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

Books I’ll be giving this Christmas, by Nicole Phillipson

Nicole Phillipson has recently joined Booksellers NZ after completing her MA (Applied) in Short Story Writing at the IIML. Here are five books that impressed her this year, that she will be gifting to her friends and family.

Man V Nature, by Diane Cook (Oneworld) 9781780748153

cv_man_v_natureThis short story collection feels truly “2016.” Each genre-defying story contains a miniature dystopia: floods rise to swallow the earth, monsters invade workplaces, and a society reverts to brutal survivalism. Maybe you’re feeling that you’ve had enough apocalyptic events this year to last a lifetime, but if humour is the best medicine Cooke’s extremist fantasies are the perfect, darkly funny antidote to this year. Her unhinged characters – like walking, talking Freudian ids – are strangely loveable, and the title story, a Lord of the Flies scenario set on a fishing boat, manages to be both unsettling and hysterical.

Mansfield and Me, by Sarah Laing (VUP) 9781776560691

cv_mansfield_and_meThe first thing you notice about Laing’s graphic memoir is the visual deliciousness – the warm and affectionate drawing style makes it hard to stop turning pages. As you read on, you will become immersed in a frank, funny and understated exploration of Laing’s life. What sets this book apart is its dual narrative: Laing’s story is interspersed with Mansfield’s own. Laing brings Mansfield’s spiky, brilliant, often tormented character to life through Mansfield’s own words and striking black-and-white images. There is a bare honesty which lets you feel the most poignant moments of both women’s emotion: their self-doubt, deep pain and passion.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) 9781408880364

cv_commonwealthAnn Patchett has a great talent for evoking situations that feel deeply real. She is unafraid in exploring the darkest folds of humanity, but also casts light on moments of beauty and warmth. Commonwealth follows ten different characters in two entangled families, the Cousins and the Berts, over five decades. The story begins with a striking scene in which married lawyer Bert Cousins shows up at the christening party of acquaintances Beverly and Fix Keating. A drunken kiss between Bert and Beverly is the single catalyst for irrevocable changes in both families. Patchett is a dab hand at pulling the rug out from under you. Characters who initially seem incurably heartless are slowly softened under Patchett’s empathetic touch. Commonwealth is a universally relatable story of family.

How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (AUP) 9781869408183

cv_how_to_be_dead_in_a_year_of_snakesIn How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, Chris Tse uses poetry to transmute history into a living pulse of emotion. The collection is loops around an event 1905, when white supremacist Lionel Terry murdered elderly Cantonese gold prospector Joe Kum Yung. Multiple voices sing through the collection including that of the unhinged Terry himself. But one beauty of this book is the way it turns history on its head, giving a voice to the Cantonese immigrants and Maori whose voices were written out from the Pakeha historical narrative. Tse explores death both in literal and symbolic senses, as Yung is erased both physically and narratively: ‘As you bleed out/ the night rejects your history,’ and Tse brings him to life again. These are deeply evocative, empathetic poems with words that ring and echo.

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) 9781922182029

cv_coming_rainComing Rain, set in the harsh outback of Western Australia, explores the human condition amidst a mesmerising evocation of farming life and the desert. The novel is set in 1956, largely set in the ‘marginal wheat and sheep lands’ of the South West of Western Australia. It follows the young Lew and the older Painter, who work together, shearing sheep and charcoal burning, traversing the land in Lew’s truck. Two concurrent stories weave and intercross: the quiet, tragic narrative of Lew and Painter and that of a pregnant dingo being tracked by a hunter. A book which delves into the minutae of the outback with beautiful, haunting descriptions, and leaves space for the deep, quiet sorrow of its main characters to fill the narrative.

by Nicole Phillipson

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Book Review: Sacred histories in Secular New Zealand, ed. Geoffrey Troughton and Stuart Lange

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sacred_histories_in_secular_nzThis is an interesting collection of scholarly articles on the history of Christianity in New Zealand. I think it will be of interest primarily to scholars in the field, but also to those concerned about the apparent decline in religious observance and practice amongst Christians. It’s the work of lecturers and scholars in religious studies at particular universities and bible colleges in New Zealand. There is only one woman in the mix.

I detected a little bit of historical defensiveness, particularly in the chapters on Christian beginnings amongst Maori, and the one on William Pember Reeves. However that serves to make the reader think and consider the work of our major historians.

