Book Review: The Last Days of Summer, by Vanessa Ronan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_last_days_of_summerSet in a small Texan prairie town that is in the midst of a hot, dry and unforgiving summer, this tale takes a close look at society’s willingness to forgive a monster. After serving ten years for a violent assault against a woman in the town, Jasper is released from prison and, having nowhere else to go, returns to his childhood home to live with his sister, Lizzie.

A single mum due to the repercussions of Jasper’s horrific act, Lizzie takes him in, acknowledging her conflict even as she does so: ‘But Lizzie stands paralyzed, listening to her brother’s laugh that is not her brothers, spoon held before her like some useless shield against whatever unknowns may come to pass. The reverend’s words haunt her. Half a day with Jasper and her inner response is still the same: I reckon I don’t know at all.’

To her, Jasper is both the big brother who looked after and loved her, and the psychopath who cannot be fully trusted. Familial ties win out and she lets him into her home, trusting that he will not harm her or her two daughters – the teenage Katie who doesn’t trust her uncle and the younger tween Joanne, who is innocently trustful and intrigued by this uncle she does not know.

The town is not so understanding of Lizzie’s decision to help her brother, nor are they willing to move past Jasper’s history, unfortunately Jasper’s insistence that he is not looking for trouble falls on deaf ears.

Cleverly set out with no chapter breaks to keep the tension building, Vanessa Ronan’s prose is both vividly descriptive and dramatic; her short, sharp sentences paint a family and town on edge. “The shop smells mildly of cat piss and mothballs, a smell that slaps the nostrils and jerks back the head…” From the first page, you can feel major trouble looming.

The characters are in a way stereotypical: the reverend who offers no practical help, the un-supportive parole officer and his blowsy receptionist, the rich oil man and his handsome son, the gun-toting vigilante brigade; however in this story, they work. Without them you could not consider each perspective of forgiveness – the Christian act of turning the other cheek, the town’s very understandable fear of him in their midst once again, the wronged family’s desire for vengeance, the pull of kin and shared childhood. Set against these viewpoints is a perpetrator who is aware of his actions but takes no responsibility for them; if Jasper is unremorseful and does not seek forgiveness, is he entitled to it?

Edgy, shocking and intense, this is no light-hearted read but a compelling one nonetheless. Very well written and, as disturbing as some parts of it are, I couldn’t put it down.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Last Days of Summer
by Vanessa Ronan
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9781844883660


Book Review: The House at the Edge of Night, by Catherine Banner

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_house_at_the_edge_of_nightOn a tiny island off the coast of Italy, Amedeo Esposito thinks he has finally found a place where he can belong. The newly-trained doctor is welcomed into the small community and marries Pina, the widow of a local school teacher.

However, “by noon on the day of Pina’s baby’s birth it was rumoured across the whole island that the doctor had delivered two babies, one his wife’s and the other, his lover’s.”

The scandal grips the inhabitants of Castellamare, it threatens Amedeo’s marriage, and causes him to be sacked as the local doctor. So he throws his life into restoring the House at the Edge of Night and reopening its bar to the public, as well as rebuilding his marriage to Pina.

The family saga unfolds through the many chapters and the reader delves into the layers which hold the family together throughout the book, which spans a long period from 1914 to 2009. It is a big read, 470 pages, but the story line flows easily and one is soon absorbed into the dramas of everyday life: floods, wars, storms and earthquakes.

A paratrooper washed ashore during World War Two is accepted into the Esposito family. Television also comes to the island, but when tourists begin to arrive, the islanders are forced to re-evaluate their lifestyles to accept that this may be how they earn their living in the future.

