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Book Review: Memory Pieces, by Maurice Gee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Memory Pieces cover.jpgMemory Pieces is made up of three separate pieces of memoir – the first, Double Unit, is the story of Maurice Gee’s parents, the second, Blind Road, is about Maurice’s own life until he became a writer at the age of 18, and the third part, Running on the Stairs, is the story of Margareta Garden, prior to meeting her future husband Maurice Gee.

On the face of it, this is just another memoir. However in the hands of a writer as talented as Maurice Gee, (and also of his mother Lyndahl Chapple), you become completely involved in the life and times of these people, in a way that simply draws you in to continue reading.

The Chapple family were quite possibly a little unusual in that James (Our Father in Lyndahl’s story) shifted most of his large family to the United States for a time, as he was a pacifist who would likely have landed up in jail in New Zealand. That’s a pretty brave move for anyone, but seems particularly so for the time (just prior to World War 1). Lyndahl’s story is a delightful picture of a childhood in the early part of the 20th century, and I just wish she had not stopped so abruptly. The reasons for her not continuing a potential career as a writer become clear in Maurice’s part of the story.

Maurice’s story also captures time and place brilliantly. It made me think– as I frequently do – that we need to get our family stories told before those who can provide much-needed facts and anecdotes are unable to do so.

Told in Double Unit, Lyndahl and Len are an interesting couple with not a great deal in common: Len a practical and pragmatic builder, a hard worker, providing for his family, keen on racing, while Lyndahl’s interests were not quite on the same page. Len did build her a writing desk, though!

As with most families, all was not smooth sailing and as a parent, Lyndahl had some dark times, which took their toll on the family. Again, you realise that these things are far more common than we imagine, and there are few families untouched by trauma or difficulties of one kind or another.

Margareta’s story, told by Maurice in Running on the Stairs, brings a young Swedish girl to NZ with her mother to reunite with their husband and father, Oscar Garden, a renowned pilot. Again, trauma and difficulty are apparent, and the marriage does not last. Margareta comes across as a strong, determined young woman, adapting with apparent ease to constantly changing circumstances.

There’s a great deal in this book to reflect on, and in which to find similarities of upbringing, belief and experience. I found it a fascinating read – it’s sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes drily humorous and often extremely touching.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Memory Pieces
by Maurice Gee
VUP 2018
ISBN 9781776562077

Book Review: Dragon Defenders #3 – An Unfamiliar Place, by James Russell

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

dragon_defenders_3.jpgThis was the first of the Dragon Defenders titles that I have read. It was perhaps not the best place to start, as I feel I have missed quite a bit of excitement, and some of the backstory, but I did feel that there were enough references to give me the gist of what had happened, although it would have been nice to get to know the boys, Flynn and Paddy, a bit better.

I did enjoy getting to know our third protagonist Briar whom, with her love of animals and kind, considerate nature, I felt an immediate connection with. Unluckily for poor Briar, The Pitbull, the wicked villain introduced in the first two novels, is her uncle. This story begins soon after the events in The Pitbull’s Return – with Briar’s compassionate betrayal of her Uncle’s dastardly schemes exposed. She is thrown into captivity, but she is not alone. No, The Pitbull has another plan to capture the dragons, and to enact it, he must lure the brothers away from the island, into his clutches.

Having previously foiled The Pitbull’s plans, Flynn and Paddy have returned to their relatively carefree life on the island – they race their dragon friends, help their parents, and plan for the arrival of their grandparents. But their grandparents never show; they’ve fallen into The Pitbull’s hands, and now it is up to Flynn and Paddy to rescue them. Their journey begins with a harrowing journey across a raging ocean, delivering them into a place bigger, dirtier, and stranger than they have ever imagined: the city. Here danger awaits them at every turn, and The Pitbull’s grip tightens around them. Can they escape? Or will they lose their freedom – and their dragons – forever?

The brothers’ simplistic way of life contrasts sharply with The Pitbull’s technological one. There was action and adventure a-plenty, with far more guns that I was expecting – but, unfortunately, fewer dragons. I enjoyed getting to know Briar, for not only is she compassionate, but she is also very resourceful, and not one to take being imprisoned in a tower lightly! The two boys were reckless and adventurous, throwing themselves willingly against any challenge. Their plot moved at a helter-skelter pace, giving me barely enough time to breath. The dragons did make an appearance: at both the beginning and the end, and were impressively awe-inspiring creatures.

