Book Review: I am Rebecca, by Fleur Beale


Available now in bookstores nationwide. There will be a launch for this book on Sunday 21 September at 5pm, at The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie. 

I’ll be honest with you, Fleur Beale is one of my favourite kiwi YA authors. So any time she puts out a new book, I know it will be a worthwhile read, with a relatable teenage protagonist.

Fleur’s latest, I am Rebecca, is a follow-up to her bestselling book from 1998, I am not Esther. This time she tells the story from the inside looking out, of life within The Children of the Faith, and the expectations placed on herself and her peers at an early age.

The story begins as the Pilgrim family, along with the rest of the Whanganui branch of The Children, move south to Nelson, to join with another branch. The reason for the move is unclear, but the teenagers assume it has something to do with needing to match-make, as many of the young females are approaching marriageable age – 16. Rebecca has lived her entire life within her family group, though she and the other children had to attend a ‘worldly school’ in Whanganui. It is a frightening prospect, then, when she is sent with her twin, Rachel, to sell produce at a farmers’ market on Saturdays in Nelson. This interaction with people who live their lives in freedom proves an eye-opener for both sisters.

At no stage in the book does Beale let up on the tension, as we follow the sisters through impossible situations with regards to the Rule regarding every aspect of the Children of the Faith and how they manage themselves. The sisters must abase themselves each time they need to tell their Father something, for fear of earning hours of prayer. The tension builds, with death, bad marriage matches and new babies adding to it, until Rebecca begins to doubt, finally, the wisdom of her elders.

cv_I_am_not_estherOne of the factors that contributes to Rebecca’s doubt is the not-insignificant fact that she, along with the rest of the family group, are meant to act as though their older sister and brother are dead, as well as her “trouble-causing” cousin, who she is continually required to stand up for. I am not Esther tells the story of the siblings and cousin who left the group – which to the family unit means they must be treated as ‘dead’. Rebecca is determined, in her own way, to remember that they existed, but not without guilt over this.

While I won’t tell you what happens, I will say that Rebecca is a strong and admirable character. You feel that Beale really lets you into the mind of somebody who has grown up within a strict environment such as The Children of the Faith. Beale’s books have dealt with cults several times previously, but always from the outside looking in, so this is a refreshing point of view.

A worthwhile read – buy them as a pair, if you haven’t read I am not Esther since it was released in 1998! They have nice contrasting book jackets, to boot.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

I am Rebecca
by Fleur Beale
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781775535492

Book Review: How to be dead in a year of snakes, by Chris Tse

This book will be launched at Vic Books in Kelburn at 5.30pm on Monday 22 September.

‘The world is full of murder and words are usually the first to go’. Sometimes, though, cv_how_to_be_dead_in_a_year_of_snakeswords are all we have.

In his new poetry collection, How to be dead in a year of snakes, Chris Tse pieces together narratives of the dead and the guilty, in what could be described as an epic riddle. Groping for clues, the reader consults killer and victim in turns – ‘they’ll want a finger/ with which to point/ at suspects and victim’. But this is no binary case of hero and villain. Lionel Terry who, in 1905 ‘went hunting for a Chinaman’ is as human as his victim, and we find ourselves romping about in both parties’ shoes. Where their paths intersect in violence, there commences, perversely, a co-dependence, an ‘intimate relationship’ between men. As Tse points out, ‘To kill a man/ is to marry a shadow’. And Lionel Terry brings with him the ghost of Joe Kum Yung.

More than a marriage of souls, though, Tse’s work is a convergence of cultures. Cantonese and European and Maori cultures form a tripartite, tethered to the Wellington street upon which the men cross paths. This is poetry as history − both worldly history and history of the individual. When Tse writes ‘As you bleed out/ the night rejects your history’, one imagines not only the life of Joe Kum Yung is lost, but, with it, the stories of Cantonese settlers in New Zealand − ‘a gallery of lost names’.

Sometimes words are all we have. In recounting tragedy, Tse brings to life the ‘ghosts chattering’. The essence of Joe Kum Yung is conjured, and history is etched out in his own words. But we are cautioned that ‘the storyteller’s tongue (is) laced with favour and prejudice’. Narration comes with the power to alter history, and Tse lends Joe Kum Yung the power to ‘rewrite his truths’. But everyone has a moment on the soapbox. Even the fantails ‘fill the clouds with their opinions’.

