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)

 

Book Review: Along for the Ride: A Political Memoir, by Tony Simpson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_along_for_the_ride.jpgTony Simpson is best known for his history and non-fiction writing. This book is a self-published autobiography, more than a memoir. There are many personal aspects and reflections which are interesting, but the personal is not always political.

I will nonetheless treat it as a political memoir, and concentrate on the central chapters. As with other memoirs of those active in politics in recent decades, the earlier years always seem more interesting. Simpson was certainly at, or near, the centre of things in the 1970s, and his lively writing style makes these chapters the most interesting. He certainly encountered some of the political heavyweights of the era, including a perhaps inevitable confrontation with Muldoon, during his time as the ‘man from the wireless’. There is also some reflection on the key figures in his historical works, Jack Lee, and Bill Sutch, of whom he was obviously an admirer.

Following an interesting interlude as a trade unionist in the United Kingdom, and witness to the idiosyncrasies of the royals, it was back to Wellington in time for the Springbok Tour. The chapter on the strange decade of ‘reforms’ in the 1980s is an excellent analysis for the most part, only marred by the reliance on ‘neo-liberalism’ as a description of policy, a term which was not used by contemporaries. In particular, some of the detail on the State Sector reforms and the fundamental change to the public service are well calibrated. Simpson finds his role in the P.S.A. union ever more difficult by the end of the decade, and with unions being unable to confront the 4th Labour Government effectively, given the compliant attitude of the leadership.

There is a certain irony in this view, especially when the boot is on the other foot, once Simpson begins work as a parliamentary strategist. It is rather obvious that he works for Jim Anderton, rather than the Alliance Party, and finds himself trying to control the party members within that want to stand up to the cautious leadership over matters of principle. Once the Alliance implodes he relies on the continuation of Jim’s career. These chapters tend to make for rather less interesting reading, particularly when trying to highlight the policy wins, such as Anderton’s triumphant Kiwibank.

Simpson engages in some historical context for a new State-owned bank which relies more on myth than fact. In particular, he seems to think that the Reserve Bank was set up in 1932, and a devaluation of the new currency was then imposed on an unwilling finance minister, Downie Stewart. In actual fact, the ‘raising of the exchange’ as it was known, took place in early 1933, before the Reserve bank was created in 1934 (the timing of which is significant since the trading banks were directly funding the government up until that time, and they opposed a central bank). Besides being an odd oversight for a historian, it indicates how he links policies to particular individuals. His adherence to the views of Lee and Sutch was not really shared by other historians.

The insider political role ended, Simpson continues on with advocacy, especially as President of the NZSA. Indeed, the chapter on ‘the politics of scribbling’ will be of interest to all those engaged in writing and publishing, if not those making a living from it. Overall, Tony Simpson emerges as a reluctant player, and keen observer, of the New Zealand political scene, and emphasises how it all went wrong in the 1980s.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Along for the Ride: A Political Memoir
by Tony Simpson
Published by Tony Simpson
ISBN  9780473392345

 

Book Review: Torty and the Soldier, by Jennifer Beck and Fifi Colston

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Torty and the Soldier is a finalist in the Non-fiction category of the 2017 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

cv_torty_and_the_soldier.jpgThis beautifully illustrated book tells the story of a tortoise who was found in a rather forlorn condition by a young New Zealand Soldier in Salonika during WW1, the developing relationship is told delightfully. It is a gentle, caring and nurturing relationship with a well-depicted backstory.

The real twist is Torty coming home with Stewart and settling into life in New Zealand, a life of adventure that lasted 60 years, the illustrations combined with a wonderful array of rich and vibrant language tell a beguiling story that will keep children’s attention, no matter what the setting. To say that the illustrations  are realistic and evocative of a time and place is to understate it: they are first class!

This book is a wonderful addition to our national collection of war stories, ensuring that those who served this country will not be forgotten. Inspired by a true story, it is clear that a lot of research has gone into this book and this makes it even richer.

