Book Review: Very Good Lives, by JK Rowling

cv_very_good_livesAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

In 2008, JK Rowling, at the height of her fame, was asked to deliver the commencement speech for the graduating class at Harvard University. A daunting prospect for anyone, which Rowling candidly admits gave her ‘weeks of fear and nausea’. She is human after all.

She chose her subject matter based on what she wish she had been told when she graduated at the age of 21, and comes up with two things – the fringe benefits of failure, and the importance of imagination – two subjects she is well qualified to speak on, not because she went to university and learnt these things but because she has actually lived them. At the age of 21 of course, being a Harvard graduate, the concept of failure is laughable. But as all of us older, life experienced souls know, failure can happen to anyone, at any time. As for imagination, the very act of taking time to listen and to learn other people’s stories prods the imagination centre of the brain, as in our empathy, we can experience to some degree what we are being told. JK Rowling’s time in her early twenties working at Amnesty International taught her this.

This little book is the speech she gave to the graduates of Harvard in 2008. It is very inspirational, very personal, beautifully worded and crafted. For the Harvard graduates who heard this speech, time has probably dulled its effect somewhat, although I would like to think that something of it stayed with them. But for us, the reader, this little book of her speech, with simple but powerful illustrations is something we can go back to time and time again for a reread, a kick in the pants, or a quiet space and few minutes to shed a wee tear.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Very Good Lives
by JK Rowling
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9781408706787

Red: A Crayon’s Story, by Michael Hall

cv_RedRed is an amazing story, about a little crayon who is called Red, even though he’s blue on the inside. This is a book with layers, subtext and yet more layers, and every layer is wonderful.

The illustrations are simplistic, with large crayons and childish drawings on a clean background. Our narrator is a pencil, who, literally, writes the primary story.

Red can be read on different levels and adapted to be suitable for different ages. The pencil text creates a simple story about a being true to yourself, of self-discovery. To add an older dimension to the story you can add in the type written text, which adds a new dimension to this journey of self-discovery.

“Sometimes I wonder if he’s really red at all.”
“Don’t be silly it says red on his label.”

One of the adorable aspects of this story is the crayons themselves. Michael Hall has named them wonderfully, and presumably put a lot of thought into this with characters like Red’s grandparents who are Silver and Grey or the character that says “Right! He’s got to press harder” is Army Green. Then there is the comedic undertones, as in the crayon Berry who draws a boat that Red creates a sea for it to sail on, who gets the line “His blue ocean really lifted me”.

The big trick with this story is not to put adult context on a child’s interpretation. Where a child reads this story and can develop a sense of empowerment about being who they feel they are, it’s all too easy for an adult translate into our own warped ideas and connotations.

In saying that, this book enjoys poking holes in adult’s ideas and is one of the charming aspects of this story, it is also quite confronting. There are many ways that this book can be interpreted as an adult, from gender balance or homophobia to a more simplistic pigeon-holing most adults have experienced, and put others, particularly children, through. This is particularly powerful within the illustrations. For example “I thought he wasn’t sharp enough” is backed up with the image of a pencil shaving chunks off the crayon in a pencil sharpener. In a childish and literal context of a pencil being sharpened this is perfectly innocent. Yet in the adult context, we can see something being forced and shaped until they fit a mould that is far from true to themselves.

Like all good stories, this one has a happy ending, with our little red crayon being celebrated for being true to himself, and finding out that who he is in the inside is just perfect. It’s a heart-warming moment, and provides a great conclusion to a potentially confronting story.

Absolutely essential reading for anyone with a child that likes to dance to their own drum.

by Alison Sammes

Red: A Crayon’s Story
by Michael Hall
Published by Greenwillow Books
ISBN 9780062252074

What makes a book face-out material? by Tilly Lloyd

Reasons
The author is hot or about to be or we hope, could be. The author was a Unity old girl circa 1995. The author is speaking at our next lunch-time gig. The author faced them out without even saying hello. The author is Slavoj Zizek and even a single copy is worth face-out. The author had an affair with our IT’s editor so we are practically family. The author is family. The book is new, or old. The book is controversial. The book is important. There is plenty of stock. The writing is so good it’s unhinging. The writing is gluten-free but the publicity is gold. The spine-out had a stock-turn of 10. The book was staple-bound. The antler ‘thing’ is not over. The owl ‘thing’ is not over. The film was selected for the film fest. The poster was perfect. The reading copy is quite doggy after so many staff read it. The cover art is pure zeitgeist. The cover art is not the best but there’s something about it anyway. The cover art is yellow. The rave in Flavorwire seemed reliable but we imported too many for right now or even this year. The rights auction was in Beattie’s Blog. The author was on Kim Hill’s show. The story just broke. We owe the publisher a favour. The supply was double but it was a blessing. The supply was double and we should have subbed it at x 1 or x nil. The weight is a good corner anchor on the table. The staff practise the art of juxtaposition and the principles of design. Anything the buyers buy could go face out. This is called advocacy.

