About Constant Reader

Celebrating books, bookselling and bookshops at the University Book Shop (Otago) Ltd, one of NZ's oldest and biggest independent book shops.

The best novel I’ve read this year?

Yes, I do, I really do think that Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor might just be the best novel I’ve  read so far this year – which is a longer time and more books than you might expect. It has just come out here but I read an advance copy back in January and nothing else has stacked up since… I have been waiting for it to appear so I can share it. It is quite amazing, the slow, beautiful telling of many lives in a small town nestled in a landscape in which, one day, a young girl disappears.

It begins on the day of her disappearance, and explores how life nevertheless just goes on. Animals still need tending, trolley loads of groceries need to be bought and cooked, school years wax and wane, people marry, die, are born, are hateful to each other, experience moments of quiet grace and hope. Leaves fall from trees, foxes have many litters, badgers do violent things to hedgehogs, the earth keeps turning and the girl is still disappeared.

The writing is so very beautiful, the observations of precious everyday lives so acute and meaningful you are pulled into the small dramas and important details that such lives are made up of, and then you remember: but a girl disappeared. What happened to her? who knows what? and then the leaves are falling again and the family down the road is splitting up and it is time for the carol singers to get organised, the leafhoppers are hibernating and dear life asserts itself again…

Read this – you need to, really, and I am sure you will love it.


Foreign crimes…

New crime just in from Iceland and Venice is refreshing and bright, full of interesting glimpses of very different cultures and countries – the contrast between them, an Italian police procedural and an Icelandic psycho thriller, made for interesting reading…

Donna Leon’s Earthly Remains, is the 26th in her Commissario Brunetti series, set in his beautiful, beloved Venice, bursting with tourists, swathed in political corruption. Brunetti, fed up with his job, and the overwhelming heat of a Venetian summer, leaves his family at home to spend two weeks on an island in the lagoon, spending every day rowing on the mysterious waters with a waterman who tends beehives on tiny, remote islets. When Davide disappears, Brunetti follows the trail to discover what has happened – and why. This series increasingly addresses the very big problems that Venice faces, so beautiful, so unusual, it is being loved to death by the hordes that come to see and be amazed; and polluted to death by years of active disregard and then politically bound-up inaction. Leon’s Brunetti is a pleasure to read – he is humane, sardonic, food and book-loving, flawed but ultimately happy, with a family he likes and loves; a really refreshing change from the more common sad, traumatised, substance-abusing, family-estranging homicide detectives. Venice, as usual, is a lovely and interesting place to set a mystery, its unusual watery setting flavouring both the crime and its solving – this is not a series that is waning.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s The Legacy is the first in a new series featuring the Children’s House, a centre that treats traumatised young people. Freya works at the centre, and is asked to help with the police interviewing of a 7-year-old who hid under the bed while her mother was killed. Sigurdardottir’s thrillers are also informed by the environment her characters move through: spare, huge, very cold. She writes children really well, there have been a few of them in her thrillers, and her characters move within a society where both politics and social institutions are more overtly organised and efficient than say, Italy. From NZ, this feels more familiar.
People are very small here, and, in this book at least, which is dark and nasty and just what you want in a thriller, none of them seem to be enjoying life’s pleasures quite like the Italians are – but really, who does?



…amorous, affectionate, fond , fierce or nasty, have shaped the artistic world for better or worse. Thankfully here is the book The Art of the Affair by Catherine Lacey and Forsyth Harmon – with handy visual links between the players – to tell you who did what to/with whom, and then who else they did something with, oh, and what was done to them after that. It is a big chaotic, over-emotional mess, and sort of amazing anything got written, painted, filmed sung, created at all in the 20th century – unless of course, these various entanglements are the rocket fuel beneath the creative wings…
As the blurb says, this is “Lovingly researched, playfully prurient and cleverly intertwined…”, it is beautifully illustrated and great fun, and makes you wonder quite what this lot would have got up to with all the opportunities afforded by the internet.

Help the Little Rabbit…

Our bestest books this week might be Bathtime for Little Rabbit by Jorg Muhle, the riveting sequel to Tickle My Ears.

