This Mortal Boy – Fiona Kidman


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

Published 2018
Penguin Random House
304 pages

The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnston

Chosen by Rachel

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.

“After 7 years of research which included a trip to DPRK Adam Johnson did a remarkable job creating a novel into the dystopia of Kim Jong-ll’s dictatorship. The real Kim Jong ll known as ‘Dear Leader’ allowed many to die of starvation while he poured money into nuclear programmes. He also banished citizens deemed disloyal to prison camps and sent assassins after defectors.
“Johnson has written this novel essentially about a highly guarded unknown Korean culture. At times he veers from cold terror to surrealistic humour with ease. It is a thriller but also shows us love and sacrifice. I thoroughly enjoyed it.” – Jodie

Published 2012
Penguin Random House
443 pages

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Chosen by Becks

Amongst a backdrop of dystopian violence is a story about good and evil and the right to human freedom. 

⚑ “I was left a wee bit traumatised after reading A Clockwork Orange in 6th Form English and so was nervous about a re-read. However, it was certainly not as baddiwad as I recalled, and in fact, this time I found it both hilarious, in a perverse satirical way, and philosophical. The violence may have been the shocking memory of my teenage read, but as a more widely read person, I now appreciate the juxtaposition of violence vs farcicality and the social themes of free-thought vs state control. Plus I now viddy how the dystopian Nadsat language helped offset the horror of the violence.

“For example Alex and his droogs may have been attempting to drat and have the old in-out with a soomka in her own domy but the comical moment where the koshka attack and he ends up punching one of them in the litso made me guff. And when the Ludivco brainwashing technique begins, this is where the real raskazz begins and where philosophical arguments are piqued: what are the rights of citizens both decent and immoral, and when is it okay for the state to interfere with the individuality of its citizens for the greater good?

“This expression of individualism, written in the 60s when such a topic was hot, ensured this shocking story was to become a timeless and forever relevant read that makes no appypolly loggy for its content. I now understand why this horrorshow book was once considered required College reading.” – Rachel

⚑ “Oh my, what a book! I would describe reading it as ‘a crazy, unsettling ride’. As so much has been written of it and about it, I’m confining my thoughts to the two most striking things about it for me, the impressions, the ‘learning’, if you like …

“Firstly, the lingo, the youth slang. So clever, helping elevate the book to a level it might not otherwise have done. Yes, difficult to read, but like learning a foreign language I found I quickly began to get the hang of it, even though I didn’t necessarily understand every single word. I think it helped to build depth into the narrator and give the story an otherworldly quality.

“The second thing I find most memorable, was the ending. Oh how I felt let down by the ending! Such fizzer to what otherwise would be a powerful piece! That said, perhaps it is from this that I go back for a second read, perhaps to better understand what the author was trying to say beyond entertainment and impact?” – Sonya

Published 1963
William Heinemann
192 pages

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Chosen by Sonya

In 1939 Nazi Germany a young girl with a foster family begins collecting found books and attempting to understand her new reality.

⚑ “The Book Thief was my book choice and I was glad for it, an easy yet enjoyable and thought provoking, emotional read. Written with Death as the narrator, and providing a story line from the perspective of a German child during the second World War, gave it a less common war story. It was instantly intriguing. I especially loved the characterisation of all of the players. So clever, so gentle and compelling, Leisal (our Heroine), Hans (her wonderful foster Father), Rosa (her outwardly hard yet wonderful foster Mother), Max (the Jewish man in hiding), Rudy (her friend and first ‘love’) … And through all of them and the horror of events that played out, it was a strangely hopeful message of the ugliness and beauty that came in the war and which is the human condition. It is a book I will recommend to my kids when they are older, and to anyone seeking to read something with great substance without heavy labour.” – Sonya

⚑ “The Book Thief is a war story written for older children and young adults. As such it hits the mark, introducing the intensity of war themes while also investigating the human condition that resulted in the survival of war children. The themes and war detail approach the precipice of morbid intrigue but do hold back so as to remain censured and not to overtly shock or offend. But there is certainly enough to grip readers without treating them with kid gloves. There were obvious literary devices, Death as the narrator, a comic drawn on the pages of Mein Kampf, combined with deep characterisation to keep up the intrigue. While it is a book that can be enjoyed by all ages, I think the sometimes slow pace and many pages of the novel may put off some younger readers.”  – Rachel

Published 2006
Alfred A Knopf
552 pages

2019 – The Journey

Reading incites many pleasures, including the opportunity to experience something outside your own knowledge and comfort zone. It is journeying to understand the world.