P.S. Opportunistic sleight of hand while walking by:
We walk towards Science Fiction because the punter wants the entire China Miéville backlist plus the Three Moments of an Explosion regardless of the fact it hasn’t been published yet and that Unity can’t change its June release date. En route, we spy an empty hole on the music table, so the nearest spine-out is artfully flipped into face-up, even if it means the entire row is now slightly flabby, and even if the new face-up is Journey to the Centre of the Cramps which is only scary because the staff has a collective allergy to the word ‘journey’. But it’s the best we can do to keep the place looking loved when we’re busy. This is called merchandising.

by Tilly Lloyd, owner/manager of Unity Books, Wellington

This was Tilly’s answer on behalf of Unity Books, when asked by Elizabeth Heritage for 6 March’s feature article in The Read, what makes a book face-out material?

Book Review: The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George

cv_the_little_paris_bookshop

Available in bookstores nationwide.

This book is special for the way in which it celebrates books, and for the journey it takes us on from broken heart to beginning to live a full life again. I will say up-front that this isn’t quite my usual read, but it has certainly got a wide audience, and it is for this audience I will write this review.

Jean Perdu’s life has been suspended for twenty-one years, since his lover left, and never returned. Perdu has dedicated these years to healing other people, through prescribing them books to read from his ‘literary apothecary’, which is a bookstore barge on the Seine River in Paris. While he has the seemingly magical ability to know where people are in their lives, and to prescribe books for them that suit their emotional needs at the time; he cannot seem to heal himself. He lives in a small flat in a building on Rue Montagnard, along with Max Jordan, a novelist who has written one bestseller, and a ragtag community of souls, held together by their concierge Madame Rosalette and the owner, Madame Bernard.

Perdu decides to help the sad Catherine, who has just moved in after suffering a nasty break-up, by giving her some furniture from a room he has not opened since his lover left; as well as of course some books to help her to cry. When opening up the kitchen table he gave to her, Catherine discovers a letter from Perdu’s ex-lover, one he never opened and read. After an evening with Catherine, Perdu finally decides that now is the time to open this letter, 21 years after receiving it.

What he learns from the letter sends him on a journey right across France, to Bonnieux in Provence. He casts off from his book barge’s landing stage after a great deal of indecision, slightly accidentally bringing aboard Max Jordan and a few dockside cats.
The journey that follows is both internal and external, as Perdu and Jordan fight their insecurities and demons both separately and together. It is a story of an unlikely friendship that develops between the bibliophile and the confused young man, as they move their boat through the locks of France. The book has a cast that tangos, whispers and creaks across the pages. Perdu solves a literary mystery along the way, with the help of a women they saved from the river Seille, and after visiting the literary mecca of Cuisery and other towns, they carry on to the home of Perdu’s ex-lover Manon.

This is a book for the Francophile in your family, and for any passionate book-lover. I enjoyed it immensely, and I will go along with the recommendation on the back cover that it is one for people who enjoyed Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (loved that book). Perhaps it is one for your significant female other this mother’s day?

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Little Paris Bookshop
by Nina George
Published by Abacus
ISBN 9780349140353

Book Review: In the Neighbourhood of Fame, by Brigid van der Zijpp

Books available at bookstores nationwidecv_in_the_neighbourhood_of_fame

Wow, this is great. I very much enjoyed reading this, and found myself sitting down for five minute bursts just to keep those pages turning.

A slow boiler with many twists and turns, this is 100% relevant for the times we live in, and very New Zealand in its subject matter, its crafting, its ordinariness, its suburbaness. It makes the point primarily, how in such a lightly populated country/society/culture, the ubiquitous six degrees of separation, is here really only three degrees of separation. And as a result, we can’t but help feel that we all own a piece of those who, in New Zealand eyes, become famous. The title could not be a more perfect summation not only of the suburban setting of the story, but also of the New Zealand we live in as a whole. When someone makes it big here, it doesn’t take long for the poppy-bashers to come out and cut them down to size. And then once that cutting down has happened, the fame never really goes away, it seems it just goes into remission until something makes that little poppy pop out of the ground again for a further chopping down. Really, who would want to be famous? And that is what this story is about – the nature of fame, and how it affects those around it almost as much as it does the person concerned.

In this story, Jed Jordan is a man in his 40s, a one-hit-wonder who, with his band of old school mates, some 15-20 years earlier, had a glorious few years of fame. There was one album that everyone adored, a couple of popular singles off it. Then it all came crashing down – a band break-up, financial woes, a second album that the reviewers didn’t like, and it was all over. Now Jed is living in the suburbs, growing capsicums, living an aimless sort of existence. During the course of the book, other than via a transcription of an interview he does with a 15-year-old school girl, we never actually get to find out what he thinks about his life, his fame, and what it all means. That interview by the way, is fantastic.

