Book Review: The Pretender’s Lady, by Alan Gold

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_pretenders_lady“Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.” So wrote the famous diarist and biographer James Boswell of his compatriot Flora MacDonald, the never-to-be-forgotten heroine of Scotland, for her single-handed role in the perilous escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie from the clutches of the rampaging English.

What a woman. Born 1722 in the Scottish Hebrides, her life is well documented. Her passion for a Scotland free from the iron grip of the English led her into many adventures and many troubles – not just risking her life to save the Prince, but also spending time locked up in the Tower of London on a charge of treason. In the 1770s, she lived for a time in North Carolina with her husband and children, only to be caught up in the War of Independence, and then surviving a raid by pirates on the return journey to Scotland. By any account she was an extraordinary woman, and her legendary place in Scottish history is well deserved. And hardly surprising either that there is a mystique and aura about her, that continually fuels the fires of independence, resilience and fierceness so part of the the Scottish identity.

In this novel, the Australian author has taken the bones of Flora’s life and created a rollicking good read that will appeal to a wide variety of readers, and not just those of Scottish descent or can lay claim to being descended from a MacDonald of the island of South Uist of the Outer Hebrides. She will be forever known as the saviour of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, aka the Young Pretender, and this is the central narrative of the story. Plus what would a good historical novel be without a bit of romance and bodice ripping in the Scottish highlands surrounded by heather and blustery winds? The background to all this however is just as important to the story. The author has thoroughly researched the history of the time – King George II, his son the Duke of Cumberland whose army famously defeated Charlie at Culloden in 1846 (later known as the Butcher Cumberland for his murderous treatment of the Scottish after this uprising), Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, the American War of Independence – and tells it in very rich and exciting detail.

Comparisons of the author’s writing style have been made with Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl) and Alison Weir who both write historical novels from the view point of key characters. As a result, fact is used as the starter for the story, but is not necessarily 100% factual in its content. The key word here, emblazoned on the front cover of such books is ‘a novel’. A great starting point for further research and reading.

For me, the key point of such historical novels, is that we learn so much – these books are page turners, they draw us in, real people and real events become vivid in our imaginations, history comes alive. And more importantly, these novels provide background to the nature of the world we live in now. For example, why did thousands leave Scotland from the mid-18th century onwards for the greener pastures of unknown lands in America, Canada, and New Zealand? Aside from the weather…

This is a terrific story, well told, great characters both good and bad, and in the light of the referendum that took place last year for Scottish independence, very timely. The relationship between the two nations may be cordial now, but it has not always been so, in fact many times over the centuries completely the opposite. Such a story makes me very proud of my Scottish heritage, and has sparked a wish to go to the Hebrides. My only criticism? Some pictures of Flora and Charlie would not have gone amiss, and a couple of maps would also have helped greatly in conjuring up images of the intrepid journey that Flora and her prince made.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Pretender’s Lady
by Alan Gold
Published by Yucca Press
ISBN 9781631580482

Book Review: ‘Tis the Month before Christmas – The True Story of Santa, by Patricia Chapman, illustrated by Richard Hoit

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tis_the_month_before_christmasPatricia Chapman has written a number of non-fiction books, including the bestselling Dunmore Book of New Zealand Records, and Strange Facts about New Zealand, as well as several novels. Richard Hoit is a freelance illustrator working full time on children’s books, with his work appearing worldwide.

With Christmas not that far away it was fortuitous that I was sent this book to review. It has a rather unique way of approaching the “true” story of how Santa became Santa. There is one story to be read for each day starting on 25 November and finishing on 25 December. Most of us are familiar with advent calendars (usually with a chocolate treat behind each date), so this is a great alternative if you want to avoid sugar overload leading up to Christmas.

Chapman tells the story of Nicolas Klaus, who lives with Grandfather Klaus in a farmhouse built of heavy logs, deep in the forests of Lapland. Grandfather Klaus had a herd of reindeer and Nicholas helped on the farm every day. We also find out how the reindeer got their names – from Prancer, Dancer  Vixen and even Rudolf.

