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The Luminaries
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on 12 October 2017
For the most part I found it absorbing and enjoyable, if hard work. The end is lamentable however. After all that detail it seems to collapse completely with endless summaries of what happened –really poor. Also, no doubt the astrology had some significance but it was hard to see what that was without being able to read the charts. I think structures and devices became secondary to the characters sometimes as they were often lengthily described by their internal processes rather than by means of dialogue. For such a long book it does not contain much dialogue. All the loose ends are not tied up and I am still puzzled as to whether Staines was the man in the crate on the ship –no real explanation of that is given. There is a huge amount of coincidence in the book. All these intertwined characters seem to end up in the same small part of the world which is unlikely. The character of Anna is never truly described although all the men seem to be in love with her. When she does speak there isn't that much to her. Since she is so central to the book I think she could have been fleshed out much more.
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on 7 January 2015
Set in the era of the New Zealand gold rush, The Luminaries is a great sprawling epic of a murder mystery, written by a dazzlingly talented, contemporary writer in the style of a Victorian novel.

I had a vested interest in finishing this book as Catton is writing about the history of the country I grew up in, a country that was settled by immigrants to a New World of which I (and the author) was one.

There is so much to admire in this hugely ambitious book, not least the complex structure. As the astrology is the key to understanding the overall circular structure, each of the twelve parts is prefaced by an astrological chart. At at the start of the book a character chart highlights the personality types in each sign of the zodiac. Then there is the interplay between the astrological chart with its twelve signs of the zodiac and the structure of the twelve parts themselves. Each one is half the length of the preceding one until the last chapter is barely more than a few paragraphs long.

The Luminaries is beautifully written and Catton has a sly sense of humour, particularly in her use of language that mimics the style of Wilkie Collins and Dickens. However, where Catton and Dickens do differ is in terms of characterisation. I was determined to finish this book, but by the time I'd read 75% of the book my favourite character had been killed off. And I realised that even by this late stage of the book I had very little emotional connection to the remaining characters. There were one or two I felt sorry for, but that's different from actively wanting to find out what happens to them.

And then I had a moment of realisation as I thought about that circular structure. That must mean then that there wasn’t necessarily going to be a resolution. It turned out that I was right as I and many other readers were left with many unanswered questions. This, of course, may have been intentional. I'm afraid though that because I invested so much time reading this book, this unfinished business left me feeling rather let down. I did push on and finish it but didn't feel at all moved by the end or indeed did I take away any deep or lasting themes.

Although I suspect this book, which has won a host of literary awards, will go on to be studied as an example of A Great New Zealand Novel, for me it was a four star rather than a five star read.
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on 25 September 2017
Complex novel which needs 100% concentration all the time - not easy with a novel of 800 pages written in a leisurely, discursive style as a pastiche of a Victorian thriller. The story itself is absolutely fascinating and the author has clearly done a huge amount of research. The setting is the mid 19th century gold rush in New Zealand and the harshdesperate, mainly greedy lives of the gold seekers is brilliantly evoked. My problem with the structure of the novel was that it was very hard to keep the convoluted story in mind long enough to remember who and what the writer was talking about, from one 100 pages to another. Half way through there is a resume of the plot and characters, and I was mightily relieved to read it. The other is the mock Victorian style of writing which is, inevitably, somewhat arch and self-conscious. But very well done within these constraints. I do recommend this novel, it kept my attention and admiration despite a few misgivings, and you can't say fairer than that.
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on 14 August 2017
I hated this book. The prose style was mind-numbing, as was the plot. I read on, and on, and on, hoping to be gripped, but in the end had to abandon the book. I understand from the reviews that the author is reported as having said that bad reviews are mainly from men over 45. Maybe people over 45 just find the book to self indulgent. I certainly did (woman over 45).
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on 18 January 2016
I loved this book. It is a monster of a book, with a huge cast of characters and is initially a little confusing and difficult to get into, but it is definitely worth persevering as you will be rewarded by being transported back to New Zealand during the gold rush and totally immersed in the life of the town described. The mystery is compelling and despite its length this book is a real page turner. I needed to reach the end. The writing is amazing and the characters and setting really come alive. This book was total escapism as I was completely transported out of my life when reading it. Fantastic.
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on 5 July 2015
Dull. I got a third of the way through it. Then looked at what other books were waiting for me to read and gave the Luminaries up. Life is too short. As other reviewers have written, it does have some beautiful writing within it and the idea of looking at this piece of lost history is potentially fascinating - particularly for me who had relatives who went to New Zealand at this period. But it is cumbersome, as another reviewer has stated and I think lacked a good editor. Do publishers not edit books, particularly these very lengthy books. Or do they just have specific criteria in their minds as to what will make a prize winner. It would make a good book at half the length.
I started reading it for a reading group. Be interesting to see what the others will make of it. I suspect I will probably have read further than most, but cannot see any of the other keen and active readers, finishing it.
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on 25 June 2014
Before reading this books, my understanding of the general consensus was that it was overly long, but with a rewardingly complex plot. I get the feeling the my experience of this book was unusual, as I personally felt the plot could have done with being somewhat more complex.

