Eccentric characters find solace in poignant story.

A Year of Marvellous Ways
By Sarah Winman (Headline)

British author Sarah Winman specialises in strange. Her first novel, When God Was a Rabbit, was a wildly eccentric tragi-comedy that became a bestseller. Second novels are notoriously difficult for successful writers and I wonder if that was the case for Winman because, though it's magical and lovely, A Year of Marvellous Ways is by no means a people-pleaser.

Marvellous Ways is about an 89-year-old woman living in a gypsy caravan beside a tidal creek near a deserted Cornish hamlet. It's 1947 and she leads a solitary life foraging for food, with only her memories for company. And then a man called Francis Drake appears, a former soldier who has come to Cornwall to deliver a letter from a dead son to his grieving father. Lovelorn and lost himself, his journey doesn't go to plan. He is rescued by Marvellous and lives in her old boathouse as he heals. Winman's writing is lyrical, enriched with magical realism, gently poignant and evocative. This is a fanciful story about friendship, loneliness and love. Nowhere near as grabby as Winman's debut but perhaps more exquisite.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
By Katarina Bivald (Chatto & Windus)

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It seems the more they are digitalised, the more romantic we become about books and this completely charming debut novel from Swedish author Katarina Bivald is the latest love letter to them. Sara Lindqvist has been made redundant from her job in a bookshop so decides to spend some time staying with her American penfriend Amy Harris, with whom she has been corresponding about reading. Amy lives in a small Iowa town called Broken Wheel that is slowly dying. Unfortunately, when Sara arrives there it is to find that Amy, too, has died. With nowhere else to go she decides to stay in her house and continue with the break she had planned. Fortunately, the townspeople rally around her. They are a bunch of eccentric characters (with, of course, a handsome but brooding man in the mix) and Sara finds a novel way to thank them as well as pass on her and Amy's great love of fiction. None of this is especially plausible but it's a warm and witty book; and one I found myself longing to get back to. I felt like I was there, getting to know the people of Broken Wheel and hoping for a happy ending for them.

Solo: Inspirational Cooking for One
By Linda Tubby (Kyle Books)

I'm slightly obsessed with this book. The food is so elegant and cookable and could easily be upsized should I be unable to persuade my husband it's time for an evening out with the boys. Linda Tubby is an English food writer so some of the ingredients - in particular the fish - are going to be impossible to source on this side of the world. But these are flexible recipes and much can easily be substituted. This is food to nourish the soul as well as the body. The dishes run the gamut from rather glamorous things on toast - such as fried apple and grilled goat's cheese with sumac and sesame salt - to meals that will be more like a dinner party for one. There's a commendable focus on avoiding waste, with no broccoli stalk or cauliflower leaf heading to the compost, and ideas for using remainders. I'm drawn to Strata, which is a sort of indulgent frittata meets bread and butter pudding, and the Korean-inspired bulgogi beef with quick kimchi. I may never heat up another can of baked beans.

Girl at War
By Sara Novic (Little Brown)

Ten-year-old tomboy Ana races around Zagreb on her bike in 1991 with her friend Luka, when the Serb Croat war breaks out - air-raids, sniper fire and ethnic cleansing replace games and lessons. The realities of war for these lively children are captured with vivid clarity and a complete lack of sentimentality. Ana has a brief and extraordinary period as a child soldier - she can run fast and wield a rifle - before a heart-stopping escape to America. Ten years later, as a student at a New York university who has delivered an address to the United Nations about her experiences, she returns to Croatia in search of Luka and people she left behind. She also goes back to the locations where crucial events took place and must face up to her traumatic past, including what happened to her parents. Outstanding and absolutely absorbing.

Review by Carole Beu of Auckland's The Women's Bookshop.
The Fixer
By John Daniell (Upstart Press)

Considering the popularity of both, it's surprising there aren't more thrillers set in the world of professional sports. In The Fixer, former rugby pro Daniell takes us inside the locker rooms and politicking of French rugby in a rollicking tale centred on the waning career of former All Black Mark Stevens. When a Brazilian journalist sashays into his life, it turns out there is more than publicity and a fling on offer. Stevens finds himself at a crossroads, not just in his rugby career, but also over who he is and wants to be as a man. Daniell spins a page-turner that is full of banter and bloke-ishness, yet is also thoughtful and insightful, hearkening to the days of Barry Crump and his tales of Kiwi masculinity. A terrific read.

Review by Craig Sisterson who blogs about crime fiction at kiwicrime.blogspot.co.nz
Silver Shoes: Breaking Pointe
By Samantha-Ellen Bound (Penguin Random House)

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This is a junior fiction dance series for primary school children, especially girls. The covers are retro and sweet, which made me think that Breaking Pointe - the third book in the series - would also be a sweet little tale. Instead, it's a quite competitive take on the life of a sporty girl who spends most of the story worrying about how she will manage to fit in her over-scheduled after-school activities. A ballet eisteddfod, an athletics carnival and a basketball final can't all be done, so a difficult choice has to be made. The language is colloquial: things "suck" or someone is said to be "sassing them thoroughly" and there's a bit too much of a rivalry going on with another little girl to make it any sort of moral lesson. But, who am I to judge - my 6-year-old daughter loved it.

Review by journalist and author Danielle Wright.

Nicky's best read

Victoria University Press is the publisher of Eleanor Catton's Booker prize-winning The Luminaries. It also has a blog, called These Rough Notes, that's regularly updated with news and other local literary snippets. Find it at: victoriauniversitypress.blogspot.co.nz