A 50-year-old failed novelist avoids his ex’s wedding by attending a series of obscure literary events
“There are two important facts any potential reader should know about this book:
1. The author – a gay, middle-aged, white man – writes about a a gay, middle-aged, white man who is writing about a a gay, middle-aged, white man who is writing about a a gay, middle-aged, white man.
2. It won the Pulitzer.”
“Arthur Less, the central character, is a struggling novelist who, in a bid to miss his ex’s wedding, accepts every trivial literary invitation that comes his way. His journey through several countries is intriguing, with various Odysessian and Joycean references. Less attempts to re-write his latest novel, Swift, but the tragic hero he was hoping to capture turns out to be a comic fool instead. Much like Less himself. And what we all agreed upon, in the Freerange bookclub, was that Arthur Less’s disappointing persona made him lifeless, a character we neither loved nor loathed. Connecting with him and his story of woe was difficult.
“What was interesting however was that while debunking the characterisation of Arthur Less we recalled his antics with laugh-out-loud amusement. ‘I didn’t laugh when it happened in the book, but now it’s funny when we talk about it.” Jo mused. And no one could offer an explanation why.
“So the book became a tale of contradiction for us all. Was it boring? Was it genius? Could it be both? Was that the intention? It was hard to tell. Even the ending encapsulated this confusion with both an interesting twist and a predictable conclusion all in one. None of us was sure how to truly capture how we felt about the book, other than we’d all struggle to recommend it to a friend. And I guess that says it all.”
Lee Boudreaux Books
Four siblings learn of the date they will die, and find their adulthoods shaped by the knowledge
⚑ “I chose this book based on the synopsis, a story around the idea of knowing ones day of death and following the lives of four siblings who had been told theirs. It made for a great central plot, resulting in four mini stories, all interrelating but unpredictable, original and thought provoking. I liked the way author Chloe Benjamin dealt with heavy topics like religion, fate, belief, sex, love, alcoholism and relationships, by posing questions and dropping ideas without giving an answer. I wasn’t bored or lost in the book (like I sometimes am when dealing with heavy topics), and I read it hungrily to the end. A great book, and excellent bookclub read, with great meaty subject ideas to chat about afterwards.” – Sonya
⚑ “The Immortalists is an investigation into destiny vs freewill. Are futures predestined or in our own hands? Can believing in fate shape our futures into something they would have not otherwise been? The four Gold siblings each take a different view on the prophecy of their deaths, and it makes for interesting character studies how each sibling faces the prophecy, some fearlessly, others in panic. The depth of the characters is the story’s triumph. The book also explores the nature of family and ancestral history, and how the dead continue to influence the living. Themes of magic, faith and the supernatural lace the plot in several layers ensuring it is never predictable.” – Rachel
GP Putnam’s Sons
An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle; the archetypal road novel is transformed for twenty-first-century America
⚑ “Sing Unburied Sing was the first novel I have read featuring ghosts and Southern Gothic literature. In the past I would have run a mile but I thought I’d try something different and I’m so glad I did.
“Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.”
“It’s a gritty, unbearably sad story of a Mississippi family, where the children, Jojo and Kayla, are brought up by their mother Leonie and her parents. Leonie has no idea how to parent but thankfully the grandparents do. Leonie and Jojo are haunted by ghosts, bringing a touch of magical realism to the mix.
“Half the book takes place over a two-day car ride that Ward manages to make riveting by giving so much life to the nuanced emotions between the characters. Each character plays a complex role binding the story together and addressing issues such as racism, poverty, violence, neglect, grief, addiction, racial identity and dysfunctional families. A lot in a small book! Sing Unburied Sing is relentlessly sad and beautifully written and I would recommend giving it a go.” – Jodie
⚑ “In Sing Unburied Sing, Jesmyn Ward has managed to combine and cross-reference many themes, historical moments and genres in a formidable novel. In it, a young, inept mother takes her two children on a car journey to retrieve their father from prison. Yet they are haunted both literally and figuratively by the past.
“Not only is it capitavating reading, but Ward manages to highlight so many injustices that deserve our attention: the history of American American slaves, pollution of the planet, modern day addiction and poverty, the US’s evolving justice system – it really is incredible how much she squeezes into one book, without it feeling full to the brim, nor moralistic.