Various other chapters address the sectarian rivalry of the military chaplaincy during the First World War; the work of two novelists who wrote passionately and from a deeply-held belief in God, but whose works are now largely forgotten. The writer, Kirstine Moffat, comments at the end of her piece “We may not share …(their) beliefs…….but their refusal to settle for the status quo epitomizes and energy and a utopian striving that is admirable”. Perhaps the increasing secularisation and permissiveness of society at large is not necessarily a good thing, but that’s for each reader to decide.

Peter Lineham’s piece on the interweaving of culture and religion surround Christmas observance will be of interest to many readers, as it draws together the various practices which surround Christmas and gives their history – much of it not in the least Christian in origin!

Overall, I think this is a useful addition to work on spirituality and religion in New Zealand. It draws together essays which might not otherwise be easily available to the lay person. I would be very interested to see similar writing on the history and development of observance in other religions in New Zealand.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Sacred Histories in Secular New Zealand
ed. Geoffrey Troughton and Stuart Lange
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560950

 

Book Review: Shooting Stars, by Brian Falkner

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_shooting_starsThis story follows some well-worn tropes, but is filled out with a compelling back-story and some brilliant set-pieces from the assured pen of Brian Falkner.

Wild boy Egan has been raised by his mother, through her fear of his father, entirely in the Coromandel bush. Moma has taken inspiration from a variety of philosophies – Christian, Confucian, Hindu and more, to instill in Egan a Code of rules to live by. This Code forms the centre of all of the actions that Egan takes, and as he writes in his diary – the book is in diary format – he records the codes he had cause to reflect on that day.

When Moma goes missing near to Christmas during Egan’s 15th year, Egan is dismayed but determined to find her – he knows she would never voluntarily leave him alone. With the help of a letter and money from the lock-box in their hut, he goes to find an Uncle in Auckland. He has been living with no running water, no internet, no electricity for his entire 15 years, so to say this is a cultural clash is putting it mildly.

Brian Falkner really knows how to write action. He’s been doing this well since his junior fiction-writing days, so it is no surprise to see this continue. The thing that I felt this book lacked a little was emotion. Egan’s mother is his entire world right up until he meets J.T., a hunter, near the time of her disappearance on Christmas Eve. When she disappears, this is forced to change so quickly that Egan doesn’t seem to sit down and mourn. His actions are rational, and though this seems to be put down to living by the Code, it stretched my credulity a little.

When Egan is in Auckland, he has to learn quickly how to live in a city, sleeping in the Domain. He has his stuff stolen by street kids early on, then after a few heroics ends up part of the crew that tried to steal from him. He continues to live in the Domain, but falls in love with Reggie, the only female member of the teenage homeless kids. He has just settled into his new life when somebody in the crew betrays him, and his past catches up with him – or rather, his mother’s past.

One of my favourite parts of the book were the short stories scattered throughout it, written by Egan in the style of the author whose book he is reading at the time. This is exactly how any young writer starts out – in fact it could probably be said to be how any young writer should start out – and neatly encompasses Falkner’s reading/writing philosophy. The absence of books in a significant house later on in the story is a neatly set up harbinger of doom.

The other fun aspect of the book is when Egan meets the “real world,” as the media calls it when he becomes a media superstar. His observations are priceless – heading to Maccers for lunch, he is impressed they even give him a toy.

While this isn’t as strong for me as Falkner’s last published book, Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo, which won the Book Award for Young Adults in last year’s NZCYA; it is a rattling good read that keeps you turning those pages to see how things will end. Recommended for age 11+.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Shooting Stars
by Brian Falkner
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775433606

 

Book Review: New Zealand’s Western Front Campaign, by Ian McGibbon

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_new_Zealands_western_front_campaign.jpgAmong many qualities of this book, two in particular stand out. Firstly, Ian McGibbon places New Zealand’s rightly praised efforts on the Western Front with between 70,000 and 100,000 men in the full context of the of the massive efforts of Britain with five million men plus many millions from France. As well, McGibbon sets out to debunk many of the myths that have crept into the kiwi World War One narrative.