I read this book to Abby aged 4 ½ in one sitting, which is not ideal, but I was keen to see just how much she would retain and what her views were on the conclusion of this story. When Mummy came home from work, one very excited little girl proceeded to tell, in her own words, the story about Santa, proving to me that she definitely had been listening.

The illustrations are fabulous and match the story with ease and with, flowing along gently engaging the listener and reader alike. This is a wonderful book keeping alive the magic of Christmas for children.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

‘Tis the Month Before Christmas – The True Story of Santa
by Patricia Chapman, illustrated by Richard Hoit
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781927262344

Book Review: The Blue Voyage and Other Poems, by Anne French

Available on 30 November in bookshops nationwide.

“How your face lit up, explaining
the blue voyage to me”cv_the_blue_voyage

Bookended by a short collection of poems by William Butler “Bill” Smith and some translations of Korean poet Han Yong-un’s work, Anne French’s new poetry collection, The Blue Voyage and Other Poems, settles itself into a context spanning oceans. From Bill and New Zealand, to the coasts of Turkey, and to Yong-un’s Korea, French writes alongside her fellow poets and the history of the idea of the blue voyage along the south-western Turkish coast.

Bill’s poetry anchors itself in the familiar, not venturing too far out from the New Zealand shoreline. It is a good starting point for this collection, as his experience feels like home, and his writing invites the reader into a conversation that slowly leads towards French and her poetry. He moves from the home, slowly towards the front porch and out into the water that sits on the edge of the blue voyage, from the kitchen and physical love of “Hot bread shop” to the dinghy and thoughts of the past in “Fishing at the Noises.”

French’s poems follow on from those of Bill and slowly move themselves out from the shore and into the waters of the Turkish coast. It takes a couple of poems to get ready for the blue voyage, and we see a carefully considered creation of the world of a seafarer. But it is the title poem that stretches out its characters and places in vivid detail. The words ebb and flow, the unknown resurfaces again and again, the Turkish faces and words, the wildflowers in Datҫa, the cats in Palamutbükü, until finally she turns towards England and asks How can I leave all this? / The roses, the oleander, / the sunshine, the mountains, / the water full of little fish, / the perfect sailing breeze. But leave she does, towards other places documented by her poetry. She takes others with her, like C.K. Stead (El Faro) and Geoff Park (Black notebook and On the way), and pays tribute to poetry, to sailing, and to love and life.

In the final section, “Going to Gwangju,” French makes her way to Korea and the tragic history of Gwangju. She recognises herself as an outsider and comes to understand the personal history, Only now I understand / the words you didn’t say. / ‘Gwangju’ means massacre. This poem highlights a point in Korean history that is met with sadness, and with silence. French’s sijo builds on this further, “Now silent on Achasan, your voice carries clearly across the century.”

It is interesting then to turn the page to the translations of the Korean poet, Han Yong-un. Silence is here also, but it is The Silence of Love. These love poems, echoing those of Bill Smith and those of Anne French earlier on in the collection, bring the book to a neat close, until finally, Waiting / for the ringing of the bells announcing daybreak, / I put down my brush.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

The Blue Voyage and Other Poems
by Anne French
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408428

Book Review: Alone on the Wall, by Alex Honnold with David Roberts

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_alone_on_the_wallYou might have heard of Alex Honnold, he is an incredible athlete who has gained worldwide notoriety not only for his physical abilities, but also for his attitude to life. He is a free solo climber, climbing rocks hundreds of metres high, alone, without ropes and harnesses or any of the usual protective gear usually seen on climbers. And he does this because he says it is fun.

The world’s fascination with Alex Honnold centres on a frank disbelief that someone could do something so inherently dangerous, and that he’s still alive, and still doing it. We’re also fascinated with his lifestyle choices – he lives in a kitted-out van and climbs mountains. He climbs using nothing more than tight climbing shoes and chalk to assist his ascent. Sponsorship makes his lifestyle feasible. He is admired and respected by climbers around the world.