“I appreciated how the history, traditions and beliefs of the African American people form the basis for the telling of this story, and that the connection between humanity and nature transcends time and race. On top of all this, Ward uses language in a mellifluous tone that is delightful, no matter what the subject matter.
“You my baby.” She breathes heavy, and the grate cracks and sinks to rusted stillness. “Like I drew the veil back so you could walk in this life, you’ll help me draw it back so I can walk in the next.”
“This is up there with the best books I have read and I don’t know how it was not a Man Booker contender.” – Rachel
⚑ “I am not really a proper reader. I mean, I’m not very literary, and I am sure much of what I read I don’t take in or really understand. Sing Unburied Sing was one of those books where I felt I was only understanding I little of what was there.
“That said, I felt like I was reading something briilliant and moving, and it was an easy, gripping read. I liked the way past and present were interwoven, the way contemporary themes like drug abuse and racism had their connection to the past. I loved the way the story was told through the different voices of key characters. Mostly, I liked it that I was moved by the story, that it hit me at an emotional level. It was a bloody good book.” – Sonya
In mimicry of his South African homeland, professor David Lurie seduces one of his students and sets in motion a chain of events that leave him utterly disgraced
⚑ “I admire Coetzee hugely after reading this great story – he made me really like an unlikeable character. The development of David is incredibly clever with him quickly coming to shape into an arrogant exploiter of women with very creepy overtones. However his concern for his daughter in trying to persuade her to follow a different path was endearing. There are a few ways that the theme of disgrace is represented with profound effect: there is David’s disgrace, Lucy’s disgrace and the historical disgrace of South Africa. This was not a light-hearted read, in fact very dark and depressing in many ways but the skill of Coetzee in making such topics enjoyable to read shows his talent. I think I may even read it again.” – Jo
⚑ “David Lurie is a complete and captivating character, both hypocritical and inconsistent, and his patronising habits and remarks frustratingly charming. It is deeply disturbing to enjoy someone so egotistical, but Coetzee’s character is tremendously well-written. It’s hard not to imagine him as a real person, who has the advantage of sharing his innermost thoughts and justifications and therefore inciting sympathy. The situation he finds himself in supplies a revealing story about the state of South Africa in the ’90s, through themes of disgrace and redemption. The entire novel is devastating and unputdownable and leaves an imprint that never goes away. This was my third re-read and was just as affecting as the first.” – Rachel
Seeker & Warburg
Yet, is it new? Or is history simply repeating itself in a more raw, no-holds-barred medium? Perhaps we can look back on history and treat it not as the past but as a conductor of the future. Key times in history can surely be directly linked to both our fearless exploration of life, and also our deepest fears. What a tremendous feeding trough for the writers of today – it’s no surprise they are exploring this evolution of thought in today’s works.
This year’s Ockham shortlist for fiction is reflective of this investigation of ourselves. Whereas we remember last year’s shortlist as fresh novels full of Millennial angst and discovery, this year’s shortlist is filled with seasoned Kiwi writers with publications and life experience a plenty. And it’s interesting to see how each has won their place with a novel that explores the past and its connection to today. They ask us to look to history for explanation of our current situation and to perhaps re-examine or learn anew. Ultimately they look at how people in history were treated and how we treat one another now. What have we learned?
All This By Chance is a multi-generational saga in which descendants of Holocaust survivors find their lives shaped unwittingly by events of the past.
In the wake of 9/11, The New Ships‘ Peter Collie relives his lives and loves after his wife’s death. He and his son become involved in personal quests of their own to discover who they really are.
The Cage‘s setting could be any immigrant camp and its refugees any number of people from the past or even today who are displaced and living a life of maltreatment.
The Mortal Boy examines one of the final executions in New Zealand and the punishment’s eventual abolition, highlighting the way in which a country and its people’s morals can change.
Bearing in mind that question, what has history taught us about our treatment and mistreatment of one another, both Suzy and Rachel felt most connected to Lloyd Jones’ The Cage. While all the books detailed important moments in history and ethical treatment issues, Jones’ metaphorical prose reminded us exactly how exclusion is still rife today in so many ways, not just of refugees or immigrants, as his characters are, but of family, of strangers we don’t understand, of people with an opinion that differs from our own.
