Book Review: A Lion is a Lion, by Polly Dunbar

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_lion_is_a_lionI wish this book was written when I was a child. I never understood what my mother meant when she said, ‘A wolf in sheep’s clothing’. It’s not a saying that resonates with a five-year-old. After all, sheep don’t wear clothes, and even if they did, how would a wolf wear them?

Polly Dunbar’s cautionary tale, A Lion is a Lion, would probably have cleared things up for me. Is a lion still a lion if it dresses up, has nice manners and can sing and dance? Are you any less likely to be dessert if he has observed the niceties?

A Lion is a Lion can be read as an allegory for sticking up for yourself, being cautious about the people your parents warned you about, and even for the concept of consent.

I guarantee the vast majority of five-year-olds won’t see it this way, but they will agree that the children in the story should definitely call the lion out on his behaviour and send him on his way. A caring, supportive adult could steer the conversation towards meanness and bullying: if someone starts off by being nice but turns out to be unkind, what should you do?

With fast-paced action and illustrations full of whimsy and a hat tip to previous literary cats that cause problems (particularly Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat), A Lion is a Lion will delight young readers from about 3 – 7 years.

Any serious conversations you may have afterwards will just be an added bonus.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

A Lion is a Lion
by Polly Dunbar
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406371536

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Book Review: After Alexander: The Legacy of a Son, by Jan Pryor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_after_alexander.jpgIn 1981, during a family year away from New Zealand, four-month-old Alexander died in a London hospital.

The prologue in Jan Pryor’s memoir begins exactly thirty-three years to the day since her son died from cot death, and she is again in London reflecting on the journey she has been on and also to meet her grandson Findlay.

Jan, her husband Jim and their children Emily and Simon swapped their life in Christchurch with that of another couple in Hertfordshire in November 1980. They exchanged homes, dogs, cats and medical practices for a year, and when Jan arrived in the village she was thirty-five weeks pregnant with Alexander.

On his arrival just before Christmas in 1980 he was declared healthy and in a letter home to her mother Jan wrote, ‘he really is a dear little boy , with Emily’s colouring but very much Simon’s features.’

On April 10, while her sister was visiting her from Buckinghamshire with her baby daughter Rebecca, Jan found Alexander unresponsive after a long afternoon nap. A trip to the local A&E department led to Alexander and Jan being loaded into an ambulance on route to London with the family following behind. After forty-eight hours with machines keeping their baby alive the heart-breaking decision was made to let him go.

The reader is drawn into the anguish of the family as they struggle to understand what has happened and arrange a funeral, and there are a number of pages where Pryor shares her thoughts on religion. She offers consolation and hope to parents who have lost a child, as they travel the long twisting road to acceptance. The diary entries share the author’s hopes and fears as she copes with over thirty years of change with courage, sadness and optimism.

The inclusion of the poem A Blackbird Singing by RR Thomas was very appropriate as Pryor says she ‘has always been enraptured by birds’ and this is evident in many chapters of the book, ‘Blackbirds are optimism, hopefulness and joy as they sing slightly off-key, and without guile.’

It is a powerful family memoir, not an easy read but I enjoyed it and it will certainly be helpful to anyone experiencing loss, as well as being helpful for grief counsellors to recommend.

Jan Pryor was born in Blenheim and has lived and worked in both New Zealand and the UK. She originally qualified as a biochemist but while raising her family Jan took up teaching and then became a researcher of children and families at Victoria University, Wellington. In 2003, she established the McKenzie Centre for the study of families and then in 2008, she became Chief Commissioner of the Families Commission in New Zealand.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

After Alexander, The Legacy of a Son
by Jan Pryor
Published by Heddon Publishing
ISBN 9781999702748

Book Review: Hugo Makes a Change, by Mauro Gatti and Scott Emmons

cv_hugo_makes_a_change.jpgAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

In this brightly illustrated book we are introduced to Hugo the Vampire. Hugo, just like any vampire, wakes at night and is feeling hungry. We find out that Hugo’s favourite food is “red, juicy, MEAT!” and it’s all he craves for every meal. As Hugo eats his way through hot dogs, turkey, roast, jerky, steak and salami each night he soon discovers his diet is making him feel sluggish and he grows tired of eating meat every night. Seeking variety her ventures out into the garden; but Hugo doesn’t like the look of the fruits and vegetables at all and decides he will never eat them.

