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.

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 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 – 18 May 2014

Engines of Empathy

By Paul Mannering, Paper Road Press

Is New Zealand the speculative fiction capital of the world? This book from new independent publisher Paper Road Press is evidence that we might just be. Witty and fun, with a highly original premise, the author takes us on a journey with Charlotte Pudding, in a world that might be our future or a parallel universe. Charlotte has secrets even she doesn’t know about and now she needs to find out what they are before the dark corporate forces shadowing her do.

Eeny Meeny

By MJ Arlidge, Penguin

The thriller genre is fairly well-worn so it’s nice to come across a new twist, such as the one in Eeny Meeny. Someone is kidnapping pairs of people and forcing them to make a choice: kill or be killed. Detective Inspector Helen Grace is investigating but is she also a target? A suitably macabre and gripping writer, MJ Arlidge knows how to hold a reader’s attention.

Creeks and Kitchens: A Memoir

By Maurice Gee, Bridget Williams Books

Newly released in paperback, this delightful short piece of Gee’s takes us back to the West Auckland of his childhood. It’s a world that will be familiar to many New Zealanders and completely foreign to some. Gee also reveals many of his influences and the connections between his memories and some of his more well-known books. An absolute delight to read.

Boy, Snow, Bird

By Helen Oyeyemi, Picador

Boy, Snow, Bird opens with Boy, a neglected and abused young woman who runs away from big city New York to smalltown Massachusetts, eventually becoming stepmother to the angelic Snow. The birth of her own child, Bird, brings a surprising secret into the open, one that leads to Snow’s banishment from her family home. Oyeyemi weaves elements of both myth and fairytale with stark social American reality in a book that is in equal measures sad and beautiful.

Scan of Book Watch column 18 May 2014

Narcoleptic Hooker by Emma Janson

Narcoleptic Hooker by Emma Janson cover image

Narcoleptic Hooker by Emma Janson, Zharmae Publishing, Release date May 5, 2014, Buy direct from the publisher.

One of the perks(?) of being a book blogger is you get all sorts of wonderful and weird and unsolicited approaches from various writers and publishers – and when you’ve been doing this for a while you get approaches from all over the world too. Some I know are not going to be my cup of tea but I do try to remain relatively open-minded and also honest about the fact I am not exactly prolific in my reviewing these days.

So, I have to admit when I recieved an email from Zharmae Publishing about a book called Narcoleptic Hooker it was that title which immediately got my attention. My first thought, however, was not “Oh I’m going to love is”, it was more “I’ve got to see what this is about and then I’m going to pass it over”. And I don’t do many (if any) of these blog tour type things, but dang it, you have to start somewhere. And I’m starting with Narcoleptic Hooker.

The author story also got my attention. Emma Janson is a US Army soldier who’s served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and activist, she writes books about sex, and she has twins. How could you NOT want her as a friend? The woman sounds like a blast.

Now, to the book itself – this is not exactly a book for the conservative at heart but I think most of those readers will establish that straight away. Narcoleptic Hooker is the story of Penelope Fortunata, the prostitute with narcolepsy who eradicated crime in Las Vegas. We start in 2054 and Penny (sorry Pen) takes us back to when she was running (well, sort of) with the Mob, and how she got to where she is.

Look, here’s my honest opinion: This is a FUN read. It is literally page turning; Penelope and her best friend Kimchi are hilarious, smart and highly enjoyable characters, and finding out where they’re going and what’s going to happen to them became my mission for a couple of days. I did find the overall premise of this utopian future Las Vegas to be almost unecessary, to be honest. Like the author was looking for a reason to write this story.

Honey, if you want to write a damned story about a narcoleptic Vegas hooker, then you write a damned story about a narcoleptic Vegas hooker.

And yes, it’s sexy and crude and occasionally sexist and you couldn’t describe the writing as polished. But did I mention the fun? If that sounds like you then grab a copy – better yet enter below to win a copy!

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