Book Review: A Song for Issy Bradley, by Carys Bray

cv_a_song_for_Issy_BradleyAvailable in bookstores nationwide. 

There are no words. That is what is written in Claire’s journal after her young daughter Issy dies from meningitis. And there really are no words to describe reading her death, and the excruciating nature of this experience for characters Claire, her husband Ian – a Mormon bishop – and their children Zippy, Alma and Jacob.

The first half of this book is exact in exploring the profound trauma of grief. That this grief comes from the death of a small person really takes your breath away. It is every parent’s worst nightmare that their child – not yet fully grown and full of potential – could not just be sick, but dying, before ever reaching his or her human potential. Bray captures this exquisite pain and explores it from all angles with grace and, believe it or not, humour. The point of difference here is that this family is a conservative Mormon one, and Ian, the father, is a bishop in the Mormon Church.

Claire is Issy’s mother. She is a latecomer to the Mormon Church, after meeting and falling in love with Ian whilst at University. This ‘outsider’ status was a relief for me, as a non-religious reader. All other characters in the book grow up in the Mormon Church, and I would have found it harder to understand the absolute pervasiveness of religion in the story without Claire and her life before becoming ‘Sister Bradley’. After Issy dies, Claire emotionally checks out and takes to Issy’s bunk bed for the foreseeable future. Claire’s physical protest at the death of her youngest daughter feels real – like a challenge to a god that seems to have very little discretion when it comes to pain, suffering and death. Whilst the other family members struggle in different ways, none of them question God as Claire does, with a refusal to continue with life post-Issy.

Of course all family members struggle, and it is the surviving three children and Ian who try to get on with life as they experience this profound grief. Alma just wants to play football, but is haunted by images of his youngest sister fetching the ball. Jacob believes so hard in God that he is determined to resurrect Issy and make everything all right again. Zippy is the responsible, teenage sister who is expected to cook all the meals when Claire emotionally falls apart and takes to Issy’s bed permanently. Some of the humour comes from the depictions of expectations of teenage girls in the Mormon church, although these are somewhat tragicomic: Zippy in her mother’s wedding dress at a Mormon fashion show, where all teenage girls are wearing relation’s wedding dresses, and promising chastity at a time when hormones are obviously all over the show. And then there is Ian, the most fundamental believer of them all. Every action and decision taken by Ian comes from a place of God – a Mormon God – as he too struggles with Issy’s death.

Ian would be an easy character to dislike. Early in the book he provides religious reasoning for everything that is happening and seems very sure that Issy’s death is as it is meant to be. His life’s soundtrack is provided by the Tabernacle Choir, a touchstone of peace and reassurance in his Mormon life. However, Bray counters his religious beliefs with enough perplexed humanity for the reader to understand that he is as lost as Claire, but is trying to manage it as best he can through the filter of his belief in God.

It is obvious that Carys Bray has a personal understanding of growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family. Bray’s experiences both shape and care for this work as she poses questions about the Church and the place of organised religion in children’s lives. These are explored in a sympathetic way, especially through her characters and their personal struggles in the face of indescribable grief and pain.

For a situation in which there could be no words, Bray seems to have found the right ones.

A Song for Issy Bradley
by Carys Bray
Published by Hutchinson
ISBN 9780091954383

Book Review: Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

First up: a disclaimer. I’ve been enjoying Ruth Reichl’s writing cv_delicious!for years. It started with Garlic and Sapphires − her account of her time as the New York Times’ Restaurant Reviewer. It was the book that propelled me into two new reading loves: food writing and beautifully composed autobiographical writing (if you have ever been turned off autobiographies by reading something written by, say a former Head of State, then try one of Ruth’s delightfully crafted books). I tittered when I met her for a book signing after her session at the 2008 New Zealand Writers and Readers Festival here in Wellington. I’ll do my best to be impartial, but, well, you are dealing with a fan here!

Delicious! is Ruth’s first fiction work. The protagonist, Billie starts working for Delicious! magazine − a few weeks before it is shut down. She is the sole member of staff retained and her job of answering calls and letters about published recipes, leaves her plenty of time to explore the heritage building that housed the magazine. She discovers a trail of correspondence hidden throughout the files of Delicious! between a twelve year old girl and James Beard (a real chef). This framework is then filled with completely-drawn supporting characters, details of cooking challenges during World War Two, puzzles, grief, wisdom, the underground railroad and journeys of personal discovery.

