Book Review: The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox

Available in bookshops nationwide from 12 September 2019
The Launch is at Unity Books on Thursday, 12 September

cv_the_absolute_bookElizabeth Knox’s thirteenth novel promises fantasy on a grand scale from the outset, with its brave title, heft, and illustrative cover; yet turn the pages and the reader is transported into the opening of a juicy crime thriller. Thus begins an unpredictable and intelligent work of imagination that plunges the reader ever deeper into a modern world interwoven within a realm of fantasy and folklore.

The story follows Taryn Cornick, a successful writer from England, whose recent literary acclaim and marriage to a wealthy and thoughtful husband should be enviable, yet are overshadowed by the loss of her older sister in a hit-and-run incident. Unable to reconcile herself with the punishment meted out by the justice system, she sets the wheels in motion for her own revenge – and unwittingly, her damnation. What ensues is a kaleidoscopic tale of her salvation by Shift, a misfit from a seemingly utopian parallel world, and a band of characters encountered along the way. Could Taryn’s latest book, inspired by the library of her late grandfather provide the key to what everyone – and everything is so desperately seeking?

This book was unexpectedly fast-paced: I could almost feel the author grabbing me by the shirtfront and ripping me through the portals of this labyrinthine fantasy. The relaxed writing style and sensory descriptions give the story as much ease and addictiveness as a holiday paperback, but without compromising on intellect. Knox aligns her story and characters in our current social, cultural and environmental state, and uses the fantasy realms to question and highlight, horrify and add humour to the ultimate questions, and challenges we face. Taryn’s reality, past and present, unravels to the reader in patterns that begin with something seemingly idyllic which is inevitably corrupt or corrupted. The same goes for the fantasy realm of Knox’s story – the utopian society is riddled with flaws, the demons are more sinned against than sinning, and Purgatory shares our frustrations with public transport and healthcare.

This is the kind of book you keep on your shelf for years to come, and discover new depths each time you re-read it. Anyone who enjoys the bounty and beauty of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and the far-from-perfect characters of Neil Gaiman will appreciate the depth of imagination, and level of critical thinking that has been poured into this book. Even Taryn’s rare slip in word use, which momentarily unveils her New Zealand creator, can be forgiven. It reminds the reader this is not an English import, it is a New Zealand writer at the top of their game.

Reviewed by Lynette Hartgill

The Absolute Book
by Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776562305

Book Review: Wellness – Small Changes for Big Results, by Jess Blair

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_wellness_small_changes.jpgOriginally from Queensland in Australia, Jess Blair along with her husband Adam and 2 sons have made New Zealand their home. Jess is a qualified naturopath and nutritionist. She has appeared on television and radio, done public speaking, written magazine columns and has her own blog.

Taking charge of your wellness is a way to ensure a healthy lifestyle and hopefully a longer life. Wellness is written with the idea that you read and take out of this book ways to change and improve your lifestyle. A lot of the information in this book has been published by other “experts” but I was very impressed with how much this book covers without preaching as though your life depended on drastic changes. A lot of the changes she suggests are common sense, but making small changes like something as simple as limiting screen time and caffeine before you go to sleep is great advice. She also talks about stress and how it can affect your body, even with the healthiest of diets.

We’re all human and no one diet works – in fact Jess says forget about the word and concentrate on actually living but limiting what is deemed bad food – don’t completely take it out of your normal diet. Use it like a treat – an occasional beer, wine or pizza is not going to hurt.

Wellness covers a number of topics from Jess’s journey to wellness, explaining exactly what naturopathy is, right through moving your body, a healthy home and a lifestyle plan along with meal plans with recipes.

I read this book with great interest as I am firmly of the belief you are what you eat and that your personality and how you react to stress impacts on your health. This is a very  well-researched and written book. I am pleased to be able to add it to my growing library of wellness and healthy living titles.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Wellness – Small Changes for Big Results
by Jess Blair
Published by Imagination Press
ISBN 9780995110496

Book Review: Moth Hour, by Anne Kennedy

This book will be available from 19 September.

cv_the_moth_hourThis evocative volume is less a collection of Anne Kennedy’s poetic work and more a set of pieces built around a well defined theme. No spoilers here: her brother died. In 1973 she was a teenager and he was in his early twenties when he fell to his death in an accident. Moth Hour is about a life cut short, it’s about potential, loss and a particular time in Wellington’s history.

