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Book Review: Grandma Z, by Daniel Gray-Barnett

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_grandma_zOn an ordinary day, in an even more ordinary town, it was Albert’s birthday. But his Dad did not like mess so there would be no cake or piñata, and there wouldn’t even be musical chairs because his mother didn’t like noise.

‘Albert closed his eyes and imagined himself at a birthday party, holding a piece of chocolate-cherry-ripple cake. Then he made a wish.’

Answering a knock on the door to his Grandma Z, Albert soon finds himself on an adventure on the back of her motor bike as they have a fun filled ‘very un-ordinary’ day, celebrating his birthday.

Author /illustrator Daniel Gray-Barnett has created his debut book for three- to six-year-olds and my four-year-old grandson was just enthralled as we turned the pages. Using just three bold colours and strong brush strokes in the illustrations, Gray-Barnett has produced a magical visual treat, but his choice of words is also appealing to the young. Our grandchildren particularly liked the exquisite drawings of Monarch butterflies as they are regularly checking our Swan plants to monitor the progress of the butterflies and chrysalises. And the sentence, ‘Albert got a fluttery feeling in his stomach like one hundred Monarch butterflies coming out of their cocoons’ is a wonderful way for children to understand the feeling of excitement building in their body.

Daniel Gray-Barnett is a self -taught illustrator based in Sydney, Australia. The illustrations from Grandma Z were chosen from thousands of international entries for the prestigious Society of illustrators Book exhibition held in New York in February 2018. The hard cover book is a quality publication which will be loved by young children, who have a vivid imagination and especially enjoy magical adventures with their grandparents.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Grandma Z
by Daniel Gray-Barnett
Published by Scribe Publications
ISBN 9781925322156

 

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Book Review: All This By Chance, by Vincent O’Sullivan

cv_all_this_by_chanceAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

In 1947 Stephen leaves New Zealand, ‘A farm, Cows and mud and half a day by bus from anywhere,’ to train as a pharmacist in in post war London. It was there he met Eva, ‘Tall and quiet and calm, the words first occurring to him as he walked beside her’.

‘All this by chance ,as they kept saying to each other in those first months together… the sheer chance of a church social both had felt so awkward at as to run away from.’

Growing up with an English family Eva has suppressed much of her early life and Jewish background, but as the couple are about to return to New Zealand her Aunt Babcia (Ruth) is reunited with her, and stirs memories of their life in Europe and Hitler’s Germany.

There are a number of characters in the book and the author has listed the key people in the front of the book with the year of their birth, which helps the reader keep the storyline in context, as it progresses through the chapters from 1947 to 2004, and then back to 1038 for the finale. Stephen and Eva’s son and daughter deal with their family history completely differently, with David keen to delve into a Jewish way of life, while Lisa is content to ignore her mother’s background.

Born in Auckland in 1937 Vincent O’Sullivan is the author of two previous novels Let the River Stand which won the 1994 Montana NZ Book Award, and Believers to the Bright Coast which was shortlisted for the 2001 Tasmania Pacific Region prize. He has also written a number of plays, short stories and poems and worked as an editor and critic.

Now living in Dunedin, O’Sullivan was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2000 Queens Birthday Honours and was the New Zealand poet laureate 2013-2015.

All This By Chance is a beautifully written book which requires concentration to capture the moving family story told by three generations, of the horrors of the holocaust and the burden of secrets never shared. Keely O’Shannessy has designed a very fitting cover which invites the reader down the path through the trees into a family who has tried to forget the atrocities of war, but finds the following generations becoming fascinated with their background history, and wanting to learn more.

I enjoyed this book, especially the author’s choice of words and phrases such as ‘Against the wall a gas heater she fed with shillings and florins purred when the weather turned’, and anyone who enjoys family history will find it a great read.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

All This By Chance
by Vincent O’Sullivan
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561797

 

Book Review: Rāwāhi, by Briar Wood

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_RawahiRāwāhi (shortlisted for the Ockham 2018) is an ambitious collection of poetry that transports the reader to places all over the world. The title rāwāhi is a word that means, the other side, or overseas or abroad. This locates Wood (and us) within te ao Māori but in a global sense. This makes sense in Māori tradition as Māori have had a long history of travelling, from those who travelled from Haiwaiki, to those that accompanied the British to London.

