As part of my year-long adventure in New Zealand, I’m on a hunt to read more books by New Zealand authors, set in New Zealand, ones that mention New Zealand in a footnote, are recommended by Kiwis, etc. So, on one of my recent days off, I sat down with my first New Zealand book-centric magazine: the Weekend Herald’s Canvas Magazine’s Books Issue. Here’s what I put on my TBR list:
The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts
The North American version is subtitled “Journey into an Obsession”
Edmund de Waal
Canvas recommends: Subtitled “A pilgrimage of sorts,” this is written by an obsessive about an obsession – porcelain. Edmund de Waal, one of Britain’s finest ceramicists whose Hare With Amber Eyes won a Royal Society of Literature award in 2011, investigates the history of porcelain, first made in China 1000 years ago. For 500 years no one in Europe knew how it was mage; the Germans cracked it in 1708 but the process remained secret for many years, the product a mysterious luminous luxury craved by emperors, kings, collectors, the very rich – and the Nazis. Dachau had its own porcelain works where inmates produced kitsch figurines of nude Aryan youths. It’s a frenetic, compulsive, often awful narrative which draws you in, much like the “porcelain sickness” that afflicted Augustus II the Strong of Saxony. He owned nearly 36,000 pieces.
Anna Smaill *Kiwi author!
Canvas recommends: An astonishingly original novel, and a debut at that, which saw Kiwi Anna Smaill long-listed for the Man Booker. It’s set in a London where memory and written words have been banished, and its people are controlled by a massive, mind-controlling carillon of sound, which creates mental collapse at the end of each day. Teen orphan Simon arrives in the city and joins a group of outlaws. It becomes apparent he has his mother’s gift for seeing other people’s memories, which makes him highly dangerous, and endangered.
The Writing Class
While Canvas actually recommended the follow-up book to this, The Writers’ Festival, because I haven’t read the first one yet, that’s the one I’m listing.
This unique novel is both a compelling love story and an insightful writing manual. ‘Writers take what we learn of human nature and, fuelled by our longings for other existences and other times, forge new identities that can be as real as she is, sitting with her dog on the weathered step of the old house, stories that move us to tears or laughter.’ Merle Carbury, an author in her own right, also teaches Creative Writing. Amid the tension of the final semester of the year, her many and varied students prepare to submit their manuscripts. As Merle mentors their assorted ambitions, observes the romantic entanglements of her colleague, worries about her husband and is intrigued by their mysterious German lodger, she both imparts and embodies how to write a novel. Written by a prize-winning author, who is also an experienced teacher, the overarching intelligence, compassion and wicked humour in this inventive book make it a joy to read.
The Dreaming Land
Martin Edmond *Kiwi author and setting!
Canvas recommends: Michael King Fellow Martin Edmond’s memoir about growing up in rural New Zealand during the 50s and 60s will resonate with many readers. His school teacher father moved regularly from town to town so Edmond literally covers a lot of ground. It’s a book full of visual memories; Edmond recalls what he read, his obsession with geology, his bike and newspaper runs, against a backdrop of his parents’ disintegrating marriage. One day, young Martin came home from his paper run and his mother told him something shocking. His sister had been “accosted”. A very deep piece of sustained writing that would have required courage to recall and confront.
Canvas recommends: Legendary explorer and writer extraordinaire Sir Ranulph Fiennes published a riveting book a couple of years ago called Cold, about working in sub-zero conditions. Now he’s at the other end of the heat spectrum, as he relates his adventures of leading expeditions up the Nile; fighting Marxist terrorists in Omam; crossing the jungles of East Asia and, earlier this year, becoming the oldest Briton (he’s only 71) to finish the six-day Marathon des Sables, in the Sahara Desert. Besides being an amazing adventurer, he’s a truly entertaining storyteller.
Trust No One
Paul Cleave *Kiwi author!
Canvas recommends: Christchurch’s Cleave, who won this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime writer, steps into new territory, delving into the deteriorating mind of crime writer Jerry Grey. Grey has early-onset Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home. He keeps a Madness Journal to try and order his thoughts but he is confused and troubled. Were the characters he killed off in his 12 thrillers written under the pseudonym Henry Cutter actually real people? Why can he remember their last moments so clearly? A real mind-twister that will keep you guessing every step of the way.
The Shape of Water, Commissario Montalbano #1
Again, I’m posting the first book in a series where Canvas recommended the latest, but I’m always happy to discover 1) new mystery-thrillers, and 2) works in translation worth reading.
B&N description: Bestselling Italian author Andrea Camilleri has built a massive international following for his sardonic Sicilian mysteries featuring a listless, dejected, nonconformist protagonist who somehow always accomplishes his duty in spite of himself. The Shape of Water is his first Inspector Salvo Montalbano adventure to be translated into English.
When a local politician is found dead in his car, half naked, in a seedy neighborhood known for prostitution and drug trafficking, it’s assumed that he died of natural causes in the middle of a sexual escapade. Hoping to avoid an embarrassing situation, Montalbano’s superiors expect him to close the case quickly. But the inspector senses that not all is as it seems and determinedly launches a full investigation.
While pursuing the case, Montalbano encounters a number of bizarre and comical characters, from an elderly schoolteacher driven mad by his 80-year-old wife’s “cheating” to a former classmate who’s now an intellectual pimp. The inspector is drawn into the shadowy world of Sicilian politics as he discovers affiliations made between bureaucratic adversaries, meets with promiscuous beauties, and finds corruption that might even reach into the Church. He takes it all with the accepting attitude that one needs to survive in an often bleak and impoverished part of the world.