These interactive charmers are perfect for the youngest members of the family; In the first, you follow the rituals of getting ready for bed, getting the reader or the read-to, to participate with face-cleaning, pyjama-buttoning and finally, ear-tickling. Then in the sequel, you get to help with bathtime. swooshing the bubbles, rescuing rabbit when he gets water in his eyes, drying him off, and then, when the hairdryer breaks, blowing his ears dry.

Deeply satisfying, with the child-taming lessons about going to bed and keeping clean hidden in the lovely illustrations and simple stories like zuchinni in a chocolate cake: so delicious they’ll just eat it up…


4 3 2 1…

… GO!
Paul Auster’s new novel 4 3 2 1 is just fantastic – inventive and thought-provoking, just deeply pleasurable. It’s another big book – 866 pages – but there is a lightness of touch that makes it a surprisingly quick read. I had an advance copy to read, so I just started it, without reading any blurbs or reviews, and was deep into the 3rd chapter before I realised what was going on, what Auster was doing: Here are the four different lives of Archie Ferguson, born to Rose and Stanley, all significantly different yet eerily similar, as their protagonist reacts (or doesn’t) to important world events and domestic everyday life.

There are four versions of each chapter: 1.1; 1.2, 1.3 etc. I read the book right through, quite liking the confusion of having to remember who had died in which life, when so-and-so got kissed – and who by, and the growing sense of how tiny, tiny, tiny moments can change the course of a life, how exploring one path over another, or wanting to follow both, creates different histories, different people.

I did think I’d read it again, in about a year, and read all the first Ferguson chapters, 1.1, 2.1, 3.1… then maybe all the third Ferguson chapters, 1.3, 2.3, 3.3, 4.3… and see what that was like. I wonder if it will pack the same emotional punch as reading them in leapfrog format: you become more attached to some Fergusons than others and when devastating things happen to one and then immediately you are reading about the ‘same’ person carrying on with their life, it slightly tilts your world.

One of the charms of the book – beyond the enjoyably elegant and seemingly effortless writing – is that Auster resists getting all meta and too clever and having any characters in any of the lives be at all aware of the other lives. In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s wonderful reincarnation tale, Ursula also lives multiple lives but it is always her living them, and she becomes aware of the process and what she can do with it – which works in this book.
Auster’s four Fergusons resolutely live their own lives – or perhaps forms of Auster’s too, many of the incidents he describes are similar to those in his own life, some of which he has explored in earlier works. Perhaps he is playing as ‘what if?’, considering what paths another Auster may have taken or overlooked.


The eyes have it…


We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen is the third in his hilarious and edgy picture book series, that is a masterclass in humanistic ethics – and sharp lessons in crime and punishment – for three-year-olds. So funny you laugh until you cry, while at the same time poignant and deeply satisfying, it is the tale of two turtles who find a hat, together. They do everything together. They share. The hat is lovely. It looks good on both of them. But there is only one hat. There are two turtles. What to do? Is it fair to share? What if one doesn’t want to share?

The wanting and needing that ensue, the plotting and betrayal, the fantastic – and unexpectedly lovely ending (this series, including I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat has a very dark edge usually, so I was expecting retribution, if not death) – are all brilliantly conveyed by the expressive eyes of the otherwise impassive turtles.

Remember when you were very small and you wanted what you wanted so much you could burst? This taps right into those primitive MINE! feelings, and the clever plotting (and justifying of your bad actions) that you indulged in to achieve your aim.

At the moment, what I really, really want is this book – you will too, just look at the book trailer. Good thing there is more than one copy.


We have been enjoying the intricacy and skillful paper engineering of two new pop-up books:


Creatures of the Deep: The Pop-Up Book is a gorgeous exploration of images from Ernst Haeckel’s 1899 book Art Forms in Nature. It is a real treat, breathtaking and slightly impossible looking; perfect for scientists and artists…


The Walking Dead Pop-Up Survival Guide by David Hawcock is an essential guide for those planning to survive the zombie apocalyse; those of us just planning to give up at the beginning, due to not wanting to deal with all the various socio-political-ethical issues thrown up by mad-as-cut-snakes survivalist alive people, let alone the wandering dead ones, can just enjoy the cleverly made gore and horror…