Book Review: One of Us, by Åsne Seierstad

cv_one_of_usAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

This book was an excellent but very challenging read, the subject matter not being most people’s normal fare.

In 2011, Anders Breivik shot dead 67 teenagers who had gathered on  Utøya Island; young people with a social conscience and a desire to make their mark. Two hours prior, he had left behind 8 dead and 207 injured in a car bombing outside the Prime Minister’s office block in Oslo.

Like most people who watched this atrocity play out on TV footage, the biggest question for Seierstad was,”What would motivate anyone to commit such an act?”

In this brilliantly written, deftly paced book, Seierstad delves deeply into the lives of Breivik and two of his young victims. She attempts to give us answers, shining the light on the somewhat miserable life of Breivik: his rootlessness, his lack of social skills or empathy, his coldness and glacial pomposity; in comparison to the quite opposite lives of Simon Saebo and Bano Rashid up until the point that they were killed. Their future was most likely to be one of achievement, if their lives up until that point were any indication.

They didn’t get to live those lives but Seierstad honours them and their fellow victims by her writing and by her well researched efforts to unearth the paths they all followed, leading to their meeting under such horrid circumstances.

Like perpetrators and victims in most modern mass murders, the profiles are hauntingly similar and if anything, this book put me in my mind of the massacre at Columbine High School, simply for the terror that the victims faced, the closeness, the unexpectedness of their attacker, the planned randomness. Equally, the Oslo car bombing was reminiscent of the Oklahoma City Bombing, especially in the materials used. There is never much individuality in the actions of these perpetrators and it is chilling to think of the attention Breivik may have given to these prior events.

This is a book that draws you in, carries you along and leaves you in awe of the authors’ abilities, especially her ability to make the unbearable at least readable. While the events on  Utøya Island in particular are not easy reading this is a book well worth your reading time.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

One of Us
by Åsne Seierstad
Published by Virago Press
ISBN 9781844089208

Book review: Credit in the Straight World, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

cv_credit_in_the_straight_worldAvailable at selected bookstores nationwide.

This novel starts promisingly. Written in first person, its narrator George Tolland describes himself as “born deaf, partially blind, and I suppose mute, all of which was due to plain bad luck if you believe in luck, and syphilis if you don’t”. The voice is sassy, engaging, skeptical, and clear, what’s more — none of this ‘every character sounds the same’ business that you might find in another novel. Soon, we are introduced to George’s brother, Frank Tolland, and their town, a make-believe (and yet all too believable) Canterbury community called Manchester. All sketched out in quick, wry strokes, Gnanalingam’s characterization of the history and character of Manchester is absorbing, and the satirical tone of the novel is set as we enter the  the Tollands’ worlds and indeed, town.

As the narrative sweeps through the twentieth century, and the Tollands’ family history in Manchester – heading towards its final culmination in Frank Tolland’s immense, Allan-Hubbard-like success and his similarly Hubbard-like downfall, – we are treated to the same clear-cut characterization, satirical humour and descriptions of small town, close-minded life that we encountered in the Prologue. Pauline, Frank’s wife, was a character who always piqued my interest whenever she appeared, given her particular brand of potty-mouthed, passive-aggressive subversion of her husband. And George himself proved to be good company—he’s a brilliant person, well read, sarcastic and relatable.

As I said, this novel starts promisingly, and it certainly has a lot of the elements that make up a good novel. Why then did it not quite hit the spot? Ultimately, I think it’s a question of variety. The abiding impression I got from this book was one of a river streaming past with very little change in speed or pace, direction or intensity. This feeling was probably compounded by Gnanalingam’s extremely long sentences. Though it’s clear that this is an expression of George’s character (George explicitly says, “I would much rather have people read me writing free and flowing sentences”), the preponderance of these kinds of sentences definitely contributed to the feeling of sameness, and the sheer length of some of the sentences made these sentences sometimes hard to follow.

