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Book Review:  Taupo Blows! by Doug Wilson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_taupo_blowsI will be honest with you.  I did not want to read this book at all. The title is the stuff of many of my childhood fears; after learning about volcanoes at primary school, staying at my nana’s home with its view of Lake Taupō during school holidays was never again a carefree experience. I don’t know how many nights I lay awake wondering if my number was up.

Thankfully, Doug Wilson hasn’t written that story. Instead he’s had Mt Ruapehu erupt, with young Rachel and Sam home alone when a second eruption throws a strange visitor onto their doorstep. Guld lives under the mountain, and needs Rachel and Sam to help him put things right before the whole volcanic plateau blows.

With the plot moving along at a cracking pace, Wilson introduces Rachel and Sam to a variety of odd characters to help them on their quest. The children must overcome their fears and find their inner strength to save the North Island from a cataclysmic eruption.

Taupo Blows! reminds me of the Maurice Gee classic (and nightmare-inducing) Under the Mountain in terms of setting, and Suzanne Collins’ wonderful Gregor the Overlander series in terms of characters and themes. This is high praise, and has Wilson keeping very good company. I’d recommend Taupo Blows! for readers from about 9-10 years, and I look forward to Wilson’s next offering.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Taupo Blows!
by Doug Wilson
Published by Bateman Publishing
ISBN 9781869539672

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Book Review: Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer, edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_quarrels_with_himselfWe’ll mythologise anyone in this country, rate anything a holy relic – how many thousands of words spent on Sargeson’s house? How many of Mansfield’s receipts, hair tufts, gnawed pencils have been ziplocked, catalogued, glossily photographed? The lit scenesters of 2067 will probably be reading paeans to Hera Lindsay-Bird’s Hyundai, crowding around tables at the archives for a look at Witi Ihimaera’s toenail clippers. If some notable tried to sate us with taxidermy, we’d bemoan the lost chance to inspect the artist’s guts and then prop the mummy up in the birthplace, pensive-posed if they were sensitive, wrestling a stag if they were Crumpishly butch.

Unusually, we collect James K. Baxter’s words and not his skin flakes, but we often treat them about the same – Baxter’s actual work becomes another artefact, interesting just for its relationship to his life and image. Quarrels with Himself is the first major study of Baxter’s prose, which prior to the landmark release of his Complete Prose in 2015 had been generally dismissed even by Baxter himself as far lesser stuff than his poetry, placing it in an interesting position of establishing a new critical precedent for the author; is Baxter’s prose of interest outside of how it illuminates and complicates the Baxter myth? Are these notable works in themselves?

Quarrels answers with a resounding ‘vaguely’. As editor Geoffrey Miles puts it, Baxter ‘is not only one of New Zealand’s great poets, but also a prose writer of some distinction’, which isn’t as faint a piece of praise as it sounds. We’d still talk about Baxter if all we had to judge him on were works like his idiosyncratic essays on New Zealand poetry and the cosily derivative lyrical novella Horse. However, most of the essays here are focused less on close analysis of Baxter’s prose works in isolation than in how they ‘uncover how much more complicated Baxter is than his popular stereotype’ – that is, what they tell us about Baxter the poet.

As an academic text, Quarrels is obviously essential for Baxter scholarship. If, as a pioneering critical work, it doesn’t demonstrate that its subject calls for much future study, that’s mostly because it feels pretty comprehensive, even definitive. It’s not likely to be superseded as the book about Baxter’s prose for decades, if ever. But there’s a conspicuous absence, as Miles acknowledges, of an essay on Baxter’s complicated relationship with Māori culture, especially disappointing given the missed opportunity to engage with Baxter a little less reverently. The collection steers clear of hagiography, but could steer clearer; contributors often allude to the flaws in Baxter’s work (and personality) but don’t really dig into them, generally assuming the reader’s already hip to Baxter’s warts.

More interesting is the question of Quarrels’ crossover potential, since Baxter’s an ideal subject to appeal to both an academic and popular audience. Robert Christgau called Dylanology ‘the thinking man’s philately’, a quip that applies just as well to fellow rebel-cum-institution Baxter, who rewards obsessives the same way. Brilliant epigrams and pieces of imagery are buried in obscure speeches and essays, and instead of having a consensus major period, the phases of his career lend themselves to ranking in a way both non-linear and subjective – half the fun of reading him is getting to debate the relative merit of Baxter the aesthete, Baxter the Catholic, Baxter the satirist, Baxter in Dunedin, Baxter in Jerusalem.

