Book Review: Clover Moon, by Jacqueline Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_clover_moonJacqueline Wilson is admirably prolific. Penning her 100th title, Opal Plumstead, in 2014, Wilson is one of the biggest names in children’s literature in the UK and abroad. Clover Moon continues her fabulous work with vivacious female characters in historically-set fiction for children.

Clover Moon lives with her large family in the squalor of Cripps Alley, a slum in Victorian England. She’s the eldest of six children, and she spends most of her time entertaining and looking after her four half-siblings, her beloved sister Megs, and the other children who live in the alley. Clover’s own mother died in childbirth with Megs, and her father has since remarried a wicked woman named Mildred, who cares very little for Clover and beats her given any opportunity. Life in Cripps Alley is grim, yet Clover (who has been taught to read and write by the crippled doll maker, Mr. Dolly) remains forward-thinking and mostly hopeful about her future.

That is, until she loses the one person she loves most in the world, her sister Megs, to scarlet fever. With a life of servitude to Mildred or poorly-paying factory work ahead of her, Clover plans to escape Cripps Alley and runs away to a home for destitute girls, where a new realm of challenges and surprises awaits her.

Wilson does a fantastic job of truthfully exploring the grim realities of slum life in the Victorian era, without resorting to melodrama. Yet while Clover Moon explores the harsh realities and deep sadness of the time, the unwavering vibrancy of Clover herself keeps the tone up-beat and the plot moving.

At a hefty 385 pages, I would find it difficult to recommend Clover Moon as a gateway for new readers into Wilson’s work. However, veteran readers of Wilson’s fiction will no doubt devour this new tale from the bestselling author – it even features a short cameo appearance from Hetty Feather, one of Wilson’s most well-known heroines. Best of all, the ending is open and abrupt – it’s very possible we’ll be reading more about Clover Moon in the future.

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

Clover Moon
by Jacqueline Wilson
Doubleday Children’s Books
ISBN 9780857532749

Book Review: The Journal of Urgent Writing, edited by Nicola Legat

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_journal_of_urgent_writingThis book, or journal, is the first in a planned annual collection of long form essays from (mostly) academics and journalists, addressing “urgent” topics that they have been researching or thinking about recently. If continued as planned, these journals should give a snapshot about issues that were concerning us at that time – or that should have been concerning us more, in retrospect. In any case, this collection brings specialist writers to a more generalist audience. A fine idea that seems to be gaining in popularity, considering that Auckland University Press has also just published a collection of non-fiction stories and essays.

Some editorial decisions have probably been made about the order in which these essays are presented, but I could not pick up any logic in the placement. In some cases essays that touch on similar subjects are placed far apart, making me wonder whether they would have given the reader a different impression if read sequentially. I only wondered this after reading two essays that did seem to segue: historian Peter Meihana writes on how the concept of “Māori privilege” may be part of New Zealand’s national creation myth, used by colonial governments to both claim egalitarianism and to sanction Māori dispossession. This is followed by Krushil Watene’s piece on water, law and philosophical concepts of ownership. Watene argues that indigenous perspectives on humans’ connection to and responsibility to nature are among the philosophical forces that can lead us away from recent (environmentally disastrous) ideologies that privilege exploitation of natural sources for individual gain.

I suspect that, as with a magazine, these pieces should be picked up in whatever order the reader cares. No more energy for new arguments? Flick to the sole pictorial essay and marvel at diatoms! I just wasn’t feeling it when I turned to an essay about why children can’t read, so came back to it later only to realise that it wasn’t the subject that had left me cold, but the fact that the essay had none of the conversational qualities that made some of the others so engaging. Nothing wrong with a list of well-argued refutations of myths on this topic, and I’m sure the piece could have formed the basis of a good lecture, but there was no illustrative anecdote, no insertion of the authors’ voices into the narrative along the lines of “when we first looked at this issue we expected X, but here’s what happened…”.

Other readers may well differ, but the most successful essays for me were the ones that gave the feeling of a good sit-down chat with someone who knows way more than you on a particular topic and would just love to tell you about how they discovered it. The first piece – Dan Salmon on the problem of sustainable tuna fisheries and so much more – is a fantastic example of this. The next piece is a complete change of tune: an address to graduates about how to live a good life which, although containing plenty of warm and worthwhile advice, did not strike me as especially “urgent” or new. Paul McDonald’s address does, however, incorporate advice which could be a commissioning brief for this kind of collection: “Tell stories, too, especially those that exemplify our humanity. Constructive change is most likely to result from a combination of logical data and a compelling story”.