Most of the book is taken up with minute descriptions and observations of the characters, and Catton is clearly a very skilled and eloquent writer. It just seems a bit of a shame that these characters, most of whose back-stories, inner workings and interrelations are examined and revealed as the book progresses, don't really do all that much. It feels almost a bit of a waste to have such a detailed, vivid setting, and then to have very little actually happen in it over 800 odd pages.

Except for a few minor specific details, the overall plot didn't feel twisty enough to be properly gripping. The key facts of the 'mystery' are repeated so often that the 'connexions' and plot twists are often blatantly obvious to the reader hundreds of pages before the characters gradually puzzle them out. There was no real attempt at misdirection or leading the reader down the wrong path and revealing dramatically that the real answer is something unexpected. Rather, the plot is gradually revealed in a fairly linear manner, leading to a conclusive but not particularly exciting ending.

I enjoyed The Luminaries for its style and characterisation, but the plot (and particularly the framing of the plot) was not quite up to the (admittedly fairly high) standard I expected and was hoping for.
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on 11 February 2015
I kept changing my mind about this book - superb, awful - superb, awful - superb because the story is unique, a mysterious death set in the gold rush of 1865 New Zealand with a set of 19 characters worthy of Dickens, and because each of the 19 characters' dialogue is spot on, and because the writing style and insights into human nature are remarkably good - but awful because it is impossible to keep track of the each person's guilty connection to the dead man, Crosby Wells, and to their back stories. I struggled on because of my book group, otherwise I would have given up. The complex plot is almost impossible to unravel. In the end - awful.
Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa
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on 9 February 2015
This story is set in New Zealand in the 1860s, during the gold rush. At its heart is a mystery involving stolen gold, fraud and deception, together with links to the opium trade. There is a huge cast of characters and the plot is very difficult to follow during the long first section. More to the point, I came close to not caring about what was happening as the characters seemed very flat. I think it is due to the style of writing, whereby the author speaks as an omniscient narrator and doesn’t give us any feel of the characters’ ‘voices’ or enable us to engage emotionally with them.
At the end of the first section the plot is summarised in chronological order, which certainly helps, but seems to me a clumsy device. As the book unfolds it improves and there were times when some characters started to become real to me as individuals and I started to become absorbed.
I disliked the supernatural / mystical element in the relationship between Anna and Emery Staines. I enjoy fantasy and magical realism, but in this book the author is at pains to create a historically and geographically real setting, and yet strange things happen (Emery suffering a gunshot wound when Anna is the one shot, Anna becoming very thin when it is Emery who is starving) without any of the characters remarking on it.
Each chapter has an astrological phrase as a heading – not being into astrology I couldn’t see the relevance of these and nowhere are they explained.
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on 5 October 2017
I struggled through the first part, nearly giving up at times. The first part of the book was excruciating, badly paced, incoherent in narrative, and pretty boring. Characters were introduced with long winded descriptions of specific parts of their character so that they are not actually easily understood as a whole character.

Despite the nightmare that is the first part I would recommend persevering, it did actually become a page turner towards the end with some of the characters getting better developed and a much stronger narrative. The mysteries that developed become unravelled in their many strands, but are not all explicitly explained to the reader.
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