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.

 

Vote for the Peoples Choice Award 2014

The People’s Choice award is the public’s opportunity to vote for their favourite NZ published, NZ authored title published within the eligible date span for the 2014 awards (1 June 2013 – 31 May 2014). I’ll let you in on a secret and tell you I voted for Wake by Elizabeth Knox.

Vote using the link below or the widget to the right and remember – you don’t HAVE to vote for the covers they show, you can enter your own choice in the form!

Vote in the 2014 People's Choice Award

New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014 – Finalists announced

NZ Post Book Awards logoThe New Zealand Post Book Awards finalists for 2014 have been announced! Predictably there’s a lot of The Luminaries. I’m excited to see Michele Leggott in the Poetry section, and I think the General Non-Fiction is going to be the interesting award. Don’t forget to vote for the People’s Choice award. Here’s the media release:

New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014 finalists announced - Quintessential Kiwi Character Shines Through

The quintessential New Zealand character comes to the fore in the finalists for the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014, announced today. Selected from 150 entries, the judges say the finalist books capture the essence of the country’s psyche — not just in place and people, but by capturing what makes us tick as New Zealanders.

The judges said they were surprised at how relatively easily they agreed on their choices of finalists. Convenor of the judging panel, Miriama Kamo, says, “As fairly opinionated and confident people we surmised that these finalists were of such quality that they stood up and spoke for themselves. Having said that, not every selection came easily as there were many excellent books from which to choose our finalists.”

The finalists include eight non-fiction books on a variety of themes, among them a biography of Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk, a lavishly photographed journey around our coastline, a search for a family history that was inspired by the Christchurch earthquakes and a re-examination of the Pike River mine tragedy.

Fiction finalists include, not surprisingly, Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize winner The Luminaries, set on the West Coast. The three other fiction finalists are Anne Kennedy’s The Last Days of the National Costume — a gripping tale of illicit love, passion and embroidery and The Bright Side of my Condition by Charlotte Randall, based on a true story of four escaped Norfolk Island convicts who were deposited on The Snares — a group of islands south of Stewart Island. Damien Wilkins’ book Max Gate departs this year’s New Zealand theme, with an insightful novel on the death of Thomas Hardy.

The four Poetry finalists include two first-time authors — Caoilinn Hughes for her book Gathering Evidence and Marty Smith with Horse with Hat. Auckland author Michele Leggott’s Heartland follows some of her own movements and moments — to Devonport, to Australia and to the north of the country. Poet Laureate Vincent O’Sullivan’s Us, then explores experience and memory, belief, ways of seeing, other worlds we find set against our own – and individual lives within the frame of a collective history.

“Poetry in New Zealand is in fantastic shape with a number of brilliant new poets making themselves known, Caoilinn Hughes and Marty Smith among them,” says Miriama.

The New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014 judging panel comprises acclaimed New Zealand artist, Dick Frizzell; award-winning Radio New Zealand presenter, Kim Hill; poet and novelist, Elizabeth Smither; and literary critic, Peter Simpson. The panel is convened by broadcaster Miriama Kamo.

Miriama said that the judges congratulated all the finalists on their achievements in being named on the Awards’ shortlist. “We had to make our selections from a very strong field this year. Every author should be proud to be in such excellent company. From new authors to established prize-winning writers, all contributed to a stellar year in New Zealand writing.”

“We would also like to congratulate the publishers of these finalists’ titles. The design and production standards are very high, with some stunning works in the Illustrated Non-fiction category in particular. It’s great to see that the importance of the design, images, typography and paper stock are considered as important as the words themselves. These are all beautiful books and they will be a pleasure to read in years to come.”

People’s Choice opens today

The ever-popular People’s choice award is the public’s opportunity to vote for their favourite book of the year. Eligible books must be written by New Zealand authors and published in New Zealand within the period of 1 June 2013-31 May 2014. Readers can vote online or in a book store. Voting opens on Wednesday, 23 July and closes on Friday, 15 August.