Catherine Banner was born in Cambridge and began writing at the age of fourteen, signing her first publishing deal shortly after sitting her final GCSE. She now lives in Italy but did her research for this novel while teaching in the north of England. This is her debut adult novel, and will be enjoyed by anyone who loves a family saga. Banner has divided the book into five parts and I enjoyed the inclusion of the old Sicilian and Italian folk stories at the beginning of these sections.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The House at the Edge of Night
by Catherine Banner
Published by Hutchinson
ISBN 9780091959333


Book Review: Moonlight Dreamers, by Siobhan Curham

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_moonlight_dreamersAn addictive read for teens that, on the surface, looks fairly light fare, but actually deals with some difficult and very relevant issues. Siobhan Curham most recently came into the spotlight as the author who assisted vlogger Zoe Sugg (Zoella) in writing her bestselling, Girl Online, and there are definite similarities. Both deal with the price of internet infamy, and online bullying.

The Moonlight Dreamers is a story about friendship, it is about being true to yourself, and finding the courage to follow your dreams. It contains a multitude of important messages, from how an act of rebellion can have disastrous consequences, to how if one seeks to fulfill their dreams, it is important to take initiative with the first steps. One of the things I loved about it was that the girls were all so different, and it was more about finding the confidence: to compete in a poetry slam, to talk to the boy she fancied, rather than the outcome.

It is the story of four girls, Amber, Maali, Sky and Rose, all very different but with one similarity: they are all Moonlight Dreamers.

Amber, with her two fathers, struggles to fit in at High School, where several of her peers have turned against her. She seeks solace in the words of Oscar Wilde, whose poem inspires her to start the Moonlight Dreamers: a secret society for girls like her, those that feel the don’t quite fit in and are proud of the fact.

Shy, sweet Maali is one of the kindest and most generous girls you might ever met, she loves to take photographs and only wishes she knew how to talk to boys, one boy in particular.

Sky is a poet, and she loves living with her father on their riverboat, but their peaceful life is about to be turned upside-down, when her father moves them in with his girlfriend. Now, not only does she have to share her good-hearted father, but she has to cope with the resentments of the girlfriend’s daughter, Rose. Beautiful Rose, pushed to be into modelling like her mother, secretly dreams of baking cakes, and staying out of the limelight.

Written in multiple narrative, interspersed with emails and Tumblr posts, with a couple of poems and a recipe thrown in for good measure, The Moonlight Dreamers is a tale that will find resonance for many a modern teenager.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Moonlight Dreamers
by Siobhan Curham
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406365825

Book Review: Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury earthquakes

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_leaving_the_red_zoneThe Garden City, the cathedral, the sight of cranes towering overhead—these things have all amalgamated into the image of what Christchurch is and has been. Leaving the Red Zone captures this blended image, presenting a collection of poems on the Canterbury earthquakes.

With a range of different writers in one collection, it was amazing to read such a selection of perspectives and emotional responses to the same event. Some writers use facts to try and understand Christchurch’s suffering; demographics become something structural, concrete, and real amidst the strangeness of a home turned to ruins. Keith Westwater employs the Richter scale to measure the effect of the earthquakes on both the earth and humans. It starts at “3.1… Felt by only a few” and finally moves to “6.1… Felt by all… Stoics grimace and those on edge start crying”.

Gravity is also an everyday concept turned strange in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Janet Wainscott asks, “how do we find and keep our footing here?” during the strange imposition of aftershocks that are constantly changing what used to be a stable home. Fixating on action and items becomes a reprise, even if, like Frankie McMillan, she becomes “another woman hurrying / home ticking off a list / candles, shelter, food and water”.

Many poems in Leaving the Red Zone describe interactions between not only friends and family, but also strangers. The title of Jeni Curtis’ piece says it all—Prayer For A Boy Whose Name I Never Found Out—the poem itself proving that even amid all the terror, there is a string of community. The question “Where were you when it struck?” becomes a point of reference for those who share the experience of the Canterbury earthquakes.

It also explores breaking points; C. M. Fitzgerald, writes “If I hear that damn word resilience / one more time, I will scream”, when the frustration of building herself back up over and over again becomes harder each time. Others poems question how ruined something has to be before you finally have no choice but to give up, and what it means to reach this breaking point. In her poem Possibilities Of The Now, Annette Chapman leaves with her “world packed in a moving van”, a departure that has layers of history behind it.