In terms of pace, however, this does change as we near the climax, and I began to engage with the characters in a different way—for example, I began to wonder how George had been so incapable of seeing Frank’s foibles, and this injected a nice note of doubt into the narrative. But overall the stream of this novel stayed too much the same. Nevertheless, this novel still deserves to be read and bought, for its wonderful characterisation and sly tone.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Credit in the Straight World
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence and Gibson Publishing Collective

Book Review: Bake Me Home, by Alice Arndell

cv_bake_me_homeI wanted to review this book because it was promoted as a great book for people who need to bake for kindy morning teas, and other similar last-minute baking occasions. It is great for this, but there are a few buts – for instance, anybody (possibly excepting Alice) who took a bunch of multi-coloured meringues to a shared lunch at my kindy, would probably be told off like a 4-year-old. Our teachers are renowned for their notes in lunchboxes – I haven’t yet earned one.

Moving on though, there is a lot to love about this book. The ingredients used are simple to find and easy to use. There are very handy hints for substitutions at the back of the book – one of which I had to use when I ran out of brown sugar as I was finishing baking the Apple Crumble loaf. That recipe was probably my least successful in that I had to turn the loaf tin upside down to dislodge the loaf, which neatly removed all of the crumble… The loaf itself, however, was divine. I got maybe one slice, then the kids demolished it (without permission) after kindy one day. Handy hint: don’t ever use ‘homebrand’ baking paper except as tracing paper. When it is cooked, it crumbles, so you can’t use the paper as an aid to remove the loaf from the tin.

The design and photography in the book is very elegant, and I like the fact that it is realistic. While the style is using sharper focus for the foreground, there was no neatening of edges, and nothing fanciful about it. The food speaks for itself, even the lunchbox muffins look delicious without being over-styled.

The recipes themselves are easy to follow, and almond_and_orange_anzacwhere there are a few tricky steps required, like with the Louise Cake, there are directions on where to find step-by-step instructions on the author’s website. I received a delicious wee promo pack of Anzac biscuits just before the book was launched, which the office girls’ demolished (even the one who can’t have egg – no egg in Anzac biscuits). When I made my own I think I may have mis-measured my dry ingredients. As you can see to the right, they ended up rather crumbly. Nobody minded, as again the recipe was yummy.

The tips in the back of the book are invaluable, one of the best being that if you leave a piece of bread on a cake while it is still cooling overnight, the bread will dry out but not the cake. Genius! Alice also explains the point of plain v high grade flour (one has more gluten) – I do bake frequently, but have never known the difference. Below is the tinned fruit shortcake, which I replaced plums with peaches in, to use up some tinned fruit in the fridge. It was delicious.

shortcake_bake_me_homeI can’t wait to break out some of the great recipes in this book at this terms’ shared lunch (but not the meringues) – and at the next birthday party I throw for one of the kids. The Swirly Sprinkle biscuits look divine, without being as sinful as some of the other recipes! And on the savoury end of the spectrum, the mini-hotdogs using cocktail sausages and pastry, look fancy without being difficult – just what you need when you are trying to do fifty things at once plus the cake for birthdays.

All in all, this is a well-produced, friendly to use book, which I am certain to use over and over again.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Bake Me Home: Delicious everyday occasions
by Alice Arndell, photos by Erina Wood
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540496

Book Review: Murder and Matchmaking, by Debbie Cowens

cv_murder_and_matchmakingAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

A delicious concoction of Austen meets Doyle. From the opening sentence: “It is a truth universally known that a pug in possession of a good appetite must be in want of a biscuit,” it is clear that you are in for a delightful read, and this proved to be the truth, indeed.

Now, call me a heathen if you will, but I have never read either Pride and Prejudice (not even the zombie version) nor Sherlock Holmes, although I have a fairly decent understanding of both. Pride begins with a young woman of no great beauty, who meets with a quarrelsome, disagreeable man – it is pretty much the basis of the “hate (or, at least, dislike) turns to love” romance trope. Cowens’ take on it is no exception to the rule. Mr Sherlock Darcy proves to be most infallibly irksome, with his lack of social etiquette and the way he looks down his nose at those of a feminine persuasion. Why, I just wished to slap that superior expression from his face – as I am sure did Miss Elizabeth Bennet. However, not only did Miss Elizabeth combat him with her sharp tongue, but also her perception and analytical mind, combining with her stubborn determination to prove him wrong.

