Monday 24 June 2024

Reading links June 2024

 Over the past week I've been thinking about how much I miss the old internet. 

I miss sharing word-stuff on Twitter (this line in Joel McManus's latest Windbag column for The Spin-off is exactly the kind of thing I would've tweeted 10 years ago: A moderator asked a panellist to elaborate by saying, “Let’s double-click on that.”

I miss reading things on the internet where they were part of a shared conversation, instead of in my inbox. I listen to podcasts, and then I text people about them. It's a conversation, but I'm not sharing and learning.

I quite often share articles on LinkedIn but that's building awareness for Te Papa more than doing learning for myself. And as an archive it sucks.

So I'm going back to one of my old habits, and starting a reading list again. Just for me.*

If "tech" is the answer, what is the question? Rowan Simpson's keynote from SportNZ Connections Conference 2024

This is an old-fashioned bloggy longread. Rowan is all about asking better questions about technology (what is it, even, to begin with). Here he looks at three mega-trends (smartphones, social media, localisation / personalisation) that have emerged over the last 2 decades and the business models that accompany them (attention/intention, subscription, marketplace) then argues that right now we're in "the lull", a period of pre-investment and gearing up before the next big move. Right now, he asks, are you doing everything you can with what you've got?

The Overton window of weirdness is opening Matt Webb's latest post on his Interconnected blog

I've relied on Matt Webb for moments of insight for what - 12, 14 years now? Here he's assembled a short but bewildering list of shit that's being tried out.

There is an Overton window of weirdness, which I will define here as the range of things on which it is acceptable to spend one’s time, and when it is narrow we are optimisers, and when it is wide there is a societal random walk and discoveries are made, which might be mundane or might be profound

Why I’m no longer writing novels for adults by Rachael King, one of the two best writers on children's / YA writing in NZ.

It's hard not to to be defensive about reading children's and YA books as an adult, let alone about writing them. But the genre has just as much depth, width and difficulty as books for adults (and many of them translate over, which is not all that common the other way round). 

Should strategy be furtive by Paul Bowers - the first time I've ever linked to a LinkedIn "newsletter"?

Recounts a 2018 talk by Nicholas Serota, where he described "doing strategy" without the widespread awareness of staff: instead, dripfeeding change into the organisational strategy item by item. 
He told us why: everything you say will create an opponent who'll work to obstruct you. Don't create more than a few opponents at once. 40 goals makes 40 opponents; too much to deal with at once. Pick 'em off, three at a time.
Weirdly, I was at this talk, and don't remember this point at all. Maybe it's that I don't automatically think "who will my opponents be" when introducing change, and instead I have a habit of testing and nudging rather than ordering. Either way, dumping 40 improvements at once on an organisation is hardly likely to work. 

*Noting that even this will take discipline as I do most of my reading on my phone, but most of my writing on my laptop ...

Wednesday 5 June 2024

Books of Autumn, 2024

A reading log for March, April and May 2024. If so inspired, you can find me on Goodreads.


  • 8/23 middle school or YA (shown with a %)
  • 11/23 published in 2023/24
Top five from this batch
  • Maggie Stiefvater, The Scorpio Races
  • Catherine Chidgey, Remote Sympathy
  • Paul Lynch, Prophet Song
  • Kathryn Scanlan, Kick the Latch
  • Max Porter, Shy
I realised copying my reviews over from Goodreads that I'm seemingly unfailingly enthusiastic about everything I read. I actually discard about a third of the books I start; if it's not working for me I stop. The book about George Eliot below is the only exception in this period where I really stuck it out (and am glad I did)

% Maggie Stiefvater, Scorpio Races, 2011

Read because: I was re-reading horse-themed books to go alongside Rachael King's The Grimmelings.

I continue to adore this book. Puck Conolly and her two brothers are recently, rawly orphaned, left together in their island home. They're struggling to keep the edges together, and Puck sees the solution the in the chance of winning the island's annual Scorpio races: the deadly autumn beachside race, where the men of the island compete on the otherworldly capaill uisce, the waterhorses dragged forth from the sea, for pride and for livelihoods. 

Absolutely terrific incorporation of a mythical element in the fierce, unpredictable waterhorses, into an entirely human setting. Puck, with her strained relationship with her older brother and loving worriedness for her younger, is totally believable. There's a love interest who's more than a love interest and one of the best-depicted villains I can think of. So good.

Charlotte Wood, Stone Yard Devotional, 2023

Read because: Wood is one of those authors I read on trust any time a book comes out.

One for the nun file! A woman walks away from her workplace and relationship, returning to her small home town on the Monaro plains and joining a devotional community of women in the midst of two plagues - the Covid epidemic and raging torrent of mice. Quiet, controlled, thoughtful.

% Elyne Mitchell, The Silver Brumby, 1958

Read because: horse-themed reading, as above. And a book that holds a deep (but indistinctly remembered) place in my childhood reading. 

This bestselling series originated when Elyne Mitchell - author of adult non-fiction and mother of four on a rural property in northern NSW - started typing up a story for one of her daughters who was bored by the books the Correspondence School offered. 
I hoovered these books up from the New Plymouth library when I was a kid. They fall firmly into the noble animal genre. The storytelling is quite simple; it literally opens on a dark and stormy night when a pale foal is born on a mountainside and named Throwa. Throwa grows up, taught to be canny and watchful and avoid men who will hunt him for his beautiful colouring. The book tracks his ascendancy - from watching his own father Yarraman fight off and eventually lose to The Brolga in the competition for domination of herd and habitat, to his own eventual battles with and defeat of The Brolga - alongside his continual effort to stay free of the traps of men. 

It’s not great writing or characterisation. It’s really no Watership Down. But it had the solid familiarity of childhood and I can still see why I loved them.

Max Porter, Shy, 2023

Read because: although I've come to Porter a bit late, I'm catching up. Shy is intense, lyrical, deeply sad; as tender as Lanny but in a differently spiky way.

Rebecca Yarros, Fourth Wing, 2023

Read because: I was keen to see what all the romantasy hype was about.

It’s a tale as old as time - or at least contemporary fantasy writing A magical school. Complex family lineages and relationships. Hot young people. Misapprehensions and long-held assumptions. Passionate hatred between main characters based on historical circumstances. Dawning awareness. Struggle between what they’re been taught and what they see now. Much smouldering. They have quills to write with but also the concept of toxic men. Two bouts of “explosive sex”. A finale where truth is revealed, love is dashed, and a sequel is set up. I’m not at all surprised it’s been wildly successful but I am puzzled that it’s being viewed as something new (although I'm not qualified to speak on how distinctive the disability representation is in this genre).