Each of the poems riff off one poem that Kennedy found in her brother’s manuscripts and published at the start of the book. It’s sweet and beautiful poem and she carries his imagery and spirit throughout. Moth Hour has the potential to be morose, dirge-like or overly nostalgic and sentimental. I was heartened to find that it is none of these things.

Kennedy honours her brother without turning him into a saint and explores her grief without fingering the wounds too thoroughly. Some of the poems appear to be about a deep missing

I hope to attend one of your parties
before I die
your death has already
been established

from ’20’.

Others seem to speak from her brother’s perspective, songs he may have sung, old rhymes and many voices. It became clear that  Kennedy is adept at shrugging on different coats, Moth Hour is not just about a sister left behind.

At times I felt I wasn’t the target audience for this work. I may have gotten more out of the book if I had lived through the 70’s, or maybe, if I had experienced decades with a hole in my family. I still got a lot from the exploration regardless, I felt like the ‘little sister’ again.

Moth Hour made me remember family holidays with my older siblings and particularly the elastic nature of time when you’re young. Time stretches as you mull over your loved ones, how you fit in their worlds. All those hours we’ve spent lying under the plum tree, organising mum’s button collection or in Anne Kennedy’s case, studying the Persian rug in the sitting room.

Reviewed by Lucy Black

Moth Hour
by Anne Kennedy
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408947

 

Book Review: The First Breath, by Olivia Gordon

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_first_breath.jpgHow difficult is it to carry out life-saving surgery on tiny patients with ‘veins as thin as spider webs’? The First Breath focuses on astounding advances in fetal/prenatal surgery, particularly complex surgeries carried out in utero well before a baby is born.

Gordon is a British journalist and the mother of a disabled child who spent his first five months in hospital. She carried out thorough research while writing The First Breath. She interviewed leading pediatricians, surgeons, neonatologists and other doctors, as well as midwives, nurses and allied health professionals. She received permission to observe consultations and surgeries. She also traveled outside the United Kingdom to learn about similar procedures carried out in countries such as Sweden.

Gordon challenges readers to consider the ethical issues involved in decisions about termination, the health and rights of the fetus, and the role and purpose of genetic testing. She urges consideration of how terminology influences our attitude and perspective: ‘What we still call ‘abnormalities’ or ‘anomalies’ in the fetus are what we speak of more sensitively after birth as ‘disabilities’ and ‘diversity’.’

Gordon draws on her own and others’ stories when describing the feelings of inadequacy parents can experience. She’s upfront about the book’s focus on mothers, although acknowledges that fathers’ experiences are ‘just as important’. There are in fact many references to fathers throughout the book, including acknowledgement of the help and information provided by her own father, himself a doctor.

Although considerable resources are directed at unwell infants and children, Gordon suggests that the support needs of their parents are not always recognized or acknowledged. She presents a convincing case for more attention to be focused on parents’ mental health and wellbeing. She says that it is not uncommon for the parents of infants with unexpected medical issues, or a diagnosis before or after birth, to feel considerable stress. They may go on to live with antenatal or postnatal depression, OCD, anxiety, panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

‘Mothers of healthy babies can work out their own mothering in the privacy of their own home. In the neonatal unit, you’re learning and making mistakes in public.’

Gordon writes frankly about the challenges she and her partner faced during their son’s preparation for, and recovery from, surgery and other interventions. They had to learn the nursing skills required to care for him, such as how to tube-feed and to administer multiple medications. Their life, she says, was never really ‘normal’.

Many parents whose babies have spent time in neonatal units return for visits because ‘it’s a form of catharsis’, says Gordon. Writing this book also appears to have been a form of catharsis for Gordon. I found The First Breath’s mix of first-person and objective, scientific content jarring in some chapters. I wondered whether Gordon had considered writing two books – one a memoir focused on her difficult pregnancy, son’s birth and subsequent unexpected diagnosis with Noonan syndrome; the other focused specifically on the medical and surgical interventions that can save young lives.