The AR features are a novel addition;  it was fun to download the app and have a play. The addition of an AR element is something we are likely to see feature more-and-more in books, and it is nice to see it in physical books as well as in ebooks. There’s nothing like seeing a boat hovering over a page to help bring the story to life!

Overall,  lots of action and nail-biting excitement, which should be devoured by the intended audience (children 7+). I also imagine it would appeal to fans of the 39 Clues series. Despite the length of the book: 222 pages, the large print and the fast-paced plot should make it a quick and easy read, that will leave the reader hungry for more. I know that I am curious to see where the Dragon Defenders go next!

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Dragon Defenders #3 – An Unfamiliar Place
by James Russell
Published by Dragon Brothers Books
ISBN 9780473435301

James Russell will be appearing at Nelson Writers Festival on Saturday 20 October at 11am.

Book Review: Paraweta, by Stephanie Blake

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

Paraweta-cover-451x600This is a te reo Māori version of the well-known picture book Poo Bum. Little rabbit is rather rude and from the moment he wakes up little rabbit answers every question with ‘paraweta (Poo Bum)’ – until he meets a wolf who likes to eat rabbits!

Te reo Māori is growing in strength as we all see the importance of sharing our indigenous language with our little ones. Translations of classic stories that young children already know and love are a perfect way to introduce te reo Māori. Children can hear natural language patterns as they follow the familiar storyline and illustrations. It won’t be long before children will start shouting out ‘paraweta’ in all the right spots!

For nervous readers, you could start by changing out ‘poo-bum’ for ‘paraweta’ – however children tend to be a very forgiving audience when it comes to practicing a new language.

This book shows how much fun language can be. It will draw in the most book-shy child who will enjoy laughing at a parent or teacher saying ‘taboo’ words. The bold illustrations use blocks of colour and black lines to continue the absurdity – who has ever seen a green wolf or a rabbit in a suit?!

As an adult, you will either love or hate the storyline but young children are almost guaranteed to love the silliness! A book filled with toilet humour, familiar characters and a witty punchline – what is not to love? Just be prepared to read this book over and over again.

Reviewed by Sara Croft

Paraweta
by Stephanie Blake, translated by Karena Kelly
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572182

Book Review: Lonely Planet Kids: World’s Strangest Creepy Crawlies

cv_worlds_strangest_creepyCrawliesAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Most definitely not for squeamish grown-ups, this book will delight bug-obsessed kids with its catalogue of weird and wonderful insects. Have you ever heard of a bird-dung crab spider?

This new book by the clever folk at Lonely Planet is a Top 40 of the world’s strangest species, ranked in order and scored on a scale of creepiness, beauty, fighting ability, and superpowers. It is chock-full of coloured photos, fact boxes, lists, and brightly coloured graphics. The cast includes a full array of bugs from spiders to ants to bees. I confess it was extremely satisfying to see that New Zealand’s own Giant Weta made an appearance. Did you know that a weta’s ears are on its knees?

It is hard to imagine a child who would not be fascinated by this treasure trove of facts and photographs. With quizzes, maps, and a glossary, there is plenty of information in this compact book to keep primary school-aged children captivated. It may be a little basic for older readers but it could provide a good starting point for the curious researcher.

Adults, be prepared to be regaled incessantly with all sorts of weird and revolting statistics. ‘Mum! Mum, did you know…?’ Just be glad you are not a termite queen that produces one egg every three seconds for fifteen years; that’s a lot of babies.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

Lonely Planet Kids: World’s Strangest Creepy Crawlies
by Lonely Planet
Published by Lonely Planet Kids
ISBN 9781787012974

Book Review: Godley: the Man Behind the Myth, by Terry Kinloch

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_godley_pg.jpgAuthor Terry Kinloch ends his biography Godley: The Man Behind the Myth withIf this book gives readers a more rounded and balanced understanding of Godley -the man and the general – it has achieved its purpose.’  This book does exactly that.

Major General Bernard Freyberg of the Second World War might be uppermost in New Zealanders’ minds if asked to name a prominent influencer on New Zealand’s military tradition. However, Freyberg was a leader of a Division which formed part of an army and a military structure, which had been conceived in 1910, built and trained through to 1914 and then,  with the NZ Expeditionary Force  component,  led to war in Gallipoli, Palestine and Europe  by  the British general Sir Alexander Godley.

Godley was hired by the New Zealand Government from the British army with the aim of transforming New Zealand’s military structure into a modern, sustainable force that could help defend not only its own country but be inserted with ease into the armies of the British Empire.

