Book Review: Quest, by A. J. Ponder

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_questIt has been a few years now since I felt the indulgent pleasure of reading bedtime stories to my children, having a nightly excuse to become a child again myself, immersed in a world different from that of GrownUp. Escapism, fairy tales, fantasy, magic, a sort of parallel reality to adulting, where all things are seen from a different perspective.

So when I chose this little gem to review, I was secretly wanting to be taken back to the days of magic, the mischief that magicians and sorcerers would get up to, princesses and princes, dragons, silly story lines. And this sure delivered. Reminiscent of The Princess Bride.

In this action packed story Princess Sylvalla does not want to be a princess. She wants to be a hero, to slay dragons, to wield a sword, to break out. And one day she does – she escapes the castle, setting in motion a ‘princess hunt’ which attracts all sorts of dodgy characters, opportunists, wizards, con men, runaways. It is actually hilarious. Some of them even join Sylvalla in her posse to hunt dragons – Jonathon the con man chasing his stolen treasure; his 150 year old father who is also a wizard; Dirk the world’s most deadly swordsman; and Francis, the horse groomer who sees a chance to escape his lowly existence.

The story line is pretty crazy, and the characters are all over the place, but the writing is magnificent. This book is made for reading aloud, it fair rollicks along, a huge vocabulary with marvellous character drawings, funny dialogue and conversations. The best parts though, to encourage fully engaged adult interaction with child, are the footnotes the author has made which are really for adult eyes only. Funny, wicked and sometimes a bit naughty. There is no happy living after in this story either! No handsome prince, no evil witch. So the traditional fairy tale is turned on its head, and I hope to see more of Syvalla’s adventures, because she is well set up to take on more baddies.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Quest (#1 of the Sylvalla Chronicles)
by A. J. Ponder
Published by Phantom Feather Press
ISBN 9780473451073



Book Review: This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman

Available in bookshops nationwide.
Finalist in the 2019 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize 

cv_this_mortal_boyIn 1955 New Zealand was far from liberal. Xenophobia was rife. English, and in particular Irish immigrants were generally treated with mistrust or even outright dislike. It was also the time of bodgies and widgies and “milk bar cowboys”, so different to the usual run of middle New Zealanders of the era.

Albert Black, the focus of Fiona Kidman’s latest novel, This Mortal Boy, came to Wellington with the encouragement of his doting mother, seeking a better life. Initially he made a friend of another immigrant and together they found labouring jobs and were able to board with a widow in Lower Hutt. The mother of the house treated them as well as Albert’s mother had treated him, and he grew fit and strong. He tried to save enough money to go back to Ireland but he was restless and homesick. It wasn’t long before he started mixing with the young people around the city and had stopped saving his money. The bright lights of Auckland beckoned.

He became the caretaker of a large central city house in Auckland and eventually started taking in housemates but it quickly became a rough party house with a bad reputation. Albert found “drinking, dancing and dames” to be more fun than working and saving. He fell in love with one girl but others chased him and he faced the jealousy of a small-time crook. In a scuffle one night, Albert accidentally killed him.

In prison for murder, Albert saw moral decisions being made on his behalf but always hoped for a reprieve. His mother in Ireland raised a huge petition which even went as far as the Governor General but it was ultimately unsuccessful. His was the last hanging in New Zealand.

Readers will recognise famous names of local identities and politicians and may be surprised by some of the attitudes expressed. This is a well-crafted story which is gripping to the very end.

Reviewed by Nan Turner

This Mortal Boy
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143771807

Book Review: The Wideawake Hat, By Amanda Giorgis

Available at The Twizel Bookshop

cv_the_wideawake_hatFrom the Scottish highlands to the South Island of New Zealand, life was harsh for early pioneers, but Sophia and George McKay had hopes for a better future when they stepped ashore on Boxing Day 1848. The reader takes the journey with them as they travel inland to begin a life farming sheep in the Mackenzie Basin.

