Book Review: You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon, edited by Barbara Francis

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_you_do_not_travel_in_china_at_the_full_moon‘The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. At 1 o’clock the urgent alarm went off and at 1.10 the planes arrived’, writes Agnes Moncrieff, known as Nessie, from Hankow in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

From 1930 to 1945, Nessie served as New Zealand’s foreign secretary for the YWCA in China, an organisation formed in 1855 in England to promote ‘the welfare of young women’. The collection of excerpts from her letters and reports published in You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon captures a period of uncertainty, a time when ‘long spells of wet weather’ are welcomed during the full moon, as they hinder air raids. Ranging from observations of daily life through to thoughts on military tactics and accounts of epic journeys, the letters all share her delightful style.

The book is formed from two complementary threads – the stories of the letters themselves and those that the letters hold. The letters, subject to the laws of the physical world, survived not only the vicissitudes of war, but also travelled a great distance to arrive in New Zealand. Barbara Francis, the editor of this volume, became Nessie’s friend while boarding with her in the 50s, and much later discovered the existence of the letters by chance, through a conversation. A trip to the Alexander Turnball Library followed, and her efforts have ensured that Nessie’s experiences can reach a wider public.

These letters hold a tension. They are foreign in that they bring news from elsewhere, and from another time – one that has passed. But there is the intimate sense of person that the letter form enables, where the writer is free to express herself and unselfconsciously communicate thoughts to the receiver. Nessie’s voice is immediate; she translates this other place and time into something we can relate to through writing that is a pleasure to read.

Letters from her first four-year term working for the YWCA in Peiping (now known to us as Beijing) detail her life of running a hostel and helping women in need. In addition to humorous sketches, there are observations of political undercurrents, which we view through our own filters on the other side of history. In 1934, she wrote that she was pleased to ‘note steadily increasing interest of students in rural and social reconstruction as fundamental to the solution of China’s problem’.

After a furlough, she returns to Shanghai in 1936 to begin her second term for the YWCA. While she is on holiday up the Yangtze River, the Japanese take Shanghai. Here begins the accounts of epic train and road journeys, the constant worry, and admiration for the resilience of a people. Unable to return to Shanghai, she moves up river to Hankow, the seat of the Chinese government. This is quite a glamorous time, involving lunch with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dinners with diplomats and a variety of people moving through the Lutheran Mission. But it is also heavy with the realities of war and an ever-present threat. She writes to her dear friend Eva Skinner: ‘Sometimes I can just not believe that it is possible that the things that happened in Nanking and elsewhere will surely happen here if the Japans come in. It is all too fantastic and terrible and so remote from the ordinary decencies of human life.’

28205-PA1-o-1191-11-2.tif

“Waiting for the train at Ch’u fu Station,” Agnes Moncrieff Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ. PA1-o-1191-11-2

Though the threat is approaching, she does not wish to leave, fearing for her Chinese female colleagues. Eventually she must and sets out on a journey to Hong Kong, in spite of stories of bombed trains and survivors having to hide in ditches or long grass. An epic journey via truck, rail and boat ensues, one that she records with her trademark reserve and dry humour. An air raid takes place during a stop, where she notes that the ‘green canvas did not seem very adequate protection against shrapnel, so as soon as the anti-aircraft guns came into action, I shot off the truck and got under it in company with the two Chinese men.’ She reaches Hong Kong only to learn that she had left Hankow just two weeks before it fell to the Japanese.

With a return to Shanghai in 1939, the strain of living with constant bombing raids and reports of horror begin to take their toll. Nessie writes in her understated manner to Eva of her profound fatigue and a visit to the doctor: ‘my reaction to her knee taps nearly knocked her out of the room, so I suppose the trouble is nervous.’ From here, another visit to Hong Kong for recuperation, a return to Shanghai and then another furlough.

The YWCA of New Zealand allows her to return to China for a third term on the insistence of YWCA China and Nessie herself. In order to arrive there safely, she travels through Burma, involving another epic journey of 3500km. She arrives 15 days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon allows insight into a dangerous time and Nessie’s extraordinary life, where engaging writing, a formidable personality and a turning point in global history intersect. In a tribute paid to Nessie upon her death in 1988 (six weeks before her ninetieth birthday), the YWCA of New Zealand wrote ‘Although she is no longer with us physically her spirit will endure’. It comes through time and time again in her letters.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China, 1940-1945
edited by Barbara Francis
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560882

Book Review: Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History by Philip Simpson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_totaraThe ‘mighty tōtara’ has been central to life in New Zealand for thousands of years. It was used by Māori for carving and building, and when the white settlers arrived in New Zealand they found it a perfect wood for cutting into fence posts as they divided up their farms.

