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Give the gift of reading! (or keep it for yourself). Why not let us choose you (or the person of your choice) a book a month on our Volume Reading Subscription scheme? Each month we will select a book we think you'll love and have it ready to collect (or send it anywhere to you or to that person of your choice). Click through to our website to see the various options for customising subscriptions!

SHIFTS OF TONGUE. Come and hear Harry Ricketts, Ruth Allison, Cliff Fell and Lindsay Pope reading a selection of poems by Rachel Bush (1941-2016), and some of their own work, too. VOLUME, 15 Church Street, Nelson. Sunday 5 February, 4 PM. Rachel's book Thought Horses was recently long-listed for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

MY VOLUME is our on-line book group, where you can tell others about the books you have enjoyed and discuss the books you have read in common. Sign up now (and invite your friends!). You can either post your reviews as a WordPress user, or e-mail them to us to post. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.  


The Power by Naomi Alderman
It’s hard to resist a book that has a thumbs-up from Margaret Atwood. The Power imagines a world where men live in fear of female power, where faiths arise following the wisdoms of Mother Mary, and wayward young women gain cult status. There are definite nods here to Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and the Gardeners of Eve in her 'MaddAddam' series. Alderman has created a piece of speculative fiction that pushes to the brink the idea of a physical ability which enables the disenfranchised to regain equilibrium in previously male-dominated society, but it also enables the more ruthless to secure the social status and political clout they desire. The Power, an electrical current which resides in a skein near the collarbone and is administered through the hands, develops initially in girls of 15, but within very little time can be triggered from one to the other and to older women. The charge, depending on how controlled it is, can cause pain, severe injury and death. The most interesting characters in The Power are: Allie, an American runaway foster child, who has reinvented herself as Eve, becoming a messiah figure with the help of the social media and YouTube; Roxy, the savvy child of a criminal father who heads a powerful drug syndicate operating from working-class Britain, whose Power is triggered when she witnesses the murder of her mother in a retribution killing; and Tunde, a young Nigerian from a wealthy family, whose personal experience as a teen leads him to become fascinated by these powerful women and to a very successful career as the reporter who is trusted to capture the stories of the increasing popular and powerful women, as well as their opponents, male-dominated counter-terror groups. All their stories are fascinating, and, as time progresses and we find ourselves in a countdown to a climactic happening, their lives become more intertwined and life becomes increasingly dangerous. This is a thought-provoking exploration of gender, the nature of cults and conformity, power and abuse.


Picture books are not only for the very young. They can be appreciated on many levels for their language, playfulness and images. Wordless picture books are a wonderful way to delve into a story and many are sophisticated interpretations of story-lines we know well. Artist Thomas Aquinas Maguire’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans is a stunningly designed wordless concertina-style book which also doubles as a very long frieze. The frieze can be looked at completely if you have a very long floor space, or the pages can be turned just like a standard book. Presented in a box, the detailed illustrations in black and white are fittingly dreamlike and atmospheric. The fairy-tale is told in an accompanying booklet. It is the story of a young princess driven out of her home by the new Queen, a witch who has cast a spell on her brothers. The brothers turned to swans can only be returned to human form if the young princess knits seven shirts from nettles and keeps an oath of seven years’ silence. As our world becomes increasingly screen-based, it's exciting to encounter beautiful tactile objects. 


The Bright Side of My Condition by Charlotte Randall
Randall is a very fine writer and this tale of four escaped convicts from the Norfolk Island penal colony in the early nineteenth century is excellent. The convicts escape, only to be caught as stowaways. Given a choice of join the crew (who don’t seem too well watered and fed) or the Island, they choose the latter. Dumped on Snares Island they are left with a bag of potatoes, a tri-pot and an empty promise of passage in a year if they collect enough seal skins. With little in common except a desire to survive, they are thrown together in the midst of the ocean on a small inhospitable island. Nicknamed Slangham, Toper, Gargantua and Bloodworth, they each have their own ways of coping – hard work, faith, sarcasm, and watchfulness. Based on a true story, this is an intriguing and intelligent novel. Randall successfully gets under the skin of these men to give us rich characters with surprisingly formidable abilities and crushing weaknesses. She subtly reflects, through her characters and their conversations, the concerns of men, survival and the thinking of the time.
>> The Bright Side of My Condition is one of the books featured in the
New Zealand Book Council's Aotearoa Summer Reads promotion


Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger
Léger was commissioned to write a short biographical entry on Barbara Loden for a film encyclopaedia but ended up writing a very interesting and quite unusual book. Loden directed one film, Wanda (1970), about a woman who leaves her husband and who, passively and therefore pretty much by chance, attaches herself to a man who is planning a bank robbery for which, following his death in a police shoot-out and despite her lack of initiative and her not even being present at the robbery (she took a wrong turn in what was supposed to be the getaway car), she will be sent to jail for twenty years. The book operates on many levels simultaneously: it is ‘about’ Léger’s attempts to excavate information about Loden, principally beneath the ways in which she has been recorded by others, notably her husband the Hollywood director Elia Kazan, who also wrote a novel in which Loden features, thinly disguised; it is ‘about’ Loden’s making of the film Wanda; it is ‘about’ the character of Wanda in that film, a character Loden played herself and with whom she strongly identified personally; it is ‘about’ the tension between the “passive and inert” Wanda character with whom Loden identifies and Loden as writer and director, and about the relationship between author and character more generally in both an literary/artistic and a quotidian sense; it is ‘about’ Léger’s search for and discovery of the true story that inspired Loden to make the film, a botched 1960 bank robbery after which the passive and inert Alma Malone politely thanked the judge for handing her a twenty-year sentence; it is ‘about’, therefore, the relationship between inspiration and execution, and between actuality and  fiction; it is ‘about’ portrayal and self-portrayal and ‘about’ who gets to define whom (“To sum up. A woman is pretending to be another, in a role she wrote herself, based on another (this, we find out later), playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.”); it is ‘about’, cumulatively, the way in which, as she delved more deeply into the specifics of another whom she sought to understand, Léger come up more and more against the unresolved edges of herself so that the two archaeologies became one (she also ended up learning quite a lot about her mother and the imbalanced mechanics of her parents’ relationship). When Wanda was released in 1970, it was disparaged in many feminist circles for its portrayal of a passive woman. Léger shows the film to be a useful mirror in which to recognise passivity as not only an impulse for self-erasure on a personal level but as part of the wider social mechanisms by which women are erased and colonised by projections, and in which the feminist critique and frontline necessarily become internal and self-reflexive. There is also in this book a strong sense of the inescapability of subjectivity, that in all subject-object relationships the subject perceives only and acts only upon a sort of externalised version of itself (the object being passive and without feature (effectively absent, effectively unassailable)); and also that when attempting to be/conceive of/portray oneself one has no option but to use the template of that with which one identifies but which is not in essence (whatever that means) oneself (except to the extent that one’s ‘self’ perhaps exists only in the mysterious act of identification). Oh, and Léger‘s writing is exquisite.