There is very little suspense here – from almost the beginning you know who the murderer is – nor do you feel particularly for the safety of the Bennet sisters. However, you are drawn into this tale: by the desire to see the murderer brought to justice, with hope that Elizabeth will solve the case before Darcy and thus prove him wrong and because the prose is just so utterly engaging that you cannot help but be compelled along with it.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Murder and Matchmaking
by Debbie Cowens
Published by Paper Road Press

Book Review: Glory, by Rachael Billington

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_glory

Mozart once referred to Opera as a conversation with many people all speaking at once, and yet all are perfectly understood. In this, the Centenary year of the Gallipoli campaign, there will be many conversations, many stories and many points of view. As I write this, Kiwis are joining in mass commemoration of those who fell in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign of 1915. And, no doubt we’ll be involved in further recognitions of the tragic losses that were to come thereafter. This is the year of the Great War, after all.

Into this space, veteran author Rachael Billington adds her own take with an epic tale of relationships, love and heroism at Gallipoli, from the British standpoint. It’s easy to look at the campaign only with ‘black-tinted’ glasses but in fact Britain lost nearly 73,485 troops, nearly 5 ½ times that of the ANZACs. The Anglo angle in this book is prominent. Viewers of Downton Abbey will recognise the common themes of egalitarianism over class and the betrayal of the patriotic dream when the great adventure turns horrific very quickly.

Interwoven with the gruesome details of on-the-ground battles are the fates of a promising lawyer, Arthur and his girlfriend Sylvia. Arthur is almost immediately flung into the fray, unprepared and naïve. He survives by disobeying orders and befriending an intelligence officer aboard the landing ship, leading him to an alternative fate. At home Sylvia sits in her ‘perfect’ world on the estate, awaiting the titbits, from her correspondents, that tragically float back from ANZAC cove.

Another key figure is Dorset country boy Fred Chaffey, who is literally flung out of the first landing boat onto the shores of the peninsular by the first page. He spend three days sheltering behind the dying, pinned down by snipers and isolated from his unit. Eventually, he becomes a runner for an Australian captain and spends much of the book travelling between like landmarks like Quinn’s Post, Chunuk Bair and Shrapnel Alley whilst encountering a raft of personalities from across the Empire, and of course our friend Arthur. Their stories will eventually intertwine like some mad helix of fate.

Supporting the story are a host of other players, including real personalities from the time such as Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean, the blundering fool behind the decision to dig in, rather than retreat, when troops were mistakenly landed at the wrong cove. He’s described as a man with a “silly voice and even sillier habit of writing in his diary – filled with long Greek quotations” and, “far worse, his manner of giving commands as if they were invitations.” It shows Billington has done her homework. There is even a selected bibliography in the back.

“My grandfather died at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on August 21st 1915, she writes on her website. “(Yet) my grandmother …continued to believe that he would emerge from a Turkish hospital or prison camp.” In a sense the inspiration behind Glory was a mix of that story and the new horrors from her WWII childhood. “Publishing Glory is an emotional business. Naturally people are interested in my grandfather’s story…his heroic and pointless death is bad enough. But for me it exemplifies the muddled thinking that surrounded both the idea of the campaign and its execution.”

In layer after layer, Billington deftly presents this in her book and one can’t help finishing with a real sense of sadness that the whole thing was such a futile waste. New Zealanders will come together this year, along with the world to commemorate this most deft act of incompetence and horror. If we learn one thing from Glory it will be to thoroughly question the actions of our leaders and challenge their right to lead, because lest we forget, they are as fallible as anyone else. Glory is an epic tale, thought-provoking and slightly familiar. It doesn’t cover new ground but, like a good movie, it will cover ground and leave you wiser for it.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

by Rachael Billington
Published by Orion
ISBN 9781409156697

Book Review: The Four Books, by Yan Lianke

cv_the_four_booksAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Every so often (actually, remarkably frequently) I find a book which makes me want to go and find out more about a subject that I had not previously considered sufficiently.

