The mayor of a small NZ town recalls his successes and failures in the lead up to an election and school reunion.
✚ “Pearly was such a recognisable character it was disarming. We all know a Pearly – a Boomer with such a strong sense of self-assurance and entitlement that Gen Xs and the rest are almost envious.
“Pearly’s a wholly unlikeable man whose unshakeable confidence causes him to act in ways that are morally questionable at best and criminal at worst. Nevertheless he has risen to small-town South Island fame as the local mayor. Along the way the small insights he has into his behaviour are never enough to redeem himself to the reader.
“While I detested Pearly Gates the character I absolutely loved Pearly Gates the novel. On one page I would be judging him from a moral high ground and on the next I would realise with considerable discomfort that I have a bit of Pearly in me. As benevolent and kind as I think I am, of course I also act in complete self-interest sometimes (although hopefully not dropping to Pearly’s low standards).
“The level of introspection this novel engendered along with the awful self-realisation was something else.” – Suzy
✚ “Anyone who reads Pearly Gates will know someone who slightly resembles the main character, Pearly Gates. That air of importance that some think comes as a given with age; the denial of the fragility of life. For this part I think the novel was well written and relevant.
“However I found there was a lack of plot. A nearing-old man meanders through the pages detailing his real estate deals, his mayoral & school reunion committee obligations, his opinions of various people and his memories of his glory days as a young rugby player destined for the All Blacks. I was waiting for a dramatic event to break the monotony of his life, but the monotony of his life is it. There were a couple of interesting events that showcased Pearly’s moral decline which I thought would lead to something bigger but, actually, the characterisation of Pearly is the main event.
“All in all, I appreciate the skill involved in the construction of Pearly but the book did not excite me.” – Rachel
Penguin Random House
A suicidal man visits his family in California before deciding his fate.
✚ “My previous experience of David Vann was of the book Goat Mountain, which both freaked me out and captivated me. I wanted to recommend it to all and sundry, but knew the content wasn’t all and sundry’s cup of tea. Anyway, it was amazing and I totally rated Vann as a writer as a result. I was surprised to then see him on the Ockham shortlist for Halibut On The Moon as I thought he was an American. Turns out he is an American-cum-NZer and has been here since 2003. This is great news as the chances of me running into him on the street are now greatly increased.
“So, it is probably no surprise that I adored Halibut On The Moon. A 39-year Alaskan man named Jim is on the verge of suicide, telling everyone of his plans on a visit to his brother and family in California. His search for sense amongst the places and people that ground him is an achingly moving portrayal of a desperate and hollow man, and yes Jim’s character is dark but his reckless antics are also sadly comic, making this a roller coaster ride of emotion. I really felt for his brother Gary, who put up with so much in his bid to be Jim’s saviour.
“Ultimately it is a story about roads travelled and the search for redemption. There is more I want to say but won’t for fear of providing spoilers to Vann virgins. All I can say is Vann had a traumatic history that provides much fodder for his story writing. Halibut On The Moon is an excellent novel and I recommend both this and Goat Mountain. Right, now I’m off to read everything else he has ever written!” – Rachel
✚ “This book was a big literary punch in the face. I enjoyed about a quarter of it, maybe less, but after I had finished it I processed it a bit more and was really in awe of the author and what he’d done. Learning afterwards about the autobiographical nature of the story turned the novel from ‘moving’ to ‘gut wrenching’.
“I would struggle to recommend this book as a great read, but maybe if I wasn’t trying to get through it during a 6 week (and counting) lockdown I might have embraced it a bit more. It has an air of ‘prize winner’ about it and I can’t wait to find out what the Ockham judges think.” – Suzy
A surgeon is investigated after the death of a patient.
✚ “I have to preface this by saying it’s been at least six months since I read A Mistake. I bought it after reading numerous positive reviews. I remember the feelings of hope, deep unease and sadness while reading it and all this time later I honestly feel ill as I recall various parts of the plot (and I’m not referring to any of the medical procedures).