This contribution from New Zealand to the Empire’s armies was sustainable because the transformation from the rather irregular nature of the country’s involvement in the Boer War, to  the establishment of regional,  part-time territorial units and even school cadet forces. It could be said the “Godley Structure” lasted through to the 1960s.

But Godley’s reputation is often blackened severely by his supposed responsibility for the heavy casualties and eventual failure of the Gallipoli campaign and then again at Passchendaele. One New Zealand military historian titled a whole chapter of his book as “Godley’s abattoir”referring to the Passchendaele tragedy. The label was first coined in relation to the Gallipoli battle at The Nek, where Australian troops were sent mindlessly  “over the top” and into a hail of machine gun bullets.

Author Kinloch lists the above two disasters, and other ‘recently published accounts’ including the view that ‘every ANZAC solider who had the misfortune to service under Godley’s command loathed him. In return, he detested the Australians and tolerated the New Zealanders. It has also been stated that Godley was trained by his father, that he had never seen a machine gun before 1914 and that he was a cavalry officer.’

‘None of these statements are true,’ writes Kinloch, ‘some are simply wrong, while others are misinterpretations or exaggerations.’

That statement is on page seven of the 319-page book. Much of the rest of the book is taken up with a deeply researched study of the man and his deeds from early childhood until his death. The quality of Kinloch’s research can be attributed to the access he had to Godley’s letters, a great many to his wife, Louisa but also to many contemporary soldiers politicians and others – even the King. Much of this material was written contemporaneously with the events and thus presents a valuable record within the context of the time.

There are many photographs and maps which add to the understanding of this man. None of the photos show him smiling. Clearly Godley was an “Empire Man” with great self discipline, ramrod appearance  and a rather aloof manner which  made him appear  uncaring. His first battles were in the Boer War where he established a good reputation as a  an organiser, leader and fighter.  Much praise came from Baden Powell, whom he served under at the historically famous siege of Mafeking.

Despite the difficulties of the Boer War, Godley, accordingly to Kinloch, decided that the years between 1910 and 1914 (in New Zealand) were the ‘most challenging of his career to date.’ There were grumbles among the kiwis at Godley bringing in other British officers but he was determined to set up a balanced structure resulting in a highly efficient and sustainable force. The need for it can be best understood by a quote of a New Zealand territorial offer, Andrew Russell , ‘The inefficiency of the officers, and the utter absence of any standard on which to model ourselves, is the root of our inefficiency.’ (Russell later became once of New Zealand’s most distinguish Generals).

Kinloch provides a comprehensive account  of Godley’s role in the  establishment of the what might be called the first professional New Zealand army, not large  but well  resourced  and trained across all the necessary  ingredients  of a modern fighting force from infantry, through mounted rifles, artillery, specialist machine gun  units, transport, pioneer and medical corps.  There was even a Cyclist Corps.

Having conceive it, organised it and trained it, Godley took a division to war in 1914 as the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Kinloch then traces the story of Godley’s war, almost battle by battle examining the myths and legends, criticism and praise attributed to the General , often  clarifying and even correcting long held  ‘understandings’ of  battles and also of the character of the man. A battle for which Godley received praise, rightly, was the Battle of Messines, where the planning, resourcing,  training  led to a famous victory for the New Zealanders and Australians under Godley’s command.

This is a very important book, well illustrated with photographs and maps, which will reshape our view of a man who played such a huge role in New Zealand’s engagement with the First World War. As military historian Chris Pugsley has written in a cover endorsement, this book ‘has brought this controversial commander….out from the shadows.’

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould
CEO, Booksellers NZ and owner of Messines Bookshop : Military History

Godley: the Man Behind the Myth
by Terry Kinloch
Published by: Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593638

 

 

 

Book Review: Not for ourselves alone: belonging in an age of loneliness, by Jenny Robin Jones

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_not_for_ourselves_aloneThis is a very comprehensive and detailed book which deals with how we can, may, and already do manage the modern world with its present emphasis on the individual, and our very particular needs to be part of society. ‘No man (or woman) is an island’ seems quite a pertinent thought when reading this work.

Jenny Robin Jones clearly did her research well. The book fires off in different directions via an almost bewildering number of avenues, thoughts and connections, from the entirely dissimilar – Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Age of Reason and Eleanor Catton – through stories of family members, references to early New Zealand settlers and the tangata whenua, immigrants to New Zealand – until she ends with positive thoughts about how we can best get on with living despite being torn in apparently different directions.