Jones’ book put us right in the middle of the conflict. It made us complicit in the way Doc and Mole were treated. Yes it disgusted us how they were kept like animals but at the same time it disgusted us to hear any more about their shit-covered living conditions. It is a book designed to provoke both good and ugly reactions from its readers. And for this reason it is not just literary fodder, it is a socially moral text too.
Suffice to say, we’re right behind Lloyd Jones for the win.
Peter Collie reassesses past events in the wake of his wife’s death only to discover new secrets.
⚑ “Family matters are at the fore of Peter Collie’s life. Upon his wife’s death Peter learns of secrets kept about his children and he reveals his angst and desire to learn the truth.
“There is a lot of narrative investment in his passivity, and Duigan has aptly built a maelstrom of activity around this melancholic central character. The hidden depths of Peter, that exist in everyone, are eeked out over the pages in various strands of intrigue. This character study is never dull and an example of how interesting every person’s story would be, were we able to read them like a book.
“However I found the novel’s ending and the reveal of outcomes of major intrigues disappointing. Storylines I’d I’d been heavily invested in were suddenly wrapped up in only a few sentences. Surely more drawn-out, tension-filled conclusions would have been in keeping with the book’s focus on Peter’s self-analysis and grief.” – Rachel
⚑ “I haven’t experienced the pain of anyone close to me passing away so can’t imagine the intense grief and what it may or may not drive me to do. I often reflected on this while reading The New Ships because I can’t assume my response would be sane and measured and that my life would eventually carry on in its usual way.
“So while the behaviour of some of the characters in the novel was at times neither socially acceptable nor rational, I was constantly provoked into thinking how socially acceptable or rational would my own conduct be in this situation? I could quite easily lose my shit without even really thinking twice about it.
“I really enjoyed the storyline of The New Ships and while some of the events were just a bit too coincidental to be believable I was still fully invested in all the characters and their lives.” – Suzy
Victoria University Press
A moving multigenerational family saga about the legacy of the Holocaust and the burden of secrets never shared
⚑ “I was all in for I would say three-quarters of this novel but then as the characters we focused on became more and more removed from the initial storyline I found myself caring less and less about them. This is not necessarily a reflection on the novel and could instead be a reflection on my ability to remain engaged with complex storylines!
“Perhaps I should have viewed this novel as more a collection of short stories with familial links rather than an overarching story? Some of the issues the characters were facing just became tired. Yes the son is angry! He is very angry! We get it! Maybe I need a re-read of this one to fully appreciate it. All This By Chance just didn’t hit the mark for me.” – Suzy
⚑ “Mutli-generational novels tend to have a large cast of characters all of whom are important and whose lives generously intertwine. They usually require great attention on the reader’s behalf. All This By Chance is such a novel. It follows the lives of Eva, her daughter Lisa and her granddaughter Esther and their lives both in New Zealand and amongst various European borders. Sounds simple enough, however, the story does move through times and place quite freely and is quite intense.
“I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing, just perhaps not a good combo for me when speed reading under time constraints. But there definitely is a beauty and intelligence in the prose and construction that is beguiling. This makes for a book that transcends genres and is still relevant to today and the way in which the generations are at pains to truly understand one another.
“I think I need to re-read it to properly grasp the genius of this work.” – Rachel
Victoria University Press
A profound and unsettling novel about humanity and dignity and the ease with which we’re able to justify brutality.
⚑ “It’s like Lloyd Jones got in my head and seeing my worst fears was then inspired to write the most torturous novel possible. Yup I’m sure there are much worse out there, but after the first chapter I quietly put down the book and vowed not to read one more word.
“However this is the Ockhams, Rach is relying on me for a review, and curiosity eventually got the better of me. What is the cage, where is the cage from, would they ever get the hell out of the goddamn cage? These are just my specific cage-related thoughts. I worried about a lot of other things while reading this book and was obsessed with it. Was that particularly healthy? Definitely not. Am I haunted by some the images? Of course! Would I recommend this book highly? Absolutely.
