Book Review: Swim, by Avi Duckor-Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_swim_aviWinner of the 2018 Viva La Novella Prize, Avi Duckor-Jones’s Swim is an intimate and affecting story of a young man and his search for resolution.

Jacob is a long-distance swimmer, a traveller, and a free spirit. After receiving a letter from his estranged mother, he returns home to a small coastal town in New Zealand. While reuniting with friends and family from his past, Jacob begins renovating his father’s old shack. However, returning to the place where he grew up means Jacob is forced to face memories over his father’s suicide and mother’s abandonment. It is only when he discovers an island, far out to sea, that Jacob sees a chance for resolution. In a single-minded pursuit, Jacob makes plans to swim to the island, but as his obsession for reaching the unreachable builds, his real-world relationships begin to crumble.

At its core, Swim is a story of reconciliation – but not the kind one may expect. Though the premise hints at reconciliation between Jacob and his estranged mother, it is Jacob’s attempt to reunite his past and present self that becomes the true focus of the novella. Throughout the narrative, Jacob experiences a fusion of his past memories and present experiences as he returns to the hometown where he grew up. There is constant oscillation between what Jacob sees and what he remembers and this pushes him to come to terms with what he was, what he is now.

Duckor-Jones does not write this ‘coming of age’ as a passive transition. Swim shows Jacob in a constant struggle with adulthood – as the sea resists him, he resists against his own growth. This is shown through Henry, Jacob’s adopted brother, who has a new role and responsibility as a husband and father. Images of Henry as an adult run parallel to Jacob’s memories of them as young and carefree boys, and forces Jacob to reflect on his own life direction. However, because he isn’t in a ‘traditional’ role, Jacob cannot see that he too has been changing and evolving. Instead, he sees adulthood as a falsehood – ‘This is what we had all been practicing for. To imitate what we had seen as we grew up. But I hadn’t received the correct instructions. It was as if I had missed some steps, slipped, and fallen down the stairs while everyone kept on climbing.’

The theme of change – and accepting it – is a strong undercurrent through the story, as is the idea that one cannot swim away from it. Jacob’s mother, Estela, refuses to accept she is sick, and refuses to believe Jacob’s father took his own life. Though this frustrates Jacob, he fails to see that denial is her form of escapism, as swimming is for him. This is one of the moving character parallels Duckor-Jones blends gently into the narrative. It is this and flaws (like Estela’s constant ‘versioning’ of herself) that makes his characters so human.

Duckor-Jones’s writing is lyrical but harsh, poetic but desensitised, and in that he captures Jacob’s internal confusion and restlessness. The most breathtaking aspect of Swim is the natural symbolism – the injured birds and seal pups, fields of deceptive gorse, his Fathers overrun shack, and a ‘patient’ but untameable sea. Duckor-Jones not only creates sensual and striking scenes, but ties nature to Jacob’s memories, to the people around him, and to his very being.

With an exploration of the inner self that harks back to modernist literature, and a focus on nature and existence which feels jarringly romantic, Swim is literary fiction at its finest. This is a novella that requires time and thought to digest and, though the story may not leave you feeling resolved, it will certainly be one to remember every time you look at the sea.

Reviewed by Susanna Elliffe

Swim
by Avi Duckor-Jones
Published by Brio Books
ISBN 9781925589504

Book Review: Keep an Eye on this Kiwi, by Scott Tulloch

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_keep_an_eye_on_this_kiwiA young kiwi sets out to find his dinner but some clever insects are determined to not be on the menu and trick our kiwi. With each turn of the page, the silliness increases, along with the laughs from young readers!

A series of comical anecdotes are told through interactions between the narrator and the kiwi. While it is set up as a chapter book it is intended to be read as a whole with the story all connecting together. The focus is on toilet humour, taboo words and practical jokes, which young children love.

The illustrations are pencil sketches and become part of the text. There are little speech bubbles and characters which speak directly to the reader. The line drawings are a refreshing change from busy pages. They are full of life, with the kiwi seeming to jump off the page as he attempts to talk to the reader.