We start our journey in the poem Kuramārōtini with Ākuanei, who has chosen to travel with Kupe to the new land of Aotearoa. Wood centres a woman here in a well-known Māori story and in the naming of a place. It is Ākuanei who has the power of words and it is she that is eager to travel. In this poem Wood is aligning herself with her tupuna who decided to leave Hawaiki. My favourite stanza from this poem is:

Some hoa.
Best to know that
legendary navigators take huge risks
and do not make the safest companions.

What stands out to me in this stanza is the voice, the way Wood deals with Kupe like an old friend. It brings real closeness to a story that may seem distant to some.

From Kuramārōtini, we are then taken to a poem about dolphins, and it is with these dolphins that we will be swimming through te moana. Also seeded in Kuramārōtini is the concept of searching for landfall, there is tension between the adventuring urge and the connection with Papatūānuku. In Māori stories there has always been a deep awareness of the separate worlds of Tangaroa and Tane Mahuta, and this tension plays out in this way. A poem that explores the relationship between sea and land is Kūmara Hōu which mirrors again the journey from Hawaiki in its opening stanza:

Kūmara hou – new kūmara – 
also kūmara tawhito – old kūmara – 
brought on waka from Hawaiki,
maybe Mexico, Peru, the Kon-Tiki
sailed thousands of miles across
Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa seeking
your roots, your tubers
Ipomea batatas earth banana.

This stanza explores so many places in such a short amount of time, drawing on phrases from three languages. This is just a snippet of how dense and rewarding Wood’s work is in this collection.

Wood spends time in Paris, London, Ireland and pulls from the linguistic universes she visits. Every language holds a new world in it which gives Wood’s poetry such a wealth of imagery and voice. It rings of the modernism of Eliot but without the elitist condescension. Wood draws on these languages because she understands that to come close to seeing the real diversity of our world we must come close to the words of each locality.

Kilmartin Glen, a poem located in Ireland, begins with the awful phrase ‘Don’t bring your voodoo in here!’ which is at once startling and humourous in the ignorance it reflects. The character in the poem is referring to a Māori karakia that is to be made before the weaving of flax. This is just one of the reminders that Wood is traversing a world that isn’t always kind or understanding to indigenous people like us; ‘If that’s Christianity they can keep it.’ is a line Wood delivers later on in the poem, showing she is not going to take such treatment lightly.

In terms of technical flair there is so much to love and linger on in this collection. How each piece flows into the next is immaculate, a construction that pushes the reader out of their comfort zone by giving us a firm hand to hold. This is a New Zealand poet whose work is worthy of attention and this book very much deserves to be on the Ockham Book Awards Poetry shortlist. I’ll leave you with the first few lines from the poem Transyek that I think encapsulate both the feeling and philosophy of Rāwāhi:

To live life like a fish curved
inside the breaking tip of a wave –

Is this foolish or brave – ?
or maybe neither, but simply to live.

Reviewed by Essa Ranapiri

Rāwāhi
by Briar Wood
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473403386

 

Book Review: In Search of Consensus: New Zealand’s Electoral Act 1956 and its Constitutional Legacy, by Elizabeth McLeay

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_in_search_of_consensus.jpgThis is an easy to read book on a very specific subject, New Zealand electoral law, and the Parliamentary process by which it changes. Although somewhat dry, for anyone interested in the political process, with Parliament at the centre, it will be of interest. But in the end it just highlights the constitutional vacuum in which the New Zealand system of government functions, and the lack of interest in political history.

Dr McLeay is a retired ‘political scientist’, and active collaborator with constitutional law experts at Victoria University. The subject matter of the book also extends some thesis work undertaken by James Christmas. The specific area of their interest is the 1956 Electoral Act, and clause 189 in particular. This concerns the manner in which electoral law, the rules governing voting in elections, can be altered in a consensual manner. The key term is ‘entrenchment’, and the decision to make any electoral law subject to a substantive hurdle, whereby changes can only be made through referendum or a ‘super-majority’ vote in Parliament. But since the Electoral Act itself can be altered by a simple majority in Parliament, we then have a discussion of whether there should be a ‘double entrenchment’, to protect the existing rules.

This may make sense to those reading the book, but it is actually contradictory, as it is impossible to entrench the rules in anything other than a moral sense. Since the idea of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ is supreme, and it is not possible to bind future elected parliaments, the existing rules are as vulnerable as any other piece of legislation. In practice the vulnerability only really comes up in the debate over the Māori seats.

