The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

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The sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale in which the republic of Gilead is taken down.

⚑ “I haven’t anticipated a book as much as this one since Go Set a Watchman was released (side story: when I bought Go Set a Watchman the shop assistant said at the counter ‘oh have you read the first one?’. No, I am waiting outside your shop until it opens and rushing to your display of this new book on the day of its release and I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird).

“Was I disappointed with Go Set a Watchman? Yeah I was actually. So bearing that in mind, and despite the genius of Margaret Atwood, I went in to The Testaments with low expectations. Just because I cared so damn much and couldn’t bear the disappointment if it wasn’t amazing. It was an absolutely thrilling read, but The Testaments wasn’t what I expected and I really feel like I can’t say much more than that because anything else feels like a betrayal of the sisterhood.” – Suzy

⚑ “All other Handmaid’s fans will understand how very long and dearly I have wanted this book to be written. I was desperate to know what happened to Offred, Aunt Lydia and the Waterfords. I have pondered their fates many a time. 

“Now, finally, I know. My initial thoughts? I did not want to know after all. I realise I was better off wondering, to keep the intrigue. I have never needed all the answers, or a sewn up conclusion so why did I think I needed it this time? Don’t get me wrong, I devoured the book in no time flat, there’s no denying it is a page turner. Atwood, the genius, has again produced prophecy-style fiction by using events and ideologies that really exist #legend. But at the end I felt a sense of disappointment rather than exhilaration like I did with The Handmaid’s Tale.

“Reasons: First of all I have the mini series imagery stuck firmly in my mind. Secondly, I read The Testaments not as a stand alone book, nor even as a sequel, but as an ending to The Handmaid’s Tale. I couldn’t help it. Thirdly, let’s face it, no sequel is ever as good as the original concept. You’d think I would have learned my lesson after Go Set A Watchman, but apparently not.” – Rachel

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Published 2019
Chatto & Windus
422 pages

10 Minutes & 38 Seconds In This Strange World – Elif Shafak

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A dying prostitute’s brain lives on for 10 minutes & 38 seconds during which it recalls her life’s troubles.

⚑ “Tequila Leila is a Turkish woman with a traditional but disturbing upbringing and a adulthood full of expectations and sadness. It is hard to bear sometimes but the humanness that Shafak creates is important as she details how so many people in the world are taken advantage of and dehumanised. We know from the opening pages that Leila is dying and, unconventionally, it is her death that lifts the story into one of hope and camaraderie. Five of her friends, each with their own imperfections and trouble being accepted into normalcy, come together to ensure her life was not without meaning. This book was a huge page turner for me, despite its grimness. I enjoyed the rich detail of Turkish traditions and the complete feeling that Leila existed outside of these pages. I felt I learned a lot by reading it.” – Rachel

⚑  “This novel was strangely uplifting despite there being one tragedy after another in rapid succession. The events that occurred lost a bit of their horror when the pieces were picked up by a strong and supportive group of friends. I liked the insight this novel gave into various historical events and we also learned how brutally life can pan out for people in Turkey who don’t fit with society’s expectations. Despite the strong storyline and enjoyable characters I would never recommend this novel. The brutal sexual violence was awful to read about and if the author’s intention was to disturb her readers then the goal was certainly achieved with me.” – Suzy

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Published 2019
Viking
312 pages

LaRose – Louise Erdrich

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Chosen by Rachel

A man offers his son to another couple after accidentally shooting their child

“Landreaux Iron is a native American man who accidentally shoots his wife’s half-sister’s son while hunting. As means of reparation, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline decide to follow an old Native American custom of atonement and offer their own five-year-old son, LaRose, to the parents of the dead child.

.”The resulting story is a multi-layered, nuanced drama in which families are brought together via tragedy. As a woman with Ojibwe ties, Erdrich writes about this extended Indian family with a knowledge that adds a deep believability to the stories, the traditions and the reactions. The language is pensive and lyrical and therefore reflective of the book’s tragedy.

“As well telling of the boy’s life, the novel moves back in time to relay the stories of the boy’s namesakes, all the other LaRose’s in the family genealogy and how each suffered but also survived. This provides a nice symmetry to the young boy’s story of living in two families and his power to heal them both.

“A focus on good and bad is apparent, along with the message that a good person can do bad things and that one who commits evil should not be given up on. As such the theme of redemption comes through strongly as the two families rebuild not only for the loss of Dusty, but also connections with other family members.

“La Rose felt like a whole and complete work where all features tied together and issues were raised and settled without ever appearing twee or predictable. For the second month following, the free rangers all concurred in our feelings for the month’s book. And that was that this book is touching and poignant and certainly worth reading and recommending.

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Published 2016
Harper
372 pages

Less – Andrew Sean Greer

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Chosen by Becks

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.”

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Published 2017
Lee Boudreaux Books
273 pages

The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin

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Chosen by Sonya

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

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Published 2018
GP Putnam’s Sons
346 pages

Sing Unburied Sing – Jesmyn Ward

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Chosen by Jodie

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

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Published 2017
Scribner
285 pages

 

 

Disgrace – J M Coetzee

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Chosen by Jo

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

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Published 1999
Seeker & Warburg
220 pages

2019 NZ Book Awards

The past few years have been an interesting time globally as opinions around nationalism and free-speech have become hot topics.

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.

The New Ships – Kate Duignan

READ FOR NZ BOOK AWARDS

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

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Published 2018
Victoria University Press
362 pages

All This By Chance – Vincent O’Sullivan

READ FOR NZ BOOK AWARDS

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

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Published 2018
Victoria University Press
335 pages