Book Review: Harsu & The Werestoat, by Barbara Else

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_harsu_and_the_werestoatThis book is not the usual genre I am attracted to but I have to say this book fascinated me. I am also always on the look-out for books to inspire and interest my 12-year-old granddaughter Eden.

Harsu is a 12-year-old boy whose mother is Daama, the daughter of the Wind God. On the outside she looks like a woman but Daama is capable of changing into a stoat – hence the term werestoat.

When Harsu was 6 years old his father tried to teach Harsu about the world – also trying to teach him how to read.  Harsu developed a terrible fever-dream breaking out in a rash, and remembers his parents fighting.  By the time he recovered, his father was gone from the Palace.

Harsu’s mother started stealing babies as she wanted a perfect child, as thanks to the fever dream, Harsu wasn’t perfect anymore.  Daama’s behaviour continues to be of concern to Harsu as she constantly wants praise for her job as a mother and often doesn’t get it. Staff in the Palace walk out as her temper tantrums become worse.

Harsu is torn as while he loves his mother, he does not condone her behaviour. As he is part human and totally devoted to her, he can’t stand by and let her behaviour continue as she contrives to steal older children.  Moving via a mysterious portal, through history, finally settling in current-day New Zealand doesn’t seem to make any difference or contain her behaviour. It becomes even more bizarre.

The more I got into this book I realised that  this was a modern-day fairy story. Not all fairy stories I grew up with necessarily had happy beginnings or endings. This has a great ending that most would be happy with.

Eden you are going to be the recipient of a new book! Enjoy, my darling girl!

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Harsu & The Werestoat
by Barbara Else
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572199

Book Review: How to take off your clothes, by Hadassah Grace

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_how_to_take_off_your_clothesGrace’s debut collection is a feminist treatise and a raw exploration. It feels like the atmosphere at a first-year university party where everyone pre-gamed Chardon and there’s that one girl with the legs who always gets naked. It’s both self-conscious, testing its own edges, and confident in its skin. It doesn’t need you to like it because it likes itself, but it wants to be seen. It yells.

It is without artifice, but not without intention and finesse.

The opening inscription points out that wide margins were left deliberately, ‘to write down any thoughts these poems might inspire, to plot your revolution, or improve them by writing your own poetry.’

That’s almost sacrilegious (the writing in books, not the plotting, which is entirely justified) and the invite shows an openness, a willingness to be a conversation starter – which this book absolutely will be.

The intersection of sex and poetry was not invented with Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem Keats is dead so fuck me from behind, or Tayi Tibble’s Poukahangatus, but they were certainly part of a rekindling in local literature. Grace’s style is as bawdy for our times as Shakespeare was for his. A uniquely New Zealand text, it traverses sex, the sex industry, relationships, identity, and politics, tripping from Christchurch to Wellington to Auckland and back.

The feminism throughout is explicit and confronting. In the poem Ruin, we find unapologetic sexuality, messiness, hunger. This is the raw side of women, the ‘unladylike’ behaviour condemned or hidden. This is the impact of patriarchy and rape culture and millennia of oppression. This is a poem I would love to see Grace perform. These final stanzas in particular:

we’re the 52% but we’ve been sleeping
too busy counting calories to count on each other
too busy carrying you to notice how strong we’ve grown
but we have grown so very strong

and you? You had your chance
2000 years of chances
now we are everything you’ve always wanted
everything you’ve always feared
and we will ruin
everything

Vulnerability and bravado play off each other throughout the book – the same way they do in many women’s lives. At times soft, at times full of teeth, this is the way we respond to patriarchal pressure, both internalised and otherwise. This uncertainty and distrust manifests in the poem Smoke From Burning Paper Lanterns Stings Your Eyes, with the line ‘Did it hurt when my brother tore the heads off paper dolls?’ and these:

with you, I pulled my own clothes off
slowly, from the ground up
it was weeks
before my neck slipped into view

Possibly the most expressive of this tension and resistance is the poem women>pain, another poem I’d love to hear performed.

you hear the echo of your mother’s voice
“This is just part of being a woman. Take some painkillers. Get on with it.”

this is not a poem
it’s a diagnosis
C-PTSD
which is a doctor’s way of saying
yours will be a life lived underwater

and the line: ‘if you’d only been greater or lesser’

and this stanza:

so now this is not a poem
it’s a hashtag
a raised hand
a spotlight
it’s resistance
it is dignity
it’s f@#k you pay me*
it’s an open letter
a witch hunt
a spell
it’s viral
it’s impeachment
it’s a jail term
it’s a riot
it’s you
this is you

Grace’s voice is raw and confronting and unique, and I expect this book to occupy an equally unique space. Readers will want to plot their own revolution.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

How To Take Off Your Clothes
by Hadassah Grace
Published by Dead Bird Books
ISBN 9780473453176

*NB the actual word is used here, I’ve just changed the letters for the sake of inbox filters!