Fortunately for the amateur Baxterologist, Quarrels isn’t a pedantic academic text but a pretty good read. Most of these essays are in an enjoyable, accessible, relatively jargon-free style, and they cover an interesting range of topics. Highlights include Peter Whiteford’s piece on Baxter’s social voice and Janet Wilson’s study of Baxter’s autobiographical writing, which has some of the best in-depth commentary on Baxter’s prose. John Davidson’s essay on Baxter and academia is a delight and my definite favourite; his style is clear and charming, and he doesn’t try to resolve Baxter’s academic ambivalence into some phony synthesis, opting instead for sly complicity with Baxter’s contradictory dependence on and healthy contempt for the academy.

Some of the essays are a bit stiff, though. Sharon Baxter’s essay ‘Women are All Mothers to Him’ contains the best analysis of Baxter’s fiction in the book, but it has some undergraduate-y connective tissue (‘in what follows, I focus on’, ‘James K. Baxter’s short fiction – by which I mean…’) that an edit could’ve fixed. There’s a couple outright drags. Kristine Moffat’s essay on Baxter and Puritanism is probably insightful but it’s pretty dry stuff. Nicholas Wright’s essay ‘The Incarnational Formalist’ makes a few decent points, but it’s written in ultra-turgid lit-theory style, simultaneously impenetrable and trite– who would read an essay that starts with ‘What does it mean to know how or why one writes and reads as one does?’ unless they had to review it? Check it out:

‘As I’ve suggested, pursued to the ends of its paradoxical or unmethodical method, formalism must surrender itself once again in that ritual of self-refusal or disavowal, which, for the formalist, becomes evidence they have discovered the vessel of the ineffable – that source of reverence to which the critical clerisy were devoted.’

Baxter would spin if he knew this stuff was being written about him, not to mention Denis Dutton. Still, it’s the exception in a generally highly readable collection.

Quarrels with Himself would be a pretty weird buy for someone who isn’t already a Baxter enthusiast, but it’ll satisfy anyone who’d want to read it. This study of Baxter’s second-tier work might not uncover hidden depths so much as elaborate on the tensions and contradictions in the myth we already knew, but it does it very well, and besides, it’s just fun to talk about him. This is more or less a compulsory companion for those who’ve committed to Baxter’s Complete Prose, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone Baxter-mad enough to have even considered it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer
edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561711

Book Review: Row, Kiwi, Row Your Boat, illustrated by Stevie Mahardika

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_row_kiwi_row_your_boat.jpgThis book has become a firm favourite in our audio story collection.  It is a cheerful, fast-paced musical telling of a kiwi going on an adventure to find a taniwha.  Along the way kiwi meets many New Zealand native animals and birds who join kiwi on the adventure.

It is beautifully written in rhyming prose and has a clear storyline of the kiwi following a river out to the sea to find a taniwha.  The story includes a repeating stanza so children can quickly join in the story-telling.  Also the storyline can be re-created in magnetic puppets or dramatic play so children can recreate it in their play to build early literacy skills.

A picture tells a thousand words and these illustrations are bright and perfectly match the text. Children can easily follow along with the visual representation of the story.  We particularly love the page which locates the adventure by showing a birds-eye view of the path the characters have taken.

Our children love to join Kiwi on her adventure to find a taniwha.  The suspense builds throughout the story as the animals work together on their mission.  It weaves messages of friendship and co-operation.

The book also includes the music and words for the story in te reo Māori.  It is possible to listen to the story in te reo Māori, and as your confidence grows it is easy to insert words into your reading in English – beginning with the names of many native birds and animals.

Reviewed by Sara Croft, ECE Teacher

Row, Kiwi, Row Your Boat
illustrated by Stevie Mahardika, sung by Pio Terei
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434931

Book Review: Grace and Katie, by Suzanne Merritt and Liz Anelli

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_grace_and_katieGreat picture books have either a wonderful story and illustrations, or a profound message. The very best picture books manage to do both and Grace and Katie falls easily into this category.

Grace and Katie are sisters with totally different perspectives on art. While Grace enjoys using straight lines and order, Katie prefers colour and creativity. When they both decide to draw a picture of their home and the local park, the results are very different. The final results are not quite as satisfying as they would like. By sharing their skills and working together they create an artwork which combines accuracy with creativity.

Susanne Merritt is a passionate advocate for children’s literacy and as a Mum of 3 she has plenty of experience with the differences between siblings. Combined with the bright illustrations and detail of Liz Anelli, this book is a treasure.

