Book Review: As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, by Vivienne Plumb, with illustrations by Glenn Otto

cv_as_much_gold_as_an_ass_could_carryAvailable in bookshops nationwide. 

Vivienne Plumb’s collection As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry  collects a vibrant selection of poetry, plays and short prose from this always-innovative author. These are pieces composed over a writing career begun in Aotearoa New Zealand theatre and leading up to Plumb’s recent attainment of a PHD in creative writing from The University of Wollongong, Australia. General readers and those lured by the mysteries of the PHD will be equally intrigued to read the extracts here from her thesis manuscript The Glove Box and other stories. (Spineless Wonders, 2014) This collection earned her the prestigious doctoral award. Her Australian publisher’s ironically acerbic trade name is also entirely in keeping with Plumb’s own rapier wit and comic timing.

In whatever genre or persona she operates Plumb’s writing is intellectually incisive and visually complex. But it frequently also carries a depth finding tincture of melancholy. Jillian Sullivan’s excellent discussion of this dimension of Plumb’s poetics is analysed in the wonderful essay ‘Landscape and Lament: Anti-consolation in the Poetry of Vivienne Plumb’, which features on-line in the current issue of Ka Mate Ka Mate.

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry is an indispensable repository of Plumb’s oeuvre. The unflinching honesty of her narratives illuminate the human condition with nuances that make even life’s greyest moments shine with a diamond energy. Her barbed appraisals of suburbia, the universe, and everything, make an indispensable contribution to New Zealand writing.

Finally however, I must demur in one key respect from the design values in this collection. It’s marvelous illustrations by Glenn Otto are a kinetic calligraphy, which brilliantly complements Plumb’s own take no prisoners approach to every topic. However, in my opinion her editors should have restricted this artist’s contribution to the white spaces of the text. Plumb’s material deserves the uninterrupted limelight. She should not have to compete with Otto. Where his strokes spill exuberantly into the textual black space they return the reader’s imagination to the page surface, competitively disrupting narratives in which Plumb’s own extreme vistas and experimental narrative close-ups would otherwise offer the reader enjoyment unbounded.

Reviewed by Janet Charman

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry
by Vivienne Plumb
with illustrations by Glenn Otto
Published by split/fountain
ISBN 9780473373184

Book Review: Bastion Point: 507 days on Takaparawha, by Tania Roxborogh

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bastion_pointErica Tito thinks she’s going to spend the summer training her new horse (and also working to pay for it) but her parents suddenly have quite a different plan.

In 1977, the Muldoon government announced a housing development on Ngāti Whātua reserve land. This land had been reduced in size over time, by compulsory acquisition, despite having once been declared absolutely inalienable.

Many of the Ngāti Whātua iwi quickly returned to Auckland, and set up camp on Takaparawha, in what turned out to be a very long protest which ultimately saw more than 200 people arrested, and the buildings destroyed. However a subsequent Waitangi Tribunal determined that the land was indeed owned by Ngāti Whātua and much of it was returned. (source: Nzhistory.govt.nz)

So, to return to Erica’s story – her parents decide that it’s most important that they join Joe Hawke and the other Ngāti Whātua leaders, and despite Erica’s protests, that’s what happens. However what is intended a summer break turns into almost 18 months of living in leaky tents, on Bastion Point as the family become immersed in the struggle to retain their land.

Tania Roxborogh has created a compelling and entirely credible story, told through the diaries which Erica (who loves reading and writing) keeps throughout this time. The difficulties of living in such conditions are occasionally startling in their description; one which sticks with me is Erica’s note about her clothes smelling of smoke and damp, and trying to get rid of that before going to school so that she would not be embarrassed. But there are also the high points – an understanding and challenging teacher, Erica’s eventual ability as a top debater being drawn out, friendships made and kept despite enormous differences.

The importance of whānau is well-defined, and will resonate with young readers, as will the strength of character of the Tito family, determined to fight for what they know to be right.