✚ “In the book a doctor is accused of mis-adventure after a patient dies. The ensuing investigations are a compelling analysis of accountability in a human-risk and human-fault laden aspect of life. The work ethic of surgeon Liz Taylor and her personal life are examined and played off against each other nicely. She is a professional surgeon with an extraordinary reputation, though her personal life was slightly chaotic. This created an interesting character and a compelling plot, but I did feel that Liz was stereotyped to disprove a stereotype, ie because she was a woman she had to be not a good but a phenomenal surgeon, and, also because she was a woman, she had to be a little bit neurotic. Maybe I’m overthinking it … anyway it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the story of her troubled personal life nor appreciating the questions Shuker raises about culpability in the medical world.” – Rachel
Chosen by Sonya
A 16-year-old fundamentalist Mormon defies her family by getting herself educated.
✚ “Educated is the memoir of a girl who flees her fundamentalist Mormon family in lieu of an education.
“Tara Westover’s Idaho parents were suspicious of everyone and hid their family away from reality, prepping for the end of days and following their father’s doctrines. The children were not schooled, did not see doctors and four of them were not issued with birth certificates.
“Not only are Tara’s family religious fanatics, they are also cruel, and Tara, as the youngest, is subjected to all sorts of crazy ideas, and abuse, both physical and psychological. The story is truely astounding and almost unbelievable.
“To be honest when we discussed the book there was a consensus of slight disbelief. Not only did so many terrible things happen (repetition of preventable accidents) but the thematic construction of the book is perfect, like it couldn’t have been planned better if it was fiction. (A son’s minor burn foreshadows the father explosive burn injury years later; the father stock piles gold and later in the book a university professor compares Tara to gold …)
‘You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.’
Research shows the parents are still alive and did say through attorneys that the book should be taken with a grain of salt. Some of her brothers have also taken to their keyboards to offer their takes of the book, including Tyler who wrote the following review on Good Reads.
“But whatever the case, memoir, fiction, fictionalised truth, the book is one of those unputdownable memoirs that gives you an insight into the lives of the other side (the really other side). And it proves the point that whatever your adversity getting yourself educated is the first step to a better future.
“At university Tara studied the social implications of fundamentalist religion as a result of her upbringing and I’m sure this book will give those who have always wondered far more insight into what some people endure and how services can and should assist them.
“It’s a book you want want to devour in one sitting, and as such is recommended by us all.”
Chosen by Jo
A romantic, 1960s coming-of-age story recaptures a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.
✚ “Norwegian Wood is the book that made Haruki Murakami famous. Which some would say is surprising considering it is a move away from his magical realism tendencies and into a more realistic genre. However on closer inspection, much of what makes a book Murakamiesque is still apparent.
“In the book a young Japanese man Toru Watanabe hears the Beatles song Norwegian Wood and recalls a time of his life spent with several interesting characters, in particular a troubled girlfriend.
“Toru and several of his friends have experiences with death and grief and one such acquaintence ends up in a mental institution located deep in the snowy woods. This examination of loss, particularly suicide, does not attempt to scare the reader into flinching at mention of the D word, but rather, reminds us that death is not the opposite to life, it is a part of life.
“It is said that the popularity of this ’80s book amongst young adults was its because of its insights into death, loss and grief, something that at the time was lacking from youth culture. And it certainly does provide death with a normality, so that the death of a character is not the shocking plot reveal that it would be in many novels.
Despite your best efforts, people are going to be hurt when it’s time for them to be hurt.
“The copious references to sex and its inferences are notable. Our discussions on this aspect gravitated around a number of factors. One of which was love transcends sex. And that sex can be enjoyed without emotional buy-in. Which was a refreshing take on the subject. However we did question the representation of female characters. They were often weak and fallible with a damsel-in-distress demeanour, requiring saving by men. Plus also there is an acknowledgement that sometimes women are taken advantage of, with one particularly disturbing scene.
“We also saw some of the sex as an energy, a life force that needs to be shared between someone full of vitality and a partner on the verge of giving up. It is a necessity rather than gratuitous.