On the first reading there were some traits of Billie that bugged me. In a similarity with ‘chick lit’ novels she is unsure of herself, very beautiful (not that she knows it) and everyone who meets her instantly takes her under their wings, showering jobs and time on her. Her romance in the book also follows a familiar path. However, Billie’s character, while superficially finishing the book in a manner familiar to female characters, goes through a lot to get there. Her character comes of age, and the development of Billie rings true – if the same character was ten years older then the story couldn’t have happened as it did.

A couple of times I felt that the book was a little too much. It is very detailed, obviously well researched and not at all pretentious in the use of this research to flesh out the story or characters. But everything is well-detailed. Every character has a story. Initially this was overwhelming, but ultimately I appreciated the work that went into the story. There was so much to take in, every page in the book worked hard to further multiple stories. When I finished the book I was quite astounded at the journey the story took.

KokumA small thing that fans of Ruth Reichl’s writing may enjoy: a couple of familiar ingredients and phrases from her previous books appear. I’m determined to get hold of kokum (above) and try it. And one day I hope to brave enough to say to a Japanese chef ‘I am in your hands’ and allow the menu to be decided for me!

The book is so many things! A mystery. Food writing. Love and family. Passionate people sharing their obsessions with people. It was quite a whirlwind. A great book for someone wanting to escape into a beautifully woven story.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

written by Ruth Reichl
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781743319765

Book Review: Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas, by Lynne Cox

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

A number of years ago Lynne Cox travelled to Newcv_elizabeth_queen_of_the_seas Zealand to swim across three lakes near Mount Cook. During a walk along the Avon River, in Christchurch, she happened upon a couple of children standing on the bank; Michael and his sister Maggie. They were waiting for Elizabeth and thought perhaps she was as well. On inquiring further about who Elizabeth was, Lynne decided some time later to write a story about this rather amazing elephant seal.

The Avon River in Christchurch travels through the heart of the city. Elephant seals live in the sea, but for some reason this seal decided to travel up the Avon River, making herself at home on the banks of the river. Of course this attracted a lot of attention and people lined the banks of the river to see her. The people of Christchurch thought there was something rather special about her. She was strong and powerful and regal like the Queen of England. So she was named Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas.

We had just come home from a trip to the zoo with small and larger members of our family, and so on opening the courier package, one rather delighted little girl wanted this book read to her – NOW! Abby is at the age where everything is “why”, and so reading this book to her, was no exception.


Elizabeth the sea elephant lived in the Avon and Heathcote rivers from the late 1970s until her death in 1985.

Michael used to look for the elephant seal every day on his way to school and then again on the way home. Even though she was a wild animal, Michael would call her name “Elizabeth, hello Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas, are you there?”

Unfortunately Elizabeth decided to explore her surrounds causing numerous problems with cars. To avoid hitting her they ended up crashing into rocks and having other near accidents. A small group of volunteers in a small motorboat waited until Elizabeth was in the river. They approached her slowly and gently looped a rope around her large body. Elizabeth is not happy with this turn of events and continues to go back to the banks of the Avon River.

This book was read to our little person twice with the same questions each time, “Why is Elizabeth swimming back, why is she lying on the road, why is putting her head out of the water.” When I first opened this book and flicked through it, I wasn’t sure what Abby’s reaction would be to it. I thought perhaps she was a bit young to enjoy, but I was proved totally wrong on that score. We had just come home from the zoo – one of Abby’s favourite places at Auckland zoo is the Seal enclosure – laughing at their antics. Abby wanted to pack this book into her overnight bag to take home.

The illustrations by Brian Floca are fabulous. I always take note of how illustrations marry in with the text. I give this author full marks for the simplicity of the story. A lovely book to add to a small person’s collection.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas
by Lynne Cox
Published by Schwartz & Wade
ISBN 9780375858888

Book Review: Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings, by Tina Makereti

Did you love this book too? You can vote for it for the People’s Choice Award in the New Zealand Post Book Awards here

This is a powerful historic novel, spanning two cv_where_the_rekohu_bone_singsgenerations separated by over a century but connected by the threads of the ancestors that flow through their veins. It is a story of identity and of mixed heritage. It is immersive, and lyrically written, with an eloquence to the prose that keeps the reader truly engaged.

The first thread follows Mere, a young Maori woman of reasonable wealth in the 1880s. She follows her heart into making a somewhat reckless decision and falls in love with Iraia, her best friend and the descendent of a slave. Life is harsh for this young man, whose ancestry can be traced back to the last of the Moriori on Rekohu, the Chatham Islands. Together the two seek freedom beyond the confines of the Marlborough Sounds and find difficult times as they must face up against poverty and prejudice. Their tale is simply told and bittersweet.