The occupation of Bastion Point was not an easy time for Ngāti Whātua, and Roxborogh alludes in a very gentle way to the difficulties between the occupiers and the tribal elders and their advisors on the marae. She has more to say (through Erica) about the politics and the government of the day, and that is a good reminder to those of us who are old enough to remember Bastion Point and the challenges which were thrown out to all New Zealanders.

In all this is a very accessible, engaging and thought-provoking book. I’d recommend it to anyone, but particularly to teachers as a terrific resource either as a read-aloud or a text for study.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Bastion Point: 507 days on Takaparawha
by Tania Roxborogh
Part of the My New Zealand Story series
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434795

Book Reviews: Te Reo Singalong Series: Kōrero Mai, Taku Mōkai, and Whai Mai, by Sharon Holt

Available in bookshops nationwide.

These three stories continue Sharon Holt’s successful Te Reo Singalong series. They are much loved by our kaiako and tamariki alike. Our teachers love the simple, repetitive te reo Māori to help them learn and use new phrases with our tamariki. Our tamariki love the music and stories about their childhood.

cv_korero_maiWe use the series in our classroom to support learning because they tell the events and interests of our tamariki growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand. Each picture is uniquely kiwi – the people, landscapes and activities provoke lots of kōrero from our tamariki about their own experiences that they can see!

We particularly like the diversity represented on each page of the different cultures and lifestyles of tamariki. For example, in Kōrero Mai, three young tamariki share their pepeha reflecting their unique family and home so everyone can connect with the book.

cv_taku_mokaiIn Taku Mōkai, photographs accompany the text as you visit different tamariki at home with their pet. As an adult, it is great to see the simple text doesn’t talk ‘at’ the reader, it feels like a conversation as each friend in the book proudly shares their pet and how they look after it.

Whai Mai introduces many simple phrases of te reo Māori but you don’t need to be fluent to understand the story about some friends playing follow-the-leader on a playground.

cv_whai_maiFor new te reo Māori speakers, there are translations at the back of each book, however the simple and useful phrases will soon become part of your kōrero with your tamariki. Additionally, the author has included some great ideas about how you can practice the reo.

Each book is accompanied by a CD. The stories are designed to be sung along to the music. Our tamariki can be heard singing the waiata in their play and love to read these books independently with the CD player. The music is peaceful and relaxing; these books are perfect for calming down before bed and reflecting on the day.

The te reo series by Sharon Holt is a great teaching tool for both tamariki and adults. More importantly, each book can be enjoyed by all as kiwi story-telling at its best too.

Reviewed by Sara Croft

Kōrero Mai
By Sharon Holt
Published by The Writing Bug
ISBN 9780994117113

Taku Mōkai
By Sharon Holt
Published by The Writing Bug
ISBN 9780994117144

Whai Mai
By Sharon Holt
Published by The Writing Bug
ISBN 9780473294564

Book Review: Heloise, by Mandy Hager

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_heloise.jpgThis is a big book. Not big in size at a reasonable 381 pages, but big in scope and ideas. It’s a book that you want to take time and care with, so that you can appreciate it as it deserves.

Lots of people may know the names of Heloise and Abelard, even if like me, they don’t really know the details. Abelard was widely celebrated as one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century; Heloise was among the most lauded of his students, made more notable because of her gender in a time when women were most definitely meant to be barely seen and certainly not heard.

Mandy Hager tells the story from Heloise’s perspective, filling in the historical gaps with seamless narrative. She starts with Heloise’s childhood, about which next to nothing is known, and traces her life through to her teenage years and adulthood, and her fateful meeting with Peter Abelard. The story is well paced and rich, with excerpts from Abelard and Heloise’s own writing, and many references to other great thinkers including Ovid, Seneca, Aristotle and Socrates. With a lot of the story taking place within a religious setting, Sts Augustine and Jerome also get regular look-ins. The content is quite dense – not in a negative way, but in the way that a lets you know you’re reading a book that’s been really well thought-through, researched and edited.