I teach tolerance and difference to a Year 11 class, and asked if they would like me to read to them. They willingly sat on the mat as I shared Grace and Katie. The following discussion was wonderful as they picked up on the visual clues in the pictures. We talked about stereotyping and working with others. One girl explained that it could have been about her own experience as she was the creative one with a very orderly sister. This led to a sharing about gender stereotypes and the importance of being ourselves.

As a teacher, I see this as a great resource for starting discussions from pre-school level up. It is also a really lovely book to read and enjoy for the satisfying story, the wonderful pictures and the happy ending.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Grace and Katie
by Suzanne Merritt and Liz Anelli
Published by EK Books
ISBN 9781925335545

Book Review: Old MacDonald Had a Farm, sung by the Topp Twins, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_old_macdonald_had_a_farm_topp_twinsHow do you make an old favourite in to a new favourite? You invite the Topp Twins to record it with their yahooing enthusiasm, and you invite Jenny Cooper to provide expressive and explosive illustrations. I will admit that my previous Topp Twins story and song combination has been so well used that I would willingly have used the CDs as targets. There is something infectious about the enthusiasm they bring to what could be a tired old song. A little bit of creativity in changing the end of the song, allows for even more chaos in illustrations and sound.

It is appropriate that the American twang is clearly part of this song and the Country and Western style is well-suited to the farmyard antics in the book. I have to admit that the Alpaca was a new one for me. Hmmmmmmm? Not an easy sound to sing but they do it in style.

Jenny Cooper is not just a gifted artist, she is a superb children’s book illustrator. She has such energy in the pictures with action in the smallest details. The Swanndri and Skellerup Redbands, the vintage tractor and the banana skin. These are the extras which keep the audience coming back, over and over again.

I think Grandparents would do well to get a copy of this wonderful book and CD and get it gift-wrapped and ready to roll. After Christmas dinner, this is exactly what you need to get the whole family singing and dancing. No wonder my kids were always terrified about what I had planned for Christmas afternoon. Watch this space!

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Old MacDonald Had a Farm
sung by the Topp Twins, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434986

Book Review: Scarface Claw, Hold Tight, by Lynley Dodd

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_scarface_claw_hold_tightWhat child doesn’t like Hairy Maclary books? One of the benefits of living in Tauranga is taking my grandchildren to see yhe wonderful Hairy Maclary statues at The Strand down by the water. They make me realise how universal these characters are. All ages stroke them and comment about the books.

“The morning was peaceful
The birds in the trees
were fluffing their feathers
and teasing the bees.
Sunning himself
as he settled each paw
was lazy old sleepyhead,
Scarface Claw.”

Scarface gets himself in a bit of a jam , sunning himself on top of a car which drives off. Poor old Scarface hangs on for dear life.

As usual Lynley Dodd has written a book that small children just love. I read this to 3-year-old Quinn. She hung on every word, looking at the illustrations pointing to poor old Scarface clinging on for dear life. She was quite sure that he would fall off and hurt himself and end up at the vets. Quite a relief when we came to the end of the story and she saw that he survived.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Scarface Claw, Hold Tight
by Lynley Dodd
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770985

Book Review: Ngā Atua Māori Gods, by Robyn Kahukiwa

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_nga_atua_maori_godsThe blurb on the back of this large picture book reads: Aotearoa is home to many marvellous gods. They are special. They are unique. They are awesome. It’s a pretty good description of the book itself – special, unique and awesome.

Many New Zealanders will be familiar with some of the Māori Gods such as Tāne, Papatūānuku and Ranginui. There are many more (not all covered in the book), and even people well-versed in Māori lore may discover new information in Kahukiwa’s book. Gods are introduced to the reader with their realm of influence, and a small amount of additional information to add flavour and interest. The amount of information is well balanced for a picture book – there was enough there to keep my class of 6 years engaged and interested without overwhelming them, and for older readers who want to find out more, it gives you a starting point.

The star of the book is Robyn Kahukiwa’s illustrations. They are just as stunning as you would expect from one of New Zealand’s top artists. They are colourful, powerful and vibrant, and convey the mana and fierceness of the gods.

This is one of those essential books that every New Zealand home, school and public library should have. Whether or not you’re Māori, it speaks to our shared heritage as New Zealanders, the stories that underpin our special part of the world. It would make a great gift for children up to the age of about 9 or 10 (Kahukiwa has dedicated it to her six year old grandson), and as a teacher I can definitely recommend it as a gift for an early childhood or primary teacher or library. Go buy it.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Ngā Atua Māori Gods
by Robyn Kahukiwa
Published by Oratia Books
ISBN 9780947506261