The Long Take – Robin Robertson

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A war veteran tries to assimilate back into every day American life post war.

➽ “I was completely consumed by The Long Take and while the storyline and themes were far from uplifting I felt captivated by the events that were occurring.

“Initially I baulked at the style of this novel – it’s written in almost poem form and I thought I would be enduring rather than enjoying it. Using the characteristics of film noir to help shape the narrative, the story quickly drew me in and had me hooked. 

“The main character Walker is aware of the cause of his suffering and actively works to try and diminish it, and as a reader I wanted nothing more than for him to be able to succeed.  A unique and mesmerising read. ” – Suzy

➽ “The Long Take (Or A Way To Lose More Slowly) is a sad title, referring to the suffering of war veterans that is particularised in this novel. I say novel but it’s really a novel-poem hybrid: it has the breadth and ease of reading of a novel, but the rhythm and sharpness of a poem.

“Whatever it is, it is deeply affecting. The hero, Walker, wanders the streets of New York, LA and San Fran post war, in a daze, reliving the atrocities of his war experience and trying to assimilate back into normal life. As the title suggests there are many long takes, which Walker must endure.

“In the book, Robertson does what poets do best, burns imprints into your mind with glimpses of time and place and memories; these few words far more impressive than a page of prose could be in its place. And had these half lines and well-comma’ed phrases been converted to proper sentences, they would have lost their rhythm and their beauty.

“I see why Robertson felt this was the only way to present his story.” – Rachel

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Published 2018
Picador
256 pages

The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner

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A study on institutional living, via prison inmate Romy Hall who is serving two life sentences.

➽ “There has been a LOT of hype about The Mars Room so I went in with high expectations. Having just binge-watched the latest series of Orange is the New Black on Netflix meant that the content of The Mars Room didn’t feel as fresh for me – this is no fault of the author of course!

“I deeply felt the struggles of the mothers in prison with their children either being removed from them or being completely inaccessible.

“While there were the occasional funny situations and lines this book overall conveyed an enormous sense of helplessness and despair which seems accurate based on anything I’ve ever heard about the American justice system. I just wanted there to be a nugget of goodness in this novel, something uplifting that gave me hope, but it just wasn’t to be.” – Suzy

No Tank Tops, the sign said at Youth Guidance. Because it was
presumed the parents didn’t know better than to show up to court
looking like hell. The sign might have said Your Poverty Reeks.

➽ “The Mars Room is less about Romy Hall and more about the premise of institutional living and a commentary on your increased chances of ending up there if you are on the poor side of working class.

“It’s an intense, totally immersive read, retelling incidents and tricks of the trade that have obviously been well researched. What appealed to me was the no-hold barred reveal of tension-building tales.

“There is a late charge on plot, but I guess this is a true reflection of prison life, the mundane and the habitual making up your day until one day something outrageous happens.

“I certainly liked The Mars Room (though I would have named it differently), but at this stage in my shortlist reading, it hasn’t blown me away as something I think will win.” – Rachel

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Published 2018
Scribbler
338 pages

Everything Under – Daisy Johnston

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A reunited mother and daughter delve into their troubled past.

➽ “First things first: this book has a beautiful cover. All publishers should put in this much effort!

Everything Under is a debut novel by a 27-year-old Brit. Knowing this and seeing that cover, it’s hard not to be impressed without even reading a word!

“Delving into the text doesn’t disappoint. It has a complex web of relationships where gender lines are blurred but there is a clear focus on femininity. And family ties make or break people.

“With the main character named Gretel and various Opedial predictions it is clear that fairy tales and myth played a large role in creating this book. And as well as being clever in every regard, there is certainly a great tale too. Definitely worth reading.” – Rachel

The places we are born come back to us. They disguise themselves as words, memory loss, nightmares. They are the way we sometimes wake with a pressure on our chests that is animal-like or turn on a light and see someone we’d thought was long gone standing there looking at us.

➽ “I don’t think I have ever read a book where the reveal has been so massive and intense that I have had to put the book down and give myself a break from reading for a few minutes! The threading and weaving of the storylines all of a sudden came together and I was shocked.

“For a novel that dealt with some unusual and difficult themes there was also a very large dose of ordinariness and relatability. This book was clever, haunting, distracting, and deceptively simple.

“And yes I agree with Rach, the cover is absolutely beautiful.” – Suzy

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Published 2018
Jonathan Cape
264 pages

Milkman – Anna Burns

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A young woman is pursued by a renouncer terrorist in 1970s Northern Ireland.