For instance, he explains away the assertion made by some other historians that Lieutenant-General Godley, commander of the New Zealand Troops, was responsible for the tragedy of the New Zealand losses at Passchendaele. It has been suggested that Godley, knowing that preparations for the battle were not up to standard and thus the attack would likely fail, did not refuse orders to attack from higher command. Rather, it has been said, that Godley put his own career ahead of his men’s welfare to “please his Commander-in-Chief”. McGibbon points out that Godley, like any other soldier, was required to obey orders and if he did not he would have been replaced by someone probably a British officer, who would carry the attack.

There is much more in this extremely well-published book than the debunking of myths and ensuring a realistic assessment of New Zealand’s efforts in the wider context of the Western Front. McGibbon, of course, is hugely thorough in his research: he has long established a fine reputation for this, not least with The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History (ed., 2000). However, he writes in an easy style and while this book is “big”, being A4 size and 408 pages inclusive of notes, bibliography and index, it is very readable.

The book is structured in chronological order, with chapters focusing on key battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele, Messines (1917) and Le Quesnoy; the latter two being victories for the kiwis. But the book is much more than an account of battles. It traces the whole New Zealand effort from the time the New Zealand Division arrived from Gallipoli in great detail, its structure, its training, health and welfare. The New Zealanders were required to work with other nations’ forces and a whole chapter is devoted to “Coalition Warfare”. The home front, “Sustaining New Zealand’s Effort” is also detailed, inclusive of the arguments for and against and then, final introduction of compulsory service.

The illustrations in this book are impressive. Unfortunately there is not a separate index of them, but they are included in the page index. The maps in particular are a feature: in colour and very easy to follow. Most have been prepared especially for this book, although there are original battlefield maps as well. The large format of the books enhances the illustrative content which not only includes many photographs sourced from overseas and not previously used in New Zealand publications, but also some of the best of the art from the war.

This publication was supported by The Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s War History Trust as part of the First World War commemorative project by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and launched recently at the Beehive where I met and talked with author, Ian McGibbon. After 40 years working as a military historian for various government agencies, finally as General Editor (War History) at the Ministry, Ian spent about four years meticulously research this book. In his speech at the launch he made mention of this research method being instilled into him through the example of Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger who was appointed Editor-in-Chief of New Zealand’s largest-ever publishing project, the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–45. Kippenberger set a high standard for the official histories, refused to contemplate censorship and demanded objectivity by his authors and editors. Principles which, by the example of his latest book, McGibbon has clearly absorbed.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

New Zealand’s Western Front Campaign
by Ian McGibbon
David Bateman Ltd
ISBN: 9781869539269

Book Review: This Model World, by Anthony Byrt

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_this_modern_worldI first heard of Anthony Byrt quite recently, when Kim Hill quoted him extensively at an event about Simon Denny’s Secret Power installation (first shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale – a section of this exhibit is now at Te Papa). I state this to explain my own perspective: I am interested in art, but have not studied it extensively and am not familiar enough with art criticism to know New Zealand art writers by name. It quickly became clear that I did not have to be an historian of contemporary art to enjoy and appreciate this new book.

Over the course of several years, Byrt visited exhibitions and studios around the world, interviewing or reflecting on 12 contemporary New Zealand artists. Six longer chapters are interspersed with shorter features on artists whose work extends or links to themes in the longer sections. Byrt appears to have given a lot of thought to the first-person narrative style of writing. I think that it works very well here: in places he steps back to detail an artist’s background, then he comes back into the frame to talk about his own experiences and changes in perspective relating to their work. Becky Nunes’ photographs throughout the book seem similarly well-thought-out. There was a conscious decision to focus on the artworks and the artists’ working spaces, rather than photographing the artists themselves.

The promotional blurb describes this as “a riveting first-person account of one author’s travels to the edge of contemporary art”. I did find Byrt’s journeys quite riveting. He has a talent for describing certain scenes so you can imagine yourself in the space with the artwork. However I’m particularly drawn to the phrase “the edge”. We in New Zealand “live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else”, as Bill Manhire’s words remind us on a concrete slab on the Wellington waterfront. And now, after so long being considered physically on the edges, we can participate in the global conversation about art more instantly than ever before, like everybody else. What will this mean for New Zealand art and artists?
i-live-at-the-edge-of-the-universe

We’re looking at some of the big, tricky, –isms here: globalism, commercialism, post-colonialism. Questions of how to critique a system while taking part in it. These themes interweave the stories of individual artists and their preoccupations.