How to be dead in a year of snakes is a brave traversing of fiction and New Zealand history. Tse shows how alienation and xenophobia can conspire in human tragedy. This is a riddle but also a lesson, one where we ‘must reach back into madness’ to learn from events that preceded us. Perhaps, like Terry, we are to be ‘forever measured by the shadows (we) leave’.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

How to be dead in a year of snakes
by Chris Tse
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408183

Renee Laing has chosen Tse’s poem ‘SS Ventnor’ as her Tuesday Poem

Book Review: Piggy Pasta and More Food With Attitude, by Rebecca Woolfall and Suzi Tait-Bradly

Both of my children were attracted to this brightly-coloured book. In fact, they helped me cv_piggy_pastato appreciate it through their eyes, as initially I had trouble appreciating the jumble of recipes − my eldest pointed out that the recipes were in alphabetical order by wacky name (there is an index at the back to assist adults). I wasn’t sure that there was much the children would be keen to make that I would agree to (the Dirt Pudding – made of biscuits, cream, chocolate and sugar was highly valued by the girls). The Hot Diggity Dogs and Crazy Slaw was the second choice and one easily made.

I like to cook and bake and I think it is a useful skill to pass on to children. In the last year our family has been growing a lot of our own vegetables and the children now appreciate how long it can take to grow vegetables, and how delicious they are just out of the garden. I was quite pleased that we were able to provide all of the coleslaw ingredients from our garden, bar the grated cheese.Coleslaw_piggy_pasta

I think something really valuable that children’s cookbooks can do is show children variations on food that they find familiar. I’m sure if I’d suggested to the children putting cheese in the coleslaw they would have objected – but they were keen to follow the instructions! The Hot Diggity Dogs were delicious, and were a very quick dinner at the end of a hectic day.

The front cover features ‘Piggy Pasta’ – pasta that has a beetroot and yoghurt creamy sauce. While garishly coloured, I know from my own family’s past ‘purple pizza’ experience that beetroot is a fun way to colour food, and one highly appealing to children.

I learned along the way that my youngest loves baked beans. There is a recipe ‘Full of Beans’ teaching children how to make baked beans. My daughter asked for those “tomato sauce beans” (which I haven’t ever given to her because her older sister hates them) because, I guess, she loves anything in tomato sauce! She also noticed that the face decoration in the illustrations used olives for eyes − and I’d had great trouble guessing what they had used!

Each recipe is illustrated with a large photograph and there are instructions within the recipes to ensure that children can replicate their appearance at home. For example, meals with funny faces on them detail what the authors used and how to prepare them.

Something that I particularly liked is that the majority of the savoury recipes are vegetarian, widening the appeal of the book. To be frank, it is quite easy to find recipes for children with beef or chicken, but interesting vegetable based meals are less common. The ingredients used in the book are all readily found at any supermarket.

What I would love from a children’s cookbook is some advice on cooking one recipe with two children of different ages. By the time we have all jostled for counter space, knives and negotiated tasks it can be quite stressful! When cooking from this book I had the oldest reading out the instructions and the youngest and I doing the prep work.

It must be hard to put together a children’s cookbook. I suspect people must commonly complain that they are either too hard, too simplistic, too unhealthy, too healthy, too expensive, too fancy etc! I think though that the selection of recipes in Piggy Pasta is a reasonable balance and appealing to a wide range of ages of abilities.

The authors, Rebecca and Suzi run Little Cooks − cooking classes for children in Auckland.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

Piggy Pasta and More Food With Attitude
by Rebecca Woolfall and Suzi Tait-Bradly
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432166

Book Review: The Silver Gaucho, by Jackie Ballantyne

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Jackie Ballantyne worked in advertising in Australia and then began writing fiction. Shecv_the_silver_gaucho has won awards and commendations for her short fiction. Her first novel, How to Stop a Heart from Beating was published in NZ in 2007. She currently lives in Dunedin.

This book opens with the breaking news “El Gaucho de la Plata esta muerto” –“The Silver Gaucho is dead” being flashed on all the television screens in Argentina. Luis Felipe Alessandro Mabon who played The Silver Gaucho in a popular television series has been killed in a traffic accident on 9 November 2001.

The story then flips back to 1998, to the events preceding Luis Mabon being killed. Lachlyn Steele, known to all as Lockie, is in Argentina doing research for a travel book on Argentina. Her books are called “snapshots”. When she is not travelling, Lockie lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. She is introduced to Luis Mabon by her tour guide Mijale. They arrive at his home Finca Carliotos – a place with a rich history. The house now serves as a guest house. It was a former trading house where many deals were executed, cocoa in exchange for grain, naimlas for tobacco, and parcels of land for salt. Her first impression of Luis was of a cocky self-assured man who liked being the centre of attention. Lockie summed him up as “smarmy”.

