Book Review: The Muse, by Jessie Burton

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_museThere’s something magical about Jesse Burton’s The Muse. It’s visually immersive in a way I haven’t experienced in a long while. The language feels painterly – a style that reverberates with the content and themes of the novel, and there’s an effortlessness in the prose that feels like ‘viewing’ rather than ‘reading’.

The Muse presents two narratives, starting in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, an immigrant from Trinidad and a writer who’s more familiar with London’s feet than its journals. Unsatisfied with her job in a shoe shop, she’s offered a position at the Skelton Gallery as a typist, and is swept under the wing of Marjorie Quick. She soon becomes enraptured by the origins of a newly-surfaced painting, its owner, and what Quick may be hiding about her knowledge of it.

The painting’s origins are unearthed in the 1936 story of Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer and a secret painter herself, whose sexual awakening and coming-of-age manifests in an obsession with a local artist. The two narratives enhance the telling of each other in ways that almost necessitate a second reading – there are some truly beautiful insights on life, loneliness, otherness and creativity; yes, some brutal realities are swept over, but so the brush keeps moving.

The John Berger epigraph: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” is so fitting, not only in keeping with the novel itself, but also in encompassing its creation. Jesse Burton’s first book The Miniaturist was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies. On her blog, Burton has been quite open about her struggles with depression and anxiety following the success of her first novel (link to her amazing post below). Themes of artistry, creativity and success in The Muse are marked by the author’s fingerprints of experience. I’ve mused on a fair few passages myself – the reading was at times truly cathartic.

Although a little heavy-handed at times, The Muse is one of my favourite books this year. It’s multi-faceted and poignant, and it resonated personally. I thinkBurton makes good on the sentiment she expressed in February, where she so openly discussed the process drafting this book:

“I have tried to write a novel full of life. I have written a book whose themes interest me, a book I would like you to read on a gloomy English night, a book to transport you as much as it chimes close to home.”

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

The Muse
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250944

Book Review: The Feel Brave Series, by Avril McDonald, illustrated by Tatiana Minina

Available in bookshops nationwide.

feel_brave_septemberThese beautifully illustrated books are designed to lead children through issues that they may find challenging, especially from an emotional point of view.

There are 5 books, listed below, plus a guide that helps the adult/adults work through different issues with activities that are designed for specific areas such as craft activities, physical exercises and drama games. The books’ reach is broad but everything is neatly tied together.

The story books that accompany the guide book are simply gorgeous, the illustrations perfectly fitting the text. Finding Calm, Self Confidence, Making Relationships, Anxiety and Fears and Change, Loss and Grief cover a lot of ground but it is ground that can often be a part of a child’s life on a daily basis and not in a good way. These books step in and provide support, comfort and solutions that are relatable and reasonably easy to make a part of a child’s emotional thinking. Changing our thinking is really what it boils down to when we face an issue that grips and won’t let go, and these books are an excellent tool/resource to help us do so.

Designed for the 4-7 year age group, this resource could be a great at-home resource and a very valuable resource for any Primary School.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Feel Brave Series
by Avril McDonald, illustrated by Tatiana Minina
Published by Crown Publishing

This series is comprised of the following books: 
The Wolf’s Colourful Coat
ISBN 9781785830204

The Wolf is Not Invited
ISBN 9781785830174

The Wolf and the Shadow Monster
ISBN 9781785830181

The Grand Wolf
ISBN 9781785830198

The Wolf and the Baby Dragon
ISBN 9781785830211

Feel Brave Teaching Guide
ISBN 9781785830167

Book Review: The Case of the Missing Body, by Jenny Powell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_case_of_the_missing_bodyIn The Case of the Missing Body, Jenny Powell beautifully renders the strangeness of proprioceptive disorder. People with this disorder lack the natural awareness of where the body is positioned. And so, Powell introduces the book as a kind of detective story. What she is searching for is a body that has always been there, but that she herself has been unable to feel.

In this memoir, Powell explores her own story through Lily. The prologue starts with longing as Powell describes Lily’s simple dream of being able to ride a bicycle. This dream and many others are turned down as Lily struggles with the disorder through ballet and gymnastics classes. Her life becomes defined by surgeries and a cycle of breakage and repair.

Lily’s diary entries give a personal insight into her journey. After repeated injuries, she makes a gym appointment to find the joints within her body again. As she works with her physiotherapist Patrick, her sense of self widens within her. When Lily finds movement in her shoulder blades, she describes these joints as “shoulder-blade wings”. Suddenly, her body isn’t just a head with floating thoughts; it comes to be made out of other connecting limbs.

Without the natural grasp of her body that others have the luxury of, Lily turns to her own conscious thoughts in order to ground herself. Again and again, she returns to the idea of herself as a totem pole, and it is this image that keeps her straightening her back and retaining her posture. As Lily describes it, “Here is a way in to my brain, through imaginings”. It is her way of understanding what her own body cannot.