In her preface, author Amanda Giorgis explains ‘the area takes its name from James MacKenzie, who with his black and white collie dog Friday, famously rustled a thousand sheep and took them into the basin in mid-1850’. Living in the area she has explored much of the area so has been able to portray vividly the landscape and conditions to which the early settlers would encounter. The story of James MacKenzie caught the imagination of Giorgis and a friend as they were discovering more and more places associated with his name, and so the seed of this story were sown. ‘Here is my interpretation of James’ story born from the other sets of footprints found when he was arrested with the sheep.’

I love this area of New Zealand and have enjoyed a number of trips and holidays there, but this book brought it to life for me again with the strong historical storyline which had me engrossed from the first page.

It is an interesting read as it is pure fiction with solid, resilient characters ideal for the pioneering adventure they set out on. The author has woven historical details cleverly into the book. The interaction of the new settlers with local Māori has also been skillfully incorporated and the use of the Māori language adds intensity at appropriate times.

Amanda Giorgis was born in Somerset, England, emigrating to New Zealand in 2008. She lives in the MacKenzie district. I look forward to further writing by this author as The Wideawake Hat is her first novel , and the first in the Applecross Saga. It will be of interest to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with some suspense as well as those with an interest in farming.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Wideawake Hat
by Amanda Giorgis

No ISBN recorded

Book Review: Women in the field, one and two, by Thomasin Sleigh

Available at selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_women_in_the_field_one_and_twoWomen in the Field, One and Two, written by Thomasin Sleigh, felt like season one of a TV show. Each chapter held a problem to be overcome that all contributed to the main arc of the novel. I wanted more as soon as I shut the book.

The main character, Ruth, is engaging and relatable. She works as assistant keeper at the Fisher Gallery in London 70 years ago, where she is tasked with recommending acquisitions for New Zealand’s National Art Gallery. We follow Ruth’s trials with her co-workers at the gallery, excursions with her family, and interactions through the window with her neighbour across the street. At an exhibition one evening, Ruth is introduced to Irina Durova, a fictional Russian artist who is determined to show Ruth her work. After obliging Irina not once, but twice, by visiting her disorganised studio, Ruth recommends Irina’s ‘modern art’ to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand and sets in motion a chain of events leading up to her and Irina travelling with the exhibition all the way to Wellington.

The book begins weakly, with a somewhat stilted first chapter. It feels like a summary of events that brings us to the story, rather than immersing us in that story immediately. But once we are there, it is extremely compelling.

The novel has a unique perspective. The art world is intriguing, especially in that time. The clash of Ruth, a passionate and straightforward introvert, and Irina, a determined and excessively confident artist, is fascinating to watch unfold. What makes it even more appealing is the genuine sense of place that we receive of both London and Wellington. Images like ‘the weather was changeable, restless. A strong wind shunted clouds across the sky’ are so familiar that it feels like you are in Wellington in the 1950s having a cup of tea with Ruth.

The book deals with themes such as misogyny in the workplace and trying to settle in to your own place in the world, that are unfortunately still relevant today. Ruth constantly struggles to be able to fit in at work: ‘She wanted to scream, horrendously, viciously. Did these men only allow her to speak so they could pretend to listen to her, nodding patronisingly while her words, like flimsy paper darts, glanced off their impenetrable foreheads?’ Once in New Zealand, Ruth and Irina fight against the extreme colonialism and conservatism of the public, so different to the Wellington of today.

A small bonus was being able to identify exactly where in the book the cover design had originated!

The book’s editorial production feels rushed, and there are some proofreading errors. However, the story is engaging enough to be able to continue reading.

Women in the Field, One and Two has a strong story arc, relatable and likeable characters, and an interesting divide in setting between London and New Zealand. It is one of the most fascinating books by a New Zealand author that I have read.

Reviewed by Francesca Edwards

Women in the field, One and Two
by Thomasin Sleigh
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473442095

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