Adults might get to the end of the story and wonder about what just happened.  But that seems to be the point. It is a nonsensical story which gets crazier and crazier – until you might just believe that a kiwi can fly.

It is best suited for 4 to 7 year olds – or even those children who are reading independently who will be scaffolded with the pictures. The antics of the kiwi make this story a funny read which will engage the most hesitant of readers.

Reviewed by Sara Croft

Keep an Eye on this Kiwi
by Scott Tulloch
Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775435310

Book Review: On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_on_the_come_upI grew up never worrying the power was going to be cut off, never worried about rent. Brianna lives in a poor suburb, and her mum has lost her job, which sees the gas, the electricity and the rent in arrears. My life up to age 16 is about as different from Brianna’s as it is possible to be. That is why I read, and why I have always read widely.

‘We can’t have any power, either… All these people I’ve never met have way more control over my life than I’ve ever had. If some Crown hadn’t killed my dad, he’d be a big rap star and money wouldn’t be an issue. If some drug dealer hadn’t sold my mom her first hit, she would’ve got her degree already and would have a good job.’

Bri lives in the Garden, where the recent shooting of an unarmed African-American boy saw their part of town erupt in riots, resulting in a destroyed suburb centre. She reflects, ‘I’m a hoodlum from a whole bunch of nothing.’ She is 16, and meant to be studying for her SATs, but she’s a talented rapper who can’t help seeing a career in hip-hop as a way out for her family. Her mum Jay is an ex-drug addict who is doing college classes to help her get ahead, and her brother Trey graduated college but hasn’t yet got a decent job. Her Aunt Pooh is the biggest supporter of her dreams, getting her a breakthrough invite to The Ring, where Bri battles another rapper to be the best.

Angie Thomas has evoked setting and characters effortlessly. Bri’s habit of thinking in rhyme, in couplets fills in her life for us. Her relationships with best friends Malik and Sonny, as well as with her brother, help us understand her motivations. One day, at school, she is slammed on the ground by a pair of racist security guards. Soon after, faced with the chance to write a song for a beat with a small-time music producer her Aunt knows, she wrote about her experience, then some – ‘Strapped like backpacks, I pull triggers; all the clips on my hips change my figure.’

Despite those who know her well urging caution – that’s not the life she lives – she uploads it, and her dad’s former manager Supreme picks up the song and sends it viral. Soon enough, she realises she has made a mistake, as kids follow her, rapping those lines; and as kids sing her song before a riot begins. Bri’s journey towards understanding herself and what she wants from the world of hip-hop is the centre of On the Come Up. The tension is real as she navigates racism, false expectations and infamy, as well as her own rage and frustration, to own her own narrative.

One of the other themes of the book is friendship & romance. Sixteen is an age at which friendships begin to either intensify or wane. Bri thinks she is in love with her best friend Malik, but Malik gets a girlfriend. The fallout from this barrier drives a wedge between she and Malik and their friend Sonny, who is gay and in love with someone else entirely. This is a universal theme, complicated by circumstances. ‘I know your mum works hard and y’all aren’t rich, but you’ve got it better than me. We didn’t have lights for awhile, Malik. We’ve barely had food some days… My freaking shoes fell apart, bruh.’

Thomas has not shied away from using social media and its impact on young lives as a theme in the book; she also uses teenage language so fluidly I’d swear she was a teen. I’ve seen so many authors now set their books in an earlier period, simply to avoid these ways of communicating that they don’t understand. Thomas gets it, and not only that, she was a teen rapper herself – though if you’ve heard her name, it’s probably thanks to her smash hit debut novel The Hate U Give.

