Book Review: Charlie and his amazing Tales, by Dawn McMillan and Ross Kinnaird

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_charlieWe are introduced to Charlie by a young boy who is interested in becoming his new owner. We then hear about all the amazing adventures and abilities of Charlie from Charlie’s own mouth; from his days as a spy and saving people from fires and floods to his talent for singing, selfies and bathroom manners. All this on top of being a talking dog!

Of course the boy is amazed at all Charlie’s tales and wonders how this dog could possibly only be worth $10… this is where the twist comes. Upon inquiring about Charlie to his present owner the boy finds out the truth about Charlie; while Charlie is amazing at sharing his tales that’s all they actually are, tales. In reality Charlie the dog is just a dog. He hasn’t been around the world on crazy adventures nor has he saved lives. In fact he spends most of his days in the yard. However, the young boy, though disappointed in Charlie’s lying, still buys Charlie despite all this.

Rhythm and rhyme are so important towards children’s language learning and it’s always great to find a story that does both really well. Charlie and his amazing tales has a wonderful rhythm and rhyme to it that makes it really seem like it’s coming from the mouth of an excited dog. Children will find humour in the exaggerated stories that Charlie the dog tells and it could possibly get their own imaginations flowing!

As well as being a humorous tale this story has an important message about being yourself and accepting others for who they are. Charlie didn’t need to make up amazing tales about himself because he is amazing just the way he is (he’s already a talking dog!).

The bold and brightly coloured pencil illustrations suit the story and Kinnaird has managed to portray movement and expression amazingly in each scene. I enjoyed finding all the extra little details on each page, especially the appropriately placed Easter egg of the book Doggy Doo on my Shoe also by McMillan and Kinnaird.

Charlie and his amazing tales is a fun and imaginative story with an unexpected twist that addresses the importance of being yourself and also accepting people for who they are. But perhaps most importantly, children will enjoy the exciting story and illustrations of this book.

Reviewed by Alana Bird

Charlie and His Amazing Tales
by Dawn McMillan and Ross Kinnaird
Published by Oratia Media
ISBN 9780947506339

 

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Book Review: Strangers Arrive, by Leonard Bell

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

This book is longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Illustrated Non-fiction Prize

Strangers Arrive, a lavishly illustrated production written by Leonard Bell, reads like two books between one set of covers: on one hand, a series of often fascinating portraits of some of the European artists, writers, and intellectuals who fled Fascism and found themselves in the comparatively provincial mid-century New Zealand; on the other, book-ending polemics about our enduring close-mindedness about welcoming to New Zealand people displaced by conflicts neither of their nor of our making.

cv_strangers_arriveBell recounts the stories and presents the work of oddly-named people with strong accents ‘from Vienna, or Chemnitz, or Berlin…who knew the work of Schoenberg and Gropius’ who were welcomed as cultural saviours by a small clique of arty locals. The balance of opinion, however, spanned from ambivalence to outright hostility towards our quota of escapees from Nazism. Bell amply conveys the blinkered churlishness of the naysayers, whose chauvinism predated but was piqued by the bohemian newcomers. Although notice is given of the destruction and prejudice that set the refugees to flight and which they sometimes encountered again on arrival in New Zealand, generous space and strong emphasis are placed on the mutual creativity, restoration, and beneficence that sparked between the strangers and those who welcomed them.

Any reader with an interest in the arts in New Zealand, especially that of the mid-twentieth century, will surely be delighted by to encounter the extraordinarily rich and strange work produced by men and women such as Frank Hoffmann, Irene Koppel, Kees Hos, Jan Michels, Henry Kulka, and Tibor Donner, along with many others, even as they struggled with the inevitable difficulties refugees encounter in navigating everyday life in an alien environment. Modernism’s fundamental cosmopolitanism was given expression in their lives and labours alike, both of which played a crucial part in moving local artists and writers beyond the cultural nationalism that had begun to be more of a hindrance than a help for them by the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties.

