Book Review: Swim: A year of swimming outdoors in New Zealand , by Annette Lees

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_swim_a_year_of_swimming_outdoorsHave you ever thought to yourself that swimming all year round would be a good idea? Neither had I, until Annette Lees’s charming collection of diary entries, tales and interviews with swimmers persuaded me of the wonders it could work on your physical health, mental health and appreciation for New Zealand’s beauty.

Part diary, part non-fiction stories with a splash of science, Swim opens with a classic swimming-related pun (‘Diving in’) and tells the story of a normal woman, Annette Lees, who, almost accidentally, decides to swim every day for a year. It begins as a commitment to swim all summer and slowly extends until it becomes a year-long effort.

The book is divided into beautiful seasonal sections which helps break up the year’s records of swimming. Her daily swims are described in diary entry format, which I became surprisingly invested in as the book went on. They share details of the weather, the water, and snippets of conversation with people she meets. Some she even manages to convince to swim – ‘He grabs his girlfriend by the hand – ‘Let’s go for a swim,’ he yells.’ There are many places where I now want to swim, and one thing I would have loved to see is a map with the swims marked on.

Woven amongst these daily swims are collected stories: anything and everything to do with New Zealanders swimming. From competitive swimming to historical swims to government swim campaigns, these well-referenced stories offer insights into New Zealand’s incredible history with swimming. Interviews with swimmers from various backgrounds made swimming seem more accessible and left me in awe of the amazing things that New Zealanders do when they set their minds to it. Arno Marten, for example, describes his attempt to swim from Milford Sound 450 kilometres down to Te Waewae Bay. Swimming is far more ingrained in the New Zealand culture than I ever bothered to think about, but I am glad that Swim gave me a reason to do so.

Although initially a little hard to get in to, before long I was avidly awaiting the next adventurous tale. Lees has a deliciously dry and witty writing style, which I would just begin to miss before another comment proved that her humour had simply been waiting for the right moment to resurface. She has truly mastered the art of finishing with a bang: each story ends almost abruptly, in a way that adds to the story rather than completes it.

Swim is a beautiful book. Unfortunately, it was let down by its clear lack of thorough proofreading. It was hard to appreciate the beauty of the book as an object when I was overwhelmed by the number of obvious errors, especially in the middle third of the book.

Lees’s descriptions of swimming are glorious: ‘the sensuous feeling of water on the skin, or the giddy happiness, freedom and contentment that steals into the soul when bathing.’ Between the imagery, the fascinating stories and the personal accounts, any reader will truly be immersed in an appreciation of swimming.

Reviewed by Francesca Edwards

by Annette Lees
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503956

Book Review: Grandzilla, by Lisa Williams

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Grandzilla.JPGGrandmothers are on the whole these days neither old or little. Most of us are a lot younger than perhaps our own grandmothers might have been. Tessa hates hers and has therefore dubbed her Grandzilla. It is 2015 and her beloved grandfather Ed has just died, making her grandmother even more of a monster. Tessa had a close relationship with her late grandfather and during her grieving, she hits out continually with mean-spirited comments.

Her grandmother Tillie, though, has her own secrets. Tessa is of the generation that thinks nobody old can possibly have been an activist. The next thing we know, Tillie’s cousin Dawn turns up on her doorstep. ‘Notorious Terrorist sent home to die’ screams the news headlines. Dawn is dying of cancer.

Dawn had been serving a life sentence in a German prison. She was part of the committed terrorist attacks by the UF, a far-left militant group active 1967 – 1984 in what was then West Germany. Dawn was supposedly the mastermind of the 1968 kidnap of banker Dietmar Kriegbaum. She eluded capture after a shoot-out with police when one of their officers was killed. She managed to stay off the radar for three decades after fleeing Germany in 1970 to Edinburgh in Scotland where she worked as a pharmacist’s assistant. Dawn was captured in 2002 when her neighbor attended a performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and saw a reproduction of an old wanted poster with Dawn’s picture on it, as part of the play Revolutionary Disorder. She called her in, and Dawn went to jail.