“All in all it is a book that is never dull, with multiple stories within stories to really bring the characters to life. It was one that was enjoyed by all the free rangers.”
A novel must contain many things to hold the reader’s attention: compelling plot, relatable characters and distinct settings. But another, sometimes underrated, feature is narrative direction. It can be overstated for purpose, or discreet so as not to be obtrusive, but narration is usually a complex feature worth investigation.
Each of our bookclub meets has a chair, who, like a narrator, engages the readers and steers them through investigation of their chosen book – its construction, its relevance, its critical review – for a fuller understanding of the work.
After a year of particularly attention-grabbing books, when we each had much to say and much to question, we are more appreciative of this direction; we have discovered it is more important than ever to focus our discussions. It is easy to react and to meander with our interpretations, but to retain focus and direction is to fully examine a topic or aspect that may influence a later conversation.
The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy
Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Educated – Tara Westover
Normal People – Sally Rooney
American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins
Rules of Civility – Amor Towles
The Memory Police – Yoko Ego
Driving To Treblinka – Diana Witchell
Born A Crime – Trevor Noah
Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli
Looking back over our reading list in 2019, it’s easy to see how overcoming adversity dominated the featured titles.
From North Korean military control, to South African apartheid, from accidental shootings and drug fuelled poverty, to orphaned children and World War II life, this reading schedule was certainly adrenalin packed!
Yet misery or distress was not the overwhelming forethought when considering the booklist at our end-of-year dinner at Harbour Light Bistro. Rather it was the sense of appreciation for a life lived or a journey still to come that inspired the freerangers to name this list a tremendous one.
It was fair to say there were a number of shocking moments to discuss, but the two that remained with us (spoiler alert) were two rapes, one in A Clockwork Orange, and the other in Disgrace. Plus we were all shocked to read insights into North Korean life in The Orphan Master’s Son. Also troubling to learn was that two endings exist to A Clockwork Orange. Discovering that some of us obtained copies with one ending and some the other caused all sorts of chaos with our feelings about the book!
At the other extreme there were many couplings that filled us with joy, mostly Leisel and Rudy in The Book Thief and Simon and Robert in The Immortalists. And in a year of go-getter characters, we agreed that Arthur Less in Less was boring and lifeless and while we appreciate this was the intention, he remained uninspiring to us.
But all in all we loved the books so much it was the first year we agreed upon a three-tier favourites list, so difficult was it to choose only a runner up and a bestie!
Most memorable setting:
Jo: Parchment Prison in Sing Unburied Sing
Rachel: North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son
Becks: Cat lady’s bedroom in A Clockwork Orange
Sonya: The writer’s retreat in Less
Jodie: The marsh in When The Crawdads Sing
Jo: David Lurie in Disgrace
Rachel: Alex in A Clockwork Orange
Becks: Alex in A Clockwork Orange
Sonya: Pak Jun Do in The Orphan Master’s Son
Jodie: Pak Jun Do in The Orphan Master’s Son
2nd runner up best book:
Rachel: The Orphan Master’s Son
Becks: The Immortalists
Sonya: Sing Unburied Sing
Jodie: The Orphan Master’s Son
1st runner up best book:
Jo: The Orphan Master’s Son
Becks: When The Crawdads Sing
Sonya: The Book Thief
Book of the year:
Jo: The Book Thief
Rachel: A Clockwork Orange
Becks: A Clockwork Orange
Sonya: The Orphan Master’s Son
Jodie: Sing Unburied Sing
Chosen by Jodie
A marshland recluse becomes tied up in a 1960s murder mystery, set in North Carolina
⚑ “In the isolated marshlands of North Carolina, a young orphan named Kya lives alone, with only the local flora and fauna from which to learn about life. Her run down cottage breathes its history, haunting Kya of the violence and struggles that caused her family to abandon her. This is a childhood of the 1950s, when regulations were loose so there is little attempt by authorities to guide or supervise her.
