Book Review: Napoleon’s Willow, by Joan Norlev Taylor

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Napoleon's_WillowA young Frenchman steals a cutting from the willow planted on St Helena by Napoleon. He then travels to New Zealand and plants his cutting in Akaroa, amidst the battle for sovereignty between the French, English and the local Maori.

A young Englishwoman seeks independence and safety away from the social strictures of England. She too, travels to New Zealand. While this might seem the preamble to a standard romance, it is far more.

This is a novel which shows meticulous research, enabling an accurate retelling of the events which took place in Akaroa in the 1840s. The setting, the characters and the events are engagingly portrayed. You really get a sense of the complexity of the issues with agendas involving land and law. The Maori perspective is clearly stated, as is the spirituality of the native New Zealanders. Bishop Pompellier is accurately shown as a complex man with a deep understanding of the need for diplomacy and concession.

The story of the willow is widely known and yet details are few. The author has interviewed the descendants of the French sailor, Francoise Le Lievre, and used historical records to flesh out this gripping tale. My family have a long association with the area, and I know many of the places mentioned. It has given me another layer of understanding of the establishment of the Akaroa settlement.

This book is more than a romance novel. It is a piece of solid research about a fascinating period in colonial New Zealand. I read it in Akaroa and had to ignore the beauty of my surroundings to finish reading the book.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Napoleon’s Willow
By Joan Norlev Taylor
Published by RSVP Publishing Company
ISBN 9780987658784

Book Review: A History of New Zealand Women, by Barbara Brookes

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_history_of_nz_womenIn the 1860s, Rose Hall wrote to her sister-in-law from Christchurch, comparing her life in all its loneliness ‘to that of a cat with its back constantly stroked backwards’. In 1893, Meri Te Tai Mangakahia of Te Rarawa argued for the right to be able to stand for Maori parliament as a Maori landowner. In the 1950s Women’s Weekly was on the rise, and its readers ‘were expected to know the bargain that marriage entailed for most families: men worked to become homeowners and married women maintained the domestic side of life’. By 1977, Therese O’Connell had left home and gone off to university, where she learned that male friends earned more over one summer break than she had in her four previous years of part-time jobs (she went on to found the Women’s Liberation Front).

Today, as Barbara Brookes observes in her vast and engaging A History of New Zealand Women, ‘Few people now imagine their daughters will be depending on a man for their financial well-being’. Women are in the corridors of power and enjoy public profiles in a range of disciplines. This dramatic change in circumstances for half the population deserves attention.

Exploring the overlooked and underreported role of women in nation-building, Brookes traces the move from a largely similar set of experiences in domestic roles through to the complex multiplicity of women’s lives today. In the rich illustrative material, we see women’s vastly different current circumstances encapsulated in a few pages: Chelsea Winter and Nadia Lim on the cover of cookbooks; a few pages later women are packing mallowpuffs at a factory, another is living in a caravan post-quake. Some women are in the corridors of power, but others continue to experience poverty and pay inequity.

Brookes takes us behind the scenes of the dominant narratives, through the spheres of health, education, franchise, representation, culture, sports, property rights – all illuminated through the lives of individuals.

It is the vast cast of women from particular times and places – the noises of the day as it were – which gives texture: small, intimate reflections of larger movements provide an accumulative sense of history. The big events loom in the background – colonisation, the Land Wars, WWI, the Depression – and we understand that women’s rights have not enjoyed a simple linear progression. It didn’t just take time but required shifting social and political climates to intersect with the efforts of individuals.

Brookes carefully examines Maori and Pakeha experiences – the vicissitudes of life provide different opportunities and hindrances for women from these backgrounds. New settlement and new land opens up new roles and expectations. Mary Taylor found freedom from the rigid English social structures upon moving to New Zealand in 1845: ‘She taught, she bought land, built a house and dealt in cattle’. Yet colonisation and its patriarchal family structures were disruptive for Maori – particularly in terms of land ownership for women. Pakeha women’s lives were dominated by the household, yet their education and ‘skills in literacy and numeracy would enhance opportunities in the changing world’, while Maori women were ‘participating in warfare, acting as eloquent advocates in court, and exercising unquestioned rights with regard to property’.

