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Book Review: Oh No! Look What the Cat Dragged In, by Joy H Davidson, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_oh_no_look_what_the_cat_dragged_inAnyone who has a cat knows they love to bring the wild life they catch to show you, and let it go for a run around if they have the chance!

Joy Davidson’s new picture book tells the story of Grandma’s big black cat as it explores its back yard and brings his loot back through the flap in the door. The grandchildren holidaying with Grandma experience first hand the chaos in the house and are almost too frightened to come down stairs as the week progress’s as there are ‘creepy crawlies everywhere, and rubbish piled up high.’

Wonderful descriptive sentences tell the story, familiar to many cat lovers, which will have children laughing out loud, and the repetitive phrases will encourage the children to join in.

It is a fun book and Jenny Cooper’s illustrations add an extra dimension, to involve the children to seek, find and identify the creepy crawlies the cat dragged in. The facial expressions on Grandma and the children convey vividly the tension in the house with each day. But I love how she has captured the cat’s expression sitting half asleep with almost a smirk on its face, I have seen it many times as I have chased a mouse around the kitchen with the cat wondering what the problem is.

What a fun way to learn the days of the week, identified in a larger font, and with the use of capitals Davidson ensures the reader will emphasize the more dramatic sentences. This book will be loved by children and adults as they turn the pages to find out if Grandma solves the dilemma of ‘what the cat dragged in.’

Winner of the 2015 Storylines Joy Cowley Award and the 2017 Notable book award for Witch’s Cat Wanted, Apply Within, Auckland based Joy Davidson, is also the author of The Tree Hut and Titan the truck.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Oh No! Look what the Cat dragged in
by Joy H Davidson, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by DHD Publishing
ISBN 9780473448318

Book Review: Hello Darkness, by Peter Wells

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_hello_darkness.jpgPeter Wells felt unwell while on a trip overseas and on his return to New Zealand made an appointment with a doctor who ordered a PSA test. When it came back he was told he had prostate cancer and it had spread into his bones, giving him the symptoms he had experienced while on holiday.

He soon found himself in Auckland hospital to undergo intensive treatment in an attempt to arrest the cancer. He began writing of his experience on daily posts on Facebook, which were also reprinted on The Spinoff, and later published into this book, Hello Darkness.

In his Foreword, Wells explains ‘This book, then, is the story of six months in my life, told in diary segments… not merely the sum of the original FB posts and the Spinoff version… I have added in private diary musings I did not put up on FB.’

The November 15, 2017, post is accompanied with a view from Wells’ hospital room and the photographs throughout the book include many from his youth, as well as friends and family and special places which have helped shape the man, and add to the story.

Six months later Wells records on his FB post ‘I had lost most of my hair; my eyebrows had gone fugitive; I was the weight I was when I was in my twenties…but the fact was I was alive, I could walk, my cancer had been challenged, called to a halt – be it momentary or permanent, nobody knows.’

Peter Wells is an award winning author and filmmaker, and most recently Hello Darkness won the 2018 Media Voyager Award for best personal essay,  the work being described as ‘Wry, acute and confessional but, most of all wise.’

I found this an interesting but at times an agonising read, having brothers as well as my husband requiring treatment for prostate issues. It is however a beautifully written, honest account of a man who at times was in great pain but still clinging desperately to life. In his final chapter entitled Down to Daybreak, Wells said ‘I began to see daily life itself was a form of a gift- just to be alive was a prescient thing…I also had this constant almost shrill sense of astonishment at just being alive.’

So it’s a book about taking stock, looking back to what matters in life, but also forwards, towards coming to terms with the remainder of life.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Hello Darkness
by Peter Wells
Published by Mighty Ajax Press
ISBN 9780473451622

We publish this review of Peter’s last book a few days after his death, in Auckland, of cancer. A service for Peter will be held at St Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church, Corner of Hobson and Wellesley Streets, Auckland City on Monday 25 February at 10.30 am. Vale Peter Wells, who did so much for so many. 

