Voyages in America by James Robinson

Voyages in America: A Story of Homes Lost and Found by James Robinson, ISBN 9780692223659, ask your favourite bookshop to order or buy from Amazon.

When you encounter America for the first time it’s an odd experience. Our culture, despite our insistence on experiencing “overseas” mostly through the UK, is saturated with images, ideas and entertainment from America. It’s the country that has overwhelmed the world.

So when you arrive there for the first (or even second or third) time everything is at once intensely familiar and strangely foreign. After spending 6 months in the States in 1996, I remember having the vivid experience of watching The Simpsons back in NZ and thinking about how realistic it is. It is strange as a non-American to realise you have so many shared experiences with Americans, we know so much of their history and their stories, yet they know so few of ours.

It’s easy to be disdainful of America but when you go there it’s very, very hard not to fall in love.

James Robinson’s Voyages in America captures these contradictions and comforts almost perfectly. Voyages in America started life as a blog on Stuff before Robinson decided to turn his thoughtful musings into a book. He did a damn good job of raising the funds to publish on Kickstarter and has produced a very polished tome. Normally collections of previously published columns (as we used to call them) can have a stop-start tone, or a disjointedness but Robinson has avoided this by reworking his blog posts, ordering them around several themes and providing personal background and context to anchor his thoughts.

What results is a meditative reflection on the familiarity and “otherness” experience of travelling and living away from one’s home, and particularly in America, peppered with some insightful personal and cultural observations. Robinson is not just an observer but is a thinker too, addressing a number of stereotypes (both perpetuated by Americans and of Americans).

Testament to the popularity of the blog, Voyages in America is a good read, fun and moving in equal measure. Robinson has a ear for the absurd and maintains a healthy sense of humour throughout the book, never allowing it to be weighed down with cynicism.

Highly recommended reading for actual and armchair travellers and thinkers.

The Sovereign Hand by Paul Gilbert

The Sovereign HandThe Sovereign Hand by Paul Gilbert, Steampress, buy now.

Fans of Gormenghast and China Miéville should drop everything and get themselves a copy of The Sovereign Hand as soon as they can. An amazingly detailed and hugely ambitious tale on an epic scale, it’s the debut fantasy novel from New Zealand writer Paul Gilbert.

We are taken into the world of Thorn, the gilded capital, a city at the centre of a world of supposed freedom and opportunity for all. In prose that is almost overwhelming at times, Gilbert gives us the tale of Alexa, prophesised hero against the Evil that is coming for Thorn and its citizens.

The above review appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Sunday, 7 September 2014.

NZ Herald on Sunday review imageAnother impressive release from Steampress, The Sovereign Hand is billed as pure fantasy and it really is. The language can only be described as “full on” which matches the epic scale of the world Gilbert has created.

What I love about Steampress is everything they release is interesting and a step forward. Again, brilliant stuff from one of our best indie publishers.

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.

 

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