Not your typical fast-paced, shootout-filled genre mystery, The Shape of Water is an artfully written novel that provides its own brand of rewards. Replete with the sights and sounds of Sicily, this is an atmospheric and frequently droll tale that offers American readers a new and distinctive voice.
Notes from the Larder: A Kitchen Diary with Recipes
Another book 3 recommendation by Canvas with a book 1 posting from me.
Publisher description: Britain’s foremost food writer returns with his quietly passionate, idiosyncratic musings on a year in the kitchen, alongside more than 250 simple and seasonal recipes. Based on Slater’s journal entries, Notes from the Larder is a collection of small kitchen celebrations, whether a casual supper of grilled lamb, or a quiet moment contemplating a bowl of cauliflower soup with toasted hazelnuts. Through this personal selection of recipes, Slater offers a glimpse into the daily inspiration behind his cooking and the pleasures of making food by hand, such as his thoughts on topics as various as the kitchen knife whose every nick and stain is familiar, how to make a little bit of cheese go a long way when the cupboards are bare, and his reluctance to share desserts.
Canvas recommends: American writer M.T. Anderson has put together an engrossing history of Russian composer Dmitir Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Shostakovich, denounced by the Soviet regime for ideological failings, wrote the master work in the context of the 30-month German siege of Leningrad which began in 1941. More than a million people starved; many survived by eating their pets, then each other. The Leningrad Symphony, a rallying cry to the citizens, was copied on to microfilm, smuggled out and flown to the US, where it premiered to rapturous reviews in New York. When it debuted in Leningrad, still under siege, only 15 musicians could be found to play it. Although this book is aimed at teen readers (they’d have to be pretty mature), it would be equally appealing to adults.
Hester & Harriet
Canvas recommends: Hester and Harriet, aka Hetty and Harry, are two rather charming retired sisters leading a simple life in an English village until their world is turned on its head one Christmas Day when they stop to help a young woman and her tiny baby. Things begin to get complicated as it becomes clear that Daria – a refugee from Belarus – is being sought by unsavoury characters, and appears to be on the run. Also in hiding is their ratbag teenage nephew Ben, who turns up on the sisters’ doorstep in search of refuge from his overbearing parents. What was a quiet retirement suddenly spirals out of control into a rollicking adventure. Fun, with some great characters and unpredictable twists.
Kiwi Dogs and their People
David Darcy *Kiwi setting!
Canvas recommends: Animal rights advocate David Darcy joins the hordes of writers-photographers who seem to be travelling around the country to meet people with very close bonds with their dogs. Divided into Country, Town, Mountains & Lakes, City and Coast sections, the stories are refreshingly brief and varied. Steve, from a farm in Lake Tekapo: “Dogs are way better than humans. They’re a lot more loyal.” Tame Iti’s partner Maria on their dog, Nehe: “It’s funny watching these two get around the property. Nehe is a cocky little shit at times – he’s got ‘little man’ syndrome, a bit like his dad.” And Bill on Patches, the escape artist, who, when they got home from dinner after shutting patches in a bedroom, found him “sitting out in the front yard with a cat flap around his neck.”
Get in Trouble
Canvas recommends: Any year in which the insanely original Kelly Link publishes a new story collection is a good year. Pocket universes, steampunk fairies, superheroes, androids, mummies, ghosts: all the trappings of speculative fiction, arranged into new and unlikely shapes. Link is the hardest of my favourite writers to describe. Some people bounce right off her. Some people get instantly addicted. Each of her stories carves out a new idiom, and each of them is distinctively a Kelly Link joint: dark, playful, improbably wonderful.
Canvas recommends: This is a masterpiece – at a very reasonable price – from Gecko Books, who can always be counted on to provide the most attractive and present-worthy volumes. Belgian writer-artist Peter Goes has created a magnificent “visual history of the world”. This large-format book has expansive double-page spreads ranging from the Big Bang and The beginning of Life through to Ancient Greece and Rome, the Ming Dynasty and the Middle Ages to a more detailed look at the later decades of the 20th century and the resent day. With minimal text but expansive, gently humorous drawings, it would be a remarkable gift for a young art of design student, or anyone interested in beautiful and intricate illustration. or, indeed, in history.
Canvas recommends: Available in English and Maori versions, these attractive graphic novels have a bit of everything. Beautiful heroes and heroines, sorcerers and warlocks, giant birds and spiders, warring tribes and perilous journeys. Originally published by the Ministry of Education, and aimed at the 10-16 age bracket, the books would appeal to admirers of the graphic genre, to students of te reo (in the Maori version) and may encourage those who wouldn’t normally choose to pick up a book.
The Adventures of Miss Petitfour
Anne Michaels, illustrated by Emma Block
I’ve blogged about this one before, but it looks so adorable it’s worth a second mention.
Canvas recommends: In a slim, old-fashioned-style hardback that is a pleasure to read, and to read out loud, are the stories of the delightful Miss Petitfour, who lives with her 16 cats – and takes them for daily flights, propelled by a tablecloth parachute. Michaels is obviously a cat person, but also finds pleasure in words, and she shares this in her stories, which are embroidered lavishly with words like “festoon” and “propitious”, “prodigious” and “perambulator”. How can you not love a writer who starts a chapter: “It was a lovely spring day with the taste of liquorice on the breeze”? Food also plays a huge part in these eccentric adventures; one revolves around a jar of marmalade, another a block of cheddar. Delicious to savour.
Have You Seen Elephant?
Canvas recommends: Anyone who has played hide and seek with a child will get a kick out of this playful tale as a boy pretends he cannot find his elephant friend hiding about the house/ Kids will love the elephant’s imaginative but vain attempts to hide his huge bulk, and the fact they can spot the pachyderm where the boy seemingly can’t. Barrow displays a great sense of humour, topped off when Tortoise turns up to play tag.