Book Review:  I am So Clever, by Mario Ramos

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_i_am_so_cleverWow, was there ever a buzz when I opened the package from Booksellers in class and pulled I Am So Clever out!  Previous books by Mario Ramos, I Am So Strong and I Am So Handsome, are firm favourites with my class of 5 and 6 year olds, and are frequently issued to us by the school library.  Could the newest title in a series of stories about a boastful, narcissistic wolf live up to our huge expectations?  Also, why is Wolf wearing a nightie in the middle of the woods?

As always, the rich vocabulary is a delight.  The wolf is bombastic, and it’s wonderful!  “Hello, my dear! How fine you look in that delightful outfit,” he greets Little Red Riding Hood.  Wolf uses words like vicious, striding, ferocious and splendid which can only enrich the vocabulary of his readers.  Even his actions have flair – Wolf squirms, shuffles, eases and slinks.  This is the sort of language that makes my teacher heart sing.  My students love it too – even if it means that a story is constantly interrupted by either a “What does slunk mean?”-type questions, or by my pre-emptive explanations.

The illustrations are gorgeous and funny, as Ramos’ illustrations always are.  The expressions of Wolf, as things just keep going wrong, are brilliant – you don’t have to be able to read the words to know how the story is going for him.  And between the text and the illustrations, you get a kick out of pratfalls that, having grown up on Looney Tunes cartoons, I just adore.  My class, who are a bit gentler and kinder than I probably was at their age – giggle, but then say things like “That wasn’t very nice,” and “I hope that Wolf will be ok.”

So yes, our high expectations were met.  I hope Wolf hasn’t been too humiliated by his latest adventure to retire – we want to read many more stories about him!

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

I am so Clever
by Mario Ramos
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572489

 

Book Review: Things in the Sea are Touching Me!, by Linda Jane Keegan and Minky Stapleton

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

Things in the sea are touching me_HRUnder a shimmering, summer-blue sky, a family strolls to the beach. After dropping their towels, sunblock and snacks at their favourite spot the little girl and her two mums run into the bubbling waves feeling carefree… when suddenly something grazes the girl’s feet causing her to shriek and squeal and call out for her Ma! What could be lurking beneath the surface… a shark? a sea monster perhaps? or something more mysterious?

We can all relate to that feeling of fright when something unknown brushes against us in the waves! Things in the Sea are Touching Me! explores a few of the things we might commonly encounter at the beach that, when unseen, can seem a little scary but after learning what they are become quite a wonderful part of the swimming in the ocean!

With its jaunty rhythm and rhyme, repetitive sentence pattern and fun language play, this book is a joy to read aloud. Minky Stapleton’s multi-layered underwater seascapes that depict mysterious hands reaching up from the ocean bed will keep children wondering about what could be hiding under the water. My preschool class loved making guesses about what was touching the little girl and enjoyed being introduced to the filter-feeding salps, bobbing mangrove seeds and slimy kelp forests.

Things in the Sea are Touching Me! is a delightful picture book that addresses the fear of the unknown in a light-hearted and humorous way. An awesome book for young children which is also available in Te Reo Māori: Ngā mea kei rō Moana e whakapā mai ana!

Reviewed by Alana Bird

Things in the Sea are Touching Me!
by Linda Jane Keegan, illustrated by Minky Stapleton
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775435709

Book Review: Hudson & Halls, the Food of Love, by Joanne Drayton

Available in bookshops nationwide. This book is shortlisted for the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-fiction in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 

cv_hudson_and_hallsHudson & Halls, The Food of Love is a wonderful book. Far more interesting than just their cooking, this tells the story of their two lives – in the spotlight, and in private.

Drayton has done a great job of researching their backgrounds and giving an insight into their personalities. While their television personas were very flamboyant and upbeat, their personal lives contained a lot of sadness. Peter Hudson grew up not really knowing who his real mother (whose background could be a whole book in itself) was, while David Halls pretty much knew who he was – but subconsciously realised it wasn’t what his family would accept.

The fact they came from opposite sides of the world and from very different backgrounds meant nothing once they met – it was like they found their soulmates and their purpose in life. I’m still a little astounded a shoe salesman and a shipping clerk ended up being celebrity chefs, but hey, this was the 1970s when anyone with ambition could become a star!