However, a round, red apple catches his eye and after the first bite he decides that he will give fruits and vegetables a try. Now Hugo thinks fruits and vegetables are delicious and he eats them for every meal (along with his favourite meats of course). Nuts and raisins become Hugo’s favourite snacks and as he finds himself growing stronger and having more energy he is pleased he added fruits and vegetables to his diet.

This is an excellent book for promoting healthy eating in young children. Hugo the Vampire is easy for children to relate to if they find trying new food a bit daunting as he is hesitant to try fruits and veggies at first too! This book came at the perfect time as our preschool is currently exploring healthy eating and how to build strong muscles. The children responded positively to Hugo’s choice to try new foods and were quick to share that they were going to eat more fruits and vegetables to “get strong” like Hugo. I’m sure the very last page will leave children wondering about the little holes they might find in their fruit.

I also appreciated that Hugo didn’t entirely give up his favourite foods and decided that he could still eat meat as part of a balanced diet. The descriptive language paired with great rhyming made the book informative and fun to read. Emmons does a brilliant job of making different cuts and styles of meats into rhythmical rhymes while Gatti’s bold and colourful illustrations let us see how Hugo was feeling about his all-meat diet and his adventures in trying new foods.

It can be tricky to explain to young children why it’s important we eat a balanced diet with a variety of different foods but I think Hugo Makes a Change does this wonderfully. This book would make great tool for any teacher or parent who is trying to help their child make healthy eating choices.

Reviewed by Alana Bird

Hugo Makes a Change
by Mauro Gatti and Scott Emmons
Published by Flying Eye Books
ISBN 9781911171218

Book Review: Portacom City, by Paul Gorman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_portacom_cityAs the science reporter for The Press during the Christchurch earthquakes, Paul Gorman was in a unique position to report and observe on this cataclysmic event in Canterbury’s history. Not only was he equipped with the scientific knowledge to understand why the earthquakes were happening, his journalistic instincts also enabled him to ask the right questions of expert scientists and notice (and include) the right details when reporting.

Both strengths are brought to bear on his book Portacom City: Reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikoura Earthquakes, another in Bridget Williams Books’ excellent series of short, highly readable volumes of non-fiction. Portacom City is not just a collection of Gorman’s articles, and doesn’t read as journalism or reporting, though the book benefits form his journalistic efforts. Instead it is an overview of the geological reasons behind the earthquakes; an account of the human impact of the earthquakes; and a finely drawn sketch of what it was like to work for The Press then, trying to report objectively on vitally important stories while also dealing with the emotional and practical upheavals of that time (the book is so named because the newspaper’s staff had to set up office in a network of smelly, cramped portacoms near the airport, their work periodically interrupted by both airplanes and aftershocks).

Certain special details stick in your mind when reading Portacom City. Gorman stands in his kitchen minutes after the September earthquake, shakily jotting down notes on the earthquake on the back of an Ilam School newsletter, the closest piece of paper around. The Press’s social committee is dubbed The Smile Factory—clearly they played a big part in boosting morale. These certain specific details anchor his story and make his experiences somehow more concrete, rather than allowing his account to melt into the morass of earthquake stories we’ve heard many a time since the earthquakes happened. It stops this book from being merely “disaster porn” and makes it real, and engaging.

This is also helped by the scientific lens through which Gorman writes. I found the descriptions of the earthquake history of Canterbury fascinating, proving Gorman’s own point that after the earthquakes, people were hungry for more scientific information about them. It was also highly interesting to read about the stonewalling Gorman experienced from certain expert scientists, and the frustration that ensued. To be fair, Gorman acknowledges the political pressure these scientists were under to not divulge information, for fear of spooking an already edgy Canterbury public. It hadn’t occurred to me that such stonewalling had happened at the time. Fascinating, and disturbing.

