-war politics, dealing with Jugoslav communists.

Along the way we read of their trials with the officers (or orifices, as they’re referred to..), their lives pre-war and their potential lives post-war. And did I mention the authentic Kiwi slang? It’s so thick I’ve may have got the plot ENTIRELY wrong.

This is definitely one of the novels to which you just have to apply the term “tour de force” but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s not easy to read, care of the language, however if you persevere it takes on a hum and a pace all its own, and becomes almost lyrical. In this way it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon – written in an exacting and often confounding 18th century english manner – after a while it all starts to make a sort of sense. Or at least you think it is, so you go along with it.

“DAD, DAD. He just called you a hostile monopolist pig,” translated Reay. “Something about how the National Liberation Movement grinds slowly, but it grinds to dust. Can’t figure that one out, he’s lost me. Hang on, there’s more. Something about your mum being the whore of a Chetnik – and I don’t know if I’ve got this entirely right – your cattle being dwarf Herefords, scrawny as, crammed agin gate… awaiting feed-out of hay… while his Black Buggers are out there foraging for themselves and putting on poundage… on a farm, somewhere near the Bulgarian border. There may well be a few macrocarpa trees in the package too. Definitely shoddy fences and lots of Taranaki gates, mate.”

The coaster paused before adding, “DAD, HE JUST INSULTED YOU, TO YOUR FACE.”

There’s plenty of tank action, more than the odd grotesque war-is-hell moment and it has that a genuine depressingly joyous tone (yes, I said that right), much like the old soldier who tells you all about that time he got stuck in a foxhole surrounded by Germans, as if he was having the time of his life. He probably was. No one said that it was the BEST time of his life. There’s also plenty of black humour and a very observant eye, particularly in the poetic descriptions of New Zealand and Italian countryside.

All the way back to Tauranga – recalling how her tongue had probed his mouth – he noticed for the first time ever the surrealistic shapes and colours of Life: the browns of dairy streams; different shades of green of the various weeds dotting the paddocks, the spindly pines and macrocarpas in lieu of majestic grey kauri trunks; vivid reds of fly-strike amid the wool; the bony black and white hides of cows cooking in the sun.

I got lost around about 2/3rds in but the final quarter picked me up again and held me until the end. So, in my fine tradition of drawing a line in the sand, this is either a new NZ classic literary tour-de-force, or I’ve totally overblown it. Read it for yourself, and decide.

 “Excuse me, but am I missing something here?” came in Reay. “I mean what the heck do these flippin’ squareheads think they are up to? Jerry top brass has formally surrendered, so what’s the deal?”

“Issues, mate, issues,” said Digs authoritatively.