So what is the point of the book? Well, the point is exploring the somewhat wider political context and historical significance of the constitutional changes during the 1950s. The historical significance is really because of it being the first National Party ministry, and with some specific constitutional changes that it imposed, such as the removal of the upper chamber of Parliament, known as the Legislative Council. This marked the beginning of the two-party system, and the ‘unicameral’ system of government, in which the party with the majority of seats takes Executive power. The ‘winner takes all’ mentality is still seen in the National Party campaigns, despite the change to MMP.

Focussing on the historical context is central to the early chapters of the book, and the use of archival papers, particularly those of the National Party leader, Sid Holland. It has to be said that Holland is not a favourite subject of study for political scientists or biographers. Most do not get past the repressive legislation imposed by Holland during the waterfront industrial dispute in 1951; and the author mentions that the Official Secrets Act was also part of Holland’s legacy. Indeed, she concludes that section 189 of the Electoral Act was the result of a ‘tiny political elite [playing] around with the New Zealand constitution behind closed doors.’ The undemocratic nature of the process for the new act emphasises the ‘boys club’ mentality of the time.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

In Search of Consensus: New Zealand’s Electoral Act 1956 and its Constitutional Legacy
by Elizabeth McLeay
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561841

 

Book Review: The Facts, by Therese Lloyd

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_facts.jpg

When I save these words I’m reminded
this product is licensed to you.
(‘Light and Things,’ after Bill Culbert)

Therese Lloyd’s poems in The Facts are open about where their origins are owed. While the word processor in the poem Light and Things is owned by the narrator’s departing husband, these poems also incorporate a range of artists who inspire and influence the writing. This book is the product of Lloyd’s IIML doctoral thesis on the role of ekphrasis (responding to artwork via poetry) in the work of Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson.

The grand experiment of The Facts is purposeful and beguiling, as Lloyd investigates the role of artistic influence by immersing herself in the experience of being-influenced. The inability of these poems to exist in isolation from the art inextricably interwoven with Lloyd’s life is a convincing conceptual framework, exploring the way poems and other art ‘echo and re-echo against each other’ (as she quotes Jack Spicer). However, getting the best from this book is dependent on a reader’s existing knowledge of art and Anne Carson – or our preparedness to flip between the printed poems and Google search.

Some readers will find the ekphrastic aspect of The Facts delightful. Frequent credits to artists (like Bill Culbert and Graham Fletcher, musicians like Beck and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Carson) offer an element of discovery by inviting readers to cross-reference to other texts. The way the lives and meanings of artworks spill over or drench through each other is an aspect of the book that enriches the subject matter of the individual poems, as the characters within collide and drift apart – bruising, staining, offering, conquering, relinquishing.  Part of the fun in the ekphrastic works about visual art is the way the ‘original’ artworks are themselves newly enlivened by Lloyd’s lyric reinvention. I was especially captivated by the inner worlds Lloyd lends to Edward Hopper’s painted women. She inhabits their restless stillness, their ambivalence between settling down or abruptly rising, without ever forcing a narrative or solution upon them.

The poems in this collection are clear-eyed and intense, arranged in three subject-categories of time, desire, and absence. The titular poem The Facts is a crisp, considered, punch-in-the-gut telling of a toxic love affair that doubles as a meditation on the science-cum-wizardry of writing truth from memory. I love these lines on the paradox of writing “the facts” of memoir, despite the amorphous nature of memory and perspective:

To write about us in the past tense forces form
on the formless, parentheses on the eternal. A neat, parabolic air settles and makeshift wisdom
takes the place of the real. Yet here I am
dedicating lines to the short glitch of us. I want to complete
this thought. I want this thought to end.
(The Facts)

Poems like By Sunday and Rebound are also razor-sharp stand-alone poems, self-contained in deceptively stark images; a refused grapefruit and obsolete kettle. Through this book Lloyd explores rejections of all magnitudes – received with rage; confusion; grace. Poems like Rebound deftly work through those haunting everyday questions (why repair when you can replace?) that determine relationships with domestic appliances and with people.

Between the failing marriage, the toxic ex, and the rotating cast of inspirational artists, Lloyd’s constant companion throughout this book is Anne Carson. ‘What happens when a poet (you or me, your preference)              decides to spend three years of their grown-up life side by side, arm           in arm with another poet?’

There’s risk of reader frustration in framing the book so explicitly around another writer’s work. It could be intimidating to readers who may not want to do a PhD’s worth of study to familiarise themselves with the ‘original’ text, and also position the new work as eternally secondary to its predecessor; always after Anne Carson. The drawing-in of the conceptual and creative work of other artists in attempts to understand life through this work does demonstrate the value of art as a means to guide one’s perception, in current experience or hindsight. Lloyd says she, like Carson, ‘accrues tools along the way to help in her investigations usually dead writers and painters, their wisdom trapped so they can never create anything new, or, more crucially, defend themselves.’