But we do get to read about the lives of those around him, and how that fame impacts on each of them. There are three narrators – Lauren who is Jed’s wife and mother to their 11-year-old son Jasper, and chief executive of a theatre company; Evie who grew up with Jed, has been living in Australia for many years, but recently returned with her 18-year-old son for her father’s funeral, and Haley, a 15-year-old school girl, really just a child, but like so many 15-year-olds, wanting to be something/one else.

Even though Jed is the central character, and the ultimately the story is about him, it is mostly about Lauren, Evie and Haley and the choices they make around this man who was once famous. It is almost as if every time he breathes, out comes some sort of magic fame dust that lands lightly on all those he comes in contact with. It seems to affect some more than others, and in the process raises the question of when we meet someone well known, are we interested in them because they were/are famous, or simply because they are a new person to get to know.

I also think there is another major character in this story – social media and the power, we the users, have given it to transmit and spread the most awful stuff about people – not only from habitual trolls, but also from those that simply do it because they can – Twitter, Facebook, media outlets, restaurant review pages – and it can all be done anonymously behind a smokescreen of some awful made-up handle. The phenomena of making yourself feel better about your life by trashing someone else’s.

I highly recommend this book, I am surprised it has not had more press exposure, as it is an easy read, extremely worthwhile, and will make you think for some time afterwards.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

In the Neighbourhood of Fame
by Brigid van der Zijpp
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739247

Review: The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_the_princess_in_blackThe Princess in Black is the first of (hopefully) many early readers for 5 – 8 year olds. In it we are introduced to Princess Magnolia, who is prim, pink and proper when everyone is watching, and a butt-kicking monster wrangler when duty calls.

As with any good hero-in-disguise, it’s imperative that the disguise is kept in place, particularly from nosy Duchess Wigtower, who is sure Princess Magnolia must be keeping secrets. Monsters crossing borders illegally to steal goats can happen at the most inconvenient of times, however … and will Duff the goatherd ever put two and two together?

I enlisted the aid of Yaya, a 5 year old from Newtown School, to help me review the story. She really enjoyed it, and read parts of it to her little brother, who also told me that he thought it was a fun story. Their favourite part was an illustration of the Princess’s horse taking photographs while she dealt with a monster.

Yaya is right – it is a fun story, fast-paced and full of humour, with just enough dramatic tension to keep the story interesting without scaring tender readers. Princess Magnolia embraces both her pink dress-wearing side and her super hero persona – because why can’t you be both? Her attitude is definitely more Princess Smartypants than Sleeping Beauty – and this is a very good thing, because I can’t imagine Sleeping Beauty sparkle slamming goat-thieving monsters.

Even more than the story, I loved the illustrations and the book design. The pages are quality white paper, and the engaging watercolour and ink illustrations are in full colour – it feels positively luxurious to read. Congratulations to Candlewick Press for giving their young readers an early chapter book that looks like a high quality picture book. It makes the book so inviting at first glance to readers who are starting to transition away from picture books.

Another Princess in Black adventure is due to be published in October this year. Yaya is really looking forward to reading it when it comes out – and so am I.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Princess in Black
by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale,
illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN  9780763678883

Book Review: Woman of the Dead, by Bernard Aichner

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_woman_of_the_dead

If you, at age six, had to begin work in preparing bodies for funeral directors–your parents– what effect would that have on you?

For Brum, it taught her to shut down her emotions, right up to the day she allowed her parents to drown. She took over the family business, reinvented and remarketed it, built it up as a successful business, but always dedicating herself to giving dignity to the deceased.

Her life is gently comfortable, until she sees her husband–police officer and father to their two daughters killed by a black car slamming into him on his motor bike. Her life is upturned, as she grieves, listens to her late husband’s phone calls on his cell phone, and discovers he was spending time interviewing and calming an aggrieved young woman.

Emotionally bereft, Brum finds comfort in the companionship of her husband’s best friend, police officer Massimo. She is driven to find the woman her husband had been consoling, and when she does, is horrified to learn of her tormented life as a captive. Gradually she draws more and more information about the woman’s torturous life, whom she invites to stay with the family. One morning, the girl goes shopping for the family, and never comes home.

Massimo tells her of the discovery of a drowned homeless woman, whose body is in the police morgue. Brum is driven to track and remove each of the young woman’s tormentors, aided by her mortuary assistant, Reza – a man with his own criminal past. He is detached from emotion after years of creating trauma and serving time, but warms to the welcome Brum’s family have given him.

Her tracking of each of the sadists and what she does when she succeeds makes gut-churning reading, which in turn makes it impossible to put down the book – in case what you imagine is worse than what is written next.

The resolution is a reveal of a shuddering discovery, and handled in the same way as with the first three sadists. I’d have read this in one session, but starting in the late evening made it impossible. Guess what I was reading over breakfast next morning. I hope to be reading more from Aichner, and soon.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty

Woman of the Dead 
by Bernard Aichner
Published by Weidenfield & Nicholson
Paperback ISBN: 9780297608486
Case bound ISBN: 9780297608479

Also published on Lynne’s own blog, Red Penn Reviews