Then in the modern day, we have two siblings − Bigsy and Lula − fraternal twins who could not be any more different, a one-in-a-million occurance: Lula takes after her father’s Irish heritage, whereas Bigsy follows closer to his mother’s Maori. We follow them through life, watching them grow from inseperable friends to drifting apart and while Bigsy makes his own place in the world, Lula is still drifting, unsettled. Eventually, a heart-breaking event will draw them both home and lead Lula on a quest to seek her family’s past, to question her identity, and ultimately find her roots.

Weaving throughout the stories, written in a rather more colloquial tongue, is a third narrator, the anchor for the characters, drifting and darting, offering tantalising, but brutal, glimpses into a tragic past.

This was a finely crafted read, a book that truly does sing.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings
by Tina Makereti
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775535188

Start a trend and snowball votes for the People’s Choice Award

Voting opens today for the People’s Choice award in the New Zealand Post Book Awards, and closes 15 August, 8pm.

Vote in the 2014 People's Choice Award We want to see as many people as possible pick their favourite books for the 2014 People’s Choice award for New Zealand authored books. We’re distributing voting slips in bookstores and libraries around New Zealand and you can also vote online, but we’re thinking big this year.

We want to see ideas grow large in the online community, so we’ve put together some cool tools to help people get behind the People’s Choice award online. We would love to see you get behind your favourite!

Resources for running the campaign for your favourite book
• Use the Book trailer tributes we’ve created to promote one of the finalist books for People’s Choice on your Facebook page or website.
• Use the poetry readings and fiction finalists video reviews – share them on your Facebook page, or embed them on your website. The video reviews are presented by some of New Zealand’s most enthusiastic bookstore staff, and the poetry readings are all by our multi-talented Poetry Day coordinator, Miriam Barr.
• Use our Facebook cover images - we’re highlighting categories with these this year. Post them on your Facebook page to show support and encourage voting for the category you choose. Or make your own – we would love to see it if you do!
• Post a copy of our finalist posters on your site, and link to our Booksellers_choice_posterPeople’s Choice vote online app. The Posters are downloadable from the resources page of our website.
• Write a blog post about a book that particularly impressed you and add a ‘Vote for People’s Choice’ widget alongside it. You’ll find the widgets on our website too. Widgets are great for bloggers or people with reading and book-related websites like bookstores, publishers, schools and libraries. Post one on your website homepage to encourage your customers to vote for their favourite book, or even the book you’re punting for – I know publishers will love that one!
• We’re talking about what’s happening in the awards on Twitter using #nzpba, we hope you’ll add comments about the books you’re enjoying.

Voting is open from 23 July – 15 August and the winners will be announced at the New Zealand Post Book Awards ceremony on Wednesday, 27 August 2014.

by Amie Lightbourne, Awards Manager at Booksellers NZ

Book Review: What happens next? by Tull Suwannakit

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

cv_what_happens_nextWhen I picked up this book we had recently announced that the People’s choice award at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults went to The Three Bears…sort of. So my mind was in this ‘sensible version of fairy tales’ type space, and at first I thought this was along the same vein. I was, joyfully, mistaken.

This book is rather beautiful from beginning to end. The first indicator of the story can be found on the front end-papers, where the baby bear and little girl notice each other across the bus stop. The story begins with Ellie asking her Gran to tell her a story. Gran begins, ‘Deep in the woods, not far from here, lives Grandma Bear. Whenever Little Bear visits her, they go on a fun trip together.’ You think you know what is going to happen, right? The story does follow Gran and Ellie’s day closely, with the bears mirroring their story, until the tables are turned halfway through the book, when suddenly the bears become real.

This story is a little bit about facing fears both real and imaginary, and a little bit about accepting diversity, but mostly it is just a bit of fun, with Ellie’s imagination providing some beautiful illustrations. The bears are rendered less ferocious (Granny’s reaction when they become real is ‘Bears, ferocious bears!”, while Ellie is more pragmatic, saying ‘These are no ordinary bears, but ones who put on hats and red gumboots, remember?’) The story moves on into more fanciful territory with an ogre, a frog, a catfish, and all sorts of friendly creatures coming home for icecream and cakes!

As I have a 3-year-old who is afraid of a lot of things at the moment, I only wish the lesson was well-learned. I asked him what he thought of the story, and he said he didn’t like the way it changed halfway (when the child took over the narrative) – I kind of expected that, but that doesn’t mean most children his age won’t enjoy it.

The illustrations and typeface in What Happens Next? are really special, and Walker Books has done a wonderful job in editing and of course publication, with all of the page turns ideally placed to make you wonder what does happen next.