To that end, Jarrod Gilbert makes riveting use of statistics combined with shocking examples of how those stats are or are not addressed, in his essay on crime and justice. He writes like a guy who could talk your ear off about any number of maddening stories on these topics without getting at all boring.

Mike Joy is angry about the state of our rivers, and this is hardly news, but it is perhaps fitting that his subject and angle was the one I could most easily predict from looking at the author list. His essay charts his personal and professional journey to becoming “that scientist who campaigns about freshwater”, and the dramas along the way.

Teena Brown Pulu tells an intensely emotional family story to illustrate the irrelevance of rules that force people to nominate only one ethnicity to identify with. Paula Morris and David Slack also do lovely work weaving wider themes into their reflections about life stages and parents. Slack’s final essay ends the collection beautifully on a poignant and hopeful note.

Richard Shaw addresses arguments for why young people disengage from democracy and what should be done about it, in a topical and indeed urgent piece that is hard to read now without thinking ”ah, this was written right before THAT THING happened in the USA…”
Speaking of which, it’s only fair that a collection of urgent 2016 writing should allude to the political news in the USA. In the one essay that genuinely irritated me, Paul Thomas started off with what seemed like a “damn kids get off my lawn” invective against the “cult of self-esteem”, politically correct outrage and social media narcissism. He then annoyed me further by seguing into what may be a fair point, arguing that Trump’s rise to power is linked to his embodiment of extreme narcissism which is only now seen as normal. Frankly that’s an argument I was just not ready to read about, even if it contains a grain of truth. 2016, everyone.

To sum up, a quote from another highly topical essay reminds us what this compilation is aiming for. David Hall’s fair-minded discussion about the meaning of environmental politics buzzwords such as “green growth” concludes: “By taking seriously other ideas, even those we disagree with, we force ourselves to think better about our own.”

With that in mind, bring on the 2017 round of thought-provoking rants.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

The Journal of Urgent Writing
edited by Nicola Legat
Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994130068

Maui Sun Catcher, by Tim Tipene, illustrated by Zak Waipara, translated by Rob Ruha

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_maui_sun_catcher.jpgRe-working a traditional and much loved myth is a big challenge and requires ensuring the familiar story features are finely balanced with new ideas and fresh imagery to retain the essence of the original while engaging new audiences. Award winning New Zealand author Tim Tipene took up this challenge with Maui – Sun Catcher and has hit that balance perfectly, delivering a Maui who is both mischief-maker and cheeky fella.

Bringing Maui into the 21st century sees him cajoling his brothers to help him capture Tama Nui Te Ra, the Sun, and force him to slow down so that all can get their work done and enjoy a full day. The brothers are modern day blokes and the dialogue between them is as Kiwi as it gets: ‘You think too much, said Roto, rolling his eyes and turning on the television. ‘Sit down and watch the rugby, man.’ The striking cartoon like illustrations depicting them in familiar clothing (jeans, mechanic’s overalls and school uniform), coupled with mentions of sunscreen and gassing up the car brings the myth well and truly into modern day.

In keeping with the magical capabilities of Maui the trickster, he is depicted in what looks suspiciously like a superhero outfit, complete with emblem on his top, fish hook slung low across his hips, and… is that a cape or a hoodie? Also setting him apart and adding to his mystery, is Maui’s speech which, in rhyming couplets, is the only rhyme found in the text; a feature acknowledged by one of his brothers: “Maui the poet, eh, always out to be the hero,’ Waho grumbled.”

When he and his brothers find the sun’s pit, they prepare to trap the Sun in a net made of magic flax. Maui steps up to challenge the Sun to slow down and, in this version, beats the Sun not with his fists but with his words – tricking the Sun into slowing down using flattery: ‘The Sun was quiet, He looked around. He liked Maui’s words of magnificence and greatness. They made him feel special.’

Presented in both te Reo Maori and English this bi-lingual modern retelling of a myth unique to Aotearoa is equally accessible to all young readers. It is beautifully presented in hardback with bright colours and bold illustrations and I do hope it is the first of many such re-workings presented by the Tipene, Waipara and Oratia Books team.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Maui: Sun Catcher
by Tim Tipene, illustrated by Zak Waipara, translated by Rob Ruha
Published by Oratia Books, 2016
ISBN 9780947506148

Book Review: The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter, by Deborah Challinor

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_cloud_leopards_daughterSet in 1863, the story begins on the Otago Goldfields where the daughter of a Chinese Tong master is kidnapped and whisked off to China and a forced marriage.