In 2019 it appears we have selected books that map unchartered topics: dystopian themes, satirical commentaries and plenty of US fiction, the latter of which we all confess to being less versed in.

But we are prepared to take the journey. Into the less understood, and the unparalleled. We’re along for the ride, as passive observers. Are we in need of escape, or searching for understanding in the corners of possibility? By the end of the year will we be as outspoken as the characters we’ve who filled our 12 months?

Whatever the case, we recognise that these books will provide insight into mindsets that not only abound now, but which have built the foundations on which modern day morals have come to see as the truth or at least the way forward.

Yes, forward. The only way to start a journey.


2019 Schedule

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnston
Disgrace – J M Coetzee
Sing Unburied Sing – Jesmyn Ward
The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
La Rose – Louise Erdrich
Dogside Story – Patricia Grace

2018 – End of Year Thoughts

Our reading this year was characterised by a string of strong personalities. Though unintentional and though the books were written and published over many different decades, it was curious that we should chose such a line-up, at a time when personality hype abounds.

The international world was certainly influenced by powerful and strong willed personalities this year – both socially and politically. Is it the way of the future or is it more the social media hype that surrounds them that highlights their supposed unyielding tenacity?

Whatever the case, our reading list tended to replicate this reality.

From abusive and neglectful husbands (When I Hit YouFive Sons) to the egotistical traveling companions in On The Road, through to the power hungry in Oryx & Crake, there were many types of domination on display.

Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle, Frances Wray in The Paying Guests and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffanys all also had ultimate control in mind as they manipulated those around them. Even the settings in these books were strong and character-like in their influences.

However, there was plenty of balance and so while sometimes overwhelming and disconcerting there was often a strong sense of reason; the personalities suited the plots and gave us strong sentiment to share at bookclub meets.

Our end of year get-together was held at sushi bar Wafu, where we shared in our love of raw fish and good books!

There were some commonalties in our thoughts: The Paying Guests had the most disappointing outcome and The Bridge of San Luis Rey had the best one liner: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below”.

But suffice to say the least liked character list was complex and fraught with discussion!

Here are a few more of our thoughts from the past 12 months:

Most memorable setting:
Sonya: The apartment in Breakfast at Tiffanys
Jodie: The castle in I Capture The Castle
Jo: The house in The Paying Guests
Rachel: The castle in I Capture The Castle
Becks: The bridge in The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Best character:
Sonya: Sunja in Pachinko
Jodie: Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle
Jo: Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle
Rachel: Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle
Becks: Unnamed narrator in The Nine Chambered Heart

Runner up best book:
Sonya: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Jodie: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Jo: Oryx & Crake
Rachel: When I Hit You
Becks: When I Hit You

Book of the year:
Sonya: Pachinko
Jodie: I Capture The Castle
Jo: I Capture The Castle
Rachel: I Capture The Castle
Becks: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

Chosen by Jodie

The story of life for Koreans in Japan, told through four generations and eight decades.

➽ “I found Pachinko a deeply engrossing story about the burdens of a Korean family living as immigrants  in Japan during the 20th century. The research Lee conducted to pull the story together was thorough and took her many years. I enjoyed learning about a part of history that was new to me; I gained a huge appreciation for the complex historical relationship between Korea and Japan. Lee has managed to write this historical novel in a beautiful and easy style with lots of plot and events occurring; the writing is calm so you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the action. It’s a beautifully constructed novel with characters who feel quite real and vivid. I really enjoyed it!” – Jodie

➽ “Pachinko is a multi generational narrative of family bonds and struggles, detailing the complex lives of immigrants in a foreign land. That the story began post WWII and the immigrants were unable to return to their homeland made the story more poignant. I had not understood the Korean-Japanese relationship of this time so appreciated the education as well as the entertainment the book provided. Sacrifice is a common theme, often underpinned by each character’s place as a second class citizen in a foreign land. The female characters are strong but not cliched and work tirelessly to keep their families alive. A really enjoyable read.” – Rachel

➽ “An education on Korean and Japanese social relationship history is given throughout this book which I found fascinating and deeply saddening. It’s a long saga of a story with some very distressing events which the writer skilfully expresses with subtlety. It’s clever and interesting with characters that gradually sharpen into being as their story unfolds. I loved it and feel enriched for having learnt about a topic I had no idea about – the plight of Koreans in Japan.” – Jo

Published 2017
Grand Central Publishing
496 pages