Gordon was originally a features writer for British magazines. This perhaps explains her tendency to use melodramatic language to describe some of the situations she observed while carrying out research for her book. Some sections of The First Breath were originally published in mainstream media such as The Daily Mail, The Huffington Post and Red magazine. Maybe Gordon believes that readers of these publications have an appetite for sensationalism. Some of what she heard and saw she calls ‘terrible’ and ‘barbaric’. Parents are ‘aghast’, and ‘terrified and shaking’; pregnancies go ‘haywire’. Her son, en route to an operation, is ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’.

I found her over-zealous use of adjectives to describe children and adults (particularly medical professionals) irritating. Some people sound like characters from a Milly-Molly-Mandy story: ‘the sweetly bustling young district nurse’ and the ‘sensible, friendly-looking midwife with straight brown hair and glasses’. The ‘cool blonde businesslike Australian’ surgeon Kate and the ‘glamorous and charming Colombian neonatal consultant’ are descriptions better-suited to a Danielle Steele novel. Her seeming obsession with people’s appearance (particularly their looks and weight) is especially unfair when directed at children: Gordon compares her son’s ‘stick-like’ legs with the ‘bonny little thighs’ of a baby girl. I wonder how the Director and Clinical Lead for Fetal Medicine services in a leading London hospital feels about Gordon’s description of him as ‘a slim, smiley man [who Gordon] imagined playing carefree games of tennis or yachting in his spare time’, a ‘mysterious heroic figure’, and ‘an upbeat force of nature’. For one doctor, Gordon confesses, she had ‘admiration bordering on a crush’.

The back cover says that The First Breath ‘tells of fear, bravery and love’. This is an accurate summary of the central themes of the book. Fear, bravery and love are shown not only by parents but also by the medical professionals who demonstrate strength, skill and compassion while also sharing their fears and vulnerabilities. Gordon describes the tension for doctors, many of whom are also parents, between becoming emotionally involved and remaining professionally detached.

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of how modern-day medicine and surgery can save vulnerable infants. I’m in awe of what is possible. The First Breath is centred on healthcare available in the United Kingdom, so it’s not clear to me how many of the surgeries and other techniques described are currently carried out in New Zealand. Gordon provides a list of sources (websites, journal articles, books and so on) that can provide further information about the topics addressed.

I’m not sure whether parents facing the prospect of in utero or neonatal surgery would find Gordon’s book helpful, or instead overwhelming. Only a parent who has lived through a similar experience could make this call. The somewhat voyeuristic tone of Gordon’s writing will not appeal to everyone. And not all stories had a positive outcome.

The First Breath may be a good resource for students of medicine, nursing, social work or similar professions, and health practitioners who are supporting families who face the situations that Gordon describes. It may also be a book that organisations such as Rare Disorders New Zealand , Skylight or IHC could consider stocking in the libraries they maintain for parents and professionals.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

The First Breath
by Olivia Gordon
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781509871186

Book Review: Allegra in Three Parts, by Suzanne Daniel

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_allegra_in_three_partsAllegra is 11 years old, living in suburban Sydney in the 1970s with her dad Rick and grandmother Mathilde at number 23, and grandmother Joy at number 25. Her mother died when she was very small, and her memory of her is very hazy. Narrated by Allegra, she has little understanding of why this situation is so, only knowing that she constantly feels herself torn into two between her loving but vastly different grandmothers, and the emotionally distant figure of her father.

Allegra is a smart wee girl, extraordinarily sensitive to those around her, in the process navigating the classroom ghastliness of 11 year old girls and keeping her grandmothers happy. Not easy when they can’t stand each other. And yet Allegra does not know why this is. Her growing friendship of fellow outsider young Aborigine girl Patricia further sets her apart from the rest of her class, but not from her teacher Sister Josepha.

1970s Australia is not an easy place for women, and the growing awareness Allegra is finding of the world around her puts her and those she loves on a collision course.