Alex’s fame began within the local climbing community in his home in the USA, then word got out about how he was free soloing routes normally ascended with ropes and in teams. He was climbing them ‘free’ and he was climbing them fast. For him, free soloing is purism. His philosophy of life is his emphasis on simplicity, on paring away extraneous stuff. He likes the speed records because they give a baseline for improvement, and beating times is gratifying.

nat_geographic_YosemiteYou might have seen the feature about Alex’s climbing on 60 Minutes, or the famous front cover photo on National Geographic with Alex standing on a thin sliver of a ledge half way up an almost vertical rock overlooking a vast valley. After a local adventure film company made a few films about his ‘crazy’ ascents, he became famous on a wider scale – he reckons being Facebook-friended by thousands of people he didn’t know was one of the first signs of his burgeoning fame.

You get the feeling with Alex Honnold, though, that climbing rocks for challenge and satisfaction is something he was born to do and as you read his book, it is crystal clear that he is driven to keep at it. Climbing has made him extremely fit, and you need to be extremely fit to hang from a ledge with a finger and thumb wedged in if that’s all that is holding your weight.

He’ll say he hasn’t had many close calls that he can remember. He insists that his climbing is low-risk – he is not likely to fall off. He recognises that the consequences are high if he did, but he wants to be clear about distinguishing between consequence and risk. The rest of us just feel that it’s a chance we would rather not take, which is why we aren’t several hundred metres up in the air on a rockface in Yosemite National Park.

The book is a collection of some of his most challenging climbs, and it’s a chance to get inside his head as you wonder what he is thinking up there. Alex says the ‘camping lifestyle’ he lives day in day out does wear thin – camping likely holds a special appeal if you don’t do it routinely. He admits to liking showering, eating out, being able to call his friends, checking email. He also tires of the lonely life in the van sometimes, but it’s a trade-off and he says on the whole he is pretty content.

Alone on the Wall is a great read for the climber in your family and still very interesting if climbing is your worst nightmare. Life is precious, but just because something is precious it doesn’t mean you have to baby it. As Alex says, “What’s the point in having an amazing vehicle if you’re afraid to drive it?”

Review by Amie Lightbourne

Alone on the Wall
by Alex Honnold with David Roberts
Published by Macmillan Publishers
ISBN 9781447282693

Book Review: The Lost Landscape, by Joyce Carol Oates

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_lost_landscapeThis book is a compilation of pieces, most of which have already appeared in various publications. The author describes it as “a writer’s coming of age”.

At the beginning of the book she makes this statement: “We begin as children imagining and fearing ghosts. By degrees, through our long lives, we come to be the very ghosts inhabiting the lost landscapes of our childhood.”

It’s not a linear progression of memory, so it does not fit neatly into what we expect of a memoir, and because it’s a collection, or at least I imagine that this is the reason, there is quite a lot of repetition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and even occasionally serves to reinforce some aspects of Oates’ early life – particularly her relationship with her stern Hungarian grandparents.

Some of the pieces are a tad too whimsical, in particular the one written from the viewpoint of one of the chickens. Others hint at the much darker side of life that Oates experienced growing up in a small town in New York state. Life in the 1940s and 1950s in rural America was not easy and the differences observed and described between wealthy and poor families, the somewhat awkward and unbalanced relationship between Oates and some of her schoolmates, and the descriptions of what we would now term dysfunctional families are quite telling. You get a feel for the kind of life she had without her having to spell it all out in detail.

The book covers a huge amount of ground, and I think brings together many of the events and memories which have shaped Joyce Carol Oates as a writer. She clearly wrote from an early age, and was a voracious reader. The detail she applies in description, along with wonderful use of language generally, makes this collection interesting reading.