The book included a lot of things I never knew about the couple, probably because I was a teenager when they were at the height of their fame here. I didn’t know about their shoe shop or their restaurant, and I’m not even sure I knew about their move to the UK after New Zealand television ended their reign.

As a homosexual couple, Hudson and Halls lived in conservative New Zealand during a time of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, but they were genuinely liked by many and a lot of homes owned at least one of their cookbooks. Despite this they certainly suffered some harsh criticism both here and in the UK (if the reviewer of one of their television series published her review today, there would be an outcry and she’d be rightly vilified), but they never gave up.

I doubt many people would have kept going despite so many rejections, but reinventing themselves was something Hudson and Halls did time and time again.

While I knew neither man was still alive I did not recall details about their deaths, and reading about what happened deeply saddened me. I always remembered Hudson and Halls and their spats in the kitchen, but Drayton’s book means I will now remember them more fondly, like a pair of slightly eccentric uncles who could always be relied upon to liven up any family gathering.

At the end of the book Drayton shares how long it took her to write the book and how many setbacks she had along the way. I’m very pleased she persevered and made the effort to talk to as many people who knew the couple as possible. I think that is what sets this book apart – the photos are like looking into someone’s personal photo album (which it sounds like she was permitted to do), and the memories of their friends are what elevate it from a mere biography into a very personal look into Hudson and Halls’ lives. I’m sure they’d be horrified at some of the personal recollections of their friends, but the book would be poorer without them. Their friends and family have shared some intimate memories but the book is definitely not voyeuristic.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Hudson & Halls, the Food of Love
by Joanne Drayton
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531267

Book Review: There’s No Place Like The Internet in Springtime, by Erik Kennedy

Available in bookshops nationwide. Shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

cv_there's_no_place_like_the_internet_in_springtimePoets like to say that content is form and form is content. It gets said enough to be true, but reading Erik Kennedy’s There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime reminded me that to the average reader (and I’m not sure how many are left given that we go around declaring nuggets like the one above) – the average reader will find a difference between poetic craft and poetic content. They will respond to them differently. Poetic content is more personal – it’s going to be harder to respond to in a neutral, analytical way. Form on the other hand comes with guidelines. So let’s start there.

It’s indeed where Kennedy starts – his title and first poem in the collection is undoubtedly a sonnet. Its fourteen lines follow a slant petrarchan rhyme scheme and begin with a grandiose private contemplation of nature before a sudden turn in the eighth line ‘Wait, am I thinking of the internet? / Oh, maybe not, but what I’m thinking of / is desperate and very, very like it.’ I think form is where Kennedy likes to play. In an interview with his publisher about this Kennedy replied, ‘there’s nothing like conquering a form. Every time I complete a poem that obeys rules I feel like Edmund Hillary.’

Kennedy’s collection is a finalist in the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and his attention to form and rhyme may be a big reason why.

The risk in Kennedy collection lies here: in the reader feeling belittled. His irony could be read as condescension; his satire as mocking. In the poem Double Saw Final at the Canterbury A&P Show, for example, the poet’s eye could be read as ridicule; the poem I’m Impressed as a poem which praises foolishness.

I don’t think this is Kennedy’s intention, but it can happens in poems where Kennedy appears pleased with his own detachment, a smug onlooker. When he becomes more involved in the poem, engages and relates to the content, it couples with his form to create memorable poems. In the poem Four Directions at the Beach, Kennedy makes you look differently at a classic New Zealand scene. The poem Remembering America is like a sad country and western heartbreaker song. The poem The School of Naps is like a self-examination.

I have a close friend who on first meeting I detested; it was because I misunderstood her. I was like that with There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime. When I began reading it I felt like Kennedy wanted to make fun of me. If you feel like that too go back and try again and look at everything he is doing in each poem; you might find something else there which leads you to become close friends.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod

There’s No Place Like The Internet in Springtime
by Erik Kennedy
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561957

Book Review: Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing, by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tatau‘The history of tatau has…been one of both continuity and disruption, with social, cultural and technological change coming from within Sāmoan society as much from the outside world.’ (p.298)

If you know nothing at all about tattoos or fa‘asamoa (Sāmoan culture, values and traditions) this excellent book will lead you into a whole new world. It focuses on Sāmoan tatau – the lines and motifs that form Sāmoan tattoo designs – and the ceremonies and rituals that accompany the process of receiving a tatau, often considered as a rite of passage for young people. Authors Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot are joined by other contributors, including poets, academics and historians, to describe the complex history and symbolism of tatau over the past 3000 years. Collectively they explore and explain the multiple influences on tatau practices, which include politics, geography, sexuality, genealogy, gender roles, art, literature, health and safety, religion, science and (latterly) social media.

