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Book Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

From the moment I saw this wonderful squirrelly cover I knew that I wanted to read The Portable Veblen. Which probably comes as no surprise when I run a blog called the Nut Press, have a grey squirrel sidekick and take more photos of the squirrels in my garden than just about anything else. Going in, I had very little idea what the novel was about. I just hoped that I would enjoy it, and the grey squirrel in it would get some fair coverage. Happily, it more than lived up to every expectation.

A riotously funny and deeply insightful adventure through capitalism, the medical industry, family, love, war and wedding-planning – from an electrically entertaining new voice

Meet Veblen: a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her name-sake, the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen. She’s an experienced cheerer-upper (mainly of her narcissistic, hypochondriac, controlling mother), an amateur translator of Norwegian, and a firm believer in the distinct possibility that the plucky grey squirrel following her around can understand more than it lets on.

Meet her fiancé, Paul: the son of good hippies who were bad parents, a no-nonsense, high-flying neuroscientist with no time for squirrels. His recent work on a device to minimize battlefield trauma has led him dangerously close to the seductive Cloris Hutmacher, heiress to a pharmaceuticals empire, who is promising him fame and fortune through a shady-sounding deal with the Department of Defence.

What could possibly go wrong?

Veblen’s wonderful voice had me from the first pages: she’s a really relatable character and I loved seeing how she worked through all the situations in the novel but especially enjoyed the added squirrel dynamic. Read more

Untouchable Things Blog Tour: Interview with Tara Guha

I’m thrilled to welcome author Tara Guha today to talk about her debut novel. Untouchable Things is an excellent if unsettling psychological thriller about a disparate group of people brought together by an enigmatic host who stages themed soirées for them all. It was the winner of the Luke Bitmead Bursary in 2014 and is published by Legend Press.

Hello, Tara, lovely to have you here!

Hello and lovely to be here!

Untouchable Things is such a great ensemble piece about these people, who meet as the Friday Folly: but can you tell me where it all started? Was it with an idea you wanted to explore or did one or more of the characters pop up, demanding that their story be told?
I think the idea and the character of Seth arrived hand in hand and are in a sense two sides of the same coin. I wanted to examine the impact of a highly charismatic person on a group of people, and through that explore the workings of groups themselves. What parts of myself do I need to hide to be accepted into a group? How far would I compromise my own values to remain in a group? So I suppose the true answer is that the idea was the driving force, and Seth the means of executing it.

In many ways, it feels as if Seth auditions each member of the Friday Folly, but how did you assemble your cast of characters?
Hmmm, it’s almost ten years since I started writing Untouchable Things and I’ve lived with these characters for so long it’s hard to remember that somewhere along the line I imagined them into existence! Rebecca came along very early, as did Michael: one character who is glad to get swept into Seth’s orbit, and another who struggles hard against it. Almost all the characters started with a predominant character trait, and from that I fleshed out their backstory and worked out how hard I could push them. Lots of people ask me if the characters are drawn from life; the answer is that there is some of me in almost all of them (Jake perhaps being the exception), along with a mish-mash of character traits I’ve encountered over the years – and a healthy dollop of imagination. Read more

Book Review: In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

Imagine if you were born and raised in a foreign country by your parents, picking up the native tongue and given a native name by which you were known until you were 6 years old. And then you are sent away to school on a remote mountain in a different part of that vast foreign country. This is what happens to Ming-Mei, or Etta (Henrietta S. Robertson to give her her full name), the main character in In the Land of Paper Gods, born to British missionary parents in China. The novel opens in 1941 and concentrates on Etta’s story between the ages of ten and fifteen.

It would be a wrench for any child to have to leave their parents at such a young age but when the child is a daydreamer with a vivid imagination (which alienates her dorm and class mates), it seems that much harder on the child, and even bordering on cruel. She seems to be particularly struggling, something of a lost child with that feeling of being adrift from her parents, the ties having been cut (or having snapped as they do rather symbolically in the novel). The fact that she goes through various names in the book adds to this sense of vagueness of her character, that she is on the cusp of becoming someone and not set as a person yet: at school, she is Etta to her friends, Henrietta to the teachers and staff, Samantha when she sets up the group of Prophetesses and Ming-Mei again when she encounters the Chinese. You wonder if this little girl will ever find herself, let alone home and her family again. Read more

Book Review: The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre

Ivor Punch is the (former) police sergeant of a small island off the west coast of Scotland. He’s a man of few (spoken) words but a prolific letter writer, which he liberally punctuates with the f-bomb. (Used more as an outburst than swearing, so it didn’t offend this reader.) His letters are funny, revealing, poignant, matter of fact and heartfelt and I loved reading them. But I also enjoyed getting to know the story around those letters: that of the islanders, and in particular the wider story of the Punch family through the generations.

The novel jumps around between various family secrets, local lore and custom and takes in a wide range of subjects including the demise of crofting, the sense of belonging to a family, a community, an island and being an outsider; the relationship with the land and the sea; the relationship with the mainland and losing the island’s youngsters to the lure of the mainland’s jobs and opportunities.

It reaches back over generations to cover the time of an intrepid female Victorian explorer and her stay-at-home sister, a young record-breaking long jumper who seems forever suspended above the island’s sandpit in the eyes of the islanders, the legacy of a terrorist attack and its reverberations when the case is re-examined, a tragic young woman and a disgraced banker who seek solace on the same clifftops but who are separated by generations, fathers and sons and unwed mothers, friends both local and famous, islanders and mainlanders, and finding home. Read more

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