Botanist Philip Simpson shares his knowledge of these trees in his book Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History, which is well illustrated with many excellent photographic examples of trees still to be found around the countryside.

New Zealand has four recognised species of tōtara: lowland, Hall’s, needle-leaved, snow and one distinctive variety (South Westland). The biggest trees being the lowland tōtara and the smallest ones the snow tōtara being found among the alpine rocks.

Growing up in the Takaka Valley, Simpson recalls second growth tōtara was a major feature of the valley, as settlers had cleared the earlier forest, and in this boyhood playground his love of the trees began.

In the Foreword Maui John Mitchell says, “Philip has written a history of Aotearoa/ New Zealand from the tōtara perspective. He has seen it as part of the primeval natural world, he has clearly portrayed why the tōtara is the leading rakau rangatira-‘chiefly conifer’-to Maori, and he has shown how critical the tōtara was to successful European settlement.”

Throughout New Zealand, tōtara trees have been honoured by inclusion as place names, for example just south of my hometown of Oamaru there is a small rural school called Tōtara. Its name came about because of a lone tōtara tree growing on a limestone outcrop.

This excellent publication is a book for all to enjoy, the well written text is supported with a variety of photographs in colour and black and white. The cover has a stunning photograph of Pouakani, the largest tōtara tree in New Zealand at 3.88 metres, found at the northern end of the Hauhungaroa Range in the King Country. It can be picked up time and time again to be reread and devoured. I particularly enjoyed the chapter “Where tōtara lives and who lives with it” which discusses climate and environmental factors which influence distribution, and the author also discusses the importance of the tōtara to wildlife including spiders, butterflies, lizards, microsnails and birds.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

Tōtara: A Natural and Cultural History
by Philip Simpson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408190

Book Review: The Great New Zealand Robbery, by Scott Bainbridge

Available nationwide from Wednesday 26 July.

cv_the_great_New-Zealand_robbery.jpgWho knew this robbery even happened? Certainly not me, true crime reader that I am. In this page turner Bainbridge unfolds the story of the so-called Waterfront Payroll Robbery which took place in downtown Auckland in 1956. A well executed robbery for that time: other than a smoke filled office and an empty safe, there was no indication whatsoever  who the robber/robbers were.

A cast of characters straight from the pages of a crime novel are brought to life here in a realistic and believable way, back stories are fleshed out, questions are asked and the reality of the criminal element that populated Auckland at that time is unraveled. Then there is the Police Force, who wished nothing more than to be rid of this element and have them all locked behind very strong bars, methods and modus operandi be damned: the procedures book made reasonable reading but did anyone really expect they would follow it? In the Auckland of the 1950s, crime was very much under the radar, in fact generally Auckland was pretty crime free and most of it featured the activities of the “Underworld” of whom Joe Average would have no knowledge.

In this book Bainbridge excels at digging, chipping away and unearthing a story that is little known. He paints a vivid and gritty picture of 1950s Auckland, the story flows, there are twists and turns in the tale, and each character – good, bad or indifferent – gets his moment in the sun. By the end of the book, we know that a certain gentlemen served time for the crime – but we don’t know if it was a solo or group effort, and we don’t know where the money ended up, here or over the ditch. This, however, does not detract in any way from the books effectiveness or the readers enjoyment of it.

I have read earlier work by Scott Bainbridge and have always enjoyed it. This book simply adds to his reputation as a very good writer of non-fiction crime and those who pick it up, will enjoy it.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Great New Zealand Robbery
by Scott Bainbridge
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781877505768

 

Book Review: Man of Iron, by Jock Vennell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_man_of_ironI wasn’t expecting this to be such an engaging read, to be honest. My history reading more often takes the fictional or factional route but the Gallipoli tragedy has always caught my imagination, and more so since I recently found out that some (reasonably close ) family members fought and died there, and at least one of those was part of the Wellington regiment.

However my actual knowledge of the battles fought, and generally lost, on that peninsula was remarkably sketchy.

Jock Vennell has produced a comprehensive, compassionate and fascinating biography of the man who became Colonel Malone.

William Malone was born in Kent, and educated in England and France. He was keen to go into the army, but family circumstances meant that was unaffordable, and instead he did clerical work in London, but joined volunteer groups and eventually decided to join his brother Austin in New Zealand. He arrived in Taranaki and soon joined the Armed Constabulary. I was interested to note that he was part of the force which dealt so ignominiously with Parihaka, but I tried not to let this colour my judgment and continued reading!

He was of course young, enthusiastic and a settler in a “new” country, and also doubtless following orders as he does seem to have been a man who did things by the book, at least early in his career. A different person emerges during the nightmare times on Gallipoli.