Nicotine by Gregor Hens
What Thomas de Quincey is to opium, Gregor Hens is to nicotine, the most ordinary of drugs. As what is medically termed a 'never smoker', I was particularly interested in Hens's insights into his own addiction and into the psychosocial fabric of a world deeply penetrated by smoking (one in five New Zealand adults smokes). Hens, no longer a smoker (although, as he points out, “the brain's structure changes once it has become accustomed to the nicotine and these structural changes remain even when the addiction has long been vanquished”), is neither an apologist for smoking nor an activist against it, but rather seeks understanding of the role that addictions of all kinds, but nicotine addiction specifically, play in the lives of addicts and of wider society: “I don't learn through my dealings with the thing, but rather through contemplating my behaviour during my dealings with the thing,” he says. What is the lure of cigarettes, how do they affect the mind of the smoker, and why is it so hard to give them up? “Why are people unable to fulfil a wish when nothing stands between them and the object of their desire?” Whatever your relationship with nicotine, you will find Hens’s rigorous self-examination and ability to recreate the subtleties of his experiences insightful. Here he describes his first smoking experience: “My awareness took on a new, never-before recognised clarity; it was as if a curtain had been pulled back to let in a breeze, a fog bank had been blown away. Before me lay a wide, sharp landscape all the way to the horizon. It was my inner world - my feelings and thoughts - that had taken on distinctive contours that I found beautiful. I felt and saw, perhaps for the first time, a great experiential context. Life was no longer composed of individual moments, of wishes and disappointments, that pass by indiscriminately and in quick succession. I not only saw images, not only heard single words or sentences, but experienced an inner world. I was offered an experience that was narratable for the very first time.” And, of the experience of restarting smoking having given it up: “When I smoke the first cigarette, it is as if I can look inside my own brain, as if I can discover every thought in its formation, every thrill in a neural pathway, every synaptic leap, every seminal feeling developing from my thoughts.” This relationship between chemicals and experience needs to be understood if we are to be truly free not only of indisputably harmful substances such as nicotine but also of the world of social and creative vulnerabilities in which we are immersed and in which substances provide mechanisms of adaption. 

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
“The imagination is a very weak little bird. It flounders, Cornelius, and it flaps about a bit.” This remarkable book deals with the (fictional) 1978 visit of John Lennon to the west of Ireland in an attempt to reach the island he (actually) bought there in 1967. He intends to spend some time alone there, to do some screaming and cast off the weights that are stifling him both personally and creatively. As the epigraph from John McGahern suggests, the island he really seeks is the first person singular. In wonderfully fluid prose that slips in and out of John’s head, that concertinas time and clots and spreads itself over the landscape that is the dominant presence in the book, Barry describes John’s attempts to elude the press and reach his island with the help of his ‘fixer’ Cornelius O’Grady, an autochthonic foil for his mental slippages and ragged edges. The conversations between these two characters are a delight to read, perfectly nuanced and full of ironic resonance. One of the themes of the book is the effect of place upon the personalities, identities and trajectories of the people who live or visit there, and the extent to which memory and experience are properties of the physical, of objects and places, rather than of persons. Not every section of this book is equally successful – John’s visit to the self-actualisers in the Amethyst Hotel tries perhaps a little hard, though it makes convincing the experience that follows, and the section describing the author’s collation of material for the novel has something of the effect of turning the house lights up during a theatre performance (I haven’t decided yet whether this adds to or detracts from the overall effect) – but the novel is constantly playing with the possibilities of writing a novel, which is exciting, and the climaxes when John releases his voice, first at the press who appear in a boat as soon as he reaches his island (spoiler, sorry) and then as transcribed in the ‘Great Lost Beatlebone Tape’, share the liberating, unhinged transcendence of Lucky’s ‘thinking’ monologue in Waiting for Godot.  

As the concept of reason coalesced and gained ascendency in society, so was the concept of unreason increasingly separated from it and those who were viewed as embodying unreason were increasingly separated from the rest of society, confined beyond the ringfence of the 'acceptable', their misfortunes - however kindly or unkindly they were treated – ultimately serving to serve the mechanisms of ascendancy by simultaneously providing reassurance and threat to the populace. Sufficiently separated, there is nothing to prevent the agents of reason acting upon those assigned to unreason, and attempting to modify them through 'treatment' and 'cure'. Throughout this excellently illustrated book, Jay traces the changing attitudes towards 'madness' particularly in relation to the evolution of the Bethlem Royal Hospital ('Bedlam') but also with reference to other European institutions, contrasting these with the parallel evolution of the 'mad colony' of Geel, a Belgian city which has served for many as a model of 'best practice' of noninstitutional care. Also included are a range of artworks by patients, which serve to make the workings of their minds both accessible and reassuringly 'other'.


15 Church Street / PO Box 364, Nelson 7010, New Zealand
telephone: 03 9700073
txt: 0211970002


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VOLUME · 15 Church Street (Radio House) · PO Box 364 · Nelson, 7010 · New Zealand

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