It becomes clear that visual artists, architects, musicians, and taste-makers, who traded in an international lingua franca, had a better time translating their work into a New Zealand context than did refugee writers who came up hard against the language barrier. Amongst them was Karl Wolfskel, a Jewish-German poet whose work in his native tongue stands with the finest of the 20th century, whose poems and letters have been blessedly made available in two books published by Cold Hub Press. Even though his international reputation is probably greater than most of the men and women whom Bell treats at length, he only makes fleeting appearances in Strangers Arrive. Men and women of words, greeted with an incomprehensibility beyond which visual artists could move, faced difficulties much more in common with a cobbler from Munich or a seamstress from Prague. Nevertheless, my pleasure in encountering a number of artists hitherto unknown to me far outweighs what one might take as Bell’s omissions, most of which can be readily justified by the wealth of talent that landed on our shores.

And yet although all refugees share in the trauma of displacement and alienation, no matter how generous their welcome, Strangers Arrive reminds us that it is impossible to generalise about them, and not because of the exceptional cast of players presented by Bell. Although they share the brute fact of their dislocation, beyond their common bereavement of citizenship and human security, they are as diverse as any group is likely to be: war is indifferent to personality, vocation, talent, and goodness and badness alike. The humility required to place oneself at the good offices of an – at best – disinterested state is difficult to imagine from our privileged position, the very position, of course, that makes it possible for us to help.  Incomprehension matched with fair-mindedness can easily blind even the charitable to the myriad differences contained within a superficially homogenous mass. Individuals must be allowed to define themselves. So, too, despite the parade of brilliant people readers encounter in Strangers Arrive, most of whom hailed from the well-educated European bourgeoisie, it is worth remembering that welcoming refugees to New Zealand is not something we do for our benefit – it is an act of beneficence. As much as I admire many of the cultured and creative people who inestimably enriched New Zealand, potential benefits shouldn’t be our motivation to do, quite simply, the right thing.

And in such a light Strangers Arrive is a book that ought to give readers pause for thought, even as they revel in its moveable feast. A celebration of creativity and terrific object in its own right, it offers a vision of humanity at its finest and most terrible.

Reviewed by Robert McLean

Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand, 1950 – 1980
by Leonard Bell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408732

 

 

 

Book Review: Me Too, by Erika Geraerts, Charl Laubscher, Gatsby

Available in bookshops nationwide from 1 February 2018

cv_me_tooMe Too is a lovely little picture book about friendship.

Me Too depicts two friends as they voice their hopes for finding a someone who shares an appreciation for all the things that they value most. A someone that will go on adventures, build castles, a someone who will make dessert for breakfast or stay up late and talk. Each thing that one friend hopes to find in someone is followed by a simple ‘me too’ from the other. In those two little words we know these two friends have already found their someone.

It is obvious that this book was created by friends for friends. Friendship can be a difficult idea for young children to grasp and usually friendships begin when two people share common interests just like the two friends in this book. It is a lovely way of exploring the abstract idea of friendship for young children and could possibly spark reflection and conversation about what it means to be a friend and appreciating the friends we have.

The simple but meaningful words are paired perfectly with minimalist yet charming illustrations. The cover art really drew my attention and it’s definitely a book I would pick up in a store. I really adored how Gatsby portrayed so much emotion and character in his clean line work and muted colours.

An added extra that I enjoyed was that the two friends in this story are male and female. As an early childhood teacher I encourage children to build friendships with and develop positive views of other genders and it’s always exciting to find books that encourage this too.

Me Too is a lovely story about discovering new appreciation for your friends and how much they mean to you. It explores a sometimes difficult concept in a way children will be able to relate to through both the writing and illustrations. This book would make a great addition to any young child’s bookshelf.

Reviewed by Alana Bird

Me Too
by Erika Geraerts, Charl Laubscher, Gatsby
Published by Walker Books Australia
ISBN 9781925381900

Book Review: Air Born, by J. L. Pawley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_air_bornJ.L. Pawley is a young writer, hailing from Auckland, New Zealand. Air Born first found its wings via Wattpad, where Pawley established quite a readership – and with good reason – before self-publishing her book, then having it picked up and refined by local publisher, Steam Press, and it can now be found in bookstores across New Zealand.