He bought land and built a home for himself and his wife and children, and studied to become a lawyer – work at which he was competent and successful but which he did not enjoy. He stood – unsuccessfully – for government as a liberal, but it may be that his Catholicism was not in his favour.

As well as being a successful dairy farmer and lawyer, he seems to have had a penchant for study, and immersed himself in military strategy and tactics. At the time of the Boer war (he chose not to go) he was approached to lead the Stratford branch of the Volunteer force (which was effectively to become the New Zealand Expeditionary Force). Initially he was reluctant, but agreed and launched himself into training his company to become the best in the battalion. By the time war was declared in 1914, he had effectively achieved that, and it was a logical step for him to volunteer and to be given command of a battalion.

He was clearly a man who enjoyed war – in his diary he notes, ‘I leave a lucrative practice, a happy home, a brave wife and children without any hestitation. I feel I am just beginning to live.’

This kind of sentiment is harder to take these days, when the dangers of fervent nationalism are apparent all around us. However it was common then, and although I absolutely don’t agree with much of his opinion and motivation, it’s hard to fault his integrity, wisdom and commitment – particularly to his troops. He contradicted and disobeyed orders when he believed that they were wrong (quite often!) and earned the respect and love of his men.

Vennell deals thoroughly with the Gallipoli battles, and of course in particular with the travesty of Chunuk Bair. This is a book which – no matter your opinion of war – brings William Malone to life, and gives us some understanding of what drove our men to fight, and so often ultimately to die.

Pro patria mori (roughly, It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland) is a sentiment I struggle with always, and when the country in question was not New Zealand but England, I struggle even more. However I do recommend this book. It’s fascinating and insightful.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Man of Iron: The extraordinary story of New Zealand WW1 hero Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone
by Jock Vennell
Published by Allen and Unwin
ISBN 9781877505713

 

Book Review: Sport 45, edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sport_45Sport 45 is packed with an array of new and brilliant pieces from New Zealand writers. There’s poetry, there’s essays, there’s even a novella. It’s a collection that’s not afraid to widen its scope, and this is how it provides a wonderful snapshot of new writing.

While reading through each piece of short fiction, I couldn’t help but recognise common themes. I discovered many characters who were estranged, isolated, alone. I saw the loneliness of waiting, as reflected in Tracey Slaughter’s story ‘Cicada Motel’. I stumbled through the bush with Kerwin in John Summers’ short story ‘Own Shadow’, as he tried to understand what was haunting him.

But the dynamic between characters also spoke volumes. Displaced in new and unfamiliar places, characters were left to try and make sense of each other. In Melissa Day Reid’s short story ‘I Will Come and Find You’, a husband and wife have travelled to Barcelona on a whim. They have also decided to abandon planning for spontaneity instead. Reid portrays Barcelona in a wonderful dream-like way; she describes a snapshot image of ‘arm, neck, lips, ear, tears, drums, and firecrackers’. But shifts in dialogue reveal a growing rift between this husband and wife. In fact, the two seem to be talking on top of each other. The wife points out a candlelit room in a building; her husband sees an alleyway below it and starts making his way there instead. As the story progresses, this rift widens. The piece seems to capture the natural but inevitable drift that sometimes takes place in friendships and relationships. It’s a palpable and bittersweet emptiness. And in this story, Reid explores whether this rift can be stitched up again.

Nicole Phillipson’s novella, ‘Moulin d’Ornes’ touches upon these estranged themes as well. Paul travels to a commune in France, intending to get away from the world so he can write. It’s a quiet setting where ‘the old, grand beauty of Europe… made his memories of New Zealand seem slightly cheap.’ In her novella, Phillipson highlights an interesting advantage to moving away: the delight of cutting away old connections.

A few essays also slipped in next to these pieces of fiction, taking their place comfortably amongst other genres. Giovanni Tiso’s essay ‘Before the Earthquake’ is one of these essays. Tiso describes the possible calamities that could occur if a serious earthquake were to hit Wellington. But he also describes the emotional state that Wellington is already living in because of this possible earthquake. Wellington’s next serious earthquake is not an if, but a when. As Tiso states, ‘we live before the earthquake. Everything around us is foreshadowing’.

There is also an array of beautiful poems in Sport 45. Helen Heath’s poem ‘A Rise of Starlings’ is delightful; she beautifully weaves the image of ‘wild celestial fields’ and messages traced ‘in particles of dust and light’. Natalie Morrison’s poem ‘Three edible grandmothers’ is a peculiar and whimsical little piece that sounds like it came from a fairy tale.

