Bookwatch – Herald on Sunday, 11 August 2013

Here’s my Bookwatch column from today’s Herald on Sunday (11 August 2013):

Nga Tau ki Muri : Our Future

By Ans Westra with Hone Tuwhare, David Lange, David Eggleton, Brian Turner & Russel Norman (Suite Publishing)

Celebrated photographer Ans Westra (Wash Day at the Pa) is back in print with another beautiful and moving portrait of New Zealand in all its glory and ruin. For Nga Tau ki Muri, Westra is joined in text by some great names. The focus is our country, our nature, and our footsteps upon it. The production quality is fantastic, with cloth bound embossed covers. This book is a thing of beauty.

At the Dying of the Year

By Chris Nickson (Severn House)

This is well-written, extremely well paced and quite enthralling. The year is 1733, Richard Nottingham is the Constable of Leeds and three children have just been found battered to death. Nottingham and his team are on the tail of a serial child-killer. Nickson’s skill is in telling a tale and letting us into the lives of his protagonists. He also goes to lengths to bring to life the grit and sights, sounds and smells of 18th-century England.

A History of Food in 100 Recipes

By William Sitwell (Harper Collins)

This book is entertaining and mouth-watering. Sitwell, a food magazine editor, goes right back to the ancient Egyptians first making unleavened bread and takes us on a ride through food history in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas. He presents each recipe in the original, accompanied by tidbits of history, food and eating. A fascinating journey through history that shows how our obsession with food has never waned.

The Daylight Gate

By Jeanette Winterson (Random House)

A thrilling and quick read, dealing equally brilliantly with the spiritual and the corporeal. Set in 17th century England at the height of the witch trials, the story centres on Alice Nutter, who is set on a collision course with Thomas Potts, discoverer of witches.  The Daylight Gate is visceral, capturing the smells, sights, diseases and fear of its time and place. It is a bone-chilling fear Winterson is dealing with here – the complete unpredictability of life when you don’t own your soul, your brain or your body.

scan of Bookwatch 11 August 2013

Book Review: The Search for Anne Perry by Joanne Drayton

The Search for Anne Perry cover imageThe Search for Anne Perry by Joanne Drayton, Harper Collins, ISBN 9781869508883, RRP$44.99, Available now.

It’s really not surprising that the Honorah Rieper/Parker murder story continues to fascinate so many people (myself included). For the few people who surely don’t know the story, Honorah was murdered in Christchurch in 1954 by two teenage girls – one, her own daughter Pauline Rieper/Parker, and the other Pauline’s best friend, Juliet Hulme. She had been beaten to death with half a brick wrapped in a stocking. At the trial it became clear that Juliet and Pauline had an obsessive relationship and an incredibly complex fantasy life. Lesbian goings-on were hinted at. Parker and Hulme seemed oddly detached from their actions.  The story totally captivated New Zealand and the time and has since been told and retold through books and movies (Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson).

And what does this all have to do with Anne Perry, reasonably celebrated and certainly successful writer of mostly historical murder mysteries? Anne Perry, it turned out, was Juliet Hulme.

The Search for Anne Perry is, at heart, a fascinating story that ultimately fails to deliver. The blurb promises that Drayton “is able to peel back the layers of Anne’s carefully constructed life to show us the woman beneath” but reading the book turns into a disappointing experience, as the reader can’t help feeling that Anne’s life as told in The Search for Anne Perry remains “carefully constructed”.

I hate to say that because Drayton has clearly worked hard and gained the trust of her subject as few others have. The cost of that trust, though, is unfortunately this is more of a “Perry-approved” version of the story. At times the tone veers towards gratingly gushy. Drayton is clearly a fan of Perry’s and so the big questions feel unanswered. How? Why?

Throughout I felt like I was trying to read between the lines, to find out something authentic and genuine. Perhaps this is the only authenticity left. If you kill someone, you become a “murderer”; to stop being that every day you must wake up and recreate every part of yourself that isn’t the “murderer”. Maybe then, that’s all you have left.

This really is the at the heart of our fascination with the Parker-Hulme story. They are the ordinary people capable of killing, as all we ordinary people must then surely be. I think about the questions I would like to ask, chief being “When you write about a murder and a murder victim’s body, do you think about that murder? Do you see that body?”

It just may be that those questions are too personal. Too many layers deep.

My final word is I think The Search for Anne Perry is a necessary addition to the Parker-Hulme story, even if it ultimately doesn’t reveal as much as it wants to. It’s certainly readable and will definitely have an audience.

Have you had your Dailyread?

Dailyread (in case you didn’t know) is a daily deals site for books… great new books for around 50 – 60+% off RRP prices, and all the prices include delivery in New Zealand. I’m doing a little work with them, so I figured it’s time I gave them a plug to y’all!

Today’s titles are a great mystery/thriller from Irvine Welsh, Crime, and the perfect NZ summer book – Bruce Ansley’s Gods and Little Fishes: A Boy and a Beach, a memoir of New Brighton in the last half of the 20th century.

Bruce Ansley – Dailyread.

Irvine Welsh – Dailyread.

 

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.

9781869538132

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_4e3dea065cd33_175x175

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.

SpanishHelmet150w

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.

Sigh.

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.

Book Review: Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Mercy

Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Penguin, RRP $40, ISBN9780718156886, Available now.

Ah, Scandinavia. Suddenly it’s the deep dark heart of crime, the seedy underbelly of …um, Northern Europe? I have to confess the whole Scandinavian crime she-bang has passed me by (unless you count Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow which it seems people don’t – shame as it’s brilliant) – I haven’t read any Stieg Larsson because, quite frankly, I am contrary and if everyone else reads it that’s a good reason for me not to (though now I’m reviewing seriously my contrariness has to take second place).

Mercy follows Carl Mørck, one of crime’s great archetypes – the world-weary homicide detective transferred to a new department where he can’t rub too many people up the wrong way. He’s investigating unsolved crimes, including the disappearance of Merete Lynggaard – a Danish politician who’s been missing for five years. Mørck’s investigation takes him into political circles and, eventually, a fairly ingenious evil-mastermindy type crime.

So, Mercy has a great big “Guaranteed Great Read” printed so not-sticker slap bang on the front cover. Oh dear. Mercy isn’t a great read. It’s an okay read but it’s not great. It takes far too long to get going, it has a questionable portrayal of a secondary character and some odd side plot points that seem to only be there for character exposition but have all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer (like my metaphors, clearly).

It highlights an integral problem with reading books in translation – I have no idea if these issues are exacerbated by a bad translation.¹ The good news is, however, that I did eventually get drawn in by the story and I did feel like the characterisations seem to improve significantly as the book went on.

But I had a real issue with the initial characterisation of Mørck’s assistant Assad – a Muslim immigrant to Denmark. Sure, it could be argued that Adler-Olsen is using Mørck’s initial disdain of Assad as a comment on many European’s attitudes towards immigrants – an increasingly large problem in many parts of Europe, including Scandinavia. But initially it just all feels too crude to be effective.

In many ways then Mercy is almost a book of two halves. The first half is problematic and verging on not-worth-continuing, the second half is intriguing and has characters that have impact. Overall that just doesn’t make for greatness.

¹Am I the only reader to have vague problems with reading books in translation? It’s a bit like watching movies in translation – I only speak English fluently and from what I’ve been told by people who do speak other languages, the translations are generally missing a significant amount. It’s not that I don’t think publishers do their best to get the best translation, it’s just I wonder if any idea of true or complete translation is by it’s very nature inherently imposssible.