Many of us have dreamed of flying, and for American teenager Tyler Owens, that desire is about to become heart-racing reality.  Despite suffering from recent, almost debilitating back pain, he’s not about to let that stop him from experiencing his first solo sky dive. But it all goes horrendously wrong, when the swelling along his spine ruptures into a glorious pair of wings. With the entire event captured on video and broadcast across the world, Tyler does not have much chance to enjoy his new mutation – instead he’s running for his freedom, pursued by the sinister Evolutionary Corporation and heralded by the  impassioned Angelists.

But Tyler is not alone, because across the world other teenagers – all recently turned 17 – are experiencing similar “wing births”.  These seven teenagers are drawn together, to become a flock (or rather, a flight). Together, in the Californian desert, they must learn how to control their newly-sprouted limbs and master the art of flight, before they are hunted down.

Adrenalin-fueled and engaging, this is an action-adventure that should appeal to fans of the CHERUBS series, and James Patterson’s Maximum Ride. Flying is no easy feat, and Pawley has put a lot of thought into the biology of her icarian race. Whilst the story is fast-paced, and the characterisation strong – I particularly liked the character of Tui, a bold and out-spoken girl from New Zealand – there are perhaps not as many questions answered as I would have liked; there is much to be learned of the background behind these winged teenagers, which I suspect will be explored in further novels.

A strong debut, and I look forward to following the adventures of this Flight further.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Air Born
by J. L. Pawley
Published by Steam Press
ISBN 9780994138798

Book Review: Athens to Aotearoa, edited by Tatum Jeff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_athens_to_aotearoa.jpgHow does New Zealand art engage with its classical inheritance? Not the second-nature parts we’re barely conscious of, but the vestigial, alien stuff – gods and gorgons and all that? Critics and artists offer their takes in the essays collected in Athens to Aotearoa.

It’s another cross-marketing success from VUP – craftily, the blurb leads with the glamour of “New Zealand’s most important artistic voices” and backends poor old dowdy criticism. It’s very accessible for an academic text; I pieced together my knowledge of the ancient world mostly from films starring pro wrestlers but I could understand most of it. The only exception was Tom Stevenson’s essay on Xena: Warrior Princess, which clearly wasn’t written for readers who were five when the show went off the air – was this show really so central to national identity? And how’s Xena pashing Hercules one episode and Julius Caesar the next? Baffling.

The artists’ essays are mostly theory-conscious enough to blur with the more academic stuff, but Witi Ihimaera’s collection-opener, “What If Cyclops Was Alive and Well and Living in a Cave in Invercargill?”, is breezy and wonderful. Other highlights are essays by Sharon Matthews and Geoffrey Miles on James K. Baxter, obviously an especially rich subject here, and Peter Whiteford’s incisive essay on Anna Seward’s Homer-invoking Elegy on Captain Cook. Quality’s high throughout. There are no bad essays here, although the final piece, Arlene Holmes-Henderson’s comparative study of Classics as a school subject in NZ and the UK, is the kind of graphs-and-stats thing a casual reader’s apt to flick through at speed.

As you’d expect from a collection originating in a conference theme, there’s no overall thesis advanced in these essays, and their eclecticism and often minute focus sometimes makes the classical world feel like a strangely niche subject for study, like “The Car in New Zealand Pop Music” or “Wigs in Poetry”. Where it did reach for a deeper point, I wasn’t always convinced. When classicist Simon Perris, in his engaging piece on Maui and Orpheus, writes of “Māori-classical-Pakeha Triculturalism”, it felt a bit like a mycologist arguing for the cultural centrality of the mushroom.