Gorman’s writing is punchy and he has a gift for describing concepts in succinct, engaging ways. This, and the unique science communication angle of this book, makes Portacom City fresh and compulsively readable. An eye-opening and compelling read.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Portacom City: Reporting on the Christchurch and Kaikoura Earthquakes
by Paul Gorman
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780908321728

Book Review: The Dangerous Art of Blending In, by Angelo Surmelis

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dangerous_art_of_blending_in.jpgAs painful as it is powerful, The Dangerous Art of Blending In is not a story to be read lightly. It is one that will reach deep within, and squeeze painful fingers around your heart, making you ache with sorrow for the protagonist Evan Panos, rage with anger at his mother, and slap his father until he does intervene. It is a story about struggling with identity in a world that doesn’t readily accept you, about struggling to live up to your parents’ expectations, even though your mother will never accept you, about learning how to fight just to be yourself. Thus it will almost certainly kindle the emotions of the modern-day teenager, who will be able to identify with some, if not all, of Evan’s struggles.

Evan Panos is still coming to terms with the fact that at summer camp he kissed a boy, and he liked it. He’s gay, but terrified of his mother. Strongly religious, with a troubled past of her own (which is, obviously, no excuse for how she treats her son), she bullies, belittles and outright abuses Evan. His father, also afraid of his wife, seeks to comfort Evan in small ways – such as stealing him away to treat him to early morning donuts – but does very little to stop the abuse, or to reveal it. Instead, Evan must hide it, shrouding his bruises and cuts with lies of bicycle accidents and general clumsiness.

His only way to live is to blend in, to remain invisible, but events will conspire against him. It begins with a growing attraction to his best friend, Henry. An attraction that Henry reciprocates. But as their relationship heats up, so does his mother’s abuse, and some of his fellow students are, likewise, less than accepting. Evan’s only escape now lies in casting off his camouflage, and finding his voice in a world where he has survived by avoiding attention at all costs.

For anyone struggling in similar situations, Evan’s tale will likely be a painful but inspirational read. The author, Angelo Surmelis, is an award-winning designer and TV host, and, judging by the author’s note, although this is not intended as an autobiography, he “gave” Evan his story.

So how much of it is fact and how much fiction? I cannot say for sure, but I know that you will yearn for Evan to make his stand against his mother, to finally say “Enough”. That you will love the touching moments between he and Henry. And that you won’t want to put this down until you’ve turned that last page.

Recommended for fans of John Green, Jennifer Niven (who inspired Surmelis to write the story), and Rainbow Rowell.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Dangerous Art of Blending In
by Angelo Surmelis
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143790150

Book Review: Tuai: A traveller in two worlds, by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins

­­­­Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tuai_traveller_in_two_world.pngIn 1817, a young Ngare Raumati chief from the Bay of Islands called Tuai boarded a ship and set off into the unknown with his friend and companion Tītere. Their journey to England would expose them to a succession of exotic ports, foreign customs and industrialised cities, where they would share their knowledge of Māori language and culture, hope to learn new skills and acquire goods to take back home. Tuai’s story is extraordinary, as is his character  – an open-minded traveller adeptly navigating different cultures.

And yet we would not know of his story without the efforts of Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins, who have written Tuai: A traveller in two worlds, released by Bridget Williams Books. The handsomely illustrated book, which includes portraits that Tuai and Tītere sat for while abroad, weaves an engaging biographical narrative through the wider historical context of the first encounters between Māori and Pakeha, both here and overseas.

The book begins in the Bay of Islands, where European traders, explorers and missionaries are arriving more frequently, and where tension and intertribal rivalries are on the rise. Tuai is both pushed and pulled to be one of the early Māori travellers who went to Australia and Europe. He wished to escape intertribal rivalries and ongoing skirmishes, but he was also attracted by the quest for goods, technology and knowledge. Opportunities and the perils of the journey hung in the balance: there was the risk of not returning home, of succumbing to some illness or injury in an unknown and strange land.