Overall, this is a very well executed picture book. While the author has previously published in his native Thailand, and is a known artist, this is his first, hopefully of many, with an Australian publisher.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

What Happens Next?
Written and illustrated by Tull Suwannakit
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781922077561


Book Review: Heart absolutely I can, by Michael Harlow

cv_heart_absolutely_i_canThis book is available in selected bookstores nationwide.

Heart absolutely I can is one of three books in the 2014 Hoopla series. The other two are Cinema by Helen Rickerby and Bird Murder by Stefanie Lash. All three collections follow a certain theme. For Heart it is love, for the others film and crime respectively. Heart is comprised of poems published in earlier collections as well as new material.

Harlow’s background is in Jungian psychology and in this vein he dissects the tangled undergrowth of human relationships. The vanities, longing, and secret desires of the subjects are exposed with a surprising frankness.

The harrowing disembodiment of a married couple in ‘The Identikit’ has something of an experimental horror movie, while the brevity of the lines in ‘In which’ suggests a hunted breathlessness of a conflicted mind.

In ‘Today is the piano’s birthday’ a family’s interconnectedness centers around said instrument. The piano has life, has feelings. A counterpoint to this sense of flow, of movement, is ‘Nothing but Switzerland and lemonade’ which appears like a still life, a scene frozen in time, a Cézanne painting.

Heart explores love in the abstract as well as in the physical sense; emotional turmoil alternates with eroticism.

The woman in the poem of the title wills ‘the music of the heart to sing us alive’. Harlow
manages to pull people as well as concrete objects into the abstract realm that is love.

Reviewed by Melanie Wittwer

Heart absolutely I can
by Michael Harlow
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780473276478

Book Review: The Red Queen, by Gemma Bowker-Wright

This book is available now in bookstores nationwide. 

This collection of short stories is the first book for Gemma Bowker-Wright.cv_the_red_queen

She’s a good writer; the stories are well crafted, with a quirky humour apparent in even some of the bleaker works. I read the book almost at one sitting, and some of the stories stayed with me for quite some time. That’s unusual for me. I found myself going back to make sure I was remembering correctly.

There is a great depth to some of the stories – and a feeling of immense generosity of spirit, but then again of sadness in some of them also. This may be what I took from them, rather than an intention on the part of the writer. Two which typify these feelings are ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Katherine’.

‘Cowboy’ is in essence a story about a father and son, long separated. Father from time to time remembers he actually has a son, and arranges something which generally suits his purpose rather than that of his child. But despite this, the story ends on a positive note and I found that a huge surprise, not at all what I expected.

‘Katherine’, in the story which ends the book, has Alzheimers. The picture drawn in this story is very well-done – the apparent normality of many days, and the total irrationality of others points out the awfulness of the illness and the difficulty inherent in managing anyone who is a sufferer. Gemma Bowker-Wright manages to bring the characters of Katherine and her husband to life most effectively and with poignancy.

I found this, overall, to be a really good collection of stories, with a very New Zealand flavour. I look forward to more work from this young author.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Red Queen
by Gemma Bowker-Wright
VUP 2014
ISBN 9780864739209


Book Review: Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page, edited by Harry Ricketts, Siobhan Harvey and James Norcliffe

Available in bookstores nationwide. There is also a nationwide tour accompanying this publication, details can be found here. 

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (2014) weighed heavily in my cv_essential_nz_poemshands. It had some major shoes to fill. Its predecessor and titular sibling of thirteen years earlier, edited by Edmond and Sewell, was my first guide to New Zealand poetry. A veritable treasure trove − I found New Zealand poetry pioneers Bethell, Fairburn, Mason within the pages, as well as shiny new gems from the likes of Emma Neale and Vivienne Plumb. With time, I wondered at the title. The word ‘essential’ troubled me. Could New Zealand’s rich body of poetic works really be sieved through to reveal its ‘essence’?

In this latest anthology, Harvey, Norcliffe and Ricketts approach this issue head on and, with admirable candidness, describe the collection as ‘Some Rather Good New Zealand Poems the Three of Us Rather Like’. Moreover, the new collection has an adjunct title, ‘Facing the Empty Page’, taken from a poem authored by Elizabeth Nannestad. The problem of ‘essence’, though scarcely resolved, seems to be shrunk.

