THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton

THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton

I felt a bit apprehensive starting this. Booker Prize Winner...youngest winner ever...won by an NZ-er only once before...1st chapter 364 pages...overblown and varying reviews...would it live up to the hype surrounding it? Would this be 800 pages of reading I wish I hadn't started but felt committed to finishing out of some misguided patriotic allegiance?

Well, I needn't have worried. It was everything I had been led to believe it would be and so much more. A vastly entertaining and rollicking read, full of vivid characters, chock full of complicated and intricate plot lines and threads, twists and turns, dead ends and surprising results.This book really is a wonder to read, and much more than I had initially thought. Having said that, the first 80-odd pages required a couple of read throughs, and I can understand how readers could find themselves struggling a bit to this point. Not a lot happens, a lot of names are bandied about, and there seems very little to hold it altogether.

Persevere my friend, persevere...because suddenly, it just takes off, and the next 200-odd pages are a whirlwind. I found myself getting so confused with who was who, what they were doing, why they were doing it, how they were linked to others and where they were going, I ended up making notes on each of the main characters.It certainly helped and then at the end of this particularly long chapter, there is a 20 page summary of all that has gone before.Whew. But don't read this first, you must start at the beginning...

Actually, I hardly know where to begin with writing about this book. Structured around astrological charts, the twelve signs of the zodiac, and the seven traditional planets, the story is, at its core,about a murder - Crosbie Wells, middle aged miner who somehow and inexplicably is in possession of a vast fortune. How did it get there, who owns it, who will get it. Crosbie is Terra Firma (Earth) - the one unchanging constant through the narrative. The twelve zodiac signs are assigned to twelve men of various occupations and backgrounds who are all associated with the deceased in some way. The remaining six planets - Mars, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Pluto are assigned to a number of other significant characters, and lastly the sun and moon represent two characters who are associated with all the others. Confused yet?

The setting is the Wild West of New Zealand - the South Island gold fields of the 1860s - greed, deception, people escaping their pasts and reinventing themselves, opium, gold, brothels, land grabbing, displacement of indigenous peoples, bribery, blackmail, betrayal, drunkenness and temperance. And from time to time human kindness and decency.

Throughout the book there are astrological references: each of the twelve chapters is precisely one lunar month after the previous chapter, there is an astrological chart at each chapter start, and within each chapter there are sub chapters which have a very brief description about what it contains. Each chapter is also half the length of the previous chapter - weird and bizarre as it all sounds, it truly does work.

This is an awesome book, a huge thing to read, sprawling in its concept, with amazing and beautiful use of the English language. One day I will read it again. So glad I bought my own copy.


THE SHOCK OF THE FALL  by Nathan Filer

Winner of the 2013 Costa First Novel Award.

The author works in the mental health service of the NHS. He is also, according to his website, a performance poet, of some note in the UK. Such a person as this must have a remarkable insight into the human mind, and also possess the gift to put it all into word pictures for the rest of us.

It was a real privilege to be let into the mind and soul of a schizophrenic young man who realises things aren't quite right, but seems determined to overcome the problems he is currently facing. Matthew is 19 years old and is narrating the story of the last 10 years of his life.  It is 10 years since his brother, who was 12, died while the family was on holiday at a camping ground. His brother, Simon, had Downs Syndrome. The family was a close knit one, and Matthew describes his parents, his grandparents and his brother in loving and descriptive words. Simon's death, for which Matthew feels 100% responsible, affects everyone very, very deeply. His parents sink into their own awful grief, Matthew blames himself and as the years pass feels increasingly unable to cope with daily life due to this enormous burden he carries around with him. His grandmother, Nanny Noo, is the one constant in his life, always there, always compassionate - the one really significant adult in his life. 

The one thing Matthew never loses during these years is his ability to write down what he is going through and this becomes the one therapy that helps him get through a trauma that just won't let him go. The narration covers the 10 years from the day of the death to the present, but jumps around a bit during the years of this time period, which does take a little concentration, as he seems, to me, to be in and out of hospital quite a bit! His descriptions of hospital routine, and his unbelievably dull, boring and most awful time there would bring out a cry for help in anyone. You know then that you are reading the words of an author who knows what he is talking about.