Molly Keane, Good Behaviour, 1981

Read because: I *think* Keane was mentioned in the credits for Stone Yard Devotional.

Good Behaviour has an opening with echoes of O Caledonia, as middle-aged spinster Aroon St Charles terrorises her unloving mother to death with an indigestible rabbit mousse. From this startling opening we travel back through Aron’s child and young woman-hood at Temple Alice, an Anglo-Irish manor where her family lives in rapidly fading glory. Keane’s achievement is to construct a narrator who sees all, but understands hardly anything, turning the reader (as her editor Diana Athill describes it) into a story-watcher. It’s a wicked story, full of snobbery, small cruelties and withheld affections. The trick is to make it engrossing, and Keane’s writing is endlessly quotable (an upset elderly man - “He looked like an angry blue-eyed baby with a pain it can’t explain”).

% Kate DiCamillo, The Magician's Elephant, 2009

Read because: it was lent to me by a young friend. And I'm back-reading DiCamillo this year,

Not my favourite of her books. And yet, still so beautifully done. In another writer’s hands this story of an orphaned boy finding his sister could be saccharine but here it is profound, and moving. It’s the care and compassion DiCamillo takes for each of her characters, right down to the blind dog Iddo, that makes a story of finding the right path so perfect, that leaves your heart grateful such compassion exists in the world

Paul Lynch, Prophet's Song, 2023

Read because: last year's Booker Prize winner.

I can’t remember the last time a book has me reading with my heart in my throat like this, stomach hollowed out by the final helpless, horrifying sections. 

Set in Dublin after a totalitarian regime comes to power, the story starts with two members of Ireland’s new secret police coming to Eilish Stack’s door at night, asking for her husband, union organiser Larry. Larry is taken in and never released, and Ireland begins, fast and bewildering and filled with threat, to crumble around Eilish, her four children, her job, and her father who she is also trying to care for through his increasing dementia and the rapidly mounting fear and control. 

Lynch writes the whole book in a propulsive, speeding, anxiety-inducing present tense that deserves the trope “sweeps you along”, you’re powerless in its grip:

Bailey is watching the protest in a phone and she sees their image giant and alive and can sense her fear has become its opposite, wanting now to surrender to this, to become one with the larger body, the single breath, feeling her might grow in the triumph of the crowd. For an instant she is met with some inchoate feeling of death, of victory and slaughter in vast numbers, of history laid under the feet of the vanquisher and she stands as though with some great blade in her hand, she brings the blade down and shivers with exaltation then takes a sharp breath, two gardaí are walking among them with cameras recording faces despite booing and jeering from the crowd.

Zadie Smith, The Fraud, 2023

Read because: another of the big books of 2023.

Loved the first third, then got bogged down. Possibly because I was reading the searing “Prophet Song” at the same time. Would actually love to read this while visiting London, feeling the city around me.

% Katherine Rundell, Impossible Creatures, 2023

Read because: Pretty much the English-language middle-grade book of the year.

Am I a griper for not feeling like the characters were terrifically well-drawn, compared to the bestiary of fabulous creatures?

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, 1980

Read because: hmmmm. Maybe I just spotted it on the library shelf?

A small town, small-format saga revolving around sisters Lucille and Ruthie, whose upbringing passes from their competent widowed grandmother to their avoidant great-aunts to their drifter aunt Sylvie, all in a mildewing home in Fingerbone, a tiny town set on a glacial lake. 

Left to drift and meander, Lucille decisively opts out of the much-reduced family and into a conventional life, while Ruthie drifts into her aunt’s transient way of being. A gentle, rolling, observant book where sadness is simply part of being alive, and judgment is reserved throughout.

% Kate DiCamillo, Raymie Nightingale, 2016

Read because: Also lent to me by a young friend.

It’s the 5th of June 1975 in Lister, Florida, and two days ago 10 year-old Raymie Clarke’s father ran off with the local dental hygienist, Lee Ann Dickerson. But Raymie has a plan to make him come home, and it just hinges on winning that year’s Little Miss Central Florida Tire pageant. 

That’s why Raymie is standing in the hot noonday sun outside baton-instructor Ida Nees’ house, waiting for her lesson to begin, with two other girls — Louisiana Elefante, orphaned daughter of two trapeze artistes, and Beverly Trapinski, tough-as-nails and worldly due to her dad’s job as a cop, only he’s in New York and she’s not. 

Kate DiCamillo just has a gift for getting straight under your skin. Raymie Nightingale is less fantastical than her more fable-like works, but the mixture of sadness, bravery, owning up to life and hope all run straight through this book too. I loved it.

Sian Hughes, Pearl, 2023

Read because: Booker Prize shortlister

A circling story of grief, identity and memory. Marianne’s mother disappears when she is eight, leaving behind her gentle husband Edward, newborn baby Joe, the besotted Marianne and their rambling home in a small English cottage. In overlapping slices of narrative, Marianne moves between the child, teenage, early adult and young mother stages of her own life, seeking to understand her mother, how her mother has shaped her own self, and inheritances of story, belief and madness that submerge and re-surface over time. 

Some parts of this first novel feel underbaked - especially a section about therapy and inherited trauma. In large parts though it is a gentle, sad, believable story of people doing their best to live on after an unbelievable breakage: 

Life after she left divided into things you could fix, and things you could not fix. My hair, for example, was fixable. At first I didn’t understand why it was rough, and brownish, and stuck to my face. Why the brush didn’t help. Then I got nuts, and Edward learned about tea tree shampoo and plaits and we found hair was a fixable thing. Some things could not be fixed. Shock-induced type 2 diabetes. Chronic eczema. The plates I dropped. The chewed-up home-made jumpers that we shrank in the wash. The kitchen garden. The air in the kitchen: the way the air in the kitchen set like jelly, and you had to be brave to walk into it, leave the radio in very loud, or open the door to the living room and leave children’s programmes running on a loop to break up the jelly into moveable chunks you could walk through. The way the edge of everything was muffled, soggy, incomprehensible, distant. The distance never really went away.