This book could leave you with a tear in your eye. This novel is marketed as teen/YA fiction/coming of age fiction. But is equally enjoyable and meaningful for everyone else. I loved this – all about what it means to belong to a family and to be loved.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Allegra in Three Parts
by Suzanne Daniel
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781760781712

Book Review: The World of Greek Mythology, by Ben Spies

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_world_of_greek_mythology.jpgThis is an excellent introduction for anyone curious about Greek mythology. Here on the other side of the world, and eons away from their place of origin, many of the legends are still part of our collective cultural narrative. The stories of the Trojan war will be familiar to many in a sketchy, delivered-by-Hollywood way.

The difference between Spies’ book and other recent books on Greek mythology, such as Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Heroes, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller’s Circe, is that Spies is writing specifically for children and young adults. This makes his retelling engaging and easy to understand (it’s a very complicated pantheon) without being dumbed-down, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The World of Greek Mythology to adults either.

Spies writes in a lively, fast-paced style, with lots of jokes and asides to his readers. He know his audience well, having written the book aged 11. He covers the Titans, some of the Olympians, the Trojan War, and the Odyssey in 228 action-packed pages. I enjoyed Spies’ frankness – he tells his readers in places how complicated some of the myths are, and that he doesn’t always understand the myths either. I wish I’d had this book as an intro when I studies Classics at high school, I might have found it a bit easier to follow!

There is the promise of another book on the subject to come, covering the other Olympians who couldn’t fit in this first volume. I’m really looking forward to it and am hoping that maybe Spies could put in a pronunciations guide for some of the trickier names and places. A map would also be great for readers who like to visualise where things are happening.

This book will appeal to readers from about 8 years up who enjoy action, fantasy and don’t mind a bit of blood and gore. It would be a great read-to book from about 8, depending on the reader’s own capabilities. I highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The World of Greek Mythology
by Ben Spies
Published by Spies Publishing
ISBN 9780473455866

Book Review: A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley, by Elspeth Sandys

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_communist_in_the_family.jpgRewi Alley was thirty-two years old when he decided ‘to go and have a look at China’, leaving family in New Zealand. It was 1927, he had always dreamed of a life in the army, but after returning from World War 1 he found little for him in New Zealand and after a stint at farming in the North Island left to check out the Chinese revolution.

Arriving in Shanghai, Rewi was soon employed as a fire inspector for the Municipal Council in the British International Settlement, before being promoted to a factory inspector. But he found this to be a ‘miserable experience’ with many of the workers ‘not more than eight or nine years old’ being beaten by the foreman ‘with a piece Of Number Eight gauge wire as a whip’. Ultimately it is the plight of the children as factory slaves as well as orphans of war and famine which give him the courage to leave his job and follow the dream of Gung Ho.

In 2017 Elspeth Sandys, a cousin of Rewi Alley, travelled to China with other family members to mark the ninetieth anniversary of Rewi’s arrival in Shanghai. In her book A Communist in the Family she follows that journey as well as including much of Rewi Alley’s life. A great deal of this comes from Alley’s own writing, letters home, poems, memoirs and other books he has written .

A Communist in the family: Searching for Rewi Alley is written with a great deal of detail and the reader feels part of the journey as the family travels from Beijing to the remote Shandan province on the border of Inner Mongolia, visiting many sites which were significant in Rewi’s life .There was also time for temples and marvelling at 18metre high gold Buddha before their guide would be calling them ‘Alley whanau! Attention please. Follow my flag. This way’…

Sandys has included photographs of Rewi and many of the people who were important in his life, as well as some wonderful photographs captured during the family trip in 2017. The page of Māori words and New Zealand slang at the rear of the book will be helpful for readers from other countries, and the End Notes provide excellent information for people wanting to do more research.

I found this a fascinating read, as Sandys’ beautiful descriptive writing had me feeling part of the journey through modern China, while Alley’s poems reminded me of the harsh history China has endured. It is a solid read but I found it particularly interesting. As New Zealand now has close links with China for trade, it will be of interest to many people.

Elspeth Sandys has published nine novels, two collections of short stories and two memoirs. She has written extensively for the BBC and for RNZ as well as for TV and film. Elspeth lived for many years in the UK but has been back in her home country of New Zealand since 1990.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley
by Elspeth Sandys
Published by OUP
ISBN 9781988531601