A reader with modern sensibilities will rage against the unfairness with which Heloise is treated, where even Abelard, who professes to love and respect her, treats her as a chattel without feelings and ambition of her own. Abelard eventually comes across as a fairly unsympathetic character, even though Heloise’s love and forgiveness of his behaviour wins out time and again. I found myself snarling at some of the male characters in the story quite regularly … the perils of being a modern reader of historical fiction, I suppose!

Heloise reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, dealing in depth as it does with a historical figure who has name recognition, even if the reader doesn’t know much more. It’s substantial in the same way, and immerses you in a world that may be 800 years gone, but still echoes now in the 21st century. It’s not a light holiday read, but perfect for when you have time and space to read something substantial. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Heloise
by Mandy Hager
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143770992

Book Review: The Locksmith, by Barbara Howe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_locksmithWho is the Locksmith, and what role does he play in this fantasy tale? You will keep this question in mind as you read through the adventures of Lucinda Guillierre, a young girl living with her stepsister Claire and her stepmother, in the magical world of Frankland, ruled by The Office.

The Office was created in historic times by the Great Coven, which established the four offices of Air, Fire, Earth, and Water, and their leaders. Each Office has a Guild, for the study and training of Witches and Wizards of each element.

Unsettled by her lack of magical progress, she resigns herself to a future as a normal person, but agrees to take her sister Claire to challenge the path to meet the Fire Warlock, to have a wish granted. She takes with her, her only true possessions her father left her —two large books of the history of the magic which fills their world. Hold that thought as you read…

Claire wants to use Lucinda to pass the challenge and meet the Warlock, to make her wish, and to have Lucinda work off the exchange for the spell. That’s not quite how things turn out. Lucinda is the one who gets the wish, and in her three years at the Fire Guild serves in the kitchen, between her studies of magic. She takes some time realising that those who see her as a potential Fire Witch are right.

As her studies progress, so do her feelings for the Fire Warlock, and she realises he is the writer of her own two history of magic books. As the story develops, the realm in which they live becomes turbulent with political rumours of the threat of attack from Europa, which surrounds Frankland. Amid the turmoil, we are with Lucinda as she faces rivalry, hostility, and jealousy—and fear.

Lucinda’s story in this book ends most satisfactory, yet with just enough unknowns to make the reader want, as I do, the second in the series. A really great closing, and of all the modern fantasies I have read, this is a definite leader.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

The Locksmith: Book 1 in the ‘Reforging’ series
by Barbara Howe
Published by SQ Mag
ISBN: 9781925496284

 

Book Review: Five Strings, by Apirana Taylor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_five_strings.jpgIt’s an underrated pleasure to read a book and identify with it’s protagonist, to sit nestled inside their mind and language, and in the some of the best books – to love another character through them. Apirana Taylor’s Five Strings achieves this with two protagonists, Mack and Puti: We look into Puti’s ‘fish-bowl’ eyes from Mack’s perspective, and a moment later look back through them at the sun highlighting Mack’s own ‘jowly chops.’

Puti and Mack are both sickness beneficiaries and alcoholics. They live in a room together, and walk daily to the public loos to wash their dishes, and weekly to the pools to shower. They’re regulars at the One Way Up Tavern, where they’ve found their community, but between Mondays when they run out of money, and Wednesdays when they get paid, they’ve got no-one but each other.

Taylor makes affectionate use of language. Mack describes his circumstances as ‘Dickensian’, and Five Strings is full of bums, flops, pukus, and bastards. The book’s world is sensuous. It’s characters never have sex due to a mutual combination of apathy and fear, but a scene where Mack makes Puti a banana sandwich served (for this reader, at least) as a sufficient substitute:

He peeled off their jackets. He buttered four slices of bread with the thinnest skin of margarine, then placed each banana on top of a piece of bread. He crushed and spread the fruit with his knife taking care to ensure the black and white pulpy mass didn’t flow over the bread’s borders. He capped the two spread slices with another piece of bread…

He gave Puti her sandwich. She watched him build it with as much concern, care and concentration as he took in making it. She cupped the sandwich in her hands, like someone taking the holy bread for communion.