We meet up with Kitty and Rian Farrell sailing into Dunedin harbour in their schooner Katipo 111 to meet with their friend Wong Fu who is based at Lawrence, very unwell, and concerned for the wellbeing of his daughter Bao.

The couple agree to sail to China to find the girl and the reader is taken on a fascinating journey which includes pirates, another kidnapping and the opium trade into China.
When their daughter Amber is taken from a hotel in Cebu, Phillipines, Kitty is devastated as this is the fourth time in her life that Amber has been kidnapped. She wonders if she “were being made to pay for plucking Amber from the streets of Auckland when she had been tiny”.

This is the fourth book in the The Smuggler’s Wife Series which are all based on the high seas in the Pacific. This title is easily a stand alone book as I had not read any of the previous books and was soon absorbed into the adventures of the very real, colourful characters brought to life by the descriptive writing.

The author has done a great deal of research into the opium trade into China which has given an interesting depth to the story of an era which has almost been forgotten. In the author notes at the rear of the book Challinor says, “The British reluctantly paid for their pekoe, teacups and bolts of silk in bullion, but, concerned at the amount of silver in particular leaving England, soon realised there was a ready market for opium in china”.

The peaceful but rugged coastline on the front cover of The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter enticed me into this book, I learned a lot about the opium trade, and I believe anyone who likes a family saga with some adventure in it will enjoy it as much as I did.

Deborah Challinor lives in New Zealand with her husband. While at University she did a PhD in military history and when her thesis was described by one of her university supervisors as readable she sent it to a publisher, and came away with a book deal. She has now published fourteen novels in fifteen years. She has also written one young adult novel and two non fiction books.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Cloud Leopard’s Daughter
by Deborah Challinor
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460751572

Book Review: Snot Chocolate, by Morris Gleitzman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_snot_chocolateSeriously, who could resist a book called Snot Chocolate? Certainly not me or other Morris Gleitzman fans. Each story is told with just the right amount of humour to convey the overall theme of the book, which is a collection of nine short stories focussing on kids handling a significant moment in their lives.

The range of characters include a medieval peasant suddenly made the king, a lawyer’s daughter trying to help her mother, an overly zealous bacterial wiper, a sibling helping to deal with a troll, a diary-writing dog, a girl giving away hot chips and a boy who meets his demolition fairy.

The kids featured in the stories are every day kids who are just like the nice ones in your school or who live in your neighbourhood: caring, smart, and learning about themselves and the world, and how to deal with a variety of social and personal problems. I love how Gleitzman gives each one a chance to shine, allowing them work out and face their problems with courage and kindness. At the end of each story, each character has grown and developed, giving readers encouragement to be able to do the same.

Entertaining and thought provoking at the same time, every story is well paced and expertly written, with authentic character voices and engaging plots. A short story anthology is a great way to encourage reluctant readers, as they can approach one story at a time if they wish, or can equally plough their way through all of them.

Whether the tween-ager in your life is an avid Gleitzman fan or they haven’t yet read any of his books, Snot Chocolate would make a wonderful summer read.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Snot Chocolate
by Morris Gleitzman
Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN 9780143309222

Book Review: Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

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cv_dont_dream_its_overThe title for this collaborative book of essays and insights, borrowed from the Crowded House song, “Don’t Dream it’s Over”, is apposite and timely. From the song there is the line “…they come to build a wall between us…”. If we took that literally with regard to journalism, applied to the commercial model for media, it seems that the quality product will soon be found behind a paywall; and the mass media will not provide anything in the way of investigative reporting in the future. The contributors to this book  make it abundantly clear that long-form print journalism is on the wane, and, in any case, the whole future of the print media itself is in doubt.

A lot has already been written about this demise, however, and though covered here the real insights are into the specific role of New Zealand journalism. We like to think of Crowded House as a New Zealand institution, but do we similarly think of any of the local media with this level of esteem? Other than the regard shown for public broadcasting on radio, in the form of RNZ, one’s reaction to the essays in general is to ask what is worth saving in the commercial media? And does it actually matter? Those of us who do listen to RNZ for much of the morning and early evening are still well informed, by and large, and can then pick and choose what to read or view from the commercial outlets. But even then, RNZ can be challenged for its content, as some of the contributors do, on the basis of a deficit in their indigenous and Pacific stories.