Overall, Sport 45 is a delightful instalment of this annual magazine, and there are a variety of pieces that provoke wonder and rumination.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Sport 45
edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561995

 

Book Review: Surviving 7.8 – New Zealanders respond to the earthquakes of November 2016, by Phil Pennington

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_surviving_7pt8.jpgLast year’s Kaikoura earthquake was one of the most powerful we’ve experienced in recent years, and there have been a few startlers since Christchurch 2011. But it’s an environment we choose to live in because New Zealand is wonderful, and New Zealand is home.

Each major earthquake we have, we learn more about how to react and what to do, but deep down we know we may never be sufficiently prepared for the aftermath of a really big earthquake.

What we can do is continue to learn from the earthquakes we have experienced, study how the days after play out, what’s important and what’s not, and what we need to stay safe and be there for one another. Being brought to think about this is one of the main reasons I enjoyed reading this book.

Surviving 7.8 is Radio New Zealand (RNZ) journalist Phil Pennington’s account of the immediate aftermath of the Kaikoura earthquake. As one of the first people on the ground in Wellington, then in Kaikoura, Phil shares a fascinating account of the results of a complex earthquake.

Phil walked the dark streets of Wellington shortly after midnight on the 14th of November, reporting live as he witnessed the glass littering the streets and confused and upset people milling outside apartment buildings. The RNZ team found helicopter transport to Kaikoura, only to come across empty main streets, land ripped apart, giant slips cutting off main highways and every road out of Kaikoura rendered impassable by boulders and deep fissures.

Phil found the heart of the town with the people gathered together in local marae and open domains, he talked with many of the city’s inhabitants too shaken to return to their homes. Surviving 7.8 covers many interesting personal accounts of the earthquake and there are plenty of heart-warming stories of people who stepped up and helped with food, water, transport and care.

The book isn’t a definitive study of the Kaikoura earthquake, it’s an excellent account from Radio New Zealand journalist who found himself telling the stories of the people affected to the nation and the world they were cut off from. Surviving 7.8 is a very interesting read, and well-recommended.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

Surviving 7.8 – New Zealanders respond to the earthquakes of November 2016
by Phil Pennington
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775541103

 

 

Book Review: The Cuckoo and the Warbler, by Kennedy Warne and Heather Hunt

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

The Cuckoo and the Warbler is a finalist in this year’s Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

cv_the_cuckoo_and_the_warbler.jpgNew Zealand is home to many unique native birds, and The Cuckoo and the Warbler introduces readers to two of them that are probably not as well-known as their more famous cousins the kiwi, piwakawaka, pukeko and others. Riroriro, the Grey Warbler, flits about Aotearoa’s forests chasing insects and preparing for spring by building a nest ready for its eggs. Far away in the Pacific, Pipiwharauroa, the Shining Cuckoo, is also preparing for spring by setting off on a very long journey across the ocean, back to New Zealand.

When mother Pipiwharauroa arrives, she sets about finding somewhere safe to lay her egg in. Instead of building a nest, she hijacks a Grey Warbler nest, and sneakily replaces one of the Grey Warbler eggs with her own. The unsuspecting Grey Warbler cares for the imposter egg and when it hatches first, the new bird removes the other eggs and takes advantage of being the single mouth to feed. Again, the Grey Warbler does its duty to another’s chick and works hard to provide all the insects the hungry young Shining Cuckoo begs for. As autumn comes, all the Shining Cuckoos prepare once more to return to the warmer climes of their Pacific winter homes.

This beautiful non-fiction book is full of richly detailed illustrations of New Zealand’s forest and birds, full of luscious greens and familiar bush-scapes. The information about the two native birds is presented in an easy to read, almost storylike fashion which keeps it interesting, and is pitched at the right level for its young audience (although ‘older’ readers can also learn something from it too – I had no idea we have a native cuckoo).

The two birds share a unique bond, with the Shining Cuckoo relying on the Grey Warbler to raise its own chick; a concept that children may not have come across before. While it may seem to be one of those harsh realities of nature, the book handles it in a gentle, matter of fact manner. The two fact pages at the end of the book provide more detail on both birds and here I feel (as wonderful as the coloured illustrations are) it would have been good to include a real-life photo of each. The Grey Warbler is one of our most common natives and can be spotted not only in forest and scrub, but also in urban areas – I will certainly be on the lookout for it (bright red eyes, olive-grey on top, pale grey underneath).

Warne and Hunt have created a wonderful resource for exploring our country’s natural beauty; one with accessible text and engaging illustrations that will appeal to children. Both creators have much experience in their craft – Hunt is the creator of Backyard Kiwi and Warne the co-founder of National Geographic New Zealand and is a regular reporter on outdoors and environment on Radio New Zealand.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Cuckoo and the Warbler
by Kennedy Warne and illustrated by Heather Hunt
Potton & Burton, 2016
ISBN 9780947503048 (Paperback)
ISBN 9780947503055 (Hardback)