Read this book if you enjoy gripping, real YA. It’s a story that needs to be heard, from a part of America that is ignored and disempowered on a daily basis.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

On the Come Up
by Angie Thomas
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406372168

 

Book Review: Portrait of The Artist’s Wife, by Barbara Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_portrait_of_the_artists_wife.jpgVUP has a treat for all lovers of Barbara Anderson’s books – new editions of her books Girls High and Portrait of the Artist’s Wife have been published this year.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife was originally published 27 years ago, in 1992. It has aged well. The themes she explores – the nature of marriage, the place of women in marriage and society, the bone-crunching work of raising children, the rhythms of rural life, the passing of generations – resonate as well in 2019 as they did in 1992.

The novel spans nearly five decades of the life of Sarah Tandy, a talented painter who finds herself married to her childhood friend and the love of her life, Jack Macalister. Jack is an archetypal tortured novelist, a world-class philanderer, and a handy boozer as well. Sarah suffers, silently, for decades as Jack’s needs and wants eclipse all of her own.

Anderson shines a spotlight on the place of women in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s and to a large extent the 1980s and at the end of this book I had to ask myself, things are better now but are things better enough? It would be interesting to see what the fictional Sarah would make of then gender politics of 2019. Sarah had to live with people questioning whether she could continue to paint as a mother – echoes of our own Prime Minister’s experience as she entered motherhood.

The novel follows Sarah through the birth of children, heartbreak and bereavement, the loss of family and friends, betrayals and triumphs. Anderson paints a portrait of Sarah as fully-fledged flawed and brilliant human being – the injustice, the joy, the grief and the shame feel as real as if it were happening to a best friend.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, the Goodman Fielder Wattie 1992 Book of the Year, is a delightful read. I found myself re-reading passages several times to savour the artful descriptions and the sharp observations.

Anderson has the ability to write about things in a way that make you think about them differently, look at them differently, and appreciate them so much more. Her microscopic attention to detail doesn’t overwhelm, rather it delivers a gift of insight with every description. Describing a cantankerous caretaker she writes that ‘enraged quivering thatches of hair leapt about his forehead and set single spies across the bridge of his nose.’ [p. 223]

When Sarah is having an argument with Jack, who always found the words when she could not, Anderson describes her plight: ‘Words were no use to her, as always they skidded away from what she wished to say, immiscible as petrol scum on puddles.’ [p. 338]

Unlike Sarah, Anderson’s words have considerable staying power, and well deserve their re-publication.

Reviewed by Emma Marr

Portrait of The Artist’s Wife
by Barbara Anderson
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562121

Book Review: End of the Golden Weather, by Bruce Mason

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_end-of_the_golden_weather.jpgThis is one of the books re-released as VUP classics.

Like most readers, at least most of my vintage, this is a very familiar work. I have read it, seen it many times, but I had never read the interview which forms the preface to this edition.

It’s absolutely fascinating, and threw up all kinds of reminders. I saw the NZ Players, when they were doing school tours in the early 1960s. I remember the name Bute Hewes as a producer of television. But what stands out from this interview text is the amazing ability of Bruce Mason, not only as a writer but as a performer. More than 500 solo performances of this work is a staggering achievement. Add to that no props at all, and you can only be stunned at the determination and the audacity (Mason says that Emlyn Williams, when asked for advice, appeared stupefied at Mason’s audacity in thinking he could pull this off at all!) that drove Mason. He wanted us to see this work, and if no-one else would perform it (which sadly was the case) then he must needs do it himself. 40 characters, one actor.

Thank heaven, is all I can say to that.

There’s a reported conversation between Mason and a theatre-goer ( a reluctant one!) who enjoyed the show despite himself, and mentions a red light. Mason says there was no red light. I empathise with the theatregoer, as when I saw the Goons movie, I could swear Harry Secombe was wearing a ‘flowered cretonne frock’ in his bit about the queen. Of course he wasn’t; it was radio, after all, translated to the stage. But that’s the power of theatre, and of the actor.

So, reading the whole ‘voyage into childhood’ that makes up this work is an absolute delight. I am over and over again in awe of Mason’s creative and linguistic abilities.

The end of the golden weather, the end of childhood innocence and the kicking-in of the harsh realities of life are timeless.