I don't normally go for books like this. But it had received good reviews, and of course a first novel award. Many of reviews on Amazon and Good Reads are 5 star - very high praise. It seems a lot of these readers have either had experience of some sort of mental health issue themselves, or been close to those who have. I didn't get quite the same feeling of stunning and awesome from this book, but certainly feel as if my own mind has been opened more to what a mental health illness would be like.

Published in the US as "Where the Moon Isn't", apparently with some edits.

CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins

 CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins

The saga just keeps getting better and better. Hot on the heels of 'The Hunger Games' - book and movie, and with the 'Catching Fire' movie in its last days in my neck of the woods, I threw myself body and soul into reading prior to viewing.

Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous. There is considerably more depth to all the characters, to the terrible predicament they find themselves in, and a lot more at stake in their personal lives as well. The three lead characters, Katniss, Peeta and Gale are no longer just teenagers. They may be a few months older in a physical sense but they have matured well beyond their years with the stuff they are confronted with.

The story begins with Katniss as she and Peeta begin a victory tour of all the Districts. Unwittingly the two of them find they are the symbols contributing to unrest and possible rebellion against the Capitol. To keep a cap on it all, President Snow forces them to the arena to once again fight for their lives.
This is very dark stuff, and I can't help compare this series to that of Harry Potter. Both deal with very dark issues and themes and the world being saved by very young adults. But always at the back of my mind with Harry Potter is that is about magic, and so far more fantastical than this series. Even though there is no magic here, the forces of good against evil, might versus meek, authoritarian government versus the people, are the same themes as in Harry Potter. As a parent, however the idea of children fighting each other to the death is way more repellent than anything Voldermort threw at Harry and his crew.

To be honest, I didn't find 'Catching Fire' as compelling a read as 'The Hunger Games', but the movie more than made up for that. For me, a rare case of the film being better than the book.  'Mockingjay', the third book in 'The Hunger Games' series is, as I write, climbing perilously to the top of my book reading pile.



What a pleasant little romp this book was. This Australian author has now written five novels with Rowland Sinclair as the central character, this book being the  first in the series. The setting is Sydney, early 1930s; the depression is biting hard with no sign of economic recovery on the horizon. People are looking for alternatives to the current democratic and capitalistic systems they are living under. Communism and its reds under the beds is extending its reach as far as Sydney, appealing to the younger,  educated, bohemian population. On the other side, the rise of fascism is appealing to the wealthy land and business owning sectors of the population who see communism threatening their own economic base.

Young Rowly falls somewhere in the middle. Youngest son of a very wealthy landowning family, he was too young to go to war, but his two older brothers both did, one not returning. He leads the life of the very wealthy young Sydneysider, but having been blessed with an artistic talent he is drawn to the bohemian side of life rather than the business  of managing the family wealth. Much to the disdain of his older brother Wilfred. (Rowly drives a Benz, Wilfred drives a Rolls.) Rowly lives in the family pile in Sydney with three of his equally bohemian, communist leaning, but very poor friends - fellow artist Clyde, poet Milton, and the ethereal, beautiful and widely adored Edna.

Within this backdrop of rising political tension in Sydney, Rowly's loved uncle is murdered. Dissatisfied with how the police investigation is progressing, Rowly takes it upon himself to try and solve the murder and along with his three friends, ingratiates himself with the local fascist movement, putting himself onto a path of some danger, but, as you would expect, with a successful outcome.

The real hero of the story is the city of Sydney itself and the political-economic climate of the time. The author has researched the period and the city with some zeal. Each chapter is headed by a newspaper article of the day, and there is loads of detail on the personalities of the day, clothing, food, drinking habits, and other minutiae of daily life. This was really quite a bizarre time in the life of the average Sydneysider, and there were some very strange goings on, none perhaps more bizarre than the official cutting of the ribbon for the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being upstaged by a fascist crack pot. The characters mentioned in the press of the day all feature in the novel, including the ribbon cutter, the state premier, prominent police officers, and political party leaders.

It is all highly entertaining in a very Agatha Christie sort of way, and with enough menace to keep the reader interested, although I would not say it is a page turner. Perfect really for a leisurely summer read.