Lorrie Moore, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, 2023

Read because: It's Moore's latest

Finn’s brother Max is dying of cancer in a hospice in the Bronx and while visiting him, Finn discovers his estranged girlfriend Lily has finally succeeded in committing suicide. Buried swiftly in a green cemetery, when Finn goes to find Lily’s grave her zombie corpse appears, and the two embark on a zombie rom-com road-trip to relocate her to a forensic science body farm, and dig over the failings of their relationship. This 21st century story is interspersed with diary entries by a woman named Elizabeth, the last landlady of an aging dandy who is very likely Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. 

This could be funny, or touching, or spooky, and it’s not any of those. It’s a lot of incredible writing that feels in search of a plot that does something. The zombie character line reminded me a lot of American God’s Laura Moon — resentfully loved, the bodily decay mimicking the Eurydice theme of inevitable loss. The sections narrated by Elizabeth suggest a book I’d love to read — but not this one. 

The writing though!! 

Someone at the pots and pans store was speaking of a neighbor woman who had become a bitter old recluse and I piped up that that was going to be my own fate and no one kindly took it upon themselves to disabuse me. Everyone simply stared in bright-eyed agreement. I fear they have seen me muttering to myself on the street. Once, I swaddled a burn on my arm with a dressing and then when I was out walking I began to swat at it, thinking it was a large moth that had wrapped itself around me. I should wear a duster and one of those new pancake hats that are all the rage. I should take up ornamental farming with guano.

Catherine Chidgey, Remote Sympathy, 2020

Reading Catherine Chidgey’s books backwards is like meeting someone at a fun dinner party then finding out their tragic backstory.

The Axeman’s Carnival and Pet - my first Chidgey experiences - both have some brutality and fear mixed into them, and are also undergirded by invisible research. Carnival though has the security (for me) of rural New Zealand and character types I recognise from childhood; Pet has its boiled lolly sheen and safety blanket of suburban 1980s iconography. Seeing that characterisation and research detail applied to Nazi Germany then, first in The Wish Child and then in Remote Sympathy, is startling and unsettling. Can anyone avoid feeling like a voyeur reading the pain and horror of this period of history? 

Self-deception reigns in Remote Sympathy - the interwoven narratives of Buchenwald’s chief administrator Dietrich Hahn, his wife Greta, and prisoner Dr Lenard Weber. Each viewpoint is time-stamped. 

Dietrich’s words are taken from a 1954 interview transcript, suggesting he has survived the post-war trials, and throughout his passages he seeks to justify his choices and behaviour. 

Weber’s words are presented as letters written to his daughter in 1946, telling us he survives the camp. 

Greta’s story is told as an “imaginary diary”, and hers is the real-time story - there is no guarantee of her future, and at the same time she is the character with the most cloistered view, trying hardest not to see the horror supporting her family’s comfortable life on the edge of the camp. 

A Greek chorus, the “private reflections of one thousand citizens of Weimar”, puts the reader in the position of the accepting bystander, the community who twitches their curtains closed and averts their eyes to preserve their ability to deny the ash in the air, the emaciated factory “workers” in their streets. 

The word the book has left me with is “restrained”. By removing the question of survival, Chidgey can immerse us in the detail and the psychological states of her narrators. As a reader, you do yourself experience the remote sympathy of the title — Chidgey is fantastically controlled. I read the book in the wake of hearing many reviews (but not yet seeing myself) the movie The Zone of Interest, and I kept thinking while reading about the focus on sound design in the movie — sound being the link between again, safe family life on the edge of a concentration camp, and the stories of hope and denial people simultaneously tell themselves to make it through the day.

Lauren Groff, The Vaster Wilds, 2023

Read because: Groff's Matrix is one of my most favourite books of the last 5 years.

I didn't love this, because it's not Matrix. Having said that, after hearing Groff speak last month, I now what to re-read it and review my opinion (which isn't an opinion, actually, it's feelings).

% Margo Lanagan, The Brides of Rockroll Island, 2012

I’ve been sleeping in this book since 2012, when it came out. I adore Lanagan’s writing and was excited for this, but after my husband died that year I stopped being able to read for months. This was one of the books I tried and failed on in that period, and it’s sat on my shelf ever since. I finally picked it up again, and it was as good as I hoped it would be, back when. 

Lanagan’s dark folklore and willingness to let women’s sexual power be complex both shine here. Rollrock Island is small, hardscrabble, inhabited by fishing families and one pub. It is also home to many seals, and magic. At the start of the book a young girl, Misskaella, finds herself increasingly drawn to the seals and a sense of power emanating between them and her. The old people of the island begin to acknowledge the power she holds: a witching power, an ability to draw forth from the female selfies beautiful young women — innocent, compliant, dark-eyed, slim-limbed, irresistible to the men of the island. 

Misskaella extracts a terrible price for this service, as men approach her covertly to secure them a seal bride: a cash price, ruinous to their families, but also a price that destroys relationships and families. In a generation, all the women have left Rollrock to the men and their selkie brides, and the sons they give birth to. 

Misskaella is not to blame for the men’s pull to these women, but she is also not faultless in her heartless feeding of their desire. The men and the boys live in a dream with their intoxicating, compliant women — but it cannot last forever. 

The most arresting parts of the books are narrated from the perspective of childhood Misskaella, and young Daniel Mallett, the son of a Rollrock man and seal bride. The language is rich and dancing, lulling and yet deceptively strong, like a beach on a dark night. Lanagan’s ability to create and convey an environment— natural, physical, emotional - is wonderful. I’m so glad I finally made it here.

% Kate DiCamillo, Louisiana's Way Home, 2018

Read because: Working my way through the back catalogue

DiCamillo’s warm, confiding, trustworthy tone is a balm, but perhaps you can read too many of her books too closely together & have the magic wane a little as a consequence.

Kathryn Scanlan, Kick the Latch, 2022

Read because: Maybe the paperback has come out, and I picked it up from a NYT review? All the smart people read it in 2022, I just missed it then.

Such an unassuming book but utterly riveting. 

Scanlan conducted interviews with Sonia, a career horse trainer, over several years and then distilled those down into 120 pages of vignettes, dots that link from the day of Sonia’s birth — “I was born October 1st, 1962. I was born in Dixon City, Iowa. I was born with a dislocated hip. The doctor said I’d never walk. My mom said, Oh no, there’s got to be something. So they put me in solid plaster from my chest down, with just a little space for my mom to put on a diaper. I was there five months. Then I went to two casts with a bar between with these special shoes. Ended up I could walk. I attribute that to Dr. Johnson. My mom always said, We’ll, if it wasn’t for Dr. Johnson.” — through her falling in love with horses as a child, talking herself into her first jobs as a teen, her career moving around North American stables and race tracks, and then to her late middle-age, retired, settled, reflective — “By the time you’re my age, you’ve had a lot of injuries. And where there’s injuries, you get arthritis. I got buggered up a few times but I thought I escaped pretty chops. Now I wake up on a rainy day and think, I remember this. I remember it right here.” 