I was only fourteen when the 2011 earthquake struck. I had lived my whole life in Auckland, never been to Christchurch, and didn’t have family or friends there, so I am someone who has never felt the full effect of it. However, this collection makes Christchurch feel a little closer, through a whole chorus of voices that are joined together by memory.

The fact that Leaving the Red Zone cycles through the initial earthquake to aftershocks, the aftermath, and the promise of rebuild creates a full and rich narrative. Although many people have left Christchurch itself, the words of these poets persist in this collection; they are New Zealanders who are still attempting to understand this tragedy, years on from when the first quake struck.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury earthquakes
edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston
Published by Clerestory Press
ISBN 9780992251758

Book Review: A Passionate Affair – Llewellyn Owen & Music, by Margaret Bean

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_passionate_affairIn 1986, Llewellyn Owen’s daughter Gwyneth Owen gifted to the Ashburton Museum assorted material relating to Llewellyn, a school teacher, private music teacher, composer, conductor, accompanist and solo performer. He lived in Ashburton from 1890 – 1917. Margaret Bean, a voluntary archivist at the museum from 1993 – 1917 began compiling some details about his life to accompany that material. That project grew to become this book.

Llewellyn Owen was the youngest son of a family who emigrated from England to New Zealand in 1879 – he was eight years old. There were four boys in the family. At a young age, Llewellyn showed considerable musical talent. He obtained music qualifications after some years of study with no clear path of instruction. He was well-liked and in many reports of concerts and social events, his talents were in high demand.

Later on, Llewellyn trained as a primary school teacher taking up a position as an Assistant Master at Ashburton School. He resigned after 18 months to persue a career in music. He then returned to teach in Lyttleton. During his career he also worked as a composer, accompanist and a conductor.

The Gates family dominated the local music scene in Ashburton and were firmly established by the time Llewellyn arrived. They remained so during his time in the town.
Richard Wood, violinist of Timaru also had an impact on the Ashburton music circles in the early 1890’s both as a performer and teacher of stringed instruments.

The Woods and Gates families both figured prominently in early orchestral performances, along with Llewellyn Owen.

Llewellyn Owen’s time in Ashburton may be divided into four periods:

1890 – 95 Appointment to staff of Ashburton District School ending as
Choir leader of the Methodist Wesleyan Choir Society
1896 – 1902 6 years of intense musical society activity marred by eye
problems – sought treatment in Europe.
1903 – 1908 Returned from Europe; marriage, birth of first child.
1909 – 1917 Visiting music teacher at local high school until his departure
from Ashburton and return to primary teaching.

Llewellyn Owen also had a number of his original compositions published. In this book seven of his musical works have been included, one of which was discovered during Margaret Bean’s research, as well as a CD of his music. The CD is included with this book.

As a non-musician I found this book intriguing. New Zealand was a very different world to today. Music was a very important part of life in small towns and cities throughout New Zealand as entertainment and as a suitable accomplishment for women, along with painting and embroidery. This book is a glimpse into the social history of Ashburton and its surrounds, and an important record of that time in New Zealand.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

A Passionate Affair – Llewellyn Owen & Music
by Margaret Bean
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9781927242865

Book Review: Labour – The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016, by Peter Franks and Jim McAloon

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_NZ_Labour_partyIf you asked someone on the street what the oldest political party in New Zealand was, I suspect most wouldn’t say it was the Labour Party. Most would have assumed that National had been around longer, having dominated post-war politics, if not the history books.

This book serves a specific purpose for the Labour Party centenary, and contributes to the historiography on the labour movement and its political wing. It will certainly appeal to those in the party who are interested in their history, and add to the knowledge of some forgotten characters and good Labour people who served the party as lesser lights in the Caucas and Cabinet rooms. I think the most successful part of the book is in the choice of the photographic plates and cartoons, and their reproduction with extensive captions where needed. Here we can view a story that begins with rather formally dressed men posing for group photos at conferences, being mostly European immigrants who were autodidacts, and then see, as colour photos reflect, a party with significant gender balance and multicultural contribution.

