Author Isabel Allende
Author Isabel Allende

IN THE MIDST OF WINTER
by Isabel Allende
(Simon and Schuster, $40)
Reviewed by Ruth Spencer

In a New York blizzard, Richard, a professor of Latin American Studies, rear-ends a car driven by Evelyn Ortega, a young undocumented immigrant. Unsure of how to help the terrified woman and unaware of the multiple reasons for her panic, he enlists his colleague Lucia, a Chilean refugee-turned-lecturer who rents his basement flat.

The set-up is fatalistic - two experts in refugee issues encounter a young refugee in need of help. Thrown together, they begin to reveal their histories to each other and, in the bitter snow of winter, they each begin to unexpectedly unfreeze.

Allende is careful not to limit the concept of "refugee" to non-whites or South Americans; Richard's father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, who tried to instil in his son a sense of debt to those who helped him escape. It's for Richard to pay the debt by helping immigrants, something he has neglected to do. He is an emotional refugee from his tragic past until Evelyn's appearance challenges him with a crisis that can't be ignored.

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The focus on refugees and undocumented immigrants could not be timelier; Trump's anti-immigrant rallying is mentioned briefly. Allende's novel humanises refugees by individualising them, raising them from the invading hordes of Conservative rhetoric.

She reveals the social context of Evelyn and Lucia's difficulties and the inevitability of their displacement. Neither woman was responsible for the events that forced them to leave their homes.

Evelyn's journey north exposes the realities of trying to cross the US border, so fraught with difficulty and danger that no one would attempt it if not utterly desperate.

The device that ultimately drives the present-day narrative is unexpectedly melodramatic. It functions successfully to bind the characters together and force their confessions but in a novel that walks a fine line between gritty realism and the magical dynamics of fate and destiny, it wavers occasionally into black comedy.

However, the movie-like unreality of the present-day events casts the past into sharp contrast, like cold winter shadows. The intertwined stories form a dramatic and sometimes beautiful journey through intense suffering to redemption and love.

Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES
by Min Jin Lee
(Apollo, $35)

PACHINKO
by Min Jin Lee
(Head of Zeus, $25)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Free Food for Millionaires

, by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee, was published 10 years ago, and has only now made it to Aotearoa from the US after the publication of her second book,

Pachinko

.

Free Food is 560 pages, with a large cast, taking place in New York City in the 1990s. The protagonist is Casey Han, a young Korean-American woman who disgusts her working-class immigrant parents with her desire to date a white man and to "find herself" after college rather than going straight to law school.

The Korean word han roughly translates to resentment, sorrow, sense of loss and hardship, stifled passion and love or the frustration of the downtrodden; Casey's anger and spikiness make for energetic reading.

Her han is partly because of her parents' heavy expectations and because of her struggles against multiple interlocking power structures in US society: misogyny, racism, classism, rape culture, poverty, slut-shaming. One passage, where Casey talks to a white male colleague, particularly resonates: " ... you're so free. Your movements, your speech, your appearance. You're not marked as exceptional or different. You're just a tall, good-looking white guy with solid connections. And you were born like that. What is that like? ... It's preposterous how much unearned power you have."

Free Food for Millionaires treads familiar narrative ground with first-generation immigrant characters torn between the competing cultural values of their parents and their peers. But Lee provides context by including the perspective of Leah, Casey's mother, whose own han comes from a life of drudgery in a commercial laundry and an oppressive husband.

Pachinko also tells a Korean immigrant tale but the story is set in Japan. Both novels are well worth reading for their excellent storytelling and timely insights into the immigrant experience.

How Hard Can It Be? by Allison Pearson
How Hard Can It Be? by Allison Pearson

HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
by Allison Pearson
(HarperCollins, $35)
Reviewed by Kay Forrester

Fifty shades to being 50 - and all of them grey, if you would believe writer Allison Pearson.

Life seems more than a little unrelenting for Kate Reddy who, as 50 looms, has to deal with teens ensnared by social media, a Lycra-clad, mid-life-crisis suffering husband finding himself through counselling and cycling, a money pit of a do-it-upper old house and the need to go back to work.

Fifteen years before, Kate was at the top of her powers in the competitive world of finance. Now she has to convince the young tyros in that world - and herself - that she is ready to return. Her confidence has taken a dent; perimenopausal doubt has seeped into her mind. She is no longer the resilient Kate of Pearson's first book, I Don't Know How She Does It?

She worries that she is too old - her answer is to lie about her age - and that she is too fat - that's dealt with by a suffocating shape suit. She worries that her poor children are being cheated of their mother's love so she overindulges them enormously and expensively.

While it's easy to empathise with Kate in her menopausal-woman-against-the-world phase there is also an urge to take her firmly by the shoulders, shake her, and tell her to stop spoiling her children into brats, get her husband to start looking for a job and to stop bending to the stereotypes - no more diet, spandex pants or lunchtime liposuction.