Prizes

A significant prize pool will see the overall winner of the New Zealand Post Book of the Year award receive $15,000. Winners of the four category awards will each receive $10,000; People’s Choice $5,000; Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice $2,500; and each of the winners of the three New Zealand Society of Authors Best First Book awards, $2,500.

National Poetry Day

New Zealand poetry will be celebrated with National Poetry Day on Friday, 22 August with more than 60 colourful events planned for around the country. Aspiring poets, poetry lovers and established poetry writers can enjoy a range of events that will capture imaginations and provide inspiration to not only write their own verse, but also to enjoy listening to poetry and/or performing a piece of poetry.

Winners announced on 27 August

The winner of the New Zealand Post Book of the Year will be announced at a glittering ceremony at Wellington’s Te Papa Museum on Wednesday, 27 August. Also announced will be the four category winners, People’s Choice winner and the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice award. The three winners of the New Zealand Society of Authors Best First Book awards, announced on Wednesday, 16 July, will be presented with their prizes.

The New Zealand Post Book Awards are managed by Booksellers New Zealand and sponsored by New Zealand Post. The awards are also supported by Creative New Zealand and Book Tokens New Zealand.

The finalists for the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014, by category, are:

Fiction

  • The Bright Side of my Condition by Charlotte Randall, Penguin Books
  • The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy, Allen & Unwin
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Victoria University Press
  • Max Gate by Damien Wilkins, Victoria University Press

Poetry

  • Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes, Victoria University Press
  • Heartland by Michele Leggott, Auckland University Press
  • Horse with Hat by Marty Smith, Victoria University Press
  • Us, then by Vincent O’Sullivan, Victoria University Press

 Illustrated Non-fiction

  • Coast: A New Zealand journey by Bruce Ansley & Jane Ussher, Random House NZ (Godwit)
  • Greer Twiss: Sculptor by Greer Twiss, Dr Robin Woodward & Haru Sameshima, Ron Sang Publications
  • New Zealand and the First World War 1914-1919 by Damien Fenton, Penguin Books in association with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage
  • Promoting Prosperity: The art of early New Zealand advertising by Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart, Craig Potton Publishing

General Non-fiction

  • A History of Silence by Lloyd Jones, Penguin Books
  • Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer by Jill Trevelyan, Te Papa Press
  • The Mighty Totara: The life and times of Norman Kirk by David Grant, Random House NZ
  • Tragedy at Pike River Mine by Rebecca Macfie, Awa Press

Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice

  • Beyond the State: New Zealand state houses from modest to modern, by Bill McKay, Andrea Stevens & Simon Devitt, Penguin Books
  • Molesworth: Stories from New Zealand’s largest high-country station by Harry Broad and Rob Suisted, Craig Potton Publishing
  • The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing in New Zealand by Paul Adamson, Random House NZ
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Victoria University Press

Book Watch, New Zealand Herald on Sunday – 13 July 2014

The Martian

By Andy Weir, Random House

This science-fiction adventure thriller is up there with the best in edge-of-your-seat reads, combining imagination, science and a healthy dose of humour. Mark Watney is a botanist and astronaut stranded on Mars, left alone to survive on the Red Planet because of a mixture of bad luck and catastrophe. Will he make it back to Earth? It’s no surprise that a movie adaptation is already in the works.

Sand

By Hugh Howey, Random House

A new world and a new story from Howey, the best-selling writer of the Wool trilogy. The author’s strength is his prodigious imagination and he makes use of it again with Sand, combining apocalyptic vision with a story of family and survival. Like Wool this is a highly enjoyable read; I became so immersed I could practically feel the grit and wind.

Purgatory

By Rosetta Allen, Penguin

A fantastic new book from a talented New Zealand author, Purgatory is based on the 1865 Otahuhu murders. Exploring ideas of spirituality, colonial dispossession and the dehumanising effects of poverty and alcohol, the story moves between Ireland and New Zealand, and between bereavement and redemption. Allen’s expressive story-telling will appeal to readers looking for the best home-grown narratives.