Handsomely produced, A History of New Zealand Women includes wonderful illustrative material that provides insight at a glance. The striking portrait of Heni Te Kiri Karamu, a warrior woman who famously risked her own life to give water to the enemy stares out from the page resplendent, with huia feathers in her hair. The examples of weaving, clothing, artworks, photos and advertisements highlight the complexity of the women’s sphere, including a confused ad for ‘freedom lover’ pantyhose – part liberation (women no longer required garter belts), part leggy glamour shot.

This layering of stories and experiences leads the reader to where New Zealand women are today. ‘The aspirations of the feminists of the 1890s appeared to be fulfilled when, in December 1993, almost precisely a century after women’s suffrage, Helen Clark became the first woman to lead a major political party’. We have a deeper understanding of this progression thanks to A History of New Zealand Women and a reminder that many young women, benefiting from the fruits of their ancestors’ efforts, still need to advocate.

A History of New Zealand Women
by Barbara Brookes
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN  9780908321452

Book Review: The Discombobulated Life of Summer Rain, by Julie Lamb

cv_the_discombobulated_life_of_summer_rainAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Summer Rain is, more-or-less, your average pre-teen girl. She’s also a bit of a tomboy and the class clown, preferring the company of the boys to the girls. Her father works in the city, and stays there during the week, so she mostly lives with her rather frugal grandfather. So frugal, in fact, that he’s taped over the light switches to conserve electricity, doesn’t believe in indoor plumbing, and sends Summer out each week to pick up scraps from the neighbours to feed the chickens.

Except they have no chickens.

Then her grandfather gets himself a new girlfriend. A woman with a dubious past and a string of ex-husbands. Summer knows her grandfather has money – he’s just too stingy to spend it – so could Macy be lining him up to be her next ex-? If so, something’s got to be done.

Luckily, Summer’s grandmother works in the crystal store, and her assistant Apple has more than a trick or two up her sleeve. Can they brew an un-love potion? Meanwhile, the popular, nice girl, Juanita, seems to want to be her friend. Is she for real? And what if she finds out all the embarrassing stuff about Summer’s life?

Although it’s never stated, Summer Rain has a distinctly New Zealand flavour, it feels precisely like a rural NZ community. The characters are unique, distinctive and quirky. There is humour aplenty.

This book is well-written and entertaining, I really enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it to kids aged 10 plus.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Discombobulated Life of Summer Rain
by Julie Lamb
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994123701

Book Review: My Grandpa is a Dinosaur, by Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones

Available now at bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_grandpa_is_a_dinosaurI was delighted to see that Penguin Random House NZ has picked up two of the most talented comic artists in New Zealand, for My Grandpa is a Dinosaur. Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones have published several children’s books over the last few years, through their own publishing imprint, Square Planet Comics. Each of their books can be trusted to have a wry comic undertone running alongside a great imagination-fuelled story that kids really enjoy.

My Grandpa is a Dinosaur has a fairly self-explanatory premise. Our little heroine Wanda seems to be the only person in her family who has noticed though. Well, she and the paleontologists, who are always following him for footprints. She stands up at the front of the class to tell her class about this oddity, and while her classmates are quite happy to cast their own grandpas as highwaymen and robots, they are certainly not letting her get away with that one.

My son Dan keenly followed the story, wondering why it was that nobody seemed to believe Wanda that her grandpa was a dinosaur, when he so self-evidently was. I mean, he had to have a special car seat on top of the car, for crying out loud. And he was green!

She tried to tell her friend
– See, he has a tail!
But her friend didn’t believe her
– Horses have tails, that doesn’t make horses dinosaurs.

The story is told in a one-frame-per-page comic style, with exposition at the bottom of the frames, and speech bubbles telling the story. The illustrations are caricature-like, and grandpa towers over the rest of them in all his dino-glory.

Wanda figures out she should just go to the source, and sure enough, Grandpa has been wondering when somebody would notice.

A brilliant message, and a brilliantly well-executed book. And most importantly, it’s a whole lot of fun. I recommend it for 3 – 8 year olds, as it goes through to the sophisticated picture book audience as well, thanks to the two-track humour. I hope to see Penguin stretching their boundaries even further in the future.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

My Grandpa is a Dinosaur
by Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143507192

Book Review: Predator, by Wilbur Smith with Tom Cain

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_predatorWilbur Smith continues the story of Hector Cross, the ex-SAS officer we have met in two previous novels. Cross lost his wife to a killer he has tracked, found and returned to the United States. The book starts with Cross awaiting the news of the death of Johnny Congo, the killer. He has been given the death penalty and all is secure for this to take place. The corruption and complexities of Congo’s contacts are detailed as we await justice.