 

 

Book Review: Stories of the Night, by Kitty Crowther

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_stories_of_the_nightI’d seen a lot of positive media for Stories of the Night and had been hoping that it might cross my path for review, so I was delighted to be able to receive it and judge for myself. I resisted opening it until I was with my 7 year-old friend Lucas, who loves books and stories as much as I do. It was well worth the wait.

Lucas was utterly transfixed by the story, he was highly interested in both story and illustrations, and we had lots of discussions as the book went on. He loved that the stories came to life for Little Bear at the end of the book. I loved the way that the stories left plenty of room for imagination, individual interpretation, and conversation. When Lucas’s mum Louise came into the room halfway through the story, Lucas was excited to share Stories of the Night with her too, and they more or less read it again.

There are so many studies that validate reading to children as being the perfect launch pad for school-readiness, but I think there is much more to reading together than that. The safety and security of snuggling up to a loved one while they read to you has got to be important for brain development and mental health. Decades later, many of my strongest childhood memories are of my dad reading to me at bedtime, and it was a special time of day two have two songs and two stories at my own daughter’s bedtime. Stories belongs to that canon of treasured shared books.

Stories of the Night makes total sense as a bedtime story, but will be great to read at any time. In something I hadn’t noticed, Louise pointed out that by washing the illustrations with a pink palette, it takes the scare factor away from “night time stories”, which would be children who might be afraid of the dark.

It’s highly recommended by all three of us for reading to children from 4 or 5 years of age.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Stories of the Night
by Kitty Crowther
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571970

 

Book Review: Swim, by Avi Duckor-Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_swim_aviWinner of the 2018 Viva La Novella Prize, Avi Duckor-Jones’s Swim is an intimate and affecting story of a young man and his search for resolution.

Jacob is a long-distance swimmer, a traveller, and a free spirit. After receiving a letter from his estranged mother, he returns home to a small coastal town in New Zealand. While reuniting with friends and family from his past, Jacob begins renovating his father’s old shack. However, returning to the place where he grew up means Jacob is forced to face memories over his father’s suicide and mother’s abandonment. It is only when he discovers an island, far out to sea, that Jacob sees a chance for resolution. In a single-minded pursuit, Jacob makes plans to swim to the island, but as his obsession for reaching the unreachable builds, his real-world relationships begin to crumble.

At its core, Swim is a story of reconciliation – but not the kind one may expect. Though the premise hints at reconciliation between Jacob and his estranged mother, it is Jacob’s attempt to reunite his past and present self that becomes the true focus of the novella. Throughout the narrative, Jacob experiences a fusion of his past memories and present experiences as he returns to the hometown where he grew up. There is constant oscillation between what Jacob sees and what he remembers and this pushes him to come to terms with what he was, what he is now.

Duckor-Jones does not write this ‘coming of age’ as a passive transition. Swim shows Jacob in a constant struggle with adulthood – as the sea resists him, he resists against his own growth. This is shown through Henry, Jacob’s adopted brother, who has a new role and responsibility as a husband and father. Images of Henry as an adult run parallel to Jacob’s memories of them as young and carefree boys, and forces Jacob to reflect on his own life direction. However, because he isn’t in a ‘traditional’ role, Jacob cannot see that he too has been changing and evolving. Instead, he sees adulthood as a falsehood – ‘This is what we had all been practicing for. To imitate what we had seen as we grew up. But I hadn’t received the correct instructions. It was as if I had missed some steps, slipped, and fallen down the stairs while everyone kept on climbing.’

The theme of change – and accepting it – is a strong undercurrent through the story, as is the idea that one cannot swim away from it. Jacob’s mother, Estela, refuses to accept she is sick, and refuses to believe Jacob’s father took his own life. Though this frustrates Jacob, he fails to see that denial is her form of escapism, as swimming is for him. This is one of the moving character parallels Duckor-Jones blends gently into the narrative. It is this and flaws (like Estela’s constant ‘versioning’ of herself) that makes his characters so human.