The Four Books is one such book. Although like everyone my age, I knew something of the exigencies under which people struggled in China during the so-called Great Leap Forward, the full enormity of it had not really gelled in my mind until I was reading this novel. It’s important to note that this book was banned in China and is still largely unavailable there.

It’s a fantastic piece of writing. The setting is a Re-education camp where anyone with a real or imagined viewpoint contrary to that of the leaders of the country was sent to carry out pointless menial work in an unquestioning manner, until they were deemed to have reached the seemingly unknowable state of “being re-educated” and therefore capable of returning to the work force. All the people in District 99 were scholars and intellectuals, and so doubly problematic for the regime.

None of the characters has a given name. Instead Yan refers to them by their former occupation – author, musician, scholar etc. They are overseen by a character referred to as The Child, whose seeming innocence clearly works to the advantage of his masters in the towns and cities to which he is answerable. The Child is responsible for enforcing the mindless repetitive and un-attainable outputs which are either required, or self-imposed as the residents of 99 try to earn sufficient rewards to get their way out of the camp.

The four books of the title are both a nod to the Confucian texts called the Four Books, and the fact that there were four interwoven excerpts from the four fictional works which make up the whole story. These are: the collection of documents called “Criminal Records”, which is incriminating evidence about the other “inmates” provided by the Author for the Child; the “old Course” which relates to the signifance of the Yellow River and its place in the ways and customs of the people; some excerpts from an (imaginary) anonymous manuscript “Heaven’s child” – this one tells the story of the compound and relates it to various texts both Christian and Chinese; and finally, the preamble to work, based on the myth of Sisyphus (he who was condemned to push a boulder uphill daily, only to have it roll down again so he was endlessly repeating this task).

So there’s a lot going on.

I did not find it an easy book to read – it requires concentration and fairly undivided attention as it’s easy to lose which “voice” you are in if you don’t pay attention – but it is wonderful. Yan brings to life the enormous shortsightedness of the leaders of the ‘Great Leap Forward’. Ill-conceived and diabolically executed, the results of this were horrific. But at the same time he manages not to de-humanise everyone. It really is a remarkable piece of writing. I recommend it highly, and once I have got through all the books I bought at the Auckland Writers’ Festival, I’ll hunt down his other novels.

Reviewed by Susan Esterman

The Four Books
by Yan Lianke
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781922182487

Book Review: Hush: A Kiwi Lullaby, by Joy Cowley & Andrew Burdan

cv_hush_a_kiwi_lullabyAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Joy Cowley is a much-loved New Zealand writer of adult and children’s books. She has written this rather delightful version of a well-known children’s lullaby.

Andrew Burdan is a Wellington based illustrator and speaker of Maori.

When I first flicked through this book I was rather drawn to the illustrations. They are fresh and rather beautiful – you could almost see them as art work adorning your walls. To have a book that New Zealand children can identify with is rather special. My singing is rather abysmal and so instead I more or less read it in a reading voice!

Hush little baby, and go to sleep,
Mama’s going to give you a woolly sheep

Are the opening words to this version with –
And when that silver fern’s no more ……..
you’re still the best baby in Aotearoa.

The second half of this book has the same lullaby in Maori. I did attempt to sing this, but again not being a singer or a student in Te Reo Maori my attempts were appalling. When I made this comment to 4-year-old Abby, she was very kind saying – “you’re doing it Grandma,” with total admiration in her voice. 4-year-olds aren’t always the most discerning of creatures. When Pa was reading this book to 7 ½ month old Quin, and then got to the Maori version, she leaned over to me and whispered “He’s actually rather good.” It was all I could do to keep a straight face.

This book would make a fabulous addition to any child’s library. The age range recommendation is 2 – 4 years, Quinn at 7 ½ months enjoyed having this book read/sung to her.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Hush: A Kiwi Lullaby
by Joy Cowley & Andrew Burdan
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432968