It’s a story of “grooms, jockeys, racing secretaries, stewards, pony people, hot walkers, everybody.” There’s kindness and brutality, friendship and exploitation. The voice of Sonia, as conveyed by Scanlan, is clear as water, amazingly without grievance. Her life could be frothed up into a 600 page Barbara Kingsolver-style epic, but Scanlan slides it into the world as a scant 120 pages that are engrossing, intimate, surprising. So good.

% Judy Blume, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, 1970

Read because: I was given a copy of this book by friends for my birthday, and we watched the movie adaptation together. We shared a similar experience of being unsure if we had actually read the book as children, or had picked up its classic motifs (“I must, I must, I must increase my bust!”, the anxiety of being the last in a group of friends to get her period) by osmosis. 

We all knew this was the book that was about getting your period. But it had also completely bypassed us that it was a book about religion — a much larger proportion is given over to Margaret’s quest to figure out what god she could believe in, as the daughter of a Christian mother who was ostracized by her family for marrying her Jewish dad. Margaret’s parents both stop practicing themselves and tell Margaret she can choose her religion when she grows up. 

I’m not sure how much has changed between the 1970 original and the version I read this weekend (we all remembered sanitary pad belts as a massive feature of the book but it appears in the 80s these got changed to stick-on pads). Race does not feature in the book, and sexual politics hardly at all — the only ick factor is the way a young new teacher is positioned as being drawn too the “developed” girl in Margaret’s class (although this is delivered as an insecure friend’s analysis, and like Margaret, we come to doubt her credibility). 

It remains a thoroughly charming, confiding book with huge warmth and respect for young women and a totally memorable (even if you don’t actually remember her) Margaret. 

From a NYT review: “To us, Margaret Simon wasn’t a character, she was a proxy — for the girl who stuffed socks in her bra, who felt uncomfortable in her own skin; for the girl who was homesick for a friend who had matured overnight or moved away or turned mean; for the girl who struggled to make sense of the diagrams on the origami-folded instructions inside the tampon box.”

Emma Donoghue, Learned by Heart, 2023

Read because: I read everything Donoghue puts out.

In the privacy of my skull, I remember every minute. How I caught love like a cold, at fourteen; or you did, and passed it on to me; how it flared between us. How we slept, rose, learned, played, ate, inseparable. I couldn't tell my own pulse from yours. We spilled ourselves like ink. 

Emma Donoghue's latest book is based on a true, and terribly sad, story, and a great deal of academic and community research that revolves around the figure of Anne Lister(1791-1840), the famous diarist, dubbed "the first modern lesbian". It's the lesser known figure of Eliza Raine (1791-1860), whose history "is full of gaps and puzzles" as Donoghue says in her author's note, who provides of narration and perspective in this Regency-era boarding-school love story. 

Raine was one of two sisters born in Madras (now Chennai), to an English father who was a head surgeon for the East India Company, and an Indian mother who lived with Raine for at least a dozen years, although nothing is recorded of her: name, age, family, ethnicity, religion ... Both the Raine girls were baptised, and in 1797 at the ages of eight (Jane, the older sister) and six (Eliza) were sent on the long sea voyage to England. Their father set out to follow them in 1800 and died on the voyage; his estate recorded payments to "Dr Raine's woman" in Madras, but these were only made for two years. Jane and Eliza were left with a respectable inheritance of four thousand pounds each, to be payable when they married or reached the age of 21. 

Eliza and Jane moved into the care of the Duffin family in York, and by 1805 Eliza was boarding at Miss Hargreaves' Manor School in York, an "antique hodgepodge" of buildings, where she is one of seven girls in her year. The book opens with the fine detailing and imagining of a boarding school for young ladies at this time; the endless rules and elaborate system of merit and demerit points that enforce them; the cold rooms, plain clothes, restricted food, all designed to build character; the complex relationships between the girls of her year, and Eliza herself, achingly aware that with her illegitimate status and biracial existence: 

Pupils are allowed a single flounce at the hem, or a silk shawl instead of cotton, without getting a vanity mark, but Eliza doesn't risk it. It gives her secret gratification to confound expectations. Restraint in dress is not a virtue looked for in the little Nabobina, as she heard Betty Foster call her under her breath, that first week. Their classmates seem disappointed by the Raines' lack of splendour - no decorated palms, thumb-rings the size of walnuts, ropes of pearls, belled ankles, or gold nose-jewels. Eliza practises her gleaming smile in the speckled looking-glass. The well-mannered call her complexion foreign-looking or tawny; the insolent, swarthy, dusky, dingy or plain brown. She reminds herself her skin is clear, her features generally thought pleasing.

Into this restrictive and restricted environment erupts Anne Lister: boyish, outrageous, knife-sharp, masking her vulnerability with acid humour. The girls circle her like another exotic, entranced and repelled, but it is Eliza  she is assigned to share a room with -a tiny garret room they christen the "Slope". The girls grow closer and closer and closer, and then their emotional connection ignites as a physical relationship. Lister leaves the school after about nine months, to Eliza's heartbreak. 

The chapters set in the school are interspersed with imagined letter written to Lister from Eliza in 1815. Lister and Eliza stayed intimately connected for some years after school, but Lister eventually moved on to other loves, leaving Eliza drifting and heartsore. It appears her mental health and behaviour deteriorated, to the point where she was put in an asylum in York - within walking distance of the school they had attended. She would spend the rest of her life either in asylums, or the care of people her family members assigned her to, alone. 

Some reviews I've read admire the book a lot, but wish Donoghue had sped through some of the boarding school details to get to Eliza and Lister's thrilling discovery of the pleasures of love faster. I dunno. I got a lot of pleasurable flashbacks to A Little Princess reading this - the deeply imagined boarding school environment that as a reader you can sink yourself thoroughly into. Learned by Heart has the secretive, doomed love intensity of Romeo & Juliet, with the warring families replaced by Eliza's biracial background and insecure social standing, uncomfortably ensconced in one country and ever further away from the gauzy memories of her birthplace. Donoghue excels at emotionally acute stories told within tight parameters, and she puts them out at a startlingly rate, given the range of historical periods she's moving through (a monastery in 7th century Ireland and a hospital in 1918 Dublin in the latest two). I really, really enjoyed this.

Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent, 1970

Read because: It's been sitting on the shelf for ages, and Molly Keane (above) made me think of it.

I'm quite flummoxed by this book, I struggle to describe what's going on in it. It has Sparks' inimitable inhabitation of a young woman's mind, but the plotting (which is all about - plotting) is off the hook. Sparks is running rings around the reader and it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men, 2022

Read because: Who doesn't read all of Keegan's books? However, I didn't get swept away by this particular collection. 

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Books of Summer

I had intended to do an end-of-2023 wrap of the books I read and went so far as to run my eye over them all on Goodreads and start to extract some themes, but in the end I just needed a break this summer. Instead, I've decided to try to do a seasonal wrap, so here is my first: books finished in Summer (between 1 December 2023 and 1 March 2024).

If so inspired, you can follow me on Goodreads.


  • 16/34 books were published in 2023
  • 2/34 published 2020-22
  • 16/34 published before 2020
  • 18/34 are ostensibly children's or YA literature

Top 6, if you made me pick:

  • A Touch of Mistletoe
  • North Woods
  • Lanny
  • The Windeby Puzzle
  • The Grimmelings
  • Bird Life


# a book I own (if you want to borrow)

% a book that's ostensibly children's or YA literature

% # Elizabeth Warren, The Wandering Wombles, 1970

This list would have started a bit more impressively if I lied and brought forward Benjamin Myers highly respected Cuddy (a book I'm still thinking about regularly) which I finished on Nov 30. Instead - Wombles.

Read because I had been backreading a lot of books from my childhood prepping to interview Christchurch author Rachael King at the Writers Festival at the Aotearoa NZ Festival of Art. I was thinking a lot at the time about "tropes" (unkind word) - perhaps "building blocks" - of children's lit: absent parents, portals between worlds, magical transport. 

The Wombles is Beresford's 1960s/70s series about ambulant, pointy-nosed, furry, human-language-speaking creatures who live around the world but most famously on London's Wimbledon Common, and "making good use of things that we find", upcycling and rehabilitating the things humans throw away. The series was adapted for an animated tv series which might have been how I first encountered them? Unsure. 

The Wombles are classic world-within-world: secretly occupying spaces around humans, building their lifestyles around what humans discard, and negotiating those times when the two systems overlap (I did not recall at all from childhood that Wombles only come out at night). In the biographical statement at the end of the book it’s noted that Beresford wrote quarter of a million words per year. Maybe that’s why this book felt a tad perfunctory— the prose isn’t really any better than it needs to be, in order to get you through the book. Did I notice as a kid that the only female characters are a teacher and a cook? Possibly not. And all the commentary about weight — Wombles are meant to be sturdy but the acceptability of this is tightly patrolled, with many a condemnation of the ones who get too tubby. But series like this probably rely on repeated motifs, catchphrases and features that become instantly familiar, which is how reading this book felt.

% # Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins, 1960

Read because as above - revisiting childhood reading. I went back to this book with trepidation and emerged from it soothed by the familiar shape of a story that soaked deeply into me as a child, but still questioning. 

O’Dell’s book — the 1960 Newbery Award winner — is based on the true and tragic story of “Juana Maria” or “the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island” (her Native American name is unknown), a Native Californian woman who was the last surviving member and last language speaker of her tribe, the Nicoleño. She lived alone on the island from 1835, when the rest of her community was removed by an American schooner (the motivation for their removal is somewhat unclear). The community has been decimated about 20 years earlier, when a ship full of otter-hunters managed by the Russian-American Company had arrived to hunt and then (perhaps provoked, perhaps not) attacked the island’s inhabitants. In 1853 she was found / tracked down / removed from the island and taken to the mainland, where she was thought to be around “middle-age”. Accounts from the time describe her as lively, fascinated by horses, engaging and engaged. She died of dysentery after 8 weeks. 

O’Dell gives her the name “Karana”. Karana is 12  when a ship of Russian otter hunters arrive on her island. Her father, the village's leader, negotiates and agreement with the captain which is later broken, leading to a fight where many of the island’s men are killed. The next leader departs by canoe to find support; shortly after an American ship arrives and all Karana’s community gathers to board the ship. Karana is onboard when she realises her brother has been accidentally left on the island — she dives overboard to retrieve him but the ship, threatened by a storm, departs. Karana and her little brother are left alone on the island. 

If you’ve not read the book I’m not going to spoil it for you. It is simply told, intensely imagined, almost anti-lyrical in the exactness of its language, but closely observed and utterly centred on Karana’s resilience, resourcefulness, and ability to exist in her isolation. I can remember being entranced as a child — do all bookish kids prepare for that rare chance that they too may one day be abandoned / forced to become a knight / find themselves on a quest? As an adult, I’m conscious O’Dell is telling a story of colonisation, as sensitive and non-judgmental as it is. I wonder if the simplicity of the language and lack of reflection awarded to Karana is meant to indicate some kind of noble savage, unspoiled innocence. And yet I didn’t get the squicks so many books from earlier times give rise to: I would happily read it again.

% Lex Croucher, Gwen and Art Are Not in Love, 2023

Read because it was on the recommendations display at Unity.

Thoroughly competent and charming queer YA that plays to the historical romcom genre. Would make a great gift for a teen in your life.

% J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, 1911

Read because inspired by listening to the Bookwandering episode where Anna James talks to Nikita Gill about the book. 

Okay. The book is definitely racist. The "be my mother" storyline around Wendy is disturbing when you note it's being played out by kids younger than her (acceptable), kids her age (hmmm) and adults (Barrie had a complex family history). But if you can get past those factors (and I don't blame you if you can't set it aside, not everything needs to last forever) my god, is there some fantastic writing and some truly surreal stuff in here. It is utterly a book for adults to read with a noticing eye. I'd love to have time to read this more deeply and write about it to understand it better.

Penelope Lively, Life in the Garden, 2017

Read because was mentioned by a person whose reading I admire when I asked her what was on her pile at the moment.

Charming, quite beautifully structured but also (unsurprisingly, really) quite pot-bound by the then-83 year-old author’s class and life experiences. Really beautiful cover though.