I also would’ve been keen to see something more evaluative. The really interesting questions Athens to Aotearoa raises, about the use of an imagined Greece to mediate Māori-Pakeha cultural dialogue, are just suggested instead of being really dug into and interrogated. There’s definitely room to argue that the implications are more ambiguous than the fairly rosy bicultural picture we get here; when we compare Maui to Orpheus, do we make the myth resonate deeper or culturally streamroll it, strip it of its weird particularity?

But it’s far from the worst thing for an academic text to suggest there’s a lot more to be written about the subject, even/especially one so seemingly niche. Athens to Aotearoa is a bit of a miscellany, but an intriguing, consistently engaging miscellany. It’s an obvious must-read for anyone interested in classics and New Zealand art, and the response essays probably will be too.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Athens to Aotearoa
edited by Tatum Jeff
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561766

Book Review: Force of Nature, by Jane Harper

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_force_of_natureThis is the much-anticipated second novel from Jane Harper. Her debut, The Dry, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the film rights were snapped up. Jane Harper lives in Melbourne and has worked as a print journalist in Australia and the UK for thirteen years.  I loved her debut and was keen to see if her second novel was as engaging. I was not disappointed.

In Force of Nature, we once again meet Aaron Faulk, a Federal Police Agent working in the rugged outback of Australia (he in The Dry, and too good to be a one-novel wonder). He is asked to help to search for a woman missing in the bush. While five women embark on a corporate team building exercise, only four make it out three days later. For Faulk, this is more than a missing person case, as the woman is his key source for an investigation into her employer’s dealings.

Faulk is a man troubled by his past, a little of which was exposed in The Dry. We again glimpse his background through a series of tramping maps left to him by his late father. These maps include the area of the search, and Faulk is forced to recall his memories and ] re-evaluate his ideas about his father.

The Australian landscape is very much a part of this story. The bush, the mountains and the struggle to exist in a small town. I like Harper’s style. She keeps the pace up but manages to capture patterns of speech and the guilt of survivors. As the story unravels, we discover all is not as it first appears. There are tensions within the family company, and suspicions among the staff. This is the stuff of an excellent crime novel.

Force of Nature is a great Australian crime novel because we are drawn into a world where land and man work together to reveal the truth. This is the Christmas novel that will be passed around our family and never actually make it back to me.

by Kathy Watson

Force of Nature
by Jane Harper
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781743549094

Book Review: Ten x Ten: Art at Te Papa, edited by Athol McCredie

Available in bookshops nationwide.

ten_x_ten_cvr_loresThis is a beautiful book covering the broad and diverse range of art at Te Papa as they prepare to renew their gallery space. 

 

In this book, ten of Te Papa’s art curators have each picked ten pieces from Te Papa’s collection of over 16,500 works and explain why they are drawn to them and why they believe they matter. The collection is truly diverse, balancing international and New Zealand art, and with pieces dated from circa 1300 to 2015. Each curator gives a short commentary on the painting, drawing, photograph, applied art object or sculpture. 

 

Curators responses vary from historic influences to emotional connections, with the tone very casual and conversational. These commentaries translate well creating a more informal, casual approach to art that I think most readers will enjoy. It’s enough to guide the viewer to certain elements or aspects in an informed approach but still allows the viewer to draw their own response. I recognised quite a few artworks featured but knew very little else and it was nice to learn more. 

 

The passion and delight of several curators shines through as they share the piece with the viewer. I found Rebecca Rice’s commentaries particularly compelling and I enjoyed pausing between paragraphs to look at the opposite art, consider what she had highlighted or identified before absorbing more.

 

I also cannot finish this review without mentioning the wonderful introduction by editor, Athol McCredie, who gives an overview of how Te Papa’s collection developed, how it acquires art and how it grew the diverse collection to what it is presently. This was surprisingly comprehensive and interesting, with a great insight from McCredie. ‘Art with depth and strength may speak to people in different ways, but speak it does’. 

 

This book is great start for anyone even just a little curious about art or planning to visit Te Papa’s renewed gallery space.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Ten x Ten: Art at Te Papa
by Athol McCredie
Published by Te Papa Publishers
ISBN: 9780994136251