Readers aged 10 upwards will thoroughly enjoy this, as will any adult who shares it with a younger child.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Torty And The Soldier
by Jennifer Beck and Fifi Colston
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775433651

Book Review: Tax and Fairness, by Deborah Russell & Terry Baucher

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tax_and_fairnessTwo well-known tax experts try to write a concise and intelligible book about tax. For the most part they succeed. This book is also intended to be part of a moral conversation about why we pay tax. In fact, its main contribution is to highlight some of the more technical aspects of tax in New Zealand, and make some useful comparisons to overseas practice.

The central part of the book involves explaining why the taxation of savings has gotten so complex and arbitrary. This affects both Kiwisaver and the Government’s Superannuation Fund, which appears to pay an inordinate amount of tax. Meanwhile, the country’s ‘love affair with property’ sees that go effectively untaxed, while the regular reviews of tax put a comprehensive capital gains tax (CGT) in the ‘too hard basket’, and the Treasury and IRD can’t agree on how to formulate a CGT in any case.

These chapters on the taxing of investment, and absence of tax on land and housing, are essential and could have been expanded. As it is there are many unfamiliar concepts to explain, and there is a risk of getting confused in all the acronyms. After learning about the ‘financial arrangements regime’, there is Tax, Tax, Exempt (TTE) policy; the Foreign Investment Fund (FIF) regime; the fair dividend rate (FDR) method; and the Portfolio Investment Entity (PIE) regime, before we get into Kiwisaver.

In particular, the FIF regime appears to have been rather baffling from the start in the 1980s, and has had to be re-booted a number of times. This points to the underlying theme within the narrative of the book. A lot of the key changes stem from the mid 1980s when there was supposed to be a simplification process, and the basic principle was to have a ‘broad base and low rate’ across all forms of income. However, examples like the FIF regime appear to be based on a theory of their own specific to the idiosyncrasies of New Zealand policymakers, especially in Treasury, as does the trust law change from the same period.

The trust law is mentioned a few times in the text, and both authors discussed the foreign trust regime in public debates during 2016, after the release of the Panama Papers. They seemed to agree that this had created a tax haven operation, but, rather curiously, they do not use the term at all in this book, even when discussing the tax-dodging multinational corporations. There is instead a nuance, when referring to the forms of income in ‘foreign trusts’ that goes untaxed; and this is apparently due to a loophole in the law. In truth, it was not a loophole at all, as the creation of the ‘foreign trust’ category was quite deliberate, and went against the advice of overseas experts in the crucial 1987-8 period. The only real question is why it remained unnoticed for so long, and why it was not reformed as well.

Although the book is apparently about fairness, the familiar terms for this – tax being more or less ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’ – are never actually used in the text. Instead the concepts of ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ equity are introduced, and are mentioned a few times in the detailed chapters. However, it is a pity that the concepts in the opening chapters, and the ‘moral conversation’ idea in the final chapter, are not necessarily integrated with all the technical detail.

Nonetheless, this short book is a credible effort in a very tricky conceptual minefield, and makes a good case for reforms.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Tax and Fairness (A BWB Text)
by Deborah Russell & Terry Baucher
Published by BWB
ISBN 9780947518608

Book Review: Breaking Ranks, by Sir James McNeish

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_breaking_RanksbigLast year New Zealand lost one of our finest writers, Sir James McNeish. Luckily for us, he had just delivered the final pages for Breaking Ranks to his publisher.

The book concludes with an Epilogue, written by ‘a friend’ Bernard Brown. He details how Sir James had the idea for this book for years, knowing the first two stories and waiting for the third. Of these men, Dr Saxby, Brigadier Miles and Judge Mahon, Sir James knew only Saxby personally, but his meticulous research and the power of his writing make Breaking Ranks feel as if you knew them all while you read through what is, at its heart, a tragic biography of three interrupted lives.

