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.

Book Watch – NZ Herald on Sunday, 9 February 2014

Maia and What Matters

By Tine Mortier, Illustrated by Kaatje Vermeire, Book Island

A stunning and deeply moving picture book, Maia and What Matters is the story of Maia and her beloved grandma. Dealing compassionately and appropriately with issues of loss and grieving, as well as old age, this is a wonderful book to share with children and to treasure for years to come.

Raising Steam

By Terry Pratchett, Doubleday

Amazingly, Raising Steam is the 40th Discworld novel and Terry Pratchett remains as fresh as ever. The book takes us back to Ankh Morpork and raconteur Moist von Lipwig, now in charge of bringing the steam train to the varied population of Discworld. With his characteristic dry wit and a plot that races along, Pratchett delivers another highly enjoyable read.


By Brandy Wehinger, Random House

Zombies may be so last year but fun and romantic stories are timeless. Blue is the debut teen novel from New Zealand author Brandy Wehinger and it’s an enjoyable, fun read, and the perfect antidote for teens hung up on Twilight or Stephen King. Summer may be over for kids but they can still enjoy a beach read.

The Kept

By James Scott, Random House

Another debut novel, this one has an authentic horror voice. The Kept takes us to rural New York State in the late 19th century, examining long-held family secrets and the deep desire for revenge. Genuinely literary prose combined with a darkly haunting story make The Kept a satisfying and troubling read.

Book Watch 090214 image

Book Review: Juno & Hannah by Beryl Fletcher

Juno and Hannah cover image

Juno & Hannah by Beryl Fletcher, Spinifex Press, ISBN 9781742198750

Juno & Hannah is the new novel from acclaimed New Zealand author Beryl Fletcher. It’s officially called a “novella” but to be honest I think it’s of a respectable enough length to qualify as a novel.

Set in post-WW1, it certainly has more than a flavour of Kiwi gothic to it. Fletcher wastes no time getting into the story, with our protagonists,Juno and Hannah, propelled throw events right from the first page. The book starts with Hannah saving the life of a man in a river, and we quickly realise three pertinent facts: a) the two girls live in a religious colony, b) are sisters and, c) Juno is different, possibly autistic. Hannah has learnt to calm and reason with Juno, and in turn Juno trusts Hannah over anyone.

But saving a man’s life changes everything for these sisters, with Hannah accused of witchcraft and isolated for a month. Before the isolation ends Hannah realises she has to leave and she must take Juno with her. This turns out to be just the beginning of a journey that takes in their past and parentage, as well as bushcraft, religion, exploitation, abuse, eugenics and crime.

Fletcher is always a fantastic writer and I did enjoy Juno & Hannah. I did have trouble connecting with the story but I often find that with Fletcher’s writing – people aren’t always honest and Fletcher makes the reader decide for themselves. This is a challenge though, not a criticism.

The story moves along at a fast pace and as quickly as we are dropped into this story, we are dropped out. Perhaps that’s another tick in the novella column. The characters are memorable, especially Hannah, the sister who holds it all together and in many ways mirrors our own confusion at a world we aren’t familiar with and don’t really understand.

Juno & Hannah is published by Spinifex Press – an independent and highly productive Australian feminist publishing company. You might not know them well, but I highly recommend taking a look at their current and back catalogue.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There by Wallace Chapman

Don't Just Do Something, Sit There cover image

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Manifesto for Living the Slow Life by Wallace Chapman, Penguin, ISBN 9780143568827, RRP $30, Available now.

I am a firm believer in the power of doing nothing and doing it preferably whilst asleep, so I was very keen to read the new book Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There by sometime student radio DJ, political show TV presenter and general well-meaning* and intelligent good guy Wallace Chapman.

In the tradition of two of my favourite books, How to be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson and Change Your Life Without Getting Out of Bed by Sark, Chapman explores the idea of slow and simple living.

And overall he does a great job, covering technology, working, food, sex and health amongst many other topics.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There is an enjoyable read and has some interesting bits of information and equally interesting and user-friendly tips on how to slow down and enjoy the world a bit more. Chapman divulges a lot of genuine detail from his own journey in life, from dealing with serious illness to taking the leap into a career you really love.

It also, however, suffers from a teeny bit of quiet pretension and privilege (the cover photo? taken at Clooney in Auckland, because nothing says “downshift your career” like a restaurant that charges $36 for an entree). But, you know, stuff it, the leather couch does look rather comfy.