% Astrid Lindgren, Ronia, The Robber's Daughter, 1981

Read because earlier note about childhood re-reading

Utterly as wholesome as I recall it being. From the first page I remembered it all — black-eyed Ronia, the treasured only daughter of the adoring, emotional, bellowing robber chief Matt, his unflappable wife Lovis, the 12 dirty loveable robber rogues in their band, their stone fortress in the woods, the rumphobs, the harpies, the gray dwarves, the wild horses — and the rival band of robbers led by Borka and his gentle, brave son Birk … 

There’s not a lot of plot to the book — some fairly gentle action but the real focus is on the emotional growth Ronia experiences along with her father. Really quite beautiful.

Maru Ayase, The Forest Brims Over, 2023

Read because I noticed the cover on the new books shelf at Good Book Shop.

The concept was intriguing: a novelist's wife turns into a garden on the second floor of their home. I read very little in translation (something I should probably work on) and I struggled to mesh with the tone of this book.

Jeanette Winterson, The Passion, 1987

Read because someone whose reading I admire recommended a more recent book by Winterson to me, but this was just lying around at the library so I grabbed it.

The first two chapters filled a Hilary Mantel-shaped hole in my heart with their historical setting and characterisation, but my interest waned towards the end.

% # Philippa Pearce, Tom's Midnight Garden, 1958

Read because I think it was mentioned on a Backlisted podcast episode - probably the terrific one about The Dark is Rising

Terrific time-slip fiction. I've been aware of this book since I was  kid, but never got around to reading it. The tension Pearce keeps up between which of the main characters will turn out to have the 'real" timeline is so well done.

And speaking of such topics - over Christmas I also listened to the wonderful BBC adaptation of The Dark is Rising which I can't recommend enough. Gloriously read, and with a beautiful soundscape. Save it up and listen when it's cold - it sat weirdly with hot windy days in the Wairarapa.

% Donna Barba Higuera, The Last Cuentista, 2021

Read because another recommendation from the Unity Books staff picks display

It’s 2061, and a solar flare has knocked Halley’s Comet off course and directed it head-on into Earth. 12 year-old Petra Peña’s parents, renowned botanist and geologist, have secured spaces for their family on one of three shops that will leave Earth and travel through time and space to a habitable planet. Some travelers will be placed in stasis & plugged into Matrix-style learning programmes to be the first settlers on the new planet: others, the Monitors, will carry an intergenerational responsibility to care for them until that time. Except Petra’s programme doesn’t work properly, and when she is wakened from her stasis and encounters the totalitarian Collective that now runs the ship, she will have to draw on all the wisdom of her parents and especially the folklore her abuelita taught her to survive … 

It’s a gripping set-up and very cinematic, moving between spaceship drama and magical Mexican folklore. As an adult reader though you can feel Higuera just trying a bit too hard with it all, and over-playing the sentimentality.

Janina Ramírez, Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages Through the Women Written Out of It, 2022 

Read because I noticed it on the shelves at Good Book Shop but know better than to buy myself non-fiction books I'll only read once (if I even make it to the end of them).

The last year or so of my reading has had a semi-intentional medieval(ish) thread: Haven, Matrix, Hild, The Beatryce Prophecy, Eleanor Parker’s calendar of the Anglo-Saxon year. That’s meant a lot of people’s research re-absorbed, some lightly wielded and some rather heavily apparent. 

Ramirez’s book starts strongly with an introduction looking at some Suffragettes who were also medievalists, a field of study that exposed them to the silencing effect of the Victorian “great man” style of history-making. It then moves through about 6 centuries of women’s lives — some identified, like Julian of Norwich and Jagwida of Poland, and others stubbornly anonymous, known only by their burial sites (the Loftus Princess, a black African woman buried in a London plague pit) or the work they left behind (the Bayreuth Tapestry). 

Throughout, Ramirez argues for a history of the medieval period that’s less binary, more compassionate, more complex and more comical than our received tropes would suggest. It became a bit of a slog towards the end (I think I'd just had enough of this particular plate of pasta) but a million more instances of historical fiction could bloom out of this one.

# Barbara Comyns, A Touch of Mistletoe, 1967

Read because I brought a couple of Comyns' books home from me from a trip to London last year: Daunt Books editions picked up at Hatchards. Part of a few years now of back-reading steely mid-20th century British women novelists.

I loved this. I love the slightly chaotic nature of Comyns' writing: she just throws everything at it. A Touch of Mistletoe had me thinking about my all-time favourite book, I Capture the Castle - it's like Comyns took Rose and Cassandra out of that book, made them over into Blanche and Vicky for this one, and then threw life at them. Highly recommended. 

# Ann Patchett, Tom Lake, 2023

Read because this was me getting stuck into my summer reading, and the pile of books I'd been building, like a beaver with its dam, over the second half of the year.

A peaceful, contented book full of love — love of place, of cherry trees, love of a grandmother, of three beautiful grown daughters, love for one’s young self and love for one’s middle-aged, fulfilled self. In other hands such a story could be cloying, but Patchett draws you in close with her storytelling. It’s like the authorly equivalent of lowering your voice to reel listeners in.

% # Kiran Millwood Hargrave, In the Shadow of the Wolf Queen, 2023

Read because I'd heard Hargrave on the Bookwandering podcast and really enjoyed her episode about Garth Nix's Abhorsen sequence.

Wolf Queen was hyped on a bunch of end of year lists (the British kids / YA author community is social-media-tight) and I have an interest in the green magic genre. I wanted this to be a bit deeper than it was though - the world-building could've been pushed a bit further out. I found myself thinking of Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island, another book where a nervous second sister has to step up into the leading role, which has an incredibly satisfying environment for the story to play out in.

# Max Porter, Lanny, 2019

Read because I bought this in Oxford on that same trip, after listening to a podcast with Porter while walking around the township.

The bliss, after reading a few too many over-determined YA novels, of not knowing what the author is doing, and just being swept along in it. Reminds me of The Owl Service in that way. Like Cuddy, it's amazing contemporary British storytelling. You should just read it.

# Daniel Mason, North Woods, 2023

Read because plucked from the NYT books of the year list for the aforementioned summer reading pile.

Stonkingly good sweeping historical fiction, set in the woods of New England and following generations of colourful characters living in a single homestead.

% # Kelly Barnhill, When Women Were Dragons, 2022

Read because another from the Unity Books display.