If you never have seen or read this ( and there will be many readers who have not) do yourself a favour. Buy, borrow, beg or steal it and immerse yourself in a true and magnificent New Zealand classic.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

End of the Golden Weather  

by Bruce Mason
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864732729

Book Review: The Clay Woman, by Xoё Hall

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_clay_womanThe Clay Woman is a beautiful retelling of how the first woman came to be and the beginning of human life on Earth. The story begins when Tāne Mahuta has created the birds, insects and trees of Aotearoa but feels something is missing. He turns to our Earth Mother, Papatūānuku for help. In turn, she takes him to the scared place of Kurawaka. There he sculpts a women from the red clay earth, Hineahuone, and breathes life into her.

Xoё Hall uses her vibrant, pop art style to illustrate the story. She brings a modern take to Māori art and the illustrations are simply stunning. The artist captures the strength and power of the important characters of Tāne Mahuta, Hineahuone and Papatūānuku. I particularly love the little forest friend fairies with their monarch butterfly wings and Māori ancestry!

Xoё treats our ancestor’s story with reverence, she has not retold the legend but woven it anew. The sacredness is passed on through the beautiful words to the reader. I found myself slowing down and becoming quieter as I read it aloud to my class, and the children responded in turn.

The author does an amazing job describing the breath of life that brings the clay woman to life. However, even with my limited te reo Māori, I kept waiting for the author to include hongi to describe the action and the important words tihei mauri ora. Perhaps a glossary at the back would allow this cultural knowledge and language to be passed to all readers.

Peter Gossage’s retellings of Māori legends have been the go-to books for teachers in recent years but Xoё Hall is making a name for herself in bringing a modern take to the stories of our land. We hope she continues to weave the stories of our ancestors with her unique illustrations. This book enchanted us from the front cover and is now very much loved by all.

Reviewed by Sara Croft

The Clay Woman
Woven and illustrated by Xoё Hall
Published by TeacherTalk
ISBN 9780473422509

Book Review: Amazing Train Journeys, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_amazing_train_journeysThe front cover of this beautiful book from Lonely Planet has the title Amazing Train Journeys superimposed on a blue sky above a train snaking its way alongside a river  with dense forest stretching away towards stark grey mountains. In one corner it has the words “60 unforgettable rail trips and how to experience them”. Inside, before you reach any of this exciting information, there is a two page colour photograph of New Zealand’s TranzAlpine train traversing a bridge over one of our famed braided rivers. If you, the reader, have been lucky enough to have been on the TranzAlpine rail journey, it may be hard to tear yourself away from this fantastic reminder of your experience.  But once you do, you’ll find much more to take your interest and capture your imagination.

The foreword on page 6 notes: ‘There’s something magical about a journey by train. Sometimes the magic is inside – on a train you have room to move and meet people, dine in a restaurant car with white tablecloths, sleep in a private compartment between crisp, clean sheets with the sound of steel wheel swishing on steel rail beneath you.  Sometimes the magic is outside, in the landscape the train traverses – an adventure, an experience, an insight into the heart of a nation.’

So onwards in our journey into the photographs, the information of places, animals, people and, most of all, trains and where they take us. Africa and the Middle East is the first stop. Johannesburg to Capetown across the Great Karoo. Then the journey from Andimeshk to Dorud takes the passenger through the mountainous heart of ancient Persia. Further on, the Bernina Express is described as one of the world’s most beautiful rail journeys. A masterpiece of early 20th century engineering, it takes in 55 tunnels and 196 bridges as it travels from Chur in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy.

There are rail journeys from the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania, which includes the aforementioned TranzAlpine as well as the Northern Explorer from Auckland to Wellington. As is usual with this publisher, the details of each journey are replete with information regarding the time involved, the scenery, notes of interest about the history of the train track and country it passes through, and the people one might meet as companions on the journey.  The photographs are superb, many of them covering two pages and all in full colour.  I can guarantee that many readers will be thinking of saving their pennies and reaching for their passports after reading this book.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Amazing Train Journeys
by Lonely Planet
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781787014305