“Side note – this was definitely my favourite cover of the 4 Ockham shortlisters.” – Suzy
⚑ “Strangers walk into town, stunned by some event which they cannot explain. The locals hold them in cages, fearful of the unknown and desperate for more information on the cataclysmic event. This is The Cage. It is gripping from the first page and it just gets better, ie more horrific.
“Clearly the concept is highly metaphoric. The strangers could be refugees, immigrants, children, a nation’s people; the cage could be prison, borders, psychological or class barriers, or any number of obstacles that we and the world put in our way; the “carers” could represent everyday people, parents, or government.
“Or, the book as a whole could be an exploration of our current world where everyone seems to think they have the right to control how everyone else acts and thinks. Whatever the case, there is so much to get out of this, a cautionary and highly relevant tale which should be read by everyone!” – Rachel
The re-creation of one of the last executions in New Zealand leading to the abolition of capital punishment.
⚑ “Poor Albert Black. I appreciated the way this novel explored the impact on everyone involved in his trial and sentencing – from the prison staff and the jurors to his friends and family. People responded to this entirely grim situation so differently based on their own morals and beliefs, and it is clear what the author’s own opinion of Albert’s situation was.
“I felt nauseous as we moved closer and closer to his death. Unfortunately upon reading the blurb on the back of the book we know that Albert’s fate is sealed. A clever marketing person or editor would have logically decided this information needed to be conveyed to the reader right from the start but I would have enjoyed the book more and become more invested in the characters had I not known this until it was revealed during the story. RIP Albert.” – Suzy
⚑ “Dame Fiona Kidman has investigated a part of New Zealand history with which most would not be familiar: events leading up to the abolition of capital executions in New Zealand. It follows the life and death of one man, Albert Black, an Irish immigrant, and his involvement in our past. Black’s personal story of angst is told, combined with in-depth courtroom drama.
“However, it reads more like non-fiction. It’s a step-by-step recall of a moment in time, with history’s – and the book’s – outcome clearly stated on the back cover blurb. I was interested to learn about this event and its consequences but the story does not have the roller coaster tension, nor the beauty, you expect from fiction.” – Rachel
Penguin Random House
A portrait of a world hidden from view: North Korea, rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.
⚑ “The Orphan Master’s Son reminded me of Nineteen Eighty Four, but is clearly more shockingly real. Set in the author’s imagined North Korea, the Dear Leader makes an orphan of all his people through a programme of propaganda, poverty and regimented control. ”
“The main character is a man of many identities, at first an orphan master’s son, named for a martyr Jun Doh (John Doe), he is a tunneller, a spy, a kidnapper, a man who bears the tattoo of another man’s wife before finally assuming a high ranking official’s identity to challenge the state that has always challenged him.
“It has a far-fetched storyline that includes oddities like the building of a Texas ranch in the North Korean desert for the pleasure of visiting officials and naked female rowers circumnavigating the globe, but Johnston makes the depths of his mind so believable. For amongst the hilarity and satirical obscurities is a fictional world painted against a background of fact. The laugh-out-loud vs somber contemplation ratio is perfect.
“This is a book unlike anything I’d read before and I immediately fell in love with its unique perspective and began encouraging everyone I knew to read it!” – Rachel
⚑ “The Orphan Master’s Son? Oh my, what a book! For a whole bunch of tangible and intangible reasons it hit me in my gut and my heart! It also made me laugh – a curious combination of humour, horror. romance, suffering, social-cultural commentary and wit!
“Set in North Korea it follows the life of the an orphaned boy Pak Jun Do and a character he later assumes, Commander Ga, in North Korea. It gives us a fictional, yet based on some truth, account of life in the Country under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il.
“What struck me most was how bleak and terrible North Korea is painted, which if only 50% true is fascinating and horrifying at the same time. Torture, prison camps, extreme social control, propaganda, hunger and loss of the self. Within all of this, a love story with a moving yet brilliant ending, a highly recommended read.” – Sonya
⚑ “Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is a compelling story set in North Korea which is as beautiful as much as it’s harrowing. I was instantly intrigued and captivated as it opened a window into the frightening and mysterious world of North Korea.
Penguin Random House