Whether Lloyd’s explicit acknowledgement and interrogation of influence is a success or a weakness of the book, is likely dependent on the reader. The framing of The Facts around the concepts in Lloyd’s doctoral thesis lends an intellectual experiment that is inevitably more rewarding if you’re interested in meta-analysis and are familiar with Anne Carson’s work. Carson’s The Glass Essay is an ideal starting point for new readers, especially if you enjoy this book, which is possible even without encyclopaedic knowledge of Carson, as long as one doesn’t mind feeling out of their depth in reference.

Occasionally, I found myself wishing Lloyd’s raw tellings of thwarted desire depended less on Carson’s collapsing triangle concept so I could feel less like a guilty student who hadn’t done all her homework and could more fully immerse myself in the world of the poems, to experience rather than intellectualise the addictiveness of yearning. But as an academic-ish type myself I often make the argument that intellectualising is a way of experiencing. Tripping up on references which at first mystified me, then seeking out their origin, has made re-reads of this book all the richer. Besides, the poems in this collection – compassionate but unflinching – are rewarding even if you don’t want to be assigned extra reading.

Reviewed by Rebecca Hawkes

The Facts
by Therese Lloyd
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561810

Book Review: Arlo and The Ginkgo Tree, by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Kate Twhigg

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_arlo_and_the_Gingko_treeThis is the first book I’ve read recently from small publishers Millwood Press, an award-winning publishing company established way back in the 1960s. They are known for producing high quality specialty productions. They cherish books, especially those that touch individuality. They currently focus on children’s books illustrated by contemporary artists in a fine arts tradition. So, as the daughter of historian Judy Siers and photographer Jim Siers (and controller of the company), it seems only right that Sophie Siers should show her hand with the pen.

Sophie has spent plenty of time on a Hawkes Bay farm, so it’s natural that her story should revolve about a boy and a tree – nature in it’s purest form and its most simple. And the story is simple too. It follows little Arlo as he climbs his favourite Ginkgo tree to watch the circle of life revolve around him. In this case, it’s a family of piwakawaka, who come to nest, lay eggs, raise their young and fly off.  Then after autumn and winter, the birds return, to begin the whole process again.

I loved Kate Twhigg’s simple watercolours. She has painted throughout her life, but has never previously been published.  She’s done a pretty good job.  For me, I would have like these images to have been a little sharper – the images are rendered in coloured pencil and watercolour, making them a little blurry.  But they are still very good.  The endpapers with flying birds and butterflies are delightful.

However, both of my girls, the real critics, loved this book. They related to the story, and to the images.  They wanted to go outside in their dressing gowns and hunt for birds’ nests – at 8.30pm! On a school night.

Kate, who sometimes writes in this blog did add one question for Sophie – ‘where’s the backstory about Arlo? Who is he? Why does he climb the tree. Where’s his iPad?  Why does the book he reads have no words on the cover?’  She was disturbed by Arlo’s anonyminity.

Overall, though, this story was a winner.  A perfect bedtime story, and uniquely local, too.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Arlo and The Ginkgo Tree
written by Sophie Siers and illustrated by Kate Twhigg
Published by Millwood Press
ISBN 9780473410940

Book Review: Little Truff and the Whales, by Ann Russell and Lara Frizzell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_little_truff_and_the_whalesThe gorgeous Little Truff returns for another adventure, this time in a setting that will teach readers about the importance of sea/ocean life and the responsibility we all have to look after it and ensure its future. The book also creates awareness of the immense damage that equipment designed for use in the sea can cause, to those it wasn’t intended to impact.

Little Truff, a Blenheim Cavalier is out on a boat with her family, when she senses something isn’t right and tugs on her masters shorts and barks to get his attention. A humpback whale has become entangled in a fishing net and needs help. The family needs to make choices and wise ones at that.

This book which is endorsed by DOC is simply brilliant, it’s message resonates in a very real and practical manner, there is a serious side to it but a lightness also so it isn’t weighted down. The illustrations are fabulous and fit the setting in a way that catches the eye and enhances the story.

Both author and illustrator have worked very hard to produce a book that shares an important message in a child friendly way, Little Truff is already well known to children and she is very popular with them. Every home and library should have a copy of this.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Little Truff and the Whales 
by Ann Russell and Lara Frizzell
Published by Ann Russell
ISBN 9780473367756