“As Kya matures, she draws the attentions of two men, Chase Andrews and Tate Walker. One of these men turns up dead and so begins a criminal investigation and court case that Kya becomes caught up in.
“When The Crawdads Sing has a captivating plot which captures the reader and holds their attention. The murder plot line has all the hallmarks of a good crime novel with dramatic prosecutors, elaborate accusations and a few surprises to keep you guessing.
“However, it is the setting and character’s relationship to the land that is the real drawcard to this novel. As a human who knows only nature, all Kya’s references come from her surroundings: her survival instincts, her food gathering methods and her relationship building with the few humans in her life, both friend and foe. Even her dating rituals come from her observations of the sex life of fireflies.
“That the author, Delia Owens, has strong connections to the environment is apparent. In fact she worked for many years as a wildlife scientist in Africa. Her ability to develop the setting as if it was a character itself gives the book life, and provides a contemporary link to today’s environmental and ecological politics.
Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.
“The timing of the book also provides a stage for Owens to reference racial and social division of the time, which she does in a historical presentation without the moralistic outrage that so often accompanies such topics.
“In a book where the protagonist spends large portions of time alone, said protagonist needs to be exceptionally well developed. And yes there was a lot put into the creation of Kya. To the townsfolk, the “Marsh Girl,” is a recalcitrant freak, who isolates herself in her remote shack; yet the author, portrays her to the reader as quite the opposite. One whom, despite her raw and brutal lifestyle, turns into not only an academic and beauty, but a strong, capable and worldly woman, almost superherioic in nature. This is a little disappointing, to be honest. Owens may have provided Kya a tutor but a tutor and the fireflies cannot be the credited for all her social aptitude and intellect. That such an ode to perfection could arise from such ramshackle wilderness and captivate not one but two local men is also far fetched.
“Yet despite this, all the freerangers forgave the author, for the plot and the landscape were both so appealing, as was the styling, which successfully circled many genres: crime, coming-of-age, romance, YA survival and nature writing.
“Just like Reece Witherspoon, we did all agree we’d recommend this book. She may have a few more followers than us though!”
Chosen by Jo
Conflict in a North Island whanau means one man must reveal a great secret.
⚑ “Considered one of NZ writer Patricia Grace’s masterpieces, Dogside Story presents a portrait of Maori: their powerful connections to the land, ocean and to whanau, and the importance of storytelling.
“Set prior to the Millennium, the story takes place in a rural community born of a family feud. The resulting split sees the establishment of two villages, one either side of the river, referred to as Dogside and Godside. Years pass and younger people move away or adopt modern ways threatening the erosion of tradition. Yet the bonds somehow remain, as do the secrets and feuds, especially for one of the main characters Te Rua who is burdened with revealing all in order to claim his daughter.
“There is a universality and humanity in Grace’s characters, as well as desperate tragedy that flows and ebbs like the rhythm of the ocean which the characters are intrinsically linked to. All the freerangers agreed the narratives of the many characters were powerful and highly developed and as such formed the foundation to the novel, a literary feat that deserved its Man Booker nod in 2001.”
“However for some of us the many characters were a little burdensome. Their individual personalities and genealogies were difficult to sort, resulting in a clunky reading experience in the opening chapters. Each character’s energy and nature did become more obvious as the pages ticked over and storylines developed, and it was here that the real joy of reading Dogside Story began.
“Jo however was hooked from the outset. ‘Each character’s voice was distinct and easy to follow as the wonderful dialogue unfolded. I was right there beside them the whole way and I could hear Patricia Grace’s conversations all day in my head, they were so genuine.’
“Aside from the family dramas, there is also the wider story of the East Coast and the expected influx of tourists eager to be among the first in the world to see the new Millennium sunrise. It was a demonstration of how traditional Maori communities are developing – for better or worse – in reaction to modern times, technologies and incomers arriving en masse.
“As usual Grace encourages the reader to find their own comfort level of tradition and modernity all the while providing the perfect mix of entertainment, history lesson and thought topic.”