Book reviews: One for the road - April 2013


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Peta Stavelli looks over the latest books from our publishers and offers some suggestions for great, late-summer reads.

Book reviews: One for the road - April 2013
One for the road - April 2013

The Fields, Kevin Maher, Hachette New Zealand, $37

Few authors' voices remain in your head long after their book is finished. For me, these stand-out experiences belong to Tim Winton (Dirt Music, Breath) and Peter Carey (My Invisible Self, The Real Truth about the Kelly Gang). Then there are the others, like Marcus Zusak (The Book Thief), Arnost Lustig (Lovely Green Eyes), Marilynne Robinson (Home) and Caroline Moorhead (A Train In Winter), among a handful of others, who paint such indelible pictures their stories linger long after the last page has turned. To this short list I now add Kevin Maher. This book about an Irish adolescence is so brilliantly balanced that it will take you places you want to stay (or never wanted to go in the first place) on a rollercoaster of emotions that manages to remain upbeat, even in the troughs, and yet avoids being superficial. In fact, I'm predicting you will want to listen to the hilariously authentic and lyrical narrator voice of Jim Finnegan forever.

Matiatia: Gateway to Waiheke, Paul Monin, Bridget Williams Publishers, $35

You may, reasonably, think a book about a remote island bay with less than a handful of houses may be of little interest to the rest of the country. Yet historian Paul Monin's most recent book, focusing on Waiheke's tiny passenger port, Matiatia, may give you pause for thought. As coastal communities come under increasing threat from tourism and development, history is often ridden over roughshod. Put aside for one moment thoughts of settlement claims, and think of all the Maori and European history which might be subsumed by the pressures of increased tourism, subdivision, car parks, roading and marina development. You can see the crossroads at which Matiatia currently sits, replicated at pressure points all around the country. We are a young country, but our history is our own and it deserves to be thoughtfully preserved. Matiatia: Gateway to Waiheke is like an operatic score for the landscape. It will open your eyes to what is before you.

Jack of Diamonds, Bryce Courtenay, Penguin Books NZ, $55

Bryce Courtney knew his death was imminent when he was writing this book, which invokes a special poignancy for the reader. Certainly for me, as I set aside a rare, free weekend to read the last book of one of the world's most-loved storytellers. Jack of Diamonds opens during the Great Depression in the slums of Cabbagetown, Toronto, where the central character's ticket out comes unexpectedly in the form of a Hohner harmonica, won by his brutal father in a late-night card game. Jack Spayd's musical talent eventually leads to a dazzling life as a jazz pianist, replete with elite poker games, fast women, unrequited love and a brush with the Mafia. Courtney pulls out all stops, including some of credibility, as each of Jack Spayd's heroic endeavours tops the last. It is almost as if his character was created by Hollywood. Despite this, Jack of Diamonds is a good read that kept me happily occupied for an entire weekend.

A Week In Winter, Maeve Binchy, Hachette New Zealand, $33

It must be the season for goodbyes, as tributes for beloved Irish author Maeve Binchy accompany the launch of this, her last novel. Binchy attained universal acclaim in 1982 after the publication of her first novel, Light a Penny Candle. Until her recent death, she worked across a variety of media, appearing in more than 500 radio plays and writing more than a dozen novels and collections of short stories. Two of her novels, Circle of Friends and Tara Road have been adapted for film. A Week in Winter is full of Binchy's trademark warmth, humour and characters you want to spend time with.

The Red Chamber, Pauline Chen, Hachette New Zealand, $37

This contemporary interpretation of Cao Xueqin's eighteenth century novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, has been magically re-imagined by Pauline Chen, taking the reader deep into the secret women's quarters of an aristocratic household. The principle character, Daiyu, is relocated from the provinces to take shelter with her family, according to the dying wish of her long-estranged mother. There she is introduced to unbelievable wealth and inducted into the secrets and intrigues of the household and the Imperial Palace, just ahead of a political coup that plunges her family into grinding poverty and a fight for survival.

The Best of Philip Holden, Philip Holden, Harper Collins Publishers NZ, $45

By the time of his death in 2005, Philip Holden had become one of this country's most prolific authors, with more than 50 works to his credit and a broad following among hunters, fishers and lovers of the outdoors. Holden promoted a particularly unique aspect of the New Zealand lifestyle with his hunting lore and backcountry yarns. He was a talented photographer, historian and fictional writer. This book is a compilation of his best stories and photographs. It is designed to continue his legacy and will be readily appreciated by a whole new generation of hunting and outdoor enthusiasts.

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