It becomes a learning process not just in finding her body, but having the confidence to continue. This also means continuing her programme at the gym, sometimes going alone, with some sessions that are clumsier than others. Without her own natural sense of her body, she must craft her own out of determination.

At the epilogue, Powell comes back to Lily’s bicycle dream. First, Powell describes other alternate Lilys that have become trapped within wonderland, ones who tumble down rabbit holes and are forever stumbling. Then she finally comes back to the Lily of reality, who still dreams of riding that bike. However, now she is closer than ever and does not stumble as heavily as she used to. She cycles on the tandem bike in the gym and lives “a forever moment on a rented opportunity”. Her flying is a different kind of flying, one that begins and grows with the shoulder blades that she sees as wings, as freedom.

Powell proves that physiotherapy is not just a process concerning the body, but also the mind. The complexity of Lily’s condition is one that requires adjustment and time. The appendix of definitions at the end of the book is also invaluable in further understanding proprioceptive disorder, something I’d never heard of before reading the book.

The Case of the Missing Body is a memoir on locating the self not just physically, but also mentally. It is a detective story where the detective uses her mind and determination to slowly uncover clues, part by part, in order to locate her own body.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The Case of the Missing Body
by Jenny Powell
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781877578311

Book Review: Playing for Both Sides: Love across the Tasman, by Stephanie Johnson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_playing_both_sidesThe relationship between New Zealand and Australia, is like that in an extended family. While we love and support each other because we share so many things, we also pick at the differences, accentuate and ridicule them. It is a classic love-hate relationship.

In this BWB text, Stephanie Johnson explores at a more personal level her own experiences. As a writer, a wife and a mother, she shares her own journey and the way her crossing the ditch has influenced her writing and her feelings.

Johnson’s family have lived in New Zealand since the 1840s but she has lived in Australia as an adult, married an Australian and is often described as an Australian writer. She introduces the reader to other Kiwis who made the move, many never to return. However, she also points out that while they physically resided in Australia, they regarded New Zealand as home.

Johnson explores race relations, migrants, women’s rights, artistic freedom and the weather. But this is really a personal view because the telling is centred around the tour her musician son makes with his Mum as a roadie. This allows her to reflect on the places and people she meets, on their reaction to her son and his music and her own reflection on similarities and differences in the two nations.

I enjoyed the honesty of her writing. Her research added an historical element and the timing of the book is right. We are only now brave enough to look at our bigger, richer, stronger neighbour and ask if we are the same or we are different. I can see some robust discussion in a book group arising from this slim volume.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Playing for Both Sides: Love across the Tasman
by Stephanie Johnson
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492991

Book Review: Tanya Bakes, by Tanya Burr

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_tanya_bakesTanya Burr is, by all accounts, a British You Tube vlogging star. I’m about 20 years too old/ too resolutely unhip to have heard of her, so I figured I would take her second book, this time a cook book, on its own merits.

It’s a very nicely produced book, with lots of colour photos, and the end results of her baking are stylishly shot. The recipes all start with a nice personal explanation of the recipe’s provenance – some from her childhood, some her current favourites, recreations of baking she’s had at restaurants and cafes that she’s enjoyed, and some recipes reproduced from her favourite famous bakers like Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Mary Berry.

I think when I’m reviewing a cookbook that it’s only fair to try a few of the recipes. I am a pretty good baker, so felt confident to try my hand at most of the recipes. The range of recipes feels pretty Nutella-heavy – not my favourite taste, so I avoided those. I largely chose recipes that I could prepare for my regular contribution to the fantastic work of charity Good Bitches Baking, so my trials were mostly on the biscuit/slice side of things.

First up I tried Cornflake Choc Chip Cookies. These are sort of like a caramel Afghan biscuit, but chewier. I had to reduce the heat as the first batch burned at her recommended time and temperature, and I shudder at what Burr thinks is a reasonable portion size – the recipe stated “makes 12 large cookies” but I made more than double that, and the cookies were the size of my palm – so pretty generously proportioned. The unburnt ones were very tasty and had a nice texture, as promised.

Next I tried Kate’s Mum’s Lemon Slice. To Kiwi home bakers, this is our very familiar Citrus Slice. Again, Burr’s serving size freaks me out – the recipe says serves 10-12, but it’s double the quantities of any Citrus Slice recipe I found in NZ cookbooks or websites, and I cut it into at least 50 decent size squares as it’s pretty full on as baking goes and a little bit goes a long way. I also adapted her method, melting the butter in the traditional Kiwi way with the sweetened condensed milk, rather than using softened butter. It was extremely delicious, and very popular with the multitudes who got to share the mega-batch.