Significance is a word I use a lot in my everyday life now – what makes anything significant and who decides on those parameters? The three men in this book – a doctor, a soldier and a judge – are not necessarily household names in New Zealand, but Breaking Ranks shows that you do not need to be the most famous person to be significant.

Dr John Saxby’s work in psychiatric care no doubt helped countless patients, and continued following his death. Saxby’s story is the longest of the three, and was the only one Sir James knew personally – this works to a great advantage. The details of their interactions, when Saxby would visit the house and help with the family’s DIY, gives you a greater connection, and following his death you feel the pain the McNeishs would have felt upon losing such a close friend in such a tragic way. There is a great and terrible irony in the doctor who ‘has the gift of saving others but not himself.’

Brigadier Reginald Miles survived World War I, headed back to the other side of the world for the Second World War, but did not return. Abandoning his command post to fight to the death with his men did not go as planned and there goes the second life interrupted, and tragic. There is a question mark around this death – I am still getting my own head around it and deciding on the truth. His final letter is published for the first time in Breaking Ranks, and offers some insight into those final days.

In New Zealand, Erebus means the worst air disaster this country has ever seen first, and the mountain second. Judge Peter Mahon fought for truth and justice for the 257 victims, and Sir James details wonderfully the processes Mahon went through to uncover it all – the inquiry, the review, the Privy Council appeal, and Verdict on Erebus. His son, Sam says: ‘If I have learned anything from my father at all, it is an obstinate refusal to back down in the face of adversity.’ Not the worst trait to pick up.

Sir James’ style of writing is personal and colloquial in nature, which I enjoy. The casual ‘I’ve been trying to get my head around it’ during a complicated battle formation makes me smile and feel glad that I’m not alone in my confusion. The failure to conform and fight for what these men believed in caused these lives of become prematurely interrupted. Sir James McNeish was one of our finest writers, and in his final act as a storyteller, he remarkably and skillfully gives the world an insight into the lives of three significant lives we should not forget.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Breaking Ranks: Three Lives Interrupted
by Sir James McNeish
Published by HarperCollins Publishers NZ
ISBN 9781775540908

Book Review: Portholes to the Past, by Lloyd Geering

cv_portholes_to_the_pastWell know theologian, Lloyd Geering, takes the reader on a journey into the twentieth century, as he shares a wide range of experiences in his memoir, Portholes to the Past.

At nearly 99 years old Lloyd Geering is well qualified to look back over the last century, discussing the massive social changes he has lived through and evaluating the progress the human race is making.

Born into a world at war on 16 February 1918, he was the youngest in his family, and his three brothers all left home while he was in primary school. The family moved a number of times to enable his father to gain employment. Despite this, and the struggles of the Great Depression, Geering had a good education and went on to University, ultimately training as a Presbyterian minister.

He remembers “men tramping the highways with swags on their backs” during the 1930s, looking for any odd job in return for a meal and a bed in the hay barn, which all changed with the passing of the Social Security Act in 1938 creating the New Zealand welfare state. Geering stated, “the welfare state was founded on two basic principles: that every citizen has a right to enjoy a reasonable standard of living, and that the community is responsible through its elected representatives to ensure that this is achieved.”

Of course one of the greatest changes which occurred during Geering’s life time has been in communications, and young people today would struggle to comprehend how the family was told of the death of his brother. A messenger was sent from Dunedin to the farm at Allanton to inform the family of the passing of Ira due to TB, as they had no telephone. Lloyd then had to travel to Dunedin to let another brother Fred, know of their brother’s passing.

I enjoyed reading this book; it brought back lots of memories of my parents, who talked about many of the same issues, as they were born in the same era. They also had a Presbyterian background and followed Geering’s Christian journey.

In his concluding porthole he is optimistic about the future: “It may not be too much to hope that from the fragments of dismantled Christendom we may rediscover and reinvigorate the moral values of justice, truth and environmental guardianship. Together with the spiritual forces of faith, hope and love, these qualities may yet enable us to create a viable human future.”