Turning up on Tillie’s doorstep, Dawn wants to make peace with her cousin. Meanwhile Tessa works briefly at Betta-Mart, where she meets Todd and Cal who are part of a protest movement. Tension is high around the streets with police, and protesters clashing. Tessa gets involved, thanks to her friendship with Todd and Cal. Riots and violence become a shared experience between she and her grandmother,  bringing the two very different generations together.

This is a story that will resonate with most of us as we have seen many times on television protesters clashing in the USA and other countries around the world. Most protests involving violence are around race or religion, and this was fertile ground to explore the relationship between two generations.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

by Lisa Williams
ISBN 9780473448486

Book Review: A Mistake, by Carl Shuker

Available from today in bookshops nationwide. Launched tonight at Wellington’s Unity Books. 

cv_a_mistake.jpgI’m a sucker for any book about strong women, medicine, and Wellington. This book is a slam-dunk, because it covers all three, so, spoiler alert: I loved this book.

A Mistake, by New Zealand author Carl Shuker, follows a brilliant surgeon, Elizabeth Taylor, who is at the peak of her powers as a surgeon, but somehow continually getting in her own way as a human being. So devoted to perfection she will demolish an entire internal wall of her house to get rid of a barely perceptible imperfection, she has alienated almost every person she comes into contact with.

When surgery goes wrong and a patient dies, Elizabeth finds that the people and institutions she has sacrificed her adult life for would rather avert their eyes then stand by her. At the same time the government is preparing to publicly report surgical outcomes, with the potential to ruin a surgeon’s career overnight. Elizabeth has to navigate the opaque politics of the hospital, the DHB, and the medical community with enough skill to salvage her own career.

Elizabeth is, in many ways, not a particularly likeable person, so it is a huge tribute to Shuker’s skills as an author that I cared so much for her fate I could hardly put A Mistake down. A Mistake is a short book – only 182 pages – and Shuker writes with a brief, almost staccato style in places. Yet his characterisation is so deft I feel I know her like a friend. A friend who has continually battled the inherent sexism and deeply slanted gender politics of the medical profession for twenty years and still can’t rustle up one person she can actually rely on among her colleagues.

Elizabeth is a strong person with a laser focus on whatever task she decides to conquer, and an unbelievable loyalty to the teams of medical professionals she works with. She is also unpleasantly honest, demanding and not given to unnecessary niceties. This combination of behaviour raises her to the height of profession, and would be not only tolerated but rewarded and praised in a man. Yet for Elizabeth, this leads to her almost total alienation by her peers. It is a story that women have seen happen over and over again, and it is both slightly astonishing and deeply reassuring to see this recognised and reflected by a male author.

Interwoven with Elizabeth’s narrative is a parallel retelling of the timeline of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy. This might sound forced and out of place, but in Shuker’s hands it makes perfect sense, both echoing and enhancing Elizabeth’s story – in a complex machine, as in a human being, the smallest failure can lead to disaster. Even though the world knows how the Challenger’s trajectory played out, I still found I was racing to read the next instalment of the timeline.

Wellington plays a small but significant part in the charm of this book. It is surprising that it is still, in 2019, relatively rare to read a book that celebrates its New Zealand-ness rather than smothering it or bleaching it to the point it could be set in any country in the world. So it still feels to me like a fresh delight to read a book so assuredly set in New Zealand.

This is Shuker’s fifth novel and the first I have read. My unread books pile is threatening to engulf my entire house, but based on the strength of A Mistake, I’m willing to add the rest of Shuker’s oeuvre to the towering stack.

Reviewed by Emma Marr

A Mistake
by Carl Shuker
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 978177656145

Book Review: Girls’ High, by Barbara Anderson

cv_girls_highAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This is a republication in the excellent VUP classics series.

I always thought I had read this book, and probably I have. However it came as if new, which was an unexpected pleasure.

The staff of Girls’ High are the main characters, although there are appearances by family members and the occasional pupil. Mostly those from last year’s 4F….

Having worked in a school – although not a girls’ one – I found this book hilariously funny.  Barbara Anderson must have set up a bug in some school staffroom, because it all rings hideously and cringe-makingly true of staff meetings in any school. The undercurrents, the inattention, the minds on almost anything except the matter being discussed – all there in glorious technicolour!

