Thursday, 3 June 2021

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams


The Dictionary of Lost Words is one of those books that sat with me deeply. When I finished it I took a deep breath and just sat for a few minutes, letting it sink in.

The book follows Esme Nicholl, daughter of lexicographer Harry. In her childhood Esme spends her days under the sorting table in the Scriptorium, and with the Murray’s young maid Lizzie. The Scriptorium, known to many as the Scrippy, is a shed in the garden of Editor Dr James Murray’s house in Oxford, where the men of the dictionary work. One day a slip falls under the table, bearing the word “bondmaid.” Esme pockets it and hides it away. This is the first of many words which Esme collects.

The process of researching and publishing the dictionary is long, and over the years Esme outgrows the space under the table. As she progresses into adulthood Esme collects words which are not deemed relevant to the dictionary. They are words which are not written down, or used by scholars. They are spoken by women, and poor people; the people on the edges of history. Some are considered vulgar. But does any of this mean they shouldn’t be recorded and remembered as part of the amazing, ever-evolving wonder that is the English language? Esme sees the value in these words, and the people who use them. She seeks the people the dictionary is leaving out and she collects their words, storing them in a trunk beneath Lizzie’s bed, building the Dictionary of Lost Words.

The book spans the time of women’s suffrage and World War I, and weaves real people and events into the fictional story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is beautifully written, equally so in the heart-breaking moments as in the heart-warming ones, and it does not shy away from those heart-breaking moments. Take the time reading this to relish over the words. Share in the outrage at inequality and the grief of loss, feel the warmth of friendship and the spirit of hope. The story starts off a bit slowly and it took me a while to get into it, but it was well worth the effort. I ended up not wanting to put it down, but I had to a couple of times because I needed a moment to take in what had just happened. This is set to be one of my top reads this year and I already want to read it again.

Posted by Lara

Catalogue link: The Dictionary of Lost Words

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Dear Neil Roberts by Airini Beautrais

Airini Beautrais just won the Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. As such, there is an ever-growing list of reservations on the library copy of Bug Week & Other Stories and many book shops have sold out of the collection.

But Bug Week isn’t Beautrais’ first rodeo: she’s a well-established New Zealand writer with several poetry books to her name. One of these is Dear Neil Roberts, a book of poetry – or maybe more aptly described as a book in poetry. Like Bernadine Evaristo’s popular novel Girl, Woman, Other, Dear Neil Roberts is written in a compelling free verse that creates a reading experience more akin to prose than poetry. The poems centre on Neil Roberts, who in November of 1982 caught a bus to Whanganui with a backpack full of gelignite and blew up part of the Wanganui Computer Centre, inside which new technology was (controversially) revolutionising data surveillance in New Zealand.

Beautrais was born in Whanganui six weeks after the bombing, and her connection to Roberts and near-obsession with mapping his last moments and his impression in the community is eminently relatable at a time when our morbid fascination with true crime documentaries and podcasts is nearly all-consuming.

Some of the poems are constructed solely from headlines and newspaper articles about the bombing,
lending a multitude of voices to Beautrais’ exploration of the bomber. Really, though, this isn’t a book about a bomber – it’s a book about the New Zealand of the 1980s and of the present day; about the blurry line between history and narrative, between protest and being a pariah, about the stories we tell about our country and the ones we don’t. It’s about anarchy, it’s about Whanganui (not usually a literary location), and the human quest for understanding. And all of this in 60 pages. Beautrais implores you to think about these things in so few words that you could finish this book in an afternoon (or your lunch break, as I did).

A very worthwhile read while you wait patiently for everybody else to return Bug Week.

Posted by AM

Catalogue links:

Monday, 17 May 2021

Book Chat Recommends

Here's a selection of the books that sparked discussion at a recent meeting of Hastings Library Book Chat. You can find out more by clicking on any title to find the link to the library’s catalogue.

The Girl in the Green Dress by Cath Staincliff
This novel has plenty of twists and psychological drama to create a real page turner. The story describes a hate crime against a transgender student who doesn’t come home from prom night. As shock-waves hit the parents of the affected students, DI Donna Bell has to sift through the evidence with a new partner, determined yet volatile DC Jade Bradshaw. Also recommended is Staincliff’s novel, Blink of an Eye.
Happy Half-Hours: selected writings of A A Milne
We know and love A A Milne for his Winnie-the-Pooh stories and children’s poems, but for four decades Milne also wrote whimsical articles on many topics, from lost hats to cheap cigars to married life. This book also includes Milne’s fiercely argued pieces on pacifism. A delightful collection ideal for the bedside table.


Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Our Book Chat reader gave five stars for this novel based on the experiences of an ‘artificial friend’. Klara is on the shelf at a shop awaiting purchase, observing the behaviour of those who come in to browse. When she is taken home to be a companion for Josie, who has fragile health, Klara wants to help make her well. This is a different sort of read which says a lot about the human condition with a perfectly imagined and unusual AI narrator.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
If you remember, Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, left alone for decades while her husband first went off to fight in the Trojan War (the Trojan horse was his idea) and then while he became side-tracked by various quests around the world. We know Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) is a master storyteller, and her take on this classic tale is clever, as you would expect, and a bit different.

Wahine: a novel by Kerry Harrison
As Kit Farley lies dying in her rest-home, memories surface showing the Wahine disaster and the events that followed. The novel builds a story around her daughter Jude, sent to a Taranaki boarding school when her father disappears on the night of the storm. This is a light but engaging read, well worth picking up.

This is a personal account of one woman's journey on the renown Camino de Santiago. This author is an Aucklander with Hawke's Bay roots who kept a journal of her pilgrimage, which she describes as the most important thing she carried. Walking in the steps of those who have walked before her centuries ago, the book is filled with short impressions, notes and histories of people she travelled with. An interesting read.

Arcadia by Di Morrissey
We've been reading a few novels set in Tasmania lately, and this one is set over two time frames beginning with newly married Stella who loves the secluded property of her new home. Decades later, her grand-daughter Sally discovers a mystery surrounding her grandmother and with her good friend, Jessica sets out on the adventure of discovering the truth, but unwittingly puts themselves in danger. A great story woven through descriptions of a fascinating environment.


Life as a Novel – a biography of Maurice Shadbolt by Philip Temple
The second volume of Temple’s bio of one of NZ’s literary lions focusses on the years of political turmoil that included the Sutch spy trial, the Springbok Tour of 1981 and the Erebus disaster. Shadbolt’s journalism probed these and other issues and the book creates a fascinating picture of New Zealand society of the time. Included also are interesting details of the man’s fraught personal life, revealing the arrogance amongst the talent. Well worth a read.

Posted by Hastings Library Book Chat

Thursday, 6 May 2021

I learnt it from a book: Wrapping gifts

 I may be in the minority but I REALLY love to wrap gifts up. I take pleasure in finding the right wrapping paper, matching the bow, finding a gift tag, making a card, jazzing it all up and FINALLY gifting my gift.

Over the weekend, I had two presents to wrap up for a friends birthday and I thought that it was time to up my game so I trotted off to the library. I returned with a stack of books to pour over and got some really great ideas, from three of them, to try out.

From Handmade cards and gift-wrap I took the idea of stamping my own wrapping paper using Kraft paper as the base. I also had a little gift box so I stamped the top of it to tie it in.

From Giftwrapped: Practical and inventive ideas for all occasions and celebrations I followed the instructions to wrap a simple box, which I have done many times before but I really liked how the ends came out looking sharp and even.

I find that often when I have a small giftbox. I just scrunch up a bunch of tissue paper and place the item amongst it. I found a section explaining how to line a box with tissue paper which I followed to the T. 

Finally, I learnt how to tie a corner bow and finished off the whole gift with a tag. Now, my calligraphy skills leave a lot to be desired but I gave it a crack using some images I found in Creative calligraphy as a guide.

Now to actually gift it...


Tuesday, 27 April 2021

The Searcher by Tana French

You might remember Tana French as the author of the Dublin Murder Squad series. I first came across French with her dark and twisty psychological thriller, The Wych Elm, which I loved, so was pleased to get my hands on her new book, The Searcher. But this novel has quite a different feel, with its setting in the hinterlands of Ireland, in a tiny hamlet miles from anywhere.

Former Chicago cop, Cal Hooper, has taken early retirement, his divorce still raw, when he buys a run-down house on a small holding in rural Ireland. He wants to spend his time fishing and hunting, living the quiet life. But when he befriends a teenager from a troubled  home, he soon finds himself involved against his better judgement in a missing person's case.

Young Trey tells Cal his older brother Brendan has been missing for several months, and thinks he wouldn't run away without telling anyone. Cal reluctantly begins to interview Brendan's friends and his troubled mother, but soon comes up against a wall of secrecy and well, not lies exactly, but a lot of blarney. Cal doesn't want to be the one who has to give Trey the bad news, but his cop's instincts suggest that things don't look good.

The story moves at a gentle pace that suits the quiet, rural setting, gathering steam as Cal discovers more than is wise. In the background, Cal's chatty neighbour, Mart, invites him to the pub where stories about sheep being attacked by wild cats or UFOs are the order of the day. Mart and the town gossip, Noreen, conspire to set Cal up with Lena, who is only really interested in persuading Cal to take a puppy from her dog's new litter.