At War with Satan

By Steff Metal,  Grymm & Epic Publishing

Another homegrown author but with a completely different focus, At War with Satan is a fantasy tale in the best tradition of Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin, with a lot of heavy metal thrown in. Plenty of puns and gentle jokes at the expense of various musical genres keep this a fast and furious read. The author’s love of the subject matter is infectious, making the war between heaven and hell anything but grim.

My Book Watch column for 13 July 2014, courtesy of the New Zealand Herald on Sunday.

scan of printed Book Watch column

Three Quick Reviews

Here’s some quick looks at other books which have passed before my eyes recently.

 WellywoodStyling Wellywood by Kate O’Keefe, available on Amazon

Jess has returned home to Wellington from her big OE in London, and is going into business as a personal stylist with her best friend Morgan. Throw in a bit of snobbery, two good looking men and a sad back story, and some “hi-jinks with a message” should ensue.

Styling Wellywood has a promising premise but it just doesn’t deliver. The main character is seriously unlikeable, and the overall storyline is too predictable to really deliver any punch. Do young NZers really suffer this level of cultural cringe anymore? Unfortunately this book just wasn’t to my liking.

Dating Westerners cover imageDating Westerners: tips for the new rich of the developing by Richard Meros, Lawrence and Gibson

A dating guide for the nouveau riche of the developing world, looking to “break into” the West via love. Truly. Dating Westerners is alternately hilarious and completely weird, which pretty much sums up the entirety so far of Richard Meros’ publishing portfolio.

Dating Westerners is the book rejected for funding by Reactive/Creative New Zealand (both the application and rejection letter can be seen in $30 Meat Pack). Put air quotes wherever you see fit in that sentence.

Seriously, I don’t know what more to say!

The Possession of Silver cover imageThe Possession of Silver by Corey Leigh, available on Amazon

A hybrid fantasy/pirate novel for kids and young adults, The Possession of Silver follows our eponymous hero and budding pirate, Silver, in a hunt for treasure on a very strange island.

The tone of this book is a little odd, not always hitting the mark and jumping around a little too often to be entirely convincing to its target audience. However it’s pulled along by a quick and original plot, with enough surprises to keep me reading to the end.

Book Review: Ad Lib by Thomasin Sleigh

Ad Lib cover imageAd Lib by Thomasin Sleigh, Lawrence and Gibson, ISBN 9780473274849, RRP$23

Right from the epigraph I had an idea of where Ad Lib is going, with two quotes: one from TS Eliot and one from Kim Kardashian. As I got further into the story it became clearer and clearer how these two, seemingly juxtaposed people, were perfect roles for the deeply thought out journey that Sleigh was taking me on.

Ad Lib follows Kyla Crane, daughter of celebrity Carmen Crane who has died suddenly. Carmen was supposed to have been starting to film a reality TV show and her manager and the networks are now keen to have the show follow Kyla. And so a camera crew appears in her house, “friends” she doesn’t quite remember start calling, and a status of celebrity is suddenly conferred upon her.

To say Ad Lib is lyrical and literary is almost beside the point – it is both of those things while being imbued with a strong sense of exactly how low-brow celebrity and reality television works in our wider culture. There are strange touches such as a camera crew that acts as a Greek chorus, and Carmen Crane’s sordid tale of celebrity à la Judy Garland. This overwhelming sense of culture clash kept me unsettled as a reader while drawing me further and further into Kyla’s story.

Her mother was beautiful in these printed photographs. Before anybody had looked at her, she was still beautiful.

What is celebrity and how does it change those who feel its sticky fingers? What about those who seek it out? Sleigh moves dreamily between these questions, sometimes giving the reader clear clues and sometimes keeping us in the dark. Kyla’s grief becomes submerged in the “story” of her show.

Ad Lib is a surreal read, intriguing and beautiful, leaving more questions behind than answers.