Pearson writes with a self-deprecating humour - a stock genre of the chick-lit, midlife crisis writer - but with acid and a daunting determination to tell it like it is. Every hot flush and "Crime Scene period" painted vividly, but mostly amusing and striking a chord with pre and post 50-year-old women readers.

Women's rights campaigner Helen Reddy sang "I am woman, hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore. And I know too much to go back and pretend ... " Middle-aged Kate Reddy has a point to make but in the end, I just wanted her to stop pretending and get on with it. Eventually she does and things work out just as they were meant to.

TWO STEPS FORWARD by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist
TWO STEPS FORWARD by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist

TWO STEPS FORWARD
by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist
(Text Publishing, $37)
Reviewed by David Hill

Two nice, wounded people, unknown to each other, decide to heal themselves by walking 2000km of the Camino Santiago through Spain and France. En route, they find luscious scenery, quaint locals and increasing stirrings as their steps intermittently converge. Aww, shucks.

There are the usual misconceptions at first. He's a thief? She's a kook? A spark glows but they'll probably never see each other again. Aww, gee. Zoe is a Californian artist, therefore impulsive and flaky; look how she references "Leo on the cusp of Virgo". Martin is a Yorkshire engineer, therefore dour and dogged; look how he fixes a buckled wheel then sees potential income in it.

No, be fair: the authors render their characters more subtly than that, though you know this will be a narrative where the protagonists start off bristling like cats and end up cooing like doves. If I note that the novel's first word is "Fate", and that its second sentence uses "laying" wrongly, do I sound picky? I do? Aww, gosh.

Major literature this ain't but it steps along eagerly, like its walkers, and there's never a shortage of incidents. Knees wobble, mud clogs, artist Georgia O'Keeffe is discussed, crises flare at home, Martin meets Maarten and Zoe meets tasteless crucifixes. We learn about blisters, hostels, route markers and clothes-drying (hang them from your pack as you walk).

Stretches resemble a sprightly tour itinerary; a lot of local foods and beverages get listed. So do architectural highlights. Clever, sometimes cutesy, dialogue keeps you reading though you need to brace for the aphorisms scattered along the route like loose change.

"It is important to know not only what to hold on to and what to let go of but what to go back for." Aww, cringe.

Two Steps Forward insists on being a story with spiritual significance. People tell one another: "You have a large heart ... I feel I've lost touch with the universe." They discuss their angst and inner selves with protracted earnestness. If you were walking with them, you might want to hurry on ahead.

You'll like Zoe and Martin. You'll enjoy their physical and metaphysical odysseys and feel pleased that they've laid their ghosts and each other before the mildly sugary ending. But their interminable self-analysis weighs on the narrative like Zoe's pack. Aww, well.

THE BENEFACTOR by Sebastian Hampson (Text Publishing, $37)
THE BENEFACTOR by Sebastian Hampson (Text Publishing, $37)

THE BENEFACTOR
by Sebastian Hampson
(Text Publishing, $37)
Reviewed by James Robins

The Benefactor

, young New Zealand writer Sebastian Hampson's second novel, concerns Henry Calder, an approximation of a silver fox who has been sacked from the editorship of a fashion magazine he helped build into a cultural touchstone.

His wife, Martha, a woman lazily described as "everything to everyone," has gone and Calder resides in a pristine penthouse, tapping away at his scandalous memoirs between reaches for the booze bottle and the anti-depressants.

Calder's recollections, drenched in questionable power, kitsch glamour and irresistible consumption, take us through the heady 1980s and 90s when his influence went unchallenged and the seeds of an already decaying marriage were laid. Enter roguish, 20-something Maggie who, Calder believes, can offer him a chance for redemption.

Throughout most of the novel, Hampson reaches for the self-destructive listlessness of grief and loss. But he can only invoke a deep sense of emptiness. This is the trap of Hampson's style, mostly composed in internal monologue marred by a plague of cliches: boats in port are "teeming", gunshots "ring out", brows "furrow".

And too often there is a distinct lack of place. The allusive richness of Calder's life and his rarefied corner of New York demand a palpable texture and a redolent feeling - a sense of being smothered in something gorgeously unattainable. What we get is terse shorthand or blank modernity.

Some settings are introduced with only an essayistic naming of obscure artists and architects. All those grand domes, steel cathedrals, impeccable habits and finely tableclothed dinners, barely conjured at all.

Above all, Hampson's problem is one of class and status: people who imbue their world with frilled, gilded and shiny material things have, by their very nature, no inner life. It would take a brilliant writer to render the rich empathetic. As Hampson writes of Calder:
"The true details were both filthier and more exciting - yet he wasn't sure if they aligned with his intentions, if he could commit them to the immortal page."