Leaving Luis, Lockie travels by a circuitous route, led by Mijale which finishes at Estaneia Pequenos Milagros, Luis Mabron’s family home where they train horses. A suite has been prepared for Lockie, with Luis expecting her to stay. What follows is the reason for her apparent “hijacking” by Luis. He wants her to help his family. His younger brother Javier has gone missing. Lockie is not sure how she can help until she is told that he flew to New Zealand. The family have had one letter sent to their father to say Luis’ brother is not coming home, and then nothing for some time before he sent a postcard with a few short sentences in Spanish, telling them nothing. They are naturally worried and want Lockie to find out where he is and why he has chosen to disappear. They want to pay for her services to find him. There are secrets within the family that they won’t discuss with Lockie. Lockie returns to her home in Dunedin.

The ensuing story is one of friendships in unexpected places, adventures and romance and is well written. I was very impressed the way this book is set out and the obvious research that had taken place by the author.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Silver Gaucho
by Jackie Ballantyne
Published by The Doby Press
ISBN 9780473275259

Book Review: There’s a Medical Name for This, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Kerrin P. Sharpe was born in Wellington and now lives in Christchurch where she is a cv_theres_a_medical_name_for_thispoet and teacher of creative writing. Her her first collection Three Days in a Wishing Well was published by VUP in 2012. As with her debut collection, the poems in There’s a Medical Name for This are distilled, spare, and arresting. Sharpe has a clear and unmistakable voice – her poems are often surreal and haunting, but she can also be funny. For example, in one memorable poem a deer builds a Portaloo! The world Sharpe creates in the surreal poems sits comfortably beside the ‘pilgrim poems’ in this collection, which explore the equally strange experience of loss and how we move forward.

One of the most successful aspects of the collection is the way Sharpe moves the reader – almost seamlessly – through time and location. In one poem we’re on a World War One battlefield; in another a man gets money out of an ATM before an earthquake in Christchurch. Sharpe’s characters are many: Antarctic explorers, a woman shopping, and Japanese rice planter in 1953. While this could easily make the collection feel disjointed, Sharpe’s consistent voice and purposefully limited palette of images pulls the collection together. We return to the same theme: we live in an uncertain world.

While Sharpe’s imagery is beautifully rendered, very little in this collection is literal or straight-forward. When first reading a poem I would often ask myself what it was about. This elusive quality is entirely intentional: it allows the poems to slowly reveal their themes, and through that revelation, be all the more powerful. One example is ‘the dictator’:

the brother of birds
smokes feathers

sucks a collar
of small black tunes

coaxes thick slices
of red berries
into his bunker

preorders gasoline
shoots his dog

crushes tiny skulls
of poison for his wife

persuades his gun to talk

Sharpe’s poems often have a fable-like quality which allows her to blend her own family history with broader events in world history. Being able to read her stories within this wider context is one of the strengths of the collection, and poems often bounce off each other. Many of the poems in the collection come in bunches, which gradually creates a story. For example, poems about snow appear together, as do a series of poems about horses (these are not the horses you’d expect, though. In one poem a ‘thesaurus horse’ joins the speaker’s father ‘by the fire // both of them searching / for the right word’.) The most heartbreaking series of the collection is about miscarriage, which I am assuming stems from Sharpe’s own family history. From the collection’s title poem:

she builds a baby
from steam and feather
from early snow

she cannot remember
who is still born
herself or her son

she lines a box
with pinus radiata wings
a scarf of grey sky

While I am still puzzling over a few of the poems, this is a moving and singular collection.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett 

There’s a Medical Name for This 
by Kerrin P. Sharpe
Victoria University Press, 2014
RRP $25.00, 68 pp.
ISBN 9780864739308

Book Review: The Train to Paris, by Sebastian Hampson

cv_the_train_to_parisAvailable now at bookstores nationwide. 

A young New Zealand man, studying art history at Paris’s Sorbonne. A moneyed Parisian woman at something of a loose end. These are the main protagonists in Sebastian Hampson’s first novel, The Train to Paris.

20 year old Lawrence Williams has had a fairly sheltered upbringing; he is naïve and, let’s be honest, decidedly callow. He thinks he’s much more worldly and knowledgeable than he is. Elodie Lavelle is rich, bored and of a certain age. They meet at a train station at the Spanish border as both are trying to return to Paris. Elodie takes Lawrence on an adventure that will start him on the journey to growing up.

Hampson has a flair for describing locations – while reading I found myself transported to sultry, luxurious Biarritz and the two sides of Paris that Lawrence and Elodie exist in. Elodie’s Paris is particularly evocative in all its shallow, fragile brilliance.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t relate to either of the main characters. Lawrence is too prissy, too uptight, for me to like or care about much. He’s too much of a passenger in his own life, with his going-nowhere relationship with a girl back home and his mooching flatmate. He made me feel very impatient. Elodie is horrible. Clearly deeply unhappy despite her privileged lifestyle, her dialogue with Lawrence is bossy, spiky and downright rude. She may be beautiful and possessed of a certain sort of surface attractiveness that Lawrence is drawn to, but her behaviour would put a smarter man right off. Her offhand, snide treatment of Lawrence is frequently callous.