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page is a literary slumber party, where old-hands and newcomers coalesce. Baxter is bedfellow with Hinemoana Baker, Kiri Piahana-Wong is bunked down with Alistair Paterson. The assemblage is egalitarian, insofar as each author is represented by one poem. Poets are arranged, not chronologically, but in alphabetical sequence. Such an arrangement lends itself to surprises. A page turned can occasion a completely new mood and style. Bub Bridger’s comedic ‘A Christmas Wish’ jolts the reader out of Diana Bridge’s meditational and exquisite ‘Jars, Bubble Bowls and Bottle Vases’. Approaching the book from cover to cover, the reader is sent on an affective rollercoaster. And though giddiness may ensue, the buzz is something addictive.

This anthology, unlike its predecessor, kicks off in the 1950s. So while Curnow is included, Bethell and Mason are not. This is a shortcoming, perhaps, but it does serve to open up the field to a greater number of lesser known contemporary poets. Helen Heath, Courtney Sina Meredith and Ashleigh Young are new kids on the block but, in each case, their poems hold their own.

The book itself is testament to the survival of books as pulp and ink. It is a handsome production − cloth bound, and peppered with haunting greyscale images of New Zealand landscapes. These images serve as reminders that this poetry is ‘earthed’, that the works within were born into the New Zealand context.

Yet many of the pieces featured extend beyond their geographical location. Fleur Adcock’s ‘Having Sex with the Dead’ introduces Greek mythology, Koenraad Kuiper’s ‘Tales’ hauls in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Then there are poems that take us on trips through our very own streets. We are in Titirangi with David Eggleton, the Maniototo with Kevin Ireland, Banks Peninsular with Denis Glover. And James K Baxter enlightens us about Auckland, that ‘great arsehole’ of a city.

This is a beautiful and considered collection. Essential or not, this book is worth getting your hands on.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page
edited by Harry Ricketts, Siobhan Harvey and James Norcliffe
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775534594

Book Review: Remember me like this, by Bret Anthony Johnston

cv_remember_me_like_thisAvailable in bookstores nationwide. 

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me like This is blended from a Harlan Coben-esque thriller style of writing with a theme of family-coping that demands profundity, and meets somewhere in an awkward middle. After eleven year-old Justin, son to Laura & Eric & older brother to Griff, goes missing in Southport, Texas, he is presumed dead by most for four years. Johnston skilfully drops the reader into each of the family member’s distractions during Justin’s absence, hitting on the realities of sex, anonymity, and infatuation as tools for escape. When Justin is found, alive & healthy in Corpus Christi, only a bay away from Southport, Laura, Eric & Griff are pulled from their sovereign orbits back into a family.Johnston’s grasp on human truisms makes for sublime character depiction throughout; from a fourteen boy who, despite the revelations of a found lost-brother, is consumed by youthful passion for a girl, to a family that falling away from each other rather than into each other in times of need.

When Justin is returned to the Campbell family in an early climax, Johnston attempts to emulate heart-wrenching drama in illustrating a family, yet four individuals, being struck different blows from the same event. Mirrored by the Campbell’s realisation that their home has become a run-down house in Justin’s absence, their reunion sees them regain their awareness of each other: as they begin to re-build walls and re-sow grass, they also shed their distractions and begin to re-build as a family once more. As we begin to root for the family’s successful rebirth, Johnston cracks the Campbell’s happy-family façade with a twist that instantly sends the family recoiling to their coping mechanisms like frightened animals. The plot builds to literature-loaded storm finale, echoing the highly-charged emotions and anxieties facing the Campbell’s, both individually & collectively. Johnston weaves various threads as though in hope of a startling finish, but the final stroke is instead a predictable & neat bow-tie.

While the concept of Remember Me like This is one of surgical delicacy, I’m undecided whether Johnston has accomplished a seamless wonder or whether he has avoided a too-hard task. Johnston’s choice to leave Justin’s voice out of the novel is a stroke of brilliance, using his family member’s different perspectives to instead tell the story. After all, this is a story about the Campbell family, not about Justin’s ordeal. Yet simultaneously, the unwillingness of the Campbell’s to talk about Justin’s ordeal or their emotion is stretched to its limit and begs the edges of reality. Once Justin is returned, the family tiptoe around the elephant in the room for the rest of the novel, making the reader eager, but for resolution that never delivers. In such a ghoulish plot, Johnston’s writing seems to miss the weight of the substance.

If you enjoy Harlan Coben or T. Jefferson Parker you will appreciate Remember Me like This. As Johnston’s debut novel, it is certainly a worthwhile effort & (hopefully) preludes more refined novels to come.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

Remember Me like This
by Bret Anthony Johnston
Published by Two Roads (Hachette)
ISBN 9781444788068