Book Review: Aspiring Daybook – The Diary of Elsie Winslow, by Annabel Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aspiring_daybookIn Aspiring Daybook by Annabel Wilson, Elsie Winslow returns home to live with her father, Simon, and help care for her terminally ill brother, Sam. Her former lover Frank lives nearby. We share in Elsie’s life for a year through this book, her diary, which includes poems, yes, and also photographs, Facebook chats, emails and newspaper clippings. This is what Elsie chooses to record from her day, her month, her year. This structure means the reader is glimpsing small moments, gathering up character and events but has to let them go, not knowing how they might return.

Because of the form, Wilson’s characters, and perhaps most importantly their relationships, are slowly revealed; there is a cryptic, uncertain nature to them. This is powerfully used as the story unfolds. But it can get confusing – reading an email on page 69 I suddenly wasn’t sure who had cancer (I worked it out). This isn’t a book which can be dipped in and out of while expecting to keep track. It is better to be immersed in its images.

When I say images I mean both the photographs and the poetic imagery. I enjoy the mixed-media elements of the book but the strongest images are created in the poems. About her brother’s cancer treatment Elsie writes, ‘This is what they call burning down the house to get the mouse in the basement.’ Later she creates Ibiza with words – the people, flavours, scenery – and ends with ‘sunsets everyone claps for.’ Elsie remembers mountains ‘which bite the sky like a deathly incisor.’ My mind can see these teethy mountains extending into the sky just as I can look at the photograph of a mountain on page 40.

Aspiring Daybook is experimental, adventurous and mysterious. It’s a mixed-media narrative. And it’s the kind of thing I love; I’m predisposed to like this work. If you like experimental narratives or mixed-media storytelling than I think you too will find it’s a wonderful, moving, surprising read.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

Aspiring Daybook: The diary of Elsie Winslow
by Annabel Wilson
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109230

 

 

 

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Book Review: Rotoroa, by Amy Head

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_rotoroa.jpgChristchurch author Amy Head’s first novel Rotoroa is a masterclass in the minutely beautiful.

Following characters seeking ‘fresh starts’, Rotoroa weaves together three disparate narratives: naïve young Lorna, who, at 15, finds herself pregnant and turning to religion for comfort; Jim, an alcoholic husband and father who is sent to Rotoroa after failing to keep his drinking in check; and Katherine Morton, known more famously as the novelist and journalist Elsie K. Morton, who is contracted to write about the work of the Salvation Army on Rotoroa Island, the rehabilitation island for alcoholic men. Ensnared within the societal and religious binds that guide 1950s society, Lorna, Jim and Katherine each embark on an emotional (and sometimes physical) journey to define new lives for themselves while struggling within their typecast roles as daughter, alcoholic and ‘Lady Writer’.

Although it is explicitly a story about men, Rotoroa is implicitly a story about the steadfast women working behind the scenes – women who, were it not for pioneering journalists like Katherine Morton – may have been lost to the depths of history.

Spanning the years 1955–1959, the ease with which the social and historical realism bleed into the fictional narrative is a testament to the wealth of research that Head undertook in its writing. The non-fiction details are imparted through the narrative with a subtle and striking intelligence that is compelling in its pervasive emotional power.

The micro-level beauty of the prose is in its discreet attention to detail. In a Mansfield-esque manner, Head is master of the understated emotional epiphany. Interlacing not only three distinct narratives but also a non-linear time structure, each individual chapter reads like a self-contained short story. With sharp and often poignant beginning and end sentences, each chapter builds to the point of a subtle emotional revelation – so subtle, that every sentence demands to be read. Jim’s short, staccato-like chapters (which reach a pinnacle in a beautiful chapter where he goes fishing ‘at the sharp edge of the reef’) are balanced by Katherine’s longer mellow interludes as we journey with her on her final travel lecture throughout the USA and back home again – viewing 1950s New Zealand society from both the outside and in. Lorna’s story flows between and connects the two, at once enthralling and devastating in its unflinching emotional honesty.

Not to be confused with the geothermal city or lake of a similar name, Rotoroa Island lies to the east of Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Opening with the statement ‘[w]here you lived was important’, the people and place of Rotoroa are intrinsically linked. ‘Both idyll and institution, from its clay-baked cliffs to the whitewashed stones’, the island of Rotoroa develops into a tempestuous yet striking character in its own right. Its isolation is reflected by the internal isolation of Lorna, Jim and Katherine, and we view the island variously with each switch of viewpoint – it is both ‘a nobody-cares island’ and a ‘sanctuary from earthly troubles’.