The premise and set-up for this book were SO GOOD (in 1950s America, women start spontaneously combusting into dragons because their restricted lives are just too frustrating - shades of Naomi Alderton's The Power: that link above leads to a review of the book by Alderman, which I hadn't read before putting this list together) that is made up for the last 10% of so being a bit pedestrian / too pat.

Robert Vennall, The Forgotten Forest, 2023

Read because another book reserved at the library after spotting it at Unity Books. 

Canters along merrily and delivers a great deal information although the “we’re on a bush walk” narrative style gets a bit tiresome.

% Zohra Nabi, The Kingdom Over The Sea, 2023

Read because ordered at the library by virtue of the NYT 2023 books list, I think. Either that or a recommendation from the tight British kids lit community.

I struggled to finish this one. Maybe it’s pitched a little younger than I prefer, and therefore every challenge is easily resolved. The core issue for me as a grown-up reader was the emotional tell-not-showing: characters resent each other then two sentences later they’ve resolved their differences & are friends; two adult characters are depicted as unwilling to engage with & support the lead character — which could be interesting — but the dynamic isn’t given enough room to mature and then also just gets tidily resolved at the end.

# Anne Enright, The Wren, The Wren, 2023

Read because I read everything Enright publishes.

There’s a certain breed of book, I find, that is a hard read - uncomfortable, unlikable - throughout most of it, then when you reach the end you enter at state of fulfillment, contentment: you become fond of the book in immediate retrospect. The Wren, The Wren is one of those books.

Karen Maitland, A Company of Liars, 2008

Read because recommended by a colleague.

As noted, books set in the medieval period have been a feature of the past few years' reading and this tale of a band of travellers in plague-struck England, each practicing their own deceptions, fits in there. Kind of like a good stew - chunky, with a satisfying set of ingredients.

% Roberto Piumini, Glowrushes, 1987
(recently translated from the Italian)

Read because picked up from a NYT review along with the Lois Lowry below

There’s an unprovable theory that the distinguishing line between writing for children and writing for adults is that writing aimed for children does not stray into the emotional realm that (typically) only adult experiences make accessible to us. In that case, Piumini’s book, while centred on a child and very simply told, is not a children’s book, because if deals in the matter of adult transformation. 

A king calls a painter to his palace, to decorate the rooms of his eleven year-old son, who has a deadly allergy to sunlight and air-borne dust. Together, the painter and the prince create three linked environments of mountains, sea and meadow. As the boy’s health fails the stories become ever deeper, and the shared love of him between the painter and the king ever more poignant. 

Half-way through the book, I was thinking “No kid would ever want to read this, it’s boring”. At the end that didn’t matter. Not a book for kids, but a beautiful emotional experience nonetheless.

Nicola Griffith, Menewood, 2023

Read because I really enjoyed the first in this series, Hild - an imagining of the  early life of the 7th century English saint, Hild of Whitby. (Did I mention the medieval thing?)

The depth of research outstrips the pace of the narrative at times, but you can feel how the author lives and breathes the character of Hild and the pain she endures in this novel. 

Muriel Sparks, The Girls of Slender Means, 1963

Read because I have no idea why. Maybe it was on the recently-returned shelf at the library?

A cuttingly elegant little book that starts off as a satire of youth and morality, set in 1945 London between VE and VJ days at the May of Teck Club, a hostel for young women of in need of “Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection”, and ends as a small tragedy. I've read a lot of mid-20th0century British women writers over the past few years (Claire Mabey has been a real reading inspiration in this space) and I rather love their style, all perfectly formed sentences and brutal emotional denouements. I was gratified to hear Patrick deWitt extoll their graces at the recent Writers Festival in Wellington.

% Lois Lowry, The Windeby Puzzle, 2023

Read because of an NYT review (above)

A totally unexpected master class in what it is to be a writer, exploring and crafting a story from hints of history. 

I love a good bog story (Margo Lanagan, Treacle Walker). When I read about this book — inspired by the Windeby Child, an Iron Age adolescent found by German peat-cutters in 1954 — I was immediately excited. I expected something immersive, folkloric, atmospheric, sad. 

Instead, Lowry delivers a brilliant and generous explanation of what it is to be a writer, who picks up the bones (sorry) of an idea from history, and then crafts it into a narrative. She shares two interlocked stories about the Windeby Child, framed by a series of direct addresses to the reader, explaining what she is doing in each story, and why: what us or isn’t possible in each story, and how it makes her feel. The book lays open the process of writing and, tacitly, of reading. I can imagine if I were 11 or 12 I would be blown away by this laying bare of magic. 

Interestingly, the first third of the book I was deeply resistant to this approach (I wanted that folkloric magic!). And then I was gripped, and impressed. And today I'm still thinking about it.

# Anna Smaill, Bird Life, 2023

Read because Anna works with us at Te Papa, plus also keeping an eye on NZ writers.

I always feel dorky telling authors what I think about their books, but this is what I sent to Anna after finishing Bird Life:

Congratulations on your longlisting for the Ockhams. I was reflecting on this last night while reading your book. There are some absolute barnstormers on the list – Emily, Eleanor, Catherine. I was thinking about how gung-ho they all are – so pacey, and with some quite broad characterisation (in the case of Birnam Wood that feels satirical of course; Pet carries its recent-past research really lightly and with Lioness, it’s the cringey moments that bring the book into high definition for me). Bird Life is more like a watercolour – not in the sense of being delicate at all, but that it feels like there’s no room for mistakes. Every word, very evocation feels so carefully weighed and placed: like those stories you read about beautiful mosaics, where the tiny stones are laid just right, so as best to reflect the light.

# % Rachael King, The Grimmelings, 2023

Read because I was always going to, and because I got to interview Rachael about this at the Writers Festival in Wellington in Feb.

I'm working on a proper article about this. For now: what a satisfying book. It's eerier than I expected (King gets her love of folk-horror in here). Finishing it for the first time, I was struck by how comfortable some of the familiar forms of the storytelling are, and then how fresh other aspects of the book feel. There is a missing dad, for example - quite common in kids and YA lit - but there's also a closely described real-life setting, a detailed depiction of a South Island horse-trekking business. There's a love of words and the emergent power of language that if you're a "bookish" kid you respond to so strongly at this age - and there's also a thoughtful consideration of what it means to import a foreign mythology into an Aotearoa New Zealand landscape. 

Lydia Davis, Our Strangers, 2023

Read because the fact that it's a new Lydia Davis is reason enough.