If we are to assess the merits of the text I have to be critical of the core part, with regard to political philosophy, and the academic assumptions about policy-making. The Labour Party was an anti-imperial, anti-war movement that took the idea of socialism seriously, and explicitly battled against what was called the ‘Money Power’. Despite their sympathies to the philosophy, both of the authors have focussed on the academic writing on the Labour Party and political history, with a very selective use of the extensive thesis writing of history students, mostly from Canterbury University. It was, however, Auckland University alumni that came to dominate Labour Party politics, especially in the period when Professor Keith Sinclair had control of the Walter Nash papers, which produced his biography, dissertations, as well as activists.

But the authors of this book don’t even mention the Walter Nash collection despite, or perhaps because of, its sprawling nature and the inadequate description of its contents. This means there is no update on the views expressed by Sinclair – the failed Labour candidate for Eden in 1969 – and his polemic against what he called the Lee-Sutch syndrome. This seems to come down to Lee and his followers being naïve about the possible financial policy in the 1930s, based on Reserve Bank credit; and Nash having an economist’s understanding of sound finance, based on a reading of Keynes. This is rather unconvincing in terms of economic theory influencing policy, and the fact that Nash accepted that Reserve Bank credit would be permanently financing State House construction. When the Reserve Bank Governor objected to this financial policy in 1939, he raised the interest rate for the Housing Account finance, and timed it to occur when Nash had to go to London for a loan conversion. This was the actual policy situation, in contrast to Sinclair’s view on the anti-Labour role of the Bank of England in those loan negotiations, and the mythology which still surrounds it.

Of course, by the 1980s the Labour Party had decided to leave financial policy to Treasury, and monetary policy to the Reserve Bank, and opened the floodgates for international finance. This effectively undid everything the First Labour Government had achieved with its policy of ‘insulation’, in a rapidly changing global system. But it also reflected a completely different party, which did not appreciate its history. As the party policy returns to urban house construction, maybe things have changed back.

Reviewed by S.A. Boyce

Labour – The New Zealand Labour Party 1916-2016
by Peter Franks and Jim McAloon
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN  9781776560745

Book Review: Why Can’t We Just Play? by Pam Lobley


Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_why_cant_we_just_playWhy Can’t We Just Play? is a recount of author Lobley’s quest for an idealised 1950s summer for her family, where she could stay home and keep a half-eye on the kids as they roamed the neighbourhood with friends, and her husband could come home to a tidy house and a lovely meal. With refreshing honesty she details the wins and losses of her experiment.

When Lobley realised she was getting stressed by planning her kids’ summer: classes, camps and programmes galore, she pulled the plug. Couldn’t life be simpler? She worked from home, she reasoned, so how hard could it be? Out went the schedules; in went a long, lazy summer. Or so she thought.

Realising that working from home while child minding and trying to live up to 50s housewifely ideals was too much, Lobley cut back on the paid work, and spent more days at the local pool with her kids. Lego took over the lounge. And Lobley realised that while modern life might be overly busy and pressured, the 50s weren’t as picture perfect as they seemed either.

I enjoyed Lobley’s honesty about the challenges of her experiment, whether financial or family-based. Everyone actually needs a bit of time out from each other to make them appreciate each other (there’s a reason that old chestnut about absence makes the heart grow fonder sticks around) and your kids may well drive you nuts after spending weeks together. Cooking a fancy dinner in high heels gets painful. There will definitely be wear and tear on your lawn.

As a parent and a teacher this book resonated with me. So many kids have activities booked after school multiple days of the week. Are they getting enough time to just play? On the other hand, the maths often doesn’t work: working parents in NZ get 4 weeks of legislated annual leave per year, and schools are closed for instruction 12 weeks of the year … so holiday programmes and classes are often the only way, short of willing friends and family members, to provide childcare. It’s a conundrum, and I feel like Lobley was privileged to be able to experiment for her summer. It may not be possible for everyone to follow her lead, but Why Can’t We Just Play? may give readers pause for thought about the level of busy-ness they book for themselves and their children.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Why Can’t We Just Play?
by Pam Lobley
Published by Familius
ISBN 9781942934578