With a pressure that builds not to startle but to illuminate, Rotoroa crescendos to a depth of emotion rather than to a climactic height. It conceals more than it reveals, leaving the reader to unravel the unsaid, but the rewards are huge – the raw emotional power of Rotoroa lingers long after the novel is over. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Rotoroa
by Amy Head
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561919

Book Review: Dawn Raid, by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith

Dawn Raid is a finalist in The Wright Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction, in the NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. 

cv_dawn_raidAnother in the very good Scholastic series – My New Zealand Story, Dawn Raid is told from the perspective of 13 year old Sofia Savea, who lives in Cannon’s Creek, Porirua. Her story starts with the opening of the first McDonald’s in New Zealand. Sofia is typical of a lot of Kiwi children at that age – concerned with friendships and having enough money to buy her dream pair of white boots. She gets a milk run to help with buying clothes.

The book seeks to explain ‘Dawn Raids’ through the eyes of a typical Samoan family. At school Sofia uses school speeches to explain about her culture, then the impact of raids on the community. Mirroring this, Sofia’s family are personally touched by a raid, and experience great upset and confusion as a result. Multiple voices and perspectives are acknowledged. The support from the community after the raid – legal advice and the role of the Polynesian Panthers was interesting to learn about. The book further references Dame Whina Cooper’s long march to parliament, and David Lange’s legal help (this is of course prior to him entering politics).

I really liked how Sofia’s character developed over the course of the book, from a somewhat reserved person, to a student who confidently delivers a powerful speech on an issue close to her family.

This book is suitable for ages 10-15, and is a fictionalised account of an era in New Zealand characterised by a lot of political protest. As a resource to learn about racism, politics and how media bias can direct the wider conversation, it is very powerful book.

I’m so glad that this series is so wide ranging and has such a great range of writers behind it. Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith is an Invercargill-based writer, and this is her first book.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Dawn Raid
by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434757

 

Book Review: Ash Arising, by Mandy Hager

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ash_arisingWow! Before you pick up this book, go and read The Nature of Ash – a brilliant book which I thought was going to be a hard act to follow in keeping up the tension, suspense, thrill and adventure. Turns out I was wrong.

Mandy Hager has done it again. Ash, the reluctant key figure in a New Zealand overrun by dark and manipulative forces, responsible for his younger brother Mikey after their father was killed by those same forces, is now hiding out in Whanganui with his brother, and his friends Ziao and Travis, and his lawyer. Mikey, who has Down’s syndrome, is entirely Ash’s reponsibility and this relationship (so well drawn, and so spot on in its empathy and understanding) just adds an extra layer into the story – but one which provides a wonderful counterbalance to the horror and mayhem going on around.

The government, corrupt as can be, has yet to be overthrown by the handful of good guys who remain, and Ash becomes involved in some seriously frightening stuff. I will not tell you what, it’s just too good to spoil for anyone.

But prepare for nail-biting, uncontrollable page-turning and a determination to read on even though it’s time for bed! Trust me, you won’t be able to sleep until you finish the book.

This book is also a real celebration of brave young people – you know the ones, they think they are bullet proof (because their brains are not fully formed!) – but that’s exactly why they risk everything without second-guessing themselves. Mandy Hager reminds the older and more cynical reader that in fact change can be achieved by the young – and our job, if we still have one, is to assist them in that and refrain from saying old-fart things like ‘it will never work’ and ‘we tried that already’.

Do yourself a favour – go out and buy this book for yourself, and then buy copies for all the teenagers you know, and then lend one to all the old farts you know.  Mandy Hager, you’re amazing.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Ash Arising
by Mandy Hager
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143772439

Book Review: A Sister in my House, by Linda Olsson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_sister_in_my_house.jpgMaria has found sanctuary in a rented house, overlooking a small Spanish village by the sea. She is coming to terms with losing the love of her life. But her solitude and places that have become special to her are about to be encroached on by the arrival of her younger sister, Emma.

It is two years since Maria issued the invitation to her younger sister following their mother’s funeral and she is unsure if it was such a good idea. ‘Now, as I tried to think back and understand why I had blurted out the invitation, I reluctantly had to acknowledge that I might have been driven by a wish to show off. To flaunt my new life. Strut my happiness.’

The inclusion of a verse by Emily Dickinson at the beginning of the book was the inspiration the title of the novel and gives us a clue about what might be revealed in the book.

One Sister have I in our house-
And one, a hedge away.
There’s only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

It is not a long book (just 119 pages) but the author gently explores the sisters’ thoughts and feelings about their childhood and the adults they have become.

‘Why? Your father adored you. You were his little princess.’
Emma’s response took a long while.
‘I don’t really know what my father felt for me. I have no memories of us doing anything much together.’

The novel is divided into six chapters, one for each day of Emma’s stay, during which the author Linda Olsson explores the relationships over forty years, between the sisters, mother and their fathers.

Linda Olsson  has written a number of novels, her first, Let me Sing you Gentle Songs, was published in 2005 and became an international success. I had read the more recent The Blackbird Sings at Dusk (2016) and enjoyed it.