I wanted it to be more cohesive than it is, but overall found it a satisfying read, and I think now I may go and try something else by her.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Lost Landscape
by Joyce Carol Oates
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780008146597


Book Feature: Timeline, by Peter Goes (Gecko Press)

cv_timelineAvailable in bookshops from Monday 23 November

What an incredible, detailed, beautifully illustrated book. The visual style is arresting, and the use of colour sparing and effective. This is a book that fills a very important niche: history for lively, curious minds. If you have, like me, got a child who says “Instead of a story tonight, can you tell me about the history of the world? Like, the real history?” – This book is for you and yours. It will be one that your kids will go back to and back to, and as they encounter more of the context at school and elsewhere, they will delve into the relationships between historical moments further.

This book comes with no small amount of hype: Julia Marshall says it was her favourite book of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this year. Given that the fair was in April, it’s fair to say that they have worked incredibly hard to get this out for the Christmas market, with Bill Nagelkerke being responsible for the translation from Dutch. Nagelkerke is a children’s author in his own right, and has been working with Gecko Press on Dutch translation since they began publishing.

The Publishers’ favourite bits
This is quite a publication, so I thought I’d get the publishers’ input about why it is they love the book to give some context, before telling you how my son and I experienced it. Julia says, “I like the way fact mixes with fiction: I like that Pegasus and ET and Harry Potter are in there with Putin and President Obama and Marilyn Monroe and Edmund Hillary.”


Julia presents ‘Timeline’ at the Booksellers NZ Conference in June

Julia goes on to say, “I don’t have a favourite page yet as it is a lovely long process of dipping and diving, and I find it is nice to read with a friend over a cup of tea – every time something new. I like the explorers’ page with the whales and penguins and turtles alongside Columbus and Drake and the great Chinese explorers, and the Polynesian explorers, and seeing all the little lines across the world.”

Rachel Lawson was also on the Gecko team this year – seconded from Whitireia Publishing – and she says, “My favourite spreads are early in the book – the First People and the First Settlements. These spreads encourage you to get up close to the illustrations and see the humour alongside the detail of the history.

“The First People has a fantastic Lucy – probably our oldest human ancestor – stepping out cheekily from behind a tree, shows Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens hunting with their various primitive weapons but also dragging around squalling babies and making cave art. The recent years are also great fun because you find all these things from your own childhood get dragged up from the memory banks. I particularly enjoy the caricatures of famous figures – Putin, Thatcher, Idi Amin, Freddy Mercury…”

Our favourite bits
Mine & my five-year-old Dan’s favourite spreads also occur early in the book – I loved the timeline between the beginning of life and the end of the dinosaurs, with the bones that carry on delving into the earth, to be found so many layers deep by paleontologists later on. He also shows those species that carried on, jumping out of the fiery tar-pit end for the dinosaurs. Dan spotted those that carried on, and enjoyed making the connections between now and all that way back in our pre-history.

Timeline_end of the dinosaurs

The end of the dinosaurs, from Timeline, copyright Peter Goes/Gecko Press

I recorded some of our conversations while we were sharing Timeline, and there have been some really interesting moments that have made me revise what I know of history. This is a book that will do that – and force you to think more deeply about connections you may not have considered as part of a whole. There are a lot of ways of explaining events that I hadn’t quite considered – for instance, the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand being ‘The first shot in World War I’. Some periods of our history just seem insane, looking back from our perspective. I’m pretty sure King Leopold II of 2015 wouldn’t have dreamed of taking over an entire inhabited country – the Congo – as his private fiefdom. Under the European Empire-building conditions of the 19th century, however, it seemed perfectly reasonable.