The power-plays, the cliques and relationships, the tensions, the stereotypical teachers are well drawn and infuriatingly accurate. You can, if you are a teacher, surely swap most of this cast of characters for those in your own staff room. Try it!

Nick Hornby said of it, when it was first published:

Even before its first page, Girls High promises freshness and originality: its contents page is simply irresistible. ‘Jenni Murphy thinks about her sexuality’; ‘Sooze thinks about Bryce’s job in the morgue’; ‘Thea Sinclair thinks about the Aerial Survey in 1978’; ‘Miss Franklin remembers the smell of pepper.’One immediately turns to the back of the book, to find a photograph of the woman who thinks about Jenni Murphy thinking about her sexuality.

Chapter headings are these days something of a rarity, but it’s wonderful just to read them, as Hornby did, and begin to wonder, before you begin to read.

It’s more a collection of short pieces than a full-blown novel, I think, but regardless it works well. Towards the end when the annual Leavers’ Play is being planned, the dialogue (always good) goes up a couple of notches and the press-ganging of reluctant staff into full support of the project is again redolent of staffrooms everywhere.

The main characters – Carmen, Sooze, Margot – are credible – but then all the characters are credible, even if stereotypically recognisable. But I don’t mean that in a negative way – it merely adds to the humour, which is clever and sharp.

This book is still a delight and if you have not read Barbara Anderson’s work, I am sure this will encourage you to read further. Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Girls High
by Barbara Anderson
Published by VUP Classics
ISBN 9781776562107

Book Review: The Nam Shadow, by Carole Brungar

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

The Nam Shadow is the second book in a series by Carole Brungar, following on from The Nam Legacy.  You don’t need to have read the first one to enjoy this book.

Terry Edwards was living at home with his mother and younger siblings. It didn’t feel like home any more since his mother had taken in a lodger to make ends meet;  the lodger moving into his mother’s bedroom. The lodger, Vernon, was a decent enough chap, being the local bank manager, but living in the sleepout, Terry felt restless. His job at the local garage as a mechanic was okay but he was wanting a bit of excitement in his life. He joins up the NZ Army and leaves for Waiouru and basic training. His best mate Jack Cole also decides to join up.

The Vietnam War has been going for a while now and news filtering through the media gives the boys an idea of joining up to do their bit. Not realising how brutal war can be, the boys soon find out. Losing mates that joined up at the same time, seeing woman and children killed is not for the faint-hearted.  It leaves a lasting impression on the two boys. Nightmares follow after they come home with settling down harder than either of them thought.

Frankie Proctor is a photojournalist with The Wellington Daily. Given the soft jobs at the paper, Frankie soon becomes totally disillusioned continually reporting on community events. She wants to be given stories with a bit of meat in them, but those go to more experienced people (usually men) at the paper. Frankie was reading an article about the Vietnam War in the latest issue of Time magazine. American soldiers were arriving in Vietnam at the rate of 1,000 a day. Inspired, Frankie approaches her boss William Booth asking if she could be sent to Vietnam to cover the war for the paper. The answer was a flat no, so Frankie chucks in her job and take her chances over in Vietnam, with a few contacts from her former boss.

This is a brilliant story. The two main characters in the book meet through a chance encounter. Terry meets up with Frankie every chance he can. They become close friends and lovers.

I became extremely aware of the Vietnam war as a teenager when in my first job I worked for a New Zealand cement company which happened to have its offices on the 9th floor of the then AMP Building on the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets in Auckland’s CB, in the late 1960’s. The U.S consulate was on the 6th floor. Peace protesters were outside the AMP building, and we had to fight our way through them to go to work. We then got bomb threats, with the whole building having to be cleared out by the police and fire brigade. The most that was ever found was a petrol-soaked rag in a pot plant. As a teenager, it was quite exciting and certainly not like any other job any my peers had.

As an adult I happened to be in Wellington when the Government held the official welcome home to the Vietnam veterans recognising their service to the country. Ex-vets from other parts of the world came for the event.  It was extremely moving.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Nam Shadow
by Carole Brungar
Carole Brungar Publishing
ISBN 9780473450816

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

by Avi Duckor-Jones
Published by Brio Books
ISBN 9781925589504

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