Olsson did not disappoint, her elegant style and attention to detail was again evident in this work, as the small steps in the sisters’ lives helped them to move into the future. The stunning cover invites the reader in. Anyone who enjoys a book about family relationships will find this a rewarding read.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

A Sister in My House
by Linda Olsson
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143770763

Book Review: Make a Hard Fist, by Tina Shaw

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_make_a_hard_fist‘Which one of you idiots sent this?’, is the opening line of Make a Hard Fist by New Zealand author Tina Shaw, a novel depicting the journey of a teenager named Lizzie Quinn on her personal road to empowerment.

Oh the teenage years. How thrillingly exciting and yet downright awful were those fledgling young adult years? As I read that first line, conjured by the ‘Lizzie Q, I love U’ note grasped in Lizzie’s hand, I could feel it in the pit of my stomach again, that nervy sick feeling – Does someone out there really fancy me, or am I the subject of some nasty joke? – I remember that feeling all too well when a boy I fancied rang me at home. It wasn’t the boy, it was the boy’s friend asking me if I wanted to ‘go round’ with the boy. And what did I do? I didn’t know if it was a joke or not, panicked and hung up the phone. So I could relate to that first line, it was a good start.

But from there it all turns sour and dangerous in this novel. Not everyone gets to have that innocent teenage excitement. Some sadly experience menace and physical aggression. Lizzie Quinn, a high school student who works after school in the local library to save money to buy her Uncle Harry’s sky-blue 1969 Volkswagen Beetle for herself, starts receiving one-line notes with her name on them, hand-delivered to her letterbox, and is then attacked and physically abused in her local park. How she deals with the attack is the core of her journey in this book.

This portrayal of violence is potentially controversial material as YA fiction. Some might say ‘Shouldn’t fiction for youths be sheltered from physical violence?’ To which I would respond, ‘Is it better to protect our youth from, or, prepare our youth for potentially violent situations?’

This novel is about one girl’s reaction to physical abuse, her loss in self-confidence, the ramifications it has on all those around her, and her positive, empowering choice of learning self-defence while making solid friends along the way.

What happens in the end? Well you’ll just have to read it right to the nail-biting end to find out, but I thoroughly recommend this novel, not only for those who have been or known a victim of attack, but all young people to get some first guidance in self-defence, whether needed in life, or, hopefully not. It is great writing that also comes with an informative guide at the back that could really help.

Perhaps Make a Hard Fist will help raise awareness of the potential benefits of self-defence programmes in today’s schools? I certainly hope so.

Reviewed by Penny M Geddis

Make a Hard Fist
by Tina Shaw
Published by OneTree House Ltd
ISBN: 9780473397067

Book Review: Wairaka Point – An African-New Zealand Journal, by Trevor Watkin

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_wairaka_pointThe first thing most people do when picking up a new book is to automatically go to the front flap of the dust cover to get an outline of the story, but in this case no information was on offer. The second thing I know I do, is to read the back flap of the dust cover to read the biography of the author, but again nothing was there, so I did what any good reader does – I just got on and read the book. And what a book!

The story starts in Pukerua Bay, in Wellington, New Zealand 1961 with Nick James going off with his gun (a present from his father on his fifteenth birthday) to shoot a few rabbits. It had been raining so the cliff face was muddy and loose. While walking along the coast, near Wairaka Point, he came across a massive slip which had pulled down boulders, soil, trees and sand. He decided to go around the debris and at that moment he saw a skeleton, with a military-type jacket made of leather now green with mould. He raced home to get his Father. His Father gets the local policeman involved who sends the body off to the mortuary for a post mortem. Nick learns that the coroner has determined that it was probably the remains of an old hunter from before the war who fell and cracked his head on a rock. Case closed, no more is thought of the incident.

In another part of the world, Stella Rees was home in Umtali, some hundred miles north of Melsetter where her grandparents Oom (Pieter) and Sissy Viljoen, tobacco and dairy farmers live. The Viljoens were descendants from one of the original Afrikaans families.

How Nick James and Stella Rees meet and their connection to each other evolves into one of the best stories I’ve read for a very long time. This is a story based around true events in world history – WWII, Afrikaans history all interwoven into a “can’t put it down book”. A love story, with adventure, criminal activity, and a mystery finally solved. Lots of footnotes with explanations of Kiwi slang, Māori words, Afrikaans and historical events make this a very enjoyable read.

Trevor Watkin was born in Cornwall, educated in Zimbabwe and graduated from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, so a well- travelled man with an obvious interest in New Zealand and African history. He has worked in agriculture as a trader, company director and publisher, and lives in Melbourne.

A great read and I would certainly read anything else Trevor Watkin wrote.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Wairaka Point: An African-New Zealand Journal
by Trevor Watkin
Published by Product Research Pty Ltd
ISBN 9780648214212