I tweeted while I was reading this that Lydia Davis feels like memes for poetry lovers. I made the mistake of borrowing this from the library and trying to read it like a book. That's not how you should read Davis, you're meant to sip not skull. 

% John Masefield, The Midnight Folk, 1927

Read because another book linked to The Dark is Rising on the Backlisted podcast, I think.

This was a conundrum. The Midnight Folk is a quest tale: a lonely little boy stuck on a country estate with his distant guardian and mean governess is sent on a treasure hunt, assisted by the night creatures, including Nibbin (the good cat) and Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot (the local fox). Some gorgeous set pieces and fancies are packed into a "narrative" that seems almost willfully wandering and obtuse. Would make a gorgeous animation.

Alix Harrow, Starling House, 2023

Read because spotted on the shelves at Good Book Shop

A two hander, this one. The set-up and first half were a propulsive delight, perfect for a Netflix series, all spiky characters, hidden motives and back story. The second half though was overly convoluted and lost the fun pace.

# % Ann Scott-Moncrieff, Auntie Robbo, 1940

Read because I picked this up at Hatchards in London because the blurb was so appealing.

Ann Scott-Moncrieff died at just 29, leaving behind her author husband and three children. Her short writing career took place mostly over the Second World War. Auntie Robbo, rejected by her English publisher as “too Scottish” was then published in America but all the comp copies were lost when the ship they were traveling in was torpedoed in the Atlantic; most copies of an earlier book were destroyed when her publisher in London was bombed. 

It's a truly delightful book. Auntie Robbo (81, energetic, hedonistic, “totally transparent” by which the author means completely obvious in her motives and her pleasures) and her orphaned great grand-nephew, 11 year-old Hector, are living a very contented life in their home Nethermuir, twelve miles out of Edinburgh. Their happiness is suddenly imperiled by the arrival of Hector’s long-forgotten stepmother Merlissa Benck, who lands upon the household and rapidly decides Auntie Robbie is mad as a hatter and Hector would be much better off at public school. So Auntie Robbo and Hector do a runner, launching themselves on a rollicking adventure in the Scottish highlands, picking up three extra (largely homeless - this was a really interesting detail, kind of like the Fossil sisters in Ballet Shoes or Sara in A Little Princess, an example of how often kid's lives were depicted as precarious in earlier children's lit) children and a tinker’s wagon along the way. Much food is eaten, scrapes squeaked through, weather endured, talents discovered and good sense expressed until we reach a happy ending with Miss Benck happily dealt to and Auntie Robbo and Hector’s happy way of life restored. 

It’s like a much less cruel Roses Dahl, with an eccentric old lady who expects the world to confirm to her expectations and a gaggle of children who joyfully bob in her wake. The Scottish setting is lovely, and the scattering of Scottish words a pleasure. It sits in that genre of children's books where the key adult character, rather than enabling the action through their absence, enables it with their presence (see also The Explorer in Katherine Rundell's The Explorer below).

I do have to make a dash of racism warning. A great pity, because the book otherwise stands up so well.

# Hilary Mantel, Vacant Possession, 1986

Read because a Mantel I hadn't read! I have a policy of not being upset by the deaths of people I don't actually know, but I made a selfish exception for Mantel and A.S. Byatt, I would've liked both to have had another 50 years of writing life.

Vacant Possession is grimy, funny and malevolent. It feels like a blueprint for Beyond Black, one of my five favourite Mantels: it has all the sensuousness detail that makes the Wolf Hall series so seductive, but set in the grim environs of 1980s Britain. A wonderful black comedy.

Emma Cline, The Guest, 2023

Read because glowing review in the NY, I think.

A frictionless book. I’m interested that it’s received so much attention and praise. I think it’s very “American” — it’s a kind of examination of class which is actually of wealth. It runs on themes of risk, precarity and social manipulation but with a curiously distanced, numbed tone. Compulsively readable though, I very rarely achieve an “all in one sitting” but I polished this off on a Sunday morning. Reminded me of R.F. Kuang's Yellowface in that I felt a bit icky for swallowing it down so fast.

% Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass, The Lost Library, 2023

Read because I'll read anything by Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me lives in my forever top 10 books. 

Can you read too many children's books that hinge upon a burgeoning love of reading and writing and libraries? Perhaps. Nonetheless, this is a charmer. It's a mystery for middle-grade readers and while the "mysteries" become clear quite quickly, the gentle exploratory tone, the easy likability of the characters, the charm of the ghost story and the creation of Mortimer the cat - a great addition to the canon of animal narrators - make up for that. A good book to read as an adult if you're thinking about how children's books are constructed for their readers. 

Brandon Sanderson, Tress of the Emerald Sea, 2023

Read because another recc from the Unity Books display. 

I've never read Sanderson and I don't really know how he fits into the fantasy world. Tress is an obvious homage to The Princess Bride with touches of Neil Gaiman's Stardust and some Pratchetty punnery. Inventive, touching in places, a bit obvious. Having said that, at this time I needed something unchallenging and this fitted the bill. 

% Kate DiCamillo, The Puppets of Spelhorst, 2023

Read because I don't devour Dicamillo instinctively but I read and listened to some wonderful interviews with her last year, and I did really enjoy her previous book, The Beatryce Prophecy

This is the first of a projected trio of novellas, short contemporary fairytales. It is one of those deceptively deep little books, a beautiful piece of writing, sad and gratifying.

% Katherine Rundell, The Explorer, 2017

Read because Rundell is all the rage and her latest Impossible Creatures is still on my to-read stack, but I found this on the library shelf recently.

Rundell is immensely respected & popular as a children’s book author (this is only my second book of hers, following the bio of John Donne). I’ve heard her speaking on podcasts more than I’ve read her. 

The book is charmingly old fashioned in some ways (four kids crash land in the Amazon, have to overcome their own fears and their uncertainties and assumptions about each other in order to survive & plan their escape). There is a mysterious and irascible adult who has to be compassionately unpacked. Rundell is very good at the animals of the Amazon — as friend, food and foe. 

There are several heavily delivered themes in the book. There is “confront your fears, with kindness”. There is “colonial exploration is colonial exploitation”. There is “paying attention is a your duty to the vast and beautiful world”. There is “wizened hearts can be rehydrated”. There’s maybe a bit too much tell-not-show going on. 

The writing though is wonderfully lucid, by which I mean it generally stays out of the way but is occasionally also quite beautiful. I did get a bit misty-eyed at the end though so you know — The Explorer definitely does the job.