Five Strings is a uncomfortable study of the tender, painful interplay of power and care in long-term love. The couple look to each other for everything their society isn’t giving them and frequently come up short. They both claim to be burdened by the other’s dependence, but the reader senses that really Five Strings is about the need to be needed, and so it’s doubly poignant when they fail each other.

During the first two thirds of the novel everything that happens seems to have happened multiple times before. This is a sort of intimacy; we learn the pattern of the days and weeks their relationship is made of. But towards the end of the second third a reader might begin to wonder if another trip to the pub with Mack is necessary, when after all he’ll only get drunk, argue with the bartender, then philosophise to no-one about modern meaninglessness and the stupidity of the modern work week.

Sometimes Five Strings feels like a play that could go through just one more rehearsal. The sentences are often stilted, pulling the reader out of the minds of the characters and back into that of a person looking at a book. Often, too, the characterisation of minor characters feels stagey. Sometimes this a problem and sometimes it isn’t. Dolorous ‘a bearded transvestite’ and ‘Greta Garbage’ both read like caricatures, not characters, and the novel gains nothing by alienating us from them.

When the character in question is an authority figure, someone sitting at a remove from the story, the flatness is fun and in accordance with a sort of realism. When Puti’s anger management therapist arrives late to their meeting saying, ‘Don’t think I’m late. It’s all part of the new policy. Give the clients time to settle in. Time to relax and stretch out those thoughts,’ we can’t help but snort our derision. Even though Sandra’s character doesn’t seem quite realistic, the way the system she represents grates on Puti absolutely does.

Taylor’s irony is existential too. When Mack’s drunk and happy he thinks, ‘[there’s] nothing wrong with the world, and if there [is he’ll] fix it.’ Drugs and alcohol are the routine of Mack and Puti’s lives, every other priority is submerged under them. Such narratives are often deterministic and tautological – he needs alcohol because… he needs alcohol – but Five Strings has an intimate understanding of its characters in both their desperation to escape their addictions and their ecstasy in being subsumed in them. We see how drugs and alcohol can be both a choice and an inevitability at once.

Taylor has a sharp, dramatic sense of everyday practicalities and the way their difficulty is compounded by poverty, but Five Strings is also a story of love and ultimately of reclamation.

Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems

Five Strings
by Apirana Taylor
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473389482

Book Review: Helper and Helper, by Joy Cowley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Helper Helper is shortlisted for the Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

cv_hleper_and_helper.jpgI am almost ashamed to say that I had not read any Lizard and Snake stories before this collection. In my defence, my work was mostly with older teenagers, so I think I can be forgiven!

However, what quirky, credible characters these two are. A bit slippery, on the one hand, but good friends working mostly together. Sounds familiar? Joy Cowley has a very accomplished way of working a little morality, a lot of humanity and a great understanding of human behaviour into each story in this collection. There’s also much clever humour, and occasionally a small measure of sadness.

The fabulous illustrations by Gavin Bishop contribute a great deal to the book, picking up on small details and bringing the characters to life in a delightful way. The endpapers are particularly worth a look!

It’s a wonderful collection and brings to mind the gentle fables of Aesop. It also brought to my mind the less gentle Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc. I wonder if they are still popular, with their grim punishments for bad behaviour? I imagine that modern children will prefer Snake and Lizard.

It’s another great publication from Gecko Press, and I hope that there are more stories still to come from Joy Cowley about these unlikely best friends. Most deservedly a nominee for the NZ Children’s Book Awards.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Helper and Helper
by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571055