Book Review: The Widow’s Daughter by Nicholas Edlin

Edlin’s descriptions of my home turf – Freeman’s Bay and Ponsonby – during World War Two brought alive much of the dry, factual reading I’ve recently done about U.S. troops in Auckland during that time (I can recommend Denys Bevan’s United States Forces in NZ and The Yanks are Coming by Harry Bioletti). Most Kiwi soldiers were away fighting in the Middle East, so when the Japanese became a threat, the U.S. sent their troops to New Zealand as a base from which to defend the Pacific, and for rest and recuperation between Pacific campaigns. Oh, and to teach Kiwi girls how to jitterbug.  Continue reading


Book Review: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)

‘Even War must end some time, and perhaps if we are alive in three or four years’ time, we may recover the hidden childhood again and find that after all the dust and ashes which covered it haven’t spoilt it much.’- Letter from Vera to Roland, 1915



Testament of Youth is a momentous historical text preserving for us – the lucky generations – what war really meant. Most poignantly it is the portrait of Vera Brittain’s unrelenting and tragic psychological annihilation during and after World War One. Through loss after tragedy after loss we see the breakdown of Brittain’s hope, which we would now label ‘post traumatic stress’. Through Brittain’s diary extracts, letters and poems we see her decline from hopeful, energetic, burgeoning feminist and Oxford student – giddily in love for the first time – to a broken, traumatized, suicidal twenty-something who hallucinates that her face is covered in fungus each time she looks in the mirror. Continue reading

Book Review: Other Halves by Sue McCauley (1988)

Other halves

On the face of it, Other Halves is a captivating love story about a mid-thirties woman’s love affair with a 16-year-old Maori boy. But beneath the fascinating mechanics of how it all worked – the hot sex, drugs, rehab and dawn raids – lies an important snapshot of political and cultural attitudes of late 1970s/early 1980s New Zealand. Continue reading

Book Review: Barefoot Years, by Martin Edmond (2014)

Barefoot yearsEdmond’s writing transports me to a dream-world, where things are viewed as if through a filter – colors are more vivid yet muted – and almost anything can happen. It’s as if I’m floating through layers of Edmond’s memory and consciousness, much like wading through one of those layered colored-sand jars you used to get at the Easter Show.

I first discovered New Zealander Edmond through Luca Antara, a chapter of which was held up by a tutor as an ingenious take on the travel writing genre. I thought it strange, very strange indeed. I then read Dark Night: Walking with Colin McCahon – this really was an ingenious take, this time on the biography genre, based on a 24 hour period in 1984 when McCahon went missing in Sydney. Am I really here? I thought as I travelled Sydney’s streets with McCahon, lost as Mary’s little lamb. I was beginning to understand why Edmond is so revered.

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Book Review: The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for my Father and Finding The Zodiac Killer

The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for my Father and Finding The Zodiac Killer by Gary L. Stewart with Susan Mustafa. Harper Collins, New York, 2014.

The MOst Dangerous animal

I dedicate this review to my grandparents, Jean and Colin Barley. Thank you.

I don’t know enough about the Zodiac Killer case to judge whether Stewart’s findings are plausible. It doesn’t really matter. The timeliness of reading this book, for me, was the connection I felt with Stewart’s relentless drive to uncover his roots. Like many adopted people (including, I think, my father) Stewart has a happy life; but something is missing. There is no genetic frame within which to place himself in space and time.

Gary L. Stewart, I get it. I get how addictive and all-encompassing the search can be. I know because I’ve been there.
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Book Review: My Beautiful Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translation by Ann Goldstein, Europa, 2012, NY.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translation by Ann Goldstein, Europa, 2012, NY.

The world is a profound and unchartered place when you’re a young teenager. Relationships are difficult to navigate and you move like a changing and persistent breeze underneath your own front door, trying to find a way – any way – into the hallways of who you are and of friendship. Somehow, Elena Ferrante has captured this elusive breeze and painted a picture of Elena and Lila’s friendship that is so real you’d swear you were inside Elena’s mind. Ferrante allows Elena to hold nothing back, not even the darkness of her self-doubt and jealousy. At times I felt I was leaning against the wall, glass against ear, cheeks blushing with the closeness of it all.  Continue reading

Book Review: Forever Today (A Memoir of Love and Amnesia) by Deborah Wearing

This entry from Clive's 1990  diary demonstrates his constant reawakening.

This entry from Clive’s 1990 diary demonstrates his constant reawakening.

Imagine that after every single blink it feels like you’re awakening to the world for the first time. This is what life is like for Clive Wearing, after he contracted a brutal virus in 1985 that destroyed the part of his brain that retains memories. He retains between seven and thirty seconds of memory at any one time, which gives him the sensation of constantly re-awakening, confused and unsure of where he is or what has happened to him. To make the story even more fascinating, prior to his illness, Wearing was a famous London composer and musicologist at the height of his career.

Forever Today is Clive’s story, but it is also Deborah Wearing’s story – Clive’s second (and third) wife, several years his junior. Most remarkable is their pure, true love that transcends space, time and consciousness. Deborah nurses Clive for many years before finally divorcing him in an attempt to lead her own life in New York. She realises her heart will always belong to Clive and remarries him. They remain married today. Continue reading

Book Review: ‘The Confabulist’ by Steven Galloway

It seems I’m attracted to books about memory – or lack of it. I’m currently reading the memoir of the wife of a man who has a seven second memory loop (think about that – dreadful); I saw Michael Corballis talk about memory and his new book The Wandering Mind at the Waiheke Book Festival earlier this month:

And earlier this year I reviewed Su Meck’s biography I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia:

Now I can add Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist to my list.

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Book Review: ‘Forbidden Cities’ by Paula Morris


Three books in and I’m not finished my Morris-a-thon yet. I get a bit like that. At aged 7 it was Garfield. Aged 17 it was Plath. Aged 21, the Beat Generation. Aged 28, The Rolling Stones. And at 32 it was the Lost Generation and Paris in the 20s. I love reading or listening to everything I can by, and about, one author or one band. I love being able to recreate lives and times through a particular artist’s work and to feel the borders of my personal world bend and stretch outwards with new understanding. Paula Morris isn’t quite an ‘obsession’ to the level that F. Scott Fitzgerald is, but her voice has driven me to read three of her works and leaves me with a desire for more.  Continue reading

Book Review: ‘The Free’ by Willy Vlautin

READ ON TO WIN YOUR VERY OWN SHINY, NEW COPY OF THE FREE!! (Competition closes Friday 14th November, 2014)

Holding The Free in my hands – before reading a single word – felt good. The ragged-edged pages felt lived in, worn-down, meaningful; reflecting the worn-down lives of the characters within. Pauline, Leroy, Freddie – oh my – how beautifully drawn they are.

Willy Vlautin at the Tuning Fork, Auckland, NZ. Image copyright Caroline Barron

Willy Vlautin at the Tuning Fork, Auckland, NZ. Image copyright Caroline Barron

I was lucky enough to chat to Vlautin when he was in Auckland this month with his new band The Delines. Click here to read more and to – wahoo! – be in to win a free copy of The Free.

I have two favorite things about The Free. Firstly, Vlautin’s dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever read. I reckon you can tell he’s a musician by his dialogue’s perfect rhythm.  Continue reading