But Tuai did return in 1819 with great plans to integrate the discoveries of his travels into Māori life. He and his hapu also wished to establish a more permanent and mutually beneficial relationship with Pakeha. Tuai desired trade, prestige and access to things that would give his hapu the upper hand over rivals. In exchange, his hapu would provide safety, knowledge of resources and trade items. Such a relationship was also now essential to survival due to the spread of guns. Pakeha had already upset the balance of the Māori world– one powerful tribe was armed: ‘Upheaval resulting from the Pakeha settlers’ loyalty to Hongi Hika would soon affect all the Bay of Islands’ hapu and the surrounding tribes.’

It was a difficult time for Tuai to navigate – not only between competing agendas, but also between the world views of Māori and Pakeha. The latter generally did not respect the hierarchies and customs of Māori, which unsettled Tuai and many others. So too did the missionaries, who were in New Zealand with their specific mission to convert and ‘civilise’. But ‘The missionaries wanted to possess their souls and their love, not their country; they failed to see how these things were inextricably linked.’

Tuai served as a channel between these two worlds, as a translator for both language and customs. But this was not without its challenges and quandaries: ‘It seemed that if was to earn the respect and admiration from his Pakeha friends, he would be forced to distance himself from his own people.’ As is sometimes the case with intermediary roles, the person may end up feeling no real sense of belonging to either group, which is a lonely place to be. Tuai is not only a fascinating insight into a person, but also a time.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds
by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518806

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Phoney Wars – New Zealand Society in the Second World War, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_phoney_warsThis book is intended to be a maverick account of the Second World War, a kind of anti-military historian view. As a chronicle of dissent in New Zealand during World War Two it might have some value. However, I think that the writers get the tone wrong, if indeed, Hugh Eldred-Grigg is also one of the authors. He certainly writes the introduction, which states what the book is not about – not what it is about.

The younger Eldred-Grigg states: ‘our rejection of New Zealand’s participation in the war is not prompted by some juvenile contrarianism that draws satisfaction from puncturing common conceptions…’.

While it may not be juvenile, I certainly believe that the book is based on contrarianism, rather than principle. I also don’t find it very well researched for something that claims to be a history. Hugh Eldred-Grigg adds a note on method, in which he claims that conventional sources, what historians call primary sources, have weaknesses that he can offset. This is how he justifies the use of literary texts to supplement the main source, which are contemporary newspaper articles. Although the concentration on secondary sources, i.e. previously published sources, may be standard in political science, it does not work in a detailed history.

This is obvious from certain errors of fact and interpretation in the first chapter, which examines the prelude to the war in the 1930s. This period has now been covered very extensively, and in great detail with regard to political history. The obvious errors include referring to Henry Cornish, the Solicitor-General, as a government minister. The Solicitor-General is a civil servant, whereas the Attorney-General is a Cabinet minister. This seems to have been an example where a printed publication was not relied upon. A more general problem is the habit of referring to contemporary writers and commentators with their perceived political affiliation. This might be alright if it was always accurate. However, using an obvious example, they state that A.N. Field wrote for Social Credit, whatever that connotes. In literal terms, Field wrote for Sir Henry Kelliher’s publication; and he also wrote many anti-Semitic letters to friends.

One of the other misinterpretations involves the financing of war. The authors claim that printing money was involved to finance the war in the First World War, if not the second. In fact, this is not logically possible. There was no New Zealand currency extant in 1914, the legal currency was sterling; and only the trading banks could actually print money. But later in the text the authors refer to the War Expenses Account in the 1940s. The detail comes from contemporary newspaper articles, as do the figures on the sale of War bonds to the public. It is difficult to see how the press articles shed more light on the subject than departmental records would; nor does it solve the question of exactly how the war was funded, and how much currency was created by the central bank.

The book has two basic premises: one is that there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to go to war with Germany or Japan; the second is that, since New Zealand could not make a substantive difference to the outcome, it shouldn’t have really bothered at all. And a third, perhaps, is that historians should acknowledge the cost to German and Japanese citizens. This was illustrated among the contemporary cartoon and artworks reproduced in the book, which were the highlights of the book for me.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second World War
by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522230