Mallon, a writer and Te Papa curator, is of Sāmoan and Irish descent. His deep interest in the topic was sparked by an ‘early and vague’ memory of his grandfather’s tatau. Galliot is a French anthropologist who has carried out extensive research on traditional tatau and lived in Sāmoa while completing his PhD. Both authors have developed complementary and in-depth knowledge of tatau history and contemporary practices.

‘What [surprised] me, and continues to intrigue me, is … that a set of symbols from a seemingly remote group of islands in the South Pacific could circulate in many forms across a range of contexts and on the bodies of people from all walks of life and across the world.’  (p. 11)

Mallon and Galliot describe how symbols (including logos) from other cultures have been incorporated into tatau designs alongside indigenous symbols over time. The designs and the location of tatau on the body continue to change and evolve, although there is still a strong demand for traditional methods and patterns. Tatau designs are no longer limited to the body and are now evident in art (such as Michel Tuffery’s woodcuts and Fatu Feu’u’s paintings), and other objects as diverse as postage stamps, stationery and tee-shirts. The knowledge I’ve gained from this book has helped me to recognise – and encouraged me to search out – tatau patterns and references in unexpected places. The book includes Flanagan’s remarkable graphic depiction of Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt poem, centred on the poem’s intense and evocative descriptions of tatau.

The distinctive characteristics of tatau are the ‘location of the markings on the body, their extent and density, and the tools used in the tattooing process (p.14)’.  Although many tufuga (tatau artists) now use masini (machines) with steel needles and black ink, others continue to use traditional tools to make marks on the body by vigorously tapping the skin with sharp ‘teeth’ to perforate it so that pigment can be introduced. I found the chapter focusing on the iconography of tatau particularly informative, as it includes a selection of common patterns and explains what each represents. This chapter also has photos identifying the many different tatau zones (each with a group of motifs) on both male and female bodies. (These zones, and the names used to refer to the tattoo, differ for men, who wear tatau or pe’a, and for women, who wear malu.) Each zone has its own term. Fusi, for example, is the name given to a belt, strap or band of motifs located at the top of the thigh.

The book draws on many different sources, including journals, poetry, photographs, exhibition catalogues and oral histories.

I found the rich descriptions of the rituals, protocol and ceremonies associated with tatau practices of great interest. These customarily included preparing and sharing food, providing sports and other entertainment, and bestowing gifts such as fine mats, canoes, weapons and instruments. The photos and illustrations throughout the book are stunning, in particular the highly detailed drawings of tatau – many of these are hand-drawn and date back to the 1800s. Photos of the tools are stark – the sharp teeth of the combs clearly visible and reinforcing a theme echoed throughout the book: that pain is inevitable, and indeed ‘you cannot find yourself without pain and suffering’ (p.26).

The photos of people with tatau allowed me to look at length at the designs and appreciate the intricacy of the patterns, as well as to consider the time and skills needed to create the tatau. In real life such prolonged gazing would be disrespectful. I’m grateful to the men and women who gave permission for their images to be included in the book. Mallon and Galliot report that a full tatau is rarely seen, instead we may see only a glimpse with the rest concealed beneath clothing. They note that it is not uncommon for social media users to criticise how and where others reveal their tatau.

I see some parallels between Tatau and the earlier Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo (Te Awekotuku and Nikora, 2007) such as the descriptions of the shared influence of the Lapita people who are believed to have practiced both face and body tattooing. The Lapita are considered to be the ancestors of multiple Pacific Island peoples; as seafarers they migrated far and wide across Oceania. Tatau briefly discusses the positive relationships established between certain tufuga and Māori tā moko practitioners, which has included gifting traditional tools to strengthen cultural connections. Both Tatau and Mau Moko refer to the extensive contributions of Sulu’ape Paulo II, a renowned and active tufuga who also supported and mentored Māori artists.

A glossary explains terms used throughout the book and there is a comprehensive bibliography, as well as brief biographies of all contributors.

The hard cover and spine are striking and embossed with symbols that spell ‘tatau’. The cover is partially enclosed by an eye-catching dust-jacket featuring the lower abdomen and thighs of a male body with tatau. The print varies in size throughout the book and some readers may find the smallest print a challenge. In several chapters the orange text on dark pages is also hard to read, especially in low light.

Although Mallon and Galliot have written a meticulous and comprehensive history, in the closing chapter they comment that ‘…this book is far from the last word on Sāmoan tatau. There are other histories to be written and other stories to be told…’ (p. 299). Their book will be a superb reference for future authors who are likewise privileged and trusted to bring these stories to life.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing
by Sean Mallon and Sebastien Galliot
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN: 9780994136244