There's plenty of Irish banter and Cal takes a lot of ribbing, but French also reminds you that there isn't a lot for young people in places like this - they either leave for the city or get into trouble of one kind or another. Secrecy and threats of violence add a layer of menace which cranks up the tension as the story develops.  You really feel for Trey and his family, who are struggling, but no one lends a helping hand. Cal himself is an interesting and likable character, often a fish out of water, the outsider who has a lot to learn about how things are done.

I found The Searcher a little slow to begin with, but I am glad I stuck with it as the story pulls you in and builds to a satisfying ending. But it is as a character-driven mystery that this novel really shines, with plenty of empathy and insight. Tana French is definitely an author who consistently delivers a terrific read and I shall be looking forward to see what she comes up with next.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Searcher

Monday, 12 April 2021

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

Kikuko Tsumura’s novel (translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton) is a quiet yet engaging musing on the place of work in modern life.

The book is split into five chapters – almost like short stories, but development of the main character occurs throughout – each of which details a new job. The novel begins with the unnamed narrator walking into a temp agency and asking for an “easy job” – one that doesn’t require her to think, read or write too much, as she suffered burnout syndrome as a result of her last job.

What follows is a thoughtful and calming inquiry into the elusive “easy job,” and the effect work has on our daily lives, no matter how mundane. The protagonist is employed in a range of quirky jobs: surveillance of a writer suspected of receiving contraband, a jingle-writer for a bus route, a rice cracker wrapper fact-writer, a distributor of public service announcement posters and a worker in a gigantic forest park. There are underlying elements of suspicious or even supernatural goings-on in each. Despite being billed as easy jobs, the protagonist finds each role more emotionally taxing as she simultaneously dedicates more of herself to the job, and is expected to carry out tasks beyond the job description.

Consequently, Tsumura’s novel also explores the implications of our modern ideas about work on our out-of-office life. From not being able to collect a parcel because she’s always at work, to becoming over-invested in working life, there are a lot of relatable notions and plenty of moments of humanity.

No matter how small, insubstantial or "easy" their jobs may seem, Tsumura treats her characters with dignity and respect and gently exposes the value of each and every one.

Ironically, reading this book was a very easy job - and in the best way possible. While the story gently meanders through the quirks and idiosyncrasies of working life, Tsumura hints at deeper issues that are food for thought. And speaking of food - I enjoyed the narrator's explanation of her daily meals maybe a little too much. That said, if you need an action-packed or overtly dramatic novel, this might not be your cup of (matcha) tea.​

Posted by AM

Catalogue link: There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job

Monday, 22 March 2021

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Chilean author Isabel Allende's latest book is a historical novel in one sense, but also a moving love story set in difficult political times. It follows Spanish doctor, Victor Dalmau through Spain's Civil War to the new life he forges in Chile. Based on the life of a real person, this novel is a wonderful piece of fiction which brings history to life through well-rounded and very real characters. 

Victor is the quiet dreamer of his family, growing up the son of a music professor; Guillem, his older brother an ardent supporter of the communist Republican cause, is charismatic and heroic. As the Franco dictatorship takes over with harsh reprisals, Republicans in their thousands made the arduous journey across the mountains into France, a country that didn't want them either. Among the refugees is gifted pianist Roser, who is carrying Guillem's child. As Guillem is most certainly dead, Victor searches for Roser and vows to take care of her and her baby.

The poet Pablo Neruda is the Chilean consul in Paris, where he organises a ship to transport refugees to Chile. To qualify for passage, Victor must persuade Roser to marry him. The story follows the family's settlement in Chile (described by Neruda as 'a long petal of the sea'), the life they make together, friends and connections, their developing relationship. But around the corner is another political uprising that will rock their world.

A Long Petal of the Sea is a brilliantly engrossing read, taking you through some horrific events of the twentieth century. Each chapter begins with a snippet of Neruda's poetry, events around the poet's life woven into the story. Another real character is Salvadore Allende, the socialist leader from the 1970s who becomes Victor's friend. 

The novel deals with issues such as nationhood, displacement, family and the ongoing effects of war. But it's the characters, particularly fiesty, artistic, clever Roser, and gentle, reliable, hard-working Victor that really stood out for me. They are written with such heart, their struggles against some harrowing situations making the story even more poignant. Meanwhile, Allende puts in all the facts in a very readable way that will save you hunting for background material on the Internet. It makes for a very satisfying read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: A Long Petal of the Sea