Saturday, 2 April 2016

Vagrant Nation by Risa Goluboff / The Way To Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa / Manukau Bluebirds by Tin Larrick

Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s by Risa Goluboff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Vagrant Nation by Risa Goluboff from its publishers, Oxford University Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

With its subtitle of 'Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s' and the fact of it having been written by a law professor, I did wonder if I might struggle to understand Vagrant Nation. Happily, it is remarkably accessible for non-lawyers or law students and, other than an occasional legalese phrase or two, I not only comfortably kept up with the text, but also learned a lot about this period of American history. Goluboff stresses the human stories behind the headlines and clearly explains often complex legal arguments. Personally I was amazed at the sheer variety of people who fell foul of the wide-ranging vagrancy laws in America, especially as practically none of the cases mentioned by Goluboff recognisably fitted the classic image of a vagrant! Instead, vagrancy law victims were generally simply undesirables - men and women who didn't fit their locality's narrow idea of 'normal' and 'acceptable'. They didn't DO anything wrong, but they LOOKED wrong and therefore could legally and repeatedly be arrested at the whim of any zealous / bored / malicious police officer even though they might have money and a job and a legitimate reason to be wherever they were. I was reminded of Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping - an outbreak of neighbourly fingerpointing could result in an arrest record.

I was fascinated and frequently shocked throughout Vagrant Nation and I am sure Dave started getting fed up of me interrupting him to read out excerpts! Goluboff briefly discusses vagrancy law's Elizabethan roots (English colonialism at fault again), and takes us into courts across America, from local towns to the Supreme Court, to meet lawyers and victims over a period of some twenty-odd years from 1949 until 1972. She examines the influences of diverse challenges to vagrancy law from civil rights, women's rights and gay rights groups, and does a fantastic job of making what must have been a sprawling mess of arrest records and lawsuits into a strong coherent narrative, tracing threads across states and years. I am glad to have read Vagrant Nation and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in twentieth century history and social sciences.

The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I was delighted to spot a copy of The Way To Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa in the Reception book exchange at Camping Casteillets near Ceret. I loved the wonderful visions of The Feast of the Goat and The War of the End of the World so was hoping for more of the same this time around. As it turned out, I think The Way To Paradise is a far more accessible and straightforward novel, but it's none the worse for that. Set in two periods of the nineteenth century, Llosa imagines detail around the lives of the artist Paul Gauguin and his ought-to-be-even-more-famous grandmother, Flora Tristan. Historical facts of their lives are woven into two fabulously written tales that mirror each other in their protagonists' desires to create perfection, albeit in vastly different circumstances.

Paul Gauguin is already moderately famous when we join him. He has already lived with the 'mad Dutchman' (Van Gogh) in Arles and I loved being able to accurately visualise these scenes based on our recent visit. Llosa follows Gauguin to Brittany and then to Tahiti where his dissolute lifestyle and failing health both drive him to paint masterpieces and to descend into alcoholism and decrepitude. Llosa writes in a blend of third and second person narration which I found especially effective in allowing us to understand the minds of both Paul and Flora. Paul's desperation to become a part of Tahitian society while also remaining aloof enough to observe as an artist, and lacking the cultural history to fully comprehend Maori beliefs and attitudes is wonderfully poignant. Llosa takes time to immerse his readers in several of Paul's paintings as they are created and I enjoyed viewing them online with such insights. Plus I don't think I have read a death so delicately and powerfully portrayed since I read Jack London's To Build a Fire.

Flora Tristan's story is set fifty years before Paul's and I cannot believe that I had never heard of this amazing woman before. We follow her on a tour of France as she endeavours to recruit downtrodden labourers to her Worker's Union, a socialist concept that she devised herself. Llosa uses her travels to highlight the vast social differences in 1840s France with some disturbing descriptions of then standard working conditions. I became almost as frustrated as Flora at the workers failure to understand how they could use her ideas to help themselves - much like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - and their frequent dismissal of her words simply because of her gender. With Flora, we also travel to her lavish Peruvian ancestral home and I learned of her real-life memoir, Peregrinations Of A Pariah which I would now love to read. (If anyone knows where I can download an English language version, please let me know!)

In The Way To Paradise I think Llosa has written an amazing book which kept me glued to its pages despite its long-for-me 424 small print pages. I felt completely part of both Paul's and Flora's worlds even though I found it almost impossible to feel any sympathy for Paul at all, and Flora is so dedicated to her cause that she really isn't always likeable! Brilliant book!

Manukau Bluebirds by Tin Larrick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I realised, when I blogged my review of The Three Deaths Of Magdalene Lynton by Katherine Hayton last week, that I don't seem to have ever blogged this mini review of the New Zealand crime novel I referenced, Manukau Bluebirds. It was temporarily unavailable through Amazon though seems to be back there at the time of writing. Otherwise you can download a free copy from Smashwords. If you like a good crime novel, I would recommend you do!

 For me, Manukau Bluebirds is definitely Tin Larrick's best book to date. Although I missed the recognition of familiar Eastbourne scenes that characterised his previous work, a local flavour is still much to the fore. It's just local to the other side of the world in this New Zealand based story. We are introduced to the police officers and city of Auckland in a series of vignettes, some of which are the beginnings of the overall story arc. Larrick's characters are realistic and nicely portrayed. The arc begins slowly, albeit with some horrific crime scenes, but once it takes off, the ride is breathless and I was gripped throughout!

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads


  1. Hi Steph,
    Many thanks for posting your wonderful Amazon review of MB on your blog. I'm very grateful and would like, if possible, to send you a preview copy of my next work. If that would be agreeable to you please let me have your email address at

    Best wishes

    Tin Larrick

    1. Hi Tin, I'd love to read your new book. I've emailed ...


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