Really, it’s important to have books like this. Our world is about constant movement, and it’s too easy to forget to ground yourself in what is real and true. The madness of money leads to the sort of ridiculous carry-on we see time and time again, around the world.

Having said that though, it’s always good to have a reminder that history is an endless cycle.

In fact, there is a direct equivalent to the torrent of information one could source off the net. That came in 1453 with the advent of the printing press… In the late 1500s the Dutch humanist Erasmus wrote that printers ‘fill the world with pamphlets and books that are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libellous, mad, impious and subversive; and such is the flood that even things that might have done some good lose all their goodness’.

I don’t know what he’s talking about.

*This was meant to sound a lot more complimentary than it does.

Short reviews for a rainy Sunday

The Secret Life of James Cook cover imageThe Secret Life of James Cook by Graeme Lay, 4th Estate, ISBN 9781775540120, RRP $36.99, Available now.

The Secret Life of James Cook is a fictional account of Cook’s early years, how he entered the Navy, his early Naval career and ends with his first circumnavigation of the world.

It also presents something of a problem: apparently the secret life of James Cook was really boring. Fictional accounts of real events need to commit to one of two things – either they are strictly sticking to facts as known (ma’am) or they throw themselves into the fictional and really go all out. The Secret Life of James Cook does neither of these things and therefore suffers from a sense of total blah. Cook comes across as a swotty naval wonk, his wife Elizabeth is insipid and Banks is tedious. Which I suspect Banks wasn’t.

I think this sums it up:

He read avidly the work of the Greek mathematician Euclid, in particular his Elements, which had been lent to him by Lord Colvill. He found it a brilliant work of geometry. Learning that Euclid was born in 300BC, he appreciated that the mathematical knowledge of the Ancients was remarkable, and that his theories were highly applicable to the art of navigation.

I’m not a violent person but this made me want to beat up the youngish James Cook, just a little bit.

The Daylight Gate cover imageThe Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson, Random House, ISBN 9780099561835, RRP $19.99, Available now.

Winterson is an always surprising author and she can write a tale like nobody’s business. Everyone knows Oranges are Not the Only Fruit but my favourite is Sexing the Cherry, which was an historical novel with a hallucinogenic bent. Which is why I was excited to read The Daylight Gate – also an historical novel this time set during the reign of James I and dealing with witch trials.

Winterson doesn’t disappoint. The Daylight Gate is visceral, grossly capturing the smells, sights, diseases and fear of north England in the 17th century. 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.

The story follows Alice Nutter, a rich woman who has the misfortune to ride (literally) into the middle of a grotesque family assembly being broken up by equally grotesque figures of authority. This sets her on a collision path with Thomas Potts, discoverer of witches.

The Daylight Gate is a thrilling and quick read, dealing equally brilliantly with the spiritual and the corporeal.

A Forager’s Treasury by Johanna Knox

A Forager's Treasury cover image

A Forager’s Treasury by Johanna Knox, Allen & Unwin, ISBN 9781877505164, RRP $37, Available now.

Growing one’s own produce is definitely catching on but foraging (collecting wild plants to use) would at first glance still seem a fairly foreign concept to most town and city-dwelling Kiwis, I would think. On that basis Johanna Knox certainly wins BookieMonster’s “unique idea for the year” award!

But as Knox points out:

At the very least, can any of us say that we’ve never picked a blackberry?

On another basis she’s also in the running for most enjoyable book of the year, because A Forager’s Treasury is not only a detailed and accessible guide to many New Zealand plants, it’s also a recipe book, a household compendium, and an all round entertaining read, even if you have no aspirations to learn your hawksbeard from your hawksbit or your tisane from your tea (not a lot different there except semantics, apparently).

Knox explores both native plants and introduced species, and this would make a fantastic gift for a determined outdoor explorer. I can imagine going on bush works and breaking off bits of plant to bring back and check against the illustrations. Or taking it with me and spending hours annoying a walking companion by insisting on examining every dandelion we come across, and determining exactly which kind of DYC (damned yellow composite) it is.

On a more practical note there’s some really tasty recipes included, and you wouldn’t need to be the most determined forager to enjoy them. I mean, sure I could forage berries or fruit for the Scrumper’s Crumble, but in the middle of winter I could also forage in my local supermarket or farmer’s market, and it’s still going to warm my belly.

And if I want to know even more I can visit the accompanying website -

A Forager’s Treasury is a delightful idea and a charming book.