This is a fast-paced book, swinging from the African oilfields to Alaska as we follow Cross in his role as an oilfield industry Security chief. There is a little romance, fatherhood as Hector Cross now has a young daughter to care for, and plenty of uncertainty. The baddies are very bad, the goodies are flawed, but generally try to do the best they can.

At times, I was little bogged down in detail as the four different stories played out on different continents with associated groups of friends or foes. Trying to sustain the different characters and settings, while keeping the pace up, seemed to present a real challenge. Eventually, it all comes together in a storm on the high seas.

As always, fans of Wilbur Smith will not be disappointed. You will have to read it for yourself to see if Hector Cross will live to tell another tale.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Predator
by Wilbur Smith with Tom Cain
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460752814

Book Review: Please Enjoy Your Happiness, by Paul Brinkley-Rogers

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_please_enjoy_your_happinessThis is a love story, a fine romance but there is nothing mushy about it. Mills & Boon it is not.

Instead, it is a beautifully written snapshot of the authors’ First Love, based on his time spent in Japan as a serviceman, which still resonates today with the author.

Just 19 years old when he is sent to serve in Japan, Paul and the older, more sophisticated Kaji Yukiko are an unlikely match. She is on the run from very unpleasant circumstances, and he is a very young serviceman. It is a shared love of poetry, music and the theatre that draws them together, unleashing a love that will continue to have an impact on the rest of Brinkley-Rogers’ life. This all happened during a time when there was no email or social media, and there was limited telephone access. People wrote letters – and it was a rediscovery and rereading of Kaji’s letters to him that enabled Brinkley-Rodgers to realise that after all he had been through, Kaji was still the love of his life, and that the love had never died.

This is really quite a special book, Brinkley-Rogers’ story is beautifully written and very engaging and without artifice. It is honest and warm, there is plenty of room for thought, especially with regards “lost” love – love that may in fact not have been lost, but has been forgotten, where only hindsight can remind us of the impact that these loves have had on us. Brinkley-Rogers invites us to look back, acknowledge and celebrate our loves and honour them, and he does so in a very readable book which keeps the reader turning the pages.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Please Enjoy Your Happiness
by Paul Brinkley-Rogers
Published by Macmillan
ISBN  9781509806089

Book Review: The Pickle Index, by Eli Horowitz, with pictures by Ian Huebert

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_pickle_indexI had no expectations before reading The Pickle Index. I only knew: it looked pretty and I like pickles.

Now I’ve read it, and to help with your expectations – think Welcome to Night Vale meets The Travelling Restaurant meets A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy plus circus performers plus pickles, set in a world where everyone must submit – via pseudo-fax steampunk-style tech – daily pickle recipes to the Pickle Index. If that helps. And apparently Miranda July said this about it: “The Pickle Index is full of life and everything else — rowdy and sweaty and heartbreaking and funny.”

The Pickle IndexThe story opens when circus ringleader Zloty Korn has been arrested following an unintentionally hilarious performance. The townspeople and authorities are calling for his head; his crimes being “mockery, destabilization, and anarchy, blurring the serious with the comical and the comical with the unintentional.” In the meantime, the rest of Zloty’s troupe eventually realise what has happened and set out on a ridiculous and unlikely adventure to try and rescue him.

It’s told across two separate (very pretty, illustrated hardback) books which are read in alternate chapters. First, you read a chapter of absurdly non-impartial (partial?) reportage from the local paper, The Daily Scrutinizer. Then you read a chapter from the point of view of Flora Bialy, the youngest and most recent member of the terribly bad circus troupe.

Nothing is subtle in this book. Jokes are over-the-top, characters are outlandish, and every turn of events is full of buffoonery. But this is the point of the book – and it works really well. It’s a great book to read aloud, and even though it’s not a “kids’ book” I reckon you could use it for family storytime (as long as they’re are old enough – there are a few bawdy jokes). Otherwise you should totally buy it as a gift next time you’re stumped for what to get someone who likes nonsense and absurdity, or adventures, sci-fi, circuses and pickles.

Pics from www.thepickleindex.com

Review by Jane Arthur

The Pickle Index
by Eli Horowitz, with pictures by Ian Huebert
Published by Sudden Oak Books
ISBN  9780996260800