This is the conversation we had about Jesus, born on the Roman Empire page: “He’s really dead, isn’t he?” Probably less dead than others – you know his name, don’t you? God was his father, or that’s what many believe. “I thought God was a girl, because in my book that we’ve got, God was a girl. In the one that has the cow, the sheep, the pig, with a green cover – God was having a baby.”Ah… Mary. She wasn’t God, but she was how Jesus came to be born. “Why is everybody dead?” Well, the people who descend from them aren’t.

timeline_roman empire.jpg

The Roman Empire, from Timeline, copyright Peter Goes/Gecko Press

Also – the Roman Legionnaires look like Star Wars people (true, and possibly on purpose), at least gladiators had shields and nets and helmets and pitchforks (also true), Michelangelo: “did he turn into a ninja turtle?” (no), and “Why did they make the ships into pirate dragon ships?” To make people fear them “There’s no dragons now, so that won’t work.” (true) I’d never thought about that before, but that was quite a thing back in the day!

For kids – and who else?
While most spreads are dealing with a particular part of, mainly European history, there are a couple that simply talk about great Explorers, or the Space race. The pictures making up the stream across time are labelled, often humorously; there are many more details that you spot every time you open the book. As Julia says – it is nice to read with a friend, in fact I found myself wheeling it out every time I had adult visitors at home, and I will probably keep doing so!

The time and effort that has gone into creating this thing of beauty is massive, and I thank Gecko Press for again delivering a book that will last the test of time. I hope it sells on and on, all over the world.

Get this if you have a curious kid, or if you are a curious adult: whether you have studied history, have a passing interest, or just love big luxurious books. Just get it. If you are wondering about age range – my son is 5. I had to change the language a little to improve his understanding, but if you are looking at a gift, I think from 8 to 99 is a good recommendation.

Feature by Sarah Forster

by Peter Goes
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776570690

Book Review: Expecting Miracles, by Peter Bland

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_expecting_miraclesPeter Bland’s Expecting Miracles is a collection of poetry that explores the many emotions tied to memory. By touching on subjects of loss that are close to the heart, Bland crafts a nostalgia that invites the reader to also reminisce.

‘Expecting Miracles’ is also the title of the opening poem, a piece of work that was written in memory of Bland’s wife. Through snippets of recollection, Bland fondly crafts this memory back to life. His language brings meaning and grandeur to even the most commonplace occurrence, from a game of cricket, to the image of blonde hair streaming back in the wind. This is where his work finds strength: creating a strong picture by focusing on specific moments in time and place.

From this opening piece, the poet becomes the primary narrator of the collection. Through his memories, the reader learns the people and places he treasures. The grandeur of his language emphasises this connection to the great loves of his past, when he was “young / and the road never-ending”.

Bland’s poetry also explores other characters beyond the poet. Through these characters, his writing also experiments with a magical realism that is both haunting and striking. In ‘The portable pond’, a man carries around a remnant of his past—a pond near his childhood home—and is never quite able to get rid of it. This childhood love is what stops him from being able to truly start a new life. These stories are, in a way, alternate forms of expressing the poet’s preoccupation with memory. I most enjoyed these touches of fantasy as they allowed a distinctive outlook on a common theme.

However, there were only a few works of prose poetry such as ‘The portable pond’. I felt that these pieces were the strongest and found myself savouring them much more as they best-suited Bland’s style of storytelling. His works of prose poetry felt significantly smoother compared to the constant use of enjambment in his works of verse. I felt that this was jarring against the nostalgic atmosphere that Bland had so effectively set up at the beginning.

Due to this, sometimes I felt a lack of coherence in Expecting Miracles. Although I could identify main themes such as memory, the order that Bland’s poems followed on from each other was not strongly linked. The beginning worked well as it asked questions about remembering, about hoping for things that had come to pass, but I felt this theme got a bit lost in the middle; there were an array of memories from different standpoints with no concrete order.

However, the collection gained traction again with an ending that attempted to find a solution these questions. In this way, Expecting Miracles finds strength in its beginning and ending. At its end, it turns again both to magical realism and the real. It then delves back to even older memories and what to do when, in the end, all you have left is recollection.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Expecting Miracles
by Peter Bland
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9781927242902