Industry insiders, such as Brent Edwards, do concede that there has been a loss of trust between the audience and the media, and he is particularly critical of political coverage. RNZ is actually the only media outlet that covers the proceedings of Parliament, while all the rest of the Press Gallery simply focus on the game of politics without any substance of policymaking. I suggest that the so-called ‘political editors’ don’t actually report anything, but simply provide an insider commentary. Morgan Godfery provides a brilliant chapter ‘Against political commentary’, where he wrestles with his own involvement as a commentator, and trappings of the elite company he has kept. He refers to the idea of ‘savvy commentary’, and the narrow demographic background of commentators creating a hermetically sealed world. He refers to the odd premise that this perpetuates: “a belief that political progress comes from pragmatic insiders who know how to manoeuvre within the system…” With his critique in mind, we should also note how partisan most of the broadcasters have become, even though the media insiders refer to certain examples to counter this.

The book’s editors point to the release of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics as a catalyst for the collection, and contributors refer to the innovative use of the Panama Papers as a counter-example, whereby the government was held to account. Hager has his own chapter in the book, and the Panama Papers are mentioned a number of times, including in Peter Griffin’s essay on New Zealand’s fledgling data journalism ‘scene’. Griffin’s title is ‘Needles in the haystack’, but it might as well have been ‘Missing the wood for the trees’. This is because none of the contributors note that without the release of the Panama Papers as an international story, and with the New Zealand stories actually coming out of the Australian Financial Review, we would never have known that there was a tax haven operating in New Zealand. The local media seem to think that they are responsible for exposing this, and creating policy change, though nothing has actually happened yet to close the tax haven down. In fact, certain business reporters were aware of the trust law and the related industry, that is the basis for the tax haven. These are the same couple of reporters that noted that John Key’s agenda for an ‘international financial hub’ came to grief a few years ago. There is no mention at all of business reporting in this book, and its role in providing expert analysis of economic issues, even when it is still ideologically aligned to the right.

But, overall, the Freerange Press has done a great job with this book, and every chapter is worthwhile. Peter Arnett provides a foreword, and reflects on his being a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, something of a high point for the international press. There is also a chapter on the views of some journalism students, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they almost all want to work for major international broadcasters, other than the one who is happy to find a job at RNZ. The book has some very good design features, and some impressive motifs for each chapter heading, and the ‘tags’ at the end of the book. The ‘tags’ appear in place of a conventional index, which may, however, have been of some use given the length of the text. There is even a chapter that discusses the role of design in the digital age, which adds another dimension.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
edited by Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett
Published by Freerange Press
ISBN 9780473364946

Book Review: 1916: Dig for Victory, by David Hair

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_1916_dig_for_victoryAt the New Zealand Division Camp in Moascar, Egypt, Private Leith McArran, a soldier from Otago, befriends Private Tamati “Tommy” Baines. The two young soldiers have their own reasons for enlisting in the army. Leith struggles to live up to the expectations of his British veteran father, Lachlan McArran, while keeping an eye on his wounded older brother, Calum. Leith is constantly pressured by his father’s notion of war as a platform for masculine stoicism. Tamati Baines, an orphan, is determined to embark on “the Great Adventure.” It is later revealed that he lied about his age in order to enter the army.

Tensions arise between Maori and Pakeha soldiers as the Otago soldiers are merged into a new battalion, the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion. The “Pioneers” are assigned “behind-the-lines” work, which involves digging modern trenches and building roads, railroads, and barracks. Leith and Tamati make a great team, teaching each other about their cultures and aspirations, sharing in youthful dreams of romance and adventure, and ceaselessly looking out for each other on the battlefield. The soldiers of the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion travel from camp in Moascar to the clubs of Cairo, from the trenches of Armentières to the fiery battleground of the Somme. Initially dissatisfied with their humdrum tasks and craving to engage in combat, Leith and Tamati are soon exposed to the war’s powerful devastation of body and soul.

David Hair’s 1916: Dig for Victory is the third instalment in Kiwis at War, a series of historical fiction novels aimed towards teenagers. These five novels, written by Kiwi authors, narrate the Great War, spanning the years 1914 to 1918. This particular novel focuses on the familial and personal repercussions of fighting in the Great War. Narrated in third person and with interspersed letters, the novel flows in chronological order, no doubt helped by thorough research. A timeline, glossary and photographs at the end of the novel provide a detailed glimpse into modern warfare. Hair’s descriptive writing fleshes out the visceral reactions to danger and death, and the ways in which soldiers worked to maintain hope and sanity in times of conflict.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

1916: Dig for Victory
By David Hair
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 978-1-77543-278-4