Duckor-Jones’s writing is lyrical but harsh, poetic but desensitised, and in that he captures Jacob’s internal confusion and restlessness. The most breathtaking aspect of Swim is the natural symbolism – the injured birds and seal pups, fields of deceptive gorse, his Fathers overrun shack, and a ‘patient’ but untameable sea. Duckor-Jones not only creates sensual and striking scenes, but ties nature to Jacob’s memories, to the people around him, and to his very being.

With an exploration of the inner self that harks back to modernist literature, and a focus on nature and existence which feels jarringly romantic, Swim is literary fiction at its finest. This is a novella that requires time and thought to digest and, though the story may not leave you feeling resolved, it will certainly be one to remember every time you look at the sea.

Reviewed by Susanna Elliffe

Swim
by Avi Duckor-Jones
Published by Brio Books
ISBN 9781925589504

Book Review: Keep an Eye on this Kiwi, by Scott Tulloch

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_keep_an_eye_on_this_kiwiA young kiwi sets out to find his dinner but some clever insects are determined to not be on the menu and trick our kiwi. With each turn of the page, the silliness increases, along with the laughs from young readers!

A series of comical anecdotes are told through interactions between the narrator and the kiwi. While it is set up as a chapter book it is intended to be read as a whole with the story all connecting together. The focus is on toilet humour, taboo words and practical jokes, which young children love.

The illustrations are pencil sketches and become part of the text. There are little speech bubbles and characters which speak directly to the reader. The line drawings are a refreshing change from busy pages. They are full of life, with the kiwi seeming to jump off the page as he attempts to talk to the reader.

Adults might get to the end of the story and wonder about what just happened.  But that seems to be the point. It is a nonsensical story which gets crazier and crazier – until you might just believe that a kiwi can fly.

It is best suited for 4 to 7 year olds – or even those children who are reading independently who will be scaffolded with the pictures. The antics of the kiwi make this story a funny read which will engage the most hesitant of readers.

Reviewed by Sara Croft

Keep an Eye on this Kiwi
by Scott Tulloch
Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775435310

Book Review: On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_on_the_come_upI grew up never worrying the power was going to be cut off, never worried about rent. Brianna lives in a poor suburb, and her mum has lost her job, which sees the gas, the electricity and the rent in arrears. My life up to age 16 is about as different from Brianna’s as it is possible to be. That is why I read, and why I have always read widely.

‘We can’t have any power, either… All these people I’ve never met have way more control over my life than I’ve ever had. If some Crown hadn’t killed my dad, he’d be a big rap star and money wouldn’t be an issue. If some drug dealer hadn’t sold my mom her first hit, she would’ve got her degree already and would have a good job.’

Bri lives in the Garden, where the recent shooting of an unarmed African-American boy saw their part of town erupt in riots, resulting in a destroyed suburb centre. She reflects, ‘I’m a hoodlum from a whole bunch of nothing.’ She is 16, and meant to be studying for her SATs, but she’s a talented rapper who can’t help seeing a career in hip-hop as a way out for her family. Her mum Jay is an ex-drug addict who is doing college classes to help her get ahead, and her brother Trey graduated college but hasn’t yet got a decent job. Her Aunt Pooh is the biggest supporter of her dreams, getting her a breakthrough invite to The Ring, where Bri battles another rapper to be the best.

Angie Thomas has evoked setting and characters effortlessly. Bri’s habit of thinking in rhyme, in couplets fills in her life for us. Her relationships with best friends Malik and Sonny, as well as with her brother, help us understand her motivations. One day, at school, she is slammed on the ground by a pair of racist security guards. Soon after, faced with the chance to write a song for a beat with a small-time music producer her Aunt knows, she wrote about her experience, then some – ‘Strapped like backpacks, I pull triggers; all the clips on my hips change my figure.’