The main plot’s a cougar-on-the-prowl, Mrs Robinson kind of set-up. Hampson does his best to add more sophistication to the story, but it is at heart a coming-of-age story where the older woman teaches the younger man a lesson or three. Elodie may learn something from Lawrence, but as the story is entirely from his point of view, it’s hard to be sure. The settings are beautifully drawn but for me the characters didn’t live up to the stage that Hampson created for them.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Train to Paris
by Sebastian Hampson
Published by Text
ISBN 9781922147790

Book Review: Maralinga, by Frank Walker

Available now in bookstores nationwide. cv_maralinga

Suppose you’re designing a new super-weapon. It’s based on an earlier model which you know is quite destructive, but you don’t understand all of its effects. You’d like to test its effects on buildings, animals and people but you are rather risk averse. And likely this weapon has bad effects you haven’t even dreamed of. How can you test it?

One way might be to find a friendly ally, con him into letting you test the weapon on his soil, using his troops, his environment, his general population and his babies. Of course, you’d keep what you find secret, and not let your ally see too much or ask too many questions.

Nah – far too fanciful. No-one would make a movie based on such an unlikely scenario. Do irreparable harm to an ally, in secret? Never.

But that is just what happened in the 1950s. Britain tested its atomic weapons in Australia, using Australian troops, the Australian population, and Australian babies as guinea pigs. And while the effects were (and still are) horrifying, secrecy was maintained for decades. Many people were harmed; few were told about it.

It’s actually quite hard to review Maralinga without slipping into hyperbole, outrage and visceral anger. Reading it caused a growing tide of disbelief, anger and despair. But this is a story which must be told.

Britain began nuclear tests in Australia during 1953. This was agreed to by the Prime Minister at the time, Robert Menzies, apparently on his own in an attempt to get even cosier with Britain. They began in the Monte Bello islands off northern Western Australia, and in 1955 moved to Maralinga, in the northern part of South Australia. They conducted seven atomic bomb tests, and perhaps as many as 700 “minor” tests, many of which were just as dangerous as a full bomb test. Australian troops did the dirty work, and while there were Australian scientists involved, they were kept in the background.
The first part of the book describes the preparation and conduct of these tests in a series of vivid descriptions. There was a staggering lack of knowledge about the effects of radiation, and tests were conducted with an almost insouciant lack of concern for the Air Force and Naval personnel involved. Some of the descriptions of troops collecting radioactive samples in ordinary dress, then passing the samples over to scientists in full protective gear simply stun the reader. It is hard to accept that the British boffins involved didn’t realise, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that radiation is not nice.

Was this deliberate, or just amateurish? The author has documentation that shows (in his words) “… from the very start the British regarded exploding atomic bombs in Australia as a chance to use troops, sailors and airmen as guinea pigs in their experiments, and Australia was to be regarded as one big laboratory”. Issues big and small pile up in the ensuing chapters The British treated even eminent Australians as “colonials”, and the disregard for their rights and interests blows the reader away (bad pun definitely intended). For example, Aboriginal groups were living unaware in the danger zone, and reporting of their presence was actively discouraged under military discipline.

The second part of the book describes some of the effects on those directly involved, their descendants, and the general population. Of course health issues are to the forefront here. Research into the effects of fallout continued long after the tests stopped in 1963. “Research” that went as far as to harvest bones from dead babies and foetuses, without their parents’ knowledge.
Eventually truth, or at least a change in government, will out. There was a Royal Commission in 1984, which drew many conclusions about the conduct and effects of the tests, and made recommendations about reparations and clean-up. Not all have been implemented. They paint an ugly picture.

Frank Walker is a freelance investigative journalist specialising in defence and related issues. In this book he draws on many sources – official documents, some of which were secret until recently, the report of the Royal Commission, news reports and most importantly many interviews with surviving veterans. These interviews are reported in lively word pictures which vividly describe the veterans thoughts and feelings as they took part in the tests and monitoring, and in their later years as what had been done to them became clear.

This is not a dispassionate book! There may be another side to this story, although I can’t imagine what it is. It isn’t mentioned here. The author makes no attempt to be a neutral reporter. Rather, he seethes with anger and outrage at what he refers to in the subtitle as “our secret nuclear shame and betrayal of our troops and country”.

This is a horrifying story, told vividly and fluently. I do wish it weren’t true.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Frank Walker talked with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ recently. 

by Frank Walker
Published by Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733631900