➽ “The unnamed narrator in Milkman is the glue that holds the book together. She is the apolitical in a political novel, the every day logic amongst the absurdity of strife. Middle sister, maybe girlfriend, whatever you want to call her, is generous with her thoughts and observations of her environment, which is The Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. Car bombs and telephone bugs are part of life yet so are the bizarre relationships she has with several characters. I liked her and her voice. A lot.”

“However, the real point of difference in this book is its vernacular. The prose is strikingly descriptive – sometimes things are described four or five or 20 times over, with as any synonyms as possible, and these parts were particularly fascinating. Burns uses some wonderful words in creative ways and I was just as intrigued by how this book was written as by the story itself.” – Rachel

Next came abortions and I had to guess them also, from ‘vermifuge, squaw mint, Satan’s apple, premature expulsion, being failed in the course of coming into being’ with any doubt dispelled by, ‘Well, daughter, you can’t disappoint me anymore than you’ve already disappointed me, so tell me –what did you procure and which of them drab aunts did you procure it of?

➽ “Whheewwww is how I felt when I finished this book. I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more had I not been in a rush to finish it alongside the other short-listers. It was a unique read and a massive eye-opener for me in terms of what life was like in a country with terrorism and very strong religious beliefs.

“It felt claustrophobic and oppressive and terrifying. It felt like I was wading through this novel rather than enjoying it – if wading was then intent of the author then goal achieved.” – Suzy

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Published 2018
Faber Faber
352 pages

The Nine-Chambered Heart – Janice Pariat

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Chosen by Sonya

Nine characters recall their relationship with a young woman – the same woman – whom they have loved, or who has loved them.

➽ “The Nine Chambered Heart was my book, and I’m glad for the choice. The concept of nine different voices speaking of their relationship with the central character, is fresh and new. I loved the way we slowly discovered more about her, one puzzle piece at a time. It was a beautifully written novel, clever and gentle in its manner, easy to read. My only criticism of it at the time of reading it was that it felt incomplete. Although I realise it was the author’s intention to leave much unresolved, I felt that some point of finality would have made the book ‘fantastic’ rather than ‘good’. In reflecting on the book during book club discussion, my other issue was although there were nine different voices, these voices spoke in the same way. The writing style did not reflect the characters’ differences. This affected how authentic the voices were in my head. Overall however, a really engaging read I would recommend as a great book club title.” – Sonya

➽ “I loved how this novel offered a different concept to anything else I have ever read. It was a beautifully written story of love and loss. The premise of the book was unique, nine different people describe the same girl they loved at different points of her life. Throughout the novel there are no names or places mentioned, suggesting that these stories/memories can happen to anyone, anywhere in the world. Its a novel that you can’t really sink your teeth in but one you can sit back and enjoy it for what it is.” – Jodie

➽ “The Nine Chambered Heart is a work of experimental fiction, where nine people, over the stretch of a few decades, recall their experiences and relationships with the same woman. Written in the second person it certainly felt as though I was reading something quite special. At first I felt I was learning more about the associates’ lives but by the end I realised I understood the (nameless) woman on an emotional level rather than one based around her activities and opinions, and therefore the text had done its job. Even, what I felt was, objectification of the woman became a moral standpoint on topics relevant in today’s society. My only gripe was that the associates’ voices had a similarity to them but it was not enough to cloud my view on the book, and in fact had me pondering the potential relevance! Lovely book. Lovely cover. I recommend it.” – Rachel

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Published 2017
Fourth Estate India
216 pages

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

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Chosen by Jo

A love affair and a crime amongst landladies and their tenants, set in post-war Britain.

SPOILER ALERT “Sarah Waters wonderfully sets the scene with her detailed and easy-to-absorb descriptions of the physical and social environment. I really felt as if I was in that house watching in a ‘fly on the wall’ sort of a way. She slowly develops the desire between Lillian and Frances culminating in passionate sex scenes which were eye opening and so very convincing. The detail and angst involved after Leonard’s accidental killing with moving the body, the aftermath of discovery and police investigation and the subsequent trial of an innocent man were thrilling. I would say though that the book moves so slowly in the first half and then picks up considerably in the last that it seems a bit discordant – too much detail in the cleaning and relationship building between Lillian and Frances I think. The ending I have to say is a let down. There’s so much tension towards the end and then it ends in a boring, lame way. I did enjoy this story but the ending tarnished that enjoyment unfortunately.” – Jo

What did she want? Frances couldn’t tell. She wasn’t sure she cared any more. There had been too much dancing back and forth. The night had been over-stretched: it had lost its tension