Despite those who know her well urging caution – that’s not the life she lives – she uploads it, and her dad’s former manager Supreme picks up the song and sends it viral. Soon enough, she realises she has made a mistake, as kids follow her, rapping those lines; and as kids sing her song before a riot begins. Bri’s journey towards understanding herself and what she wants from the world of hip-hop is the centre of On the Come Up. The tension is real as she navigates racism, false expectations and infamy, as well as her own rage and frustration, to own her own narrative.

One of the other themes of the book is friendship & romance. Sixteen is an age at which friendships begin to either intensify or wane. Bri thinks she is in love with her best friend Malik, but Malik gets a girlfriend. The fallout from this barrier drives a wedge between she and Malik and their friend Sonny, who is gay and in love with someone else entirely. This is a universal theme, complicated by circumstances. ‘I know your mum works hard and y’all aren’t rich, but you’ve got it better than me. We didn’t have lights for awhile, Malik. We’ve barely had food some days… My freaking shoes fell apart, bruh.’

Thomas has not shied away from using social media and its impact on young lives as a theme in the book; she also uses teenage language so fluidly I’d swear she was a teen. I’ve seen so many authors now set their books in an earlier period, simply to avoid these ways of communicating that they don’t understand. Thomas gets it, and not only that, she was a teen rapper herself – though if you’ve heard her name, it’s probably thanks to her smash hit debut novel The Hate U Give.

Read this book if you enjoy gripping, real YA. It’s a story that needs to be heard, from a part of America that is ignored and disempowered on a daily basis.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

On the Come Up
by Angie Thomas
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406372168

 

Book Review: Portrait of The Artist’s Wife, by Barbara Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_portrait_of_the_artists_wife.jpgVUP has a treat for all lovers of Barbara Anderson’s books – new editions of her books Girls High and Portrait of the Artist’s Wife have been published this year.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife was originally published 27 years ago, in 1992. It has aged well. The themes she explores – the nature of marriage, the place of women in marriage and society, the bone-crunching work of raising children, the rhythms of rural life, the passing of generations – resonate as well in 2019 as they did in 1992.

The novel spans nearly five decades of the life of Sarah Tandy, a talented painter who finds herself married to her childhood friend and the love of her life, Jack Macalister. Jack is an archetypal tortured novelist, a world-class philanderer, and a handy boozer as well. Sarah suffers, silently, for decades as Jack’s needs and wants eclipse all of her own.

Anderson shines a spotlight on the place of women in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s and to a large extent the 1980s and at the end of this book I had to ask myself, things are better now but are things better enough? It would be interesting to see what the fictional Sarah would make of then gender politics of 2019. Sarah had to live with people questioning whether she could continue to paint as a mother – echoes of our own Prime Minister’s experience as she entered motherhood.

The novel follows Sarah through the birth of children, heartbreak and bereavement, the loss of family and friends, betrayals and triumphs. Anderson paints a portrait of Sarah as fully-fledged flawed and brilliant human being – the injustice, the joy, the grief and the shame feel as real as if it were happening to a best friend.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, the Goodman Fielder Wattie 1992 Book of the Year, is a delightful read. I found myself re-reading passages several times to savour the artful descriptions and the sharp observations.

Anderson has the ability to write about things in a way that make you think about them differently, look at them differently, and appreciate them so much more. Her microscopic attention to detail doesn’t overwhelm, rather it delivers a gift of insight with every description. Describing a cantankerous caretaker she writes that ‘enraged quivering thatches of hair leapt about his forehead and set single spies across the bridge of his nose.’ [p. 223]

When Sarah is having an argument with Jack, who always found the words when she could not, Anderson describes her plight: ‘Words were no use to her, as always they skidded away from what she wished to say, immiscible as petrol scum on puddles.’ [p. 338]

Unlike Sarah, Anderson’s words have considerable staying power, and well deserve their re-publication.

Reviewed by Emma Marr

Portrait of The Artist’s Wife
by Barbara Anderson
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562121