I then tried the Earl Grey Tea Loaf, a fruit loaf that Burr recommends serving spread with butter and a cup of tea. I followed the recipe faithfully. While a delicious result ensued – it really was very tasty – the mixture felt too wet and sure enough, it didn’t rise at all in the tin, so was kind of stodgy.

Lastly I tried Burr’s Oat and Cinnamon Health Cookies for another GBB bake. I really wish I hadn’t, because I had high hopes for these wheat-free biscuits. The method looked reasonable enough, so I stuck to her instructions. There was no promised spreading of the cookies, they fell apart as they baked, the raisins burned at her recommended temperature despite me pulling them out early when I got the tell-tale whiff of over-caramelisation, and despite smelling deliciously of honey and cinnamon as they baked they were exceptionally bland when I tasted them. That batch went straight in the bin.

My overall verdict, I’m afraid to say, is that Tanya Bakes is a triumph of style over substance. I will probably make the first two recipes again as the results were tasty once I adapted the instructions, but I’m reluctant to try any further recipes except perhaps the ones from other bakers. I just don’t have the time and energy to adapt her methods so that they’ll work every time.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Tanya Bakes
by Tanya Burr
Published by Michael Joseph Ltd
ISBN 9781405928199

Book Review: The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected non-fiction, by Neil Gaiman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_view_from_the_cheap_seatsYou just know that any author who begins a collection with a piece about the importance of libraries has his or her head firmly screwed on. So it is with Neil Gaiman, my new superhero.

Actually, the very first piece in this fabulous collection is his credo, and I just have to quote the last sentences, “ I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win. Because the ideas are invisible, and they linger, and sometimes they can even be true”.

This wide-ranging collection is divided into ten sections, ranging from personal beliefs and opinions through friends, the art of science fiction writing, how comics work, opinions on music – and all written so that they engage you right away. Even the non sci-fi readers (like me) may be inspired to return to some of the classics of sci-fi to see if our experience stacks up against Gaiman’s. I now have an enormous reading list of things I “really ought to have read” but somehow either did not get around to, or dismissed out of hand!

Neil Gaiman always makes you think – whether it’s his fiction or his non-fiction is immaterial really. A comment at the end of a piece about Charlie Hebdo and the PEN awards is a quote from the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo: “Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking. Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not”. It would appear that many people out there either don’t know this, or have forgotten. To be reminded is essential.

On a lighter note, a comment about the nature of writing fiction has stuck with me also. To paraphrase – the story itself is not complete until you, the reader, have read it. The writer provides the framework, and of course the narrative, but how each reader interprets that and makes it their own version is what gives life to the story. That makes story even more powerful, I think.

I am going to buy this book, as it is such a great collection. This is definitely the current top of my non-fiction reading list – it just pushed Etgar Keret’s memoir down a notch, and that was hard to do!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-fiction
by Neil Gaiman
Published by Headline
ISBN 9781472208019

Book Review: Munch Lunchbox, by Anna Bordignon and Michelle Kitney

cv_munch_lunchboxLunchbox, snack box, treat box. These are important parts of any child’s day and more so when preschools require you send your own food along each day. Well, I think this book is going to be the busy parent’s best friend.

Anna Bordignon and Michelle Kitney have lots of experience raising their own children. They already run the very successful Munch Cupboard and their website munchnz.co.nz. Now we have a beautiful cook book with an alphabet of delicious and nutritious ideas for busy parents. While marmite sandwiches were my childhood staple, there are now many creative tidbits to encourage variety and healthy eating for your children.

The book is cleverly designed with sample lunches at the start. These cover a variety of dietary needs from gluten free, to nut free, meat free and others. The easy to follow logos are used to identify special requirements in each recipe. Then the book becomes an alphabet of delicious ideas. I loved the B idea:Black Bean Brownie which is high in protein but a lovely texture and very moist. C: Carrot Summer rolls were another favourite, with rice paper wrappers around carrot slices and rice noodles. S: Seedy crackers with chia, sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Many of the ideas are very simple using just a few ingredients, but the small portions and interesting presentations make them quite novel.

Munch Lunchbox also acknowledged the importance of making in bulk and freezing to save time and effort during the busy week. They indicate which recipes are best suited for this. My suspicion is that parents will enjoy many of these lunch treats too!

In the days of Internet cooking and Google-a-recipe, I found this book to be a really useful reminder of how a cook book should look and read. Between these covers are easily accessible recipes, enticing ideas and healthy alternatives for feeding the kids. The actual presentation also acknowledges that many schools and preschools are going wrapper-free and encouraging a sustainable way of storing food.

As a Grandmother, this is a great Christmas gift for my daughter. I will even make a regular selection of treats to go with the book. That is what good Grannies do. Try it.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Munch Lunchbox
by Anna Bourdignon and Michelle Kitney
Published by David Bateman
ISBN 9781869539337