➽ “The Paying Guests exhibits Waters’ usual mastery of telling a personal tale in such depth its as if the characters are living beings. It details the day-to-day interactions of a widow and her daughter with their new lodgers – ‘paying guests’ a requirement after the deaths of their menfolk in the war. There is a scandalous affair and a crime and a trial, all explored in a manner accurate for the 1922 British setting. I enjoyed the plot in the body of the work, infact I felt emotionally invested in the character’s lives every step of the way, but I did feel that Waters normally delivers more in meaning and message. And, I have to say (SPOILER ALERT) I was extremely disappointed in the ending. I had all these wild imaginings about what scandalous eventuality could occur in the final sentences, yet it was the most routine and colourless ending possible and I was hugely frustrated, especially as the book weighs in at nearly 600 pages and therefore involved some input of time and energy. I have read and loved several of her other works, but don’t know if I’d recommend this one.” – Rachel

➽ “The Paying Guests is a novel set in 1922 after World War 1. I found this novel by Sarah Waters very slow paced and a bit of a chore to read. The first half is very long and arduous with a lot of floor scrubbing and boring domesticity. During the second half we are rewarded with a taboo love affair, a murder, a courtroom drama, a lot more exciting than the fist half, albeit it still never becomes compelling enough to hook me in.” – Jodie

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Published 2014
Riverhead Books
564 pages

I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith

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Recommended by Sophia

A coming-of-age novel written as diary entries by a 1930s teenage girl living in poverty in an English castle.

➽ “What at first appears as a simple coming-of-age story is actually a cross-genre mediation on the history of the British novel. Sometimes Austen-esque, sometimes farcical, but ultimately modernistic, Smith’s characters break the norms of reader expectation to transcend the mere love interest plot line to be young women in charge. Cassandra, the main character not only portrays this in her romantic life but in her capturing of the castle, capturing it in words for the reader to enjoy, but capturing control of the family and its destiny. The descriptions of the castle’s many nooks and crannies are beautifully and often hilariously done within a complex narrative that is pure genius on the author’s behalf. Like no other book I have read before, I immediately felt the need to call this one of my favourite books. Thank you Sophia for introducing it into my life, someone who never fails me with recommendations.” – Rachel

➽ “I read this book totally believing I was reading a book written by a contemporary writer, written recently. So I was completely taken aback to find it was a story written during the period it was set, in the 1930s. It made me love it more! Yes, I loved it, from start to finish, although the romantic in me wanted a romantic happy ending and so was slightly unsatisfied … but would it have been as good if it had ended any other way? Probably not. I loved the romantic tension, the humour and the gentle philosophical meanderings about God and life and happiness, and the feminist undercurrent. It was also an easy read, so all in all a top book, and highly recommended reading.” – Sonya

➽ “I absolutely loved this book with a passion! I felt like Cassandra Mortmain was a dear friend and she could have told me about anything and I would have listened with rapturous delight. The writing was beautiful, the characters interesting, the story unpredictable and captivating with truly funny parts littered throughout. Dodie Smith was incredibly talented and I’m wondering how I had never heard of this book until a friend suggested we read it for book club – how is it not more widely (popularly) known as a classic? I feel grieved that I’ve finished it and can’t read it for the first time again – I’m actually getting truly sad (again) thinking about that!” – Jo

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Published 1948
William Heinemann
343 pages

Five Sons & A Hundred Muri of Rice – Sharyn Steel

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Chosen by Jodie

The true life story of Kharika Devkota, a five-year-old bride in rural Nepal.

➽ “Five Sons and a Muri of Rice gives the reader a real glimpse into the lives rural Nepalise woman lead. The story spans the life of Kharika, a 5-year-old bride right through to a 90 year old. A lot of years to cover in one book! The life Kharika was handed is unimaginable – to be dropped into another life as a 5 year old is so incredibly cruel. Kharika suffered much hardship both physically and mentally and this was the incredible  story of her resilience and strength. The authors gave us a real insight into the moral issues surrounding child marriage and the prejudices Nepalise woman face every day. They did a great job getting the story on paper but I feel they could has eased up on the content and given the story a little more flair.” – Jodie
➽ “Five Sons And A 100 Muri of Rice was a book I really enjoyed because of the insight it gave me. I found the story of the main character’s life as a five-year-old bride in rural Nepal thoroughly fascinating. It was humbling, fascinating and illuminating, even if the writing style was at times simple. I especially enjoyed the first half of the book which followed the early years of her life as a struggling bride, abused wife and mother. Such harsh times this woman endured, with a strength and grace we must admire! My hesitation in recommending this book to others would be that it seemed to at times uncomfortably straddle fact and fiction, and as narrated through an interpretor, the character’s family and the author. What really happenned, and what was an interpretation of what happened? I also felt that the second half of the book became a bit dull and matter of fact, failing to keep me connected emotionally.” – Sonya