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Portholes to the Past
by Lloyd Geering
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493332

Book Review: The Truth about Language, by Michael C. Corballis

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_Truth_about_language.jpgThere are wonderful variations in the way we tell our stories, seen even in the smallest parcels of language. In Turkey, there are over two million forms of each verb – each word-form a complex interplay containing not only tense but the subject, object and indirect objects of the aforementioned verb. Walpiri, an Australian aboriginal language, can be scrambled: you can shuffle the words and it does not change the meaning.

How does this work then? Is it first things, then words? We have been looking at these sorts of questions for some 3000 years, beginning with the linguistic traditions in India and then in Ancient Greece. The Truth about language –what it is and where is came from adds to this ongoing conversation, one that has been dominated in recent times by Noam Chomsky, who argues that language arose suddenly and ‘in a way that cannot be explained by ordinary evolutionary process’.

In this engrossing book Professor Michael C. Corballis tames an array of findings, theories and disciplines to provide context for his take on the matter. What results is a highly digestible and enjoyable account of language for the general reader.

A look at our current world reveals that there are some 6000 languages spoken, over one hundred of which are spoken in Vanuatu alone. Our open-ended means of communication is far more evolved than that of other animals; it is a ‘Rubicon’ that our species has crossed. These things we know. But this gives rise to more questions and the central themes of the book: What do all of these languages have in common? What is language? Is it something we are born with or something we learn? Or both? And where did it come from?

Corballis tells us that any person can learn any languages ‘in spite of the extraordinary differences between the languages of the world’. Regardless of what we speak, we follow rules of how we put language units together to form meaningful content. We can recognise something is correct on an intuitive, but cannot tell you why. So how did we get to here? This is potentially the ‘hardest problem in science.’

Cleve-van_construction-tower-babel.jpg

Tower of Babel, by Hendrick van Cleve, from Wikimedia Commons 

Detective-like, Corballis pieces all the parts together, accommodating the findings of various disciplines – from anthropology and archaeology, through to zoology, linguistics and genetics. He guides the reader through this vast puzzle by laying out his points in a series of stepping-stones: physical characteristics, grammar, speech, how children learn, and how animals differ and are similar in communication, to name a few.

Then there is Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, a general linguistic principal. Chomsky argues that there was first a new way of thinking, which was available only to humans (the I-language), and that the languages we speak or sign are secondary and external (E-languages). The way we form language is an unbounded merge where elements (such as phonemes or basic sounds) merge into larger units (such as morphemes or elements of meaning) and those larger units merge into still larger ones (phrases and so on). ‘The merges occur within I-language, the language of thought itself, but are manifest in the external languages we actually speak’. He explains language’s emergence in the human experience as a miraculous leap in evolution, due to a change in brain size or a minor mutation.

Enter Corballis. He argues that it came to us by ‘incremental process of Darwinian evolution, and not as some sudden gift that placed us beyond the reach of biological principles.’ He guides us through the precursors to language and the gradual changes along the way, tracing the transition from gesture to speech. Our ancestors achieved bipedialism and the hands were freed; gesturing accommodated the need to communicate information effectively in more dangerous surrounds, such as the exposed savannah. We needed to be social for survival.

Then there is speech – a triumphant culmination of fine motor skills, breathing, and the larynx. And don’t forget grammar. Corballis also takes us via the hippocampus – the part of the brain that allows us to understand scale and has a generative capacity to mind wander or to ‘time travel’ by imagining future possibilities – something other animals also demonstrate. This shared capacity lays the groundwork for the unique generative property of thought processes that language communicates. So, as Corballis concludes, it is the ability to communicate our mind wanderings, not the mind wanderings themselves, that makes us different from animals. The difference is one of degree not of kind.

Corballis writes ‘Language thrives on variation. And so does evolution’. It is a pleasure to read about the intersection of the two.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

The Truth about Language
by Michael C. Corballis
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408633

Michael C. Corballis will be speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival at 10.30am on Saturday, 20 May.