It’s an interesting and complex read. Some of the people interviewed turned out to be people I knew, which is hardly unusual in New Zealand, but it did pique my interest more, in what turned out to be a challenging read.

How to feel not alone – or how to cope with those feelings and acknowledge that they are normal for many of us – makes up the backbone of the book. To put this into some kind of perspective, Jones uses her researcht o develop her case for the need for compassion. In one of those odd coincidences of which life is made, I recently read and reviewed Gigi Fenster’s memoir, Feverish, which also deals with the importance of compassion – she sees it as the single most important attribute for human beings to aim for.

Jones’ book is divided into three major parts, with subsets in those – Getting Started, World Face to Face and World Big Wide. Getting Started is self-evident, face to face is about personal relationships and stories, and World is more on politics and philosophies.

As I said, it’s very wide-ranging and I did find it hard to follow the thread at times.
However I think it addresses several important issues, and it is definitely worth a read.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Not for ourselves alone: belonging in an age of loneliness
by Jenny Robin Jones
Published by Saddleback
ISBN 9780995102507

Book Review: The Mapmakers’ Race, by Eirlys Hunter

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_mapmakers_RaceThe Santander siblings – Sal, Joe, Francie and little Humphrey – have twenty-eight days to reach the finish line of the Great Mapmakers’ Race. With their father missing and their mother stranded, they have no choice but to carry on alone. Their task: find a route for a railway line between Grand Prospect and New Coalhaven. If they win, they will receive a large prize that will allow them to fund a search party for their father. If they lose, they will never be a proper family again.

Launching the adventure with a thrilling train ride, the four children and their talking parrot, Carrot, speed past ‘tunnels and bridges, fields, farms and forests’ to arrive at Grand Prospect. With fourteen-year-old Sal guiding her younger siblings through the bustling town, they join the Mapmakers’ Race with the help of their new-found friend, a fifteen-year-old boy named Beckett.

Against the ever-ticking clock, the Santander team contend with dangerous river crossings, bears, a kidnapping, illness, loneliness, wet clothes, dark caves, family squabbles, cliff falls and terrible weather – not to mention a dwindling food supply. Racing against five teams of adults who refuse to play by the rules, the Santanders find out what it means to survive against all odds.

A fast-paced adventure story, The Mapmakers’ Race is propelled along by an urgent deadline. With regular reminders of how many days remain, each chapter pushes the tension to new heights as the children fight to survive. A gripping tale with beautifully drawn characters, children and adults alike will empathise with at least one of the four Santanders. There’s Sal, the mathematician of the family, the one using trigonometry and her trusty altimeter to ensure their route is safe for a railway. There’s the eleven-year-old twins: courageous Joe and silent Francie. Joe speaks for the both of them, but it is Francie who has the secret talent – she has a special power of ‘flight’ that enables her to look at the world from above, her beautiful maps reflecting her visions. Joe is the brave (and reckless) route finder, and four-year-old Humphrey provides the comic relief with his made-up words (‘Busticated’ he exclaims at one point) and strange observations.

An adventure story with dashes of fantasy and a taste of steampunk, The Mapmakers’ Race is Eirlys Hunter’s seventh book for children. A London-born writer who now lives in Wellington, Hunter teaches children’s writing at the IIML at Victoria University. Complementing the beautiful prose are the stunning illustrations of Kirsten Slade, a Liverpool-born illustrator and comic artist who also lives in Wellington. Each chapter begins with a map illustration detailing the Santanders’ journey.

Unlike most modern-day children’s adventure stories, which tend to focus on internal conflict or traumatic events, Hunter’s novel harks back to children’s adventure books of the past. No adults feature in this story: instead, the children are solely responsible for their own survival. They make the decisions, and they alone suffer the consequences – but also the victories.

A heartwarming tale about the bonds between siblings and friends, The Mapmakers’ Race is a compelling read. When the reader is able to pull themselves away from the plot, they will also realise the delicate beauty of the prose – ‘The full moon hung so big and bright that he could barely make out any stars until he turned his back to the moon and looked towards the dark horizon where there were tens, then hundreds, then thousands of stars pulsing silently – chips of ice in an infinite, frozen world.’

A story full of laughter, thrills, storytelling and danger, The Mapmakers’ Race is destined to become a Kiwi classic.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

The Mapmakers’ Race
by Eirlys Hunter
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572038