➽ “While the subject matter of this book is extraordinary and quite an education, I felt the story had been done a disservice by the authors. The text is more a literal translation of what Kharika has said rather than a shaping of the information into something more affecting. Kharika’s story is incredible and worth knowing but I did struggle with the simple and at time’s waffly narration. I know many other books which detail stories half as incredible but are more powerful due to the author’s talents. For me, the highlight of our discussions was Jodie’s research and perspective on the subject matter as someone who has spent time in Nepal.” – Rachel

➽ “The woman at the centre of this semi biographical book is extraordinary – she has lived an incredible life filled with poverty, hardship, violence and loss. This book certainly provided a very interesting education into rural Nepalese life, a life for Kharika that is shadowed by sexist and oppressive customs. Women are second class citizens and although they seem to carry out most of the heavy work as well as running the home and looking after the children, daughters are largely regarded as burdens. One of the most disturbing parts of this book for me was Kharika’s marriage when she was left with complete strangers at the age of five. The book did plod along at times and seemed more like a record of her life which was quite repetitive at times – an opportunity lost to make the most of telling this amazing story.” – Jo

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Published 2014
Paua Publishing
428 pages

When I Hit You: Or A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

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Chosen by Rachel

An unnamed narrator tells a story of domestic violence and modern marriage in India through the beauty of literature.”

➽ “Named for James Joyce’s debut novel, this book examines modern Inidan marriages and brutality in a way not done before. It is not simply a novel about domestic violence, it is an analysis on the art of writing about abuse. Kandasamy’s narrator does not perform victimhood but rather lays the facts bare in a banal, expected kind of way. In doing so she demonstrates how women of all walks of life suffer as such, and that they are women of intellect and ability, with hopes and dreams, not just “battered women”. I think the author has done here what so many writers have attempted before but failed at. She has written an exposé on domestic violence without using shock value, empowered others in the same position and created a work of art. It was a deeply satisfying read.” – Rachel

➽ “The poetic writing style of this suspected (not overtly confirmed by the author) autobiographical story makes for a beautiful read despite the horrific violence recounted. I feel educated about domestic violence – I always thought I understood why women stayed in abusive relationships but after reading her account my comprehension has deepened considerably. The survivor in this story needed to make sure others could see what she had been through in order to successfully escape without bringing further shame on herself and her family. A truly disturbing reveal of domestic violence and societal expectations and prejudice in India.” – Jo

➽ “When I Hit You is a raw and powerful novel about a young Indian women’s abusive and oppressive marriage. Kandasamy reveals what can happen behind closed doors of a marriage, a scary look into what some woman have to endure. Kandasamy has written a harrowing account of domestic violence in a beautifully artistic way – I thoroughly enjoyed her way with words. An incredible piece of writing I highly recommend.” – Jodie

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Published 2017
Atlantic Books
256 pages

2018 NZ Book Awards

Social commentary is a traditional feature of literature, but with Millennials coming of age, outspoken hypothesising on the state of the world looks to become a staple of modern story telling.

This year’s Ockham’s shortlist highlights this.

A solipsistic tale of youth and immediacy, an immigrant’s lot in today’s NZ and Gen Xers pitted against Millennials make up three quarters of the shortlist. Salt Picnic breaks the mold with a highly academic look at two years of Janet Frame’s life written by a stronghold in the NZ fiction world. However, it’s complexity and bravado keeps it under the indulgent umbrella.

However, with time and contemplation, us couple of Gen Xers were able to see through the decadence and accept where these novels had hit the mark, even when we felt they were slightly annoying or unconnected to us.

Our summations: Salt Picnic is a very literary book that should be recognised but has a limited audience. Sodden Downstream portrays a slice of NZ that people may or may not agree with, but no one can deny the book’s haunting atmosphere.

Our views differed on the remaining two books, Suzy was more captured than Rachel by both. Though we did agree The New Animals had two parts (one which was superb) that didn’t really connect with one another. And that Baby was either brilliant or brilliantly annoying. We wondered if this surmounted to the same thing … but what we did agree on was that Jochems is someone to watch.

In the end it came down to two books: Baby and Sodden Downstream. 

Baby hits all the checkpoints in a vernacular which young adult readers in particular will gravitate towards.

Sodden Downstream paints a gritty, moody picture of NZ’s social climate that advocates for the dispossessed in particular will love.

It depends whether you like your books perfected, as VUP books tend to be, or something less highly polished.

Suzy and Rachel concluded in this instance we preferred the rawness of Sodden Downstream and as such have earmarked it as our preference for the win at this year’s Ockham Book Awards. But we wouldn’t be surprised if the new talent of Annaleese Jochems takes it out.