I read this book over a couple of weeks and, on numerous occasions, found parallels between themes coming up in other parts of my life and in Byrt’s writing. I attended a symposium about health research, at which a book of new protocols for working with Māori genomic data was launched . One of the researchers stated that in this context we see how whakapapa is both a scientific AND a cultural construction. That evening, I read the chapter on Peter Robinson, whose early work dealt with his identification as “3.125% Māori”: “whakapapa rendered as stark biological fact”. Byrt sees some of Robinson’s more recent, interactive work as “a critical examination of the power dynamics of knowledge acquisition, of putting people to work, of who can speak about what and for whom”. And I found myself exclaiming, yes, exactly, that’s what we social researchers have been pondering too!

It was only partway through the chapter about Steve Carr that I realised Byrt was describing an exhibition I had just been discussing with my visiting father (we headed to Wellington’s City Gallery and his first question was whether “the watermelon” , which he had watched last time, was still there). I recalled Carr’s clever video works, some of which feature a slowed down bullet passing through several apples, and balloons containing contrasting coloured paint being popped. I had felt a childish glee, watching these scenes of beautiful destruction in a way that the human eye could not hold onto in real life. But there was something more going on – something visceral that I could not quite articulate. Byrt, of course, can articulate it: Carr uses camera technology “to create an image of total bodily empathy. His balloons, and the paint they contain, hang like organs and burst with human release.”

cv_creamy_psychologyIt has been a particular thrill for me to read Byrt’s take on several exhibitions that I had seen but not taken detailed notes on. I could certainly say that Yvonne Todd’s photographs struck me as creepy and hyper-real but, again, Byrt can explain why they seem that way.

Postcolonialism is, unsurprisingly, explored from various perspectives. Shane Cotton is known for painting large canvases with recurring themes including wide skies, stylised gang patches and the tattooed, preserved Māori heads that were notoriously collected and traded to European museums in the late 1800s. The discussion of his work is woven through a chapter which also features Byrt’s visit to look at different large panel works in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas (I wondered whether anyone other than a recently-arrived New Zealander would describe the edges of these panels as having “a jet-lagged shimmer”) and a brief tour through the problematic history of Western exhibitions featuring Māori art. Cotton and his contemporaries work in an era where people recognise and debate the ethics of representing colonised cultures. Rather than taking an explicitly moral position, his representations of the disembodied heads, Byrt surmises, is “simply an act of re-presentation: a way to keep the disruptive residue of our violent history, still alive, staring back at us”.

In the final section on Simon Denny, Byrt draws links between historical events, rapidly evolving media representation of these events, and how our (that is, Byrt’s, Denny’s and my ‘older millennial’) generation sees the world. I had also briefly visited Venice in 2015. I had taken the opportunity to do two specific and, I thought, unconnected things. Firstly to retrace my maternal grandfather’s World War Two footsteps, taking a photo in the exact same spot as him outside the Hotel Danieli. Secondly to visit Denny’s Secret Power biennale exhibition at the Marciana Library. I was somewhat stunned when the chapter on Simon Denny opened with a description of the New Zealand forces’ stationing at the Hotel Danieli. Byrt linked that earlier example of New Zealand’s contribution to global affairs with the opening of Denny’s exhibition in Venice 70 years later: “a test of New Zealand’s contemporary political significance”. Byrt says that Denny made him rethink the significance of personal memories linked to historical moments. Now his writing on Denny’s art is having a similar effect on me.

I found this book thought-provoking and personally resonant. Alongside the description of the modern art world is a reflection on how contemporary New Zealanders negotiate our tangled global whakapapa to contribute to international conversations. I might have considered these ideas before, but not with such a focus on the role that art plays. I believe Anthony Byrt has come up with something quite profound here. I look forward to reading more of his writing.

Reviewed by Dr. Rebecca Gray

This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art
by Anthony Byrt
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408589

Book Review: Ruby and the Blue Sky, by Katherine Dewar

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ruby_and_the_blue_skyWell, this is an interesting thing. A self-published, cause-driven novel by a first-time author. Clearly Katherine Dewar has a message she wants to get out. She does that quite effectively but as with a lot of self-published books, there could have been a good deal of copy-editing which would have improved matters.

Ruby, of the title, is a punk-rock singer/songwriter who is conscious of the effects our consumerism, amongst other things, is having on our planet. Fired by a spur of the moment and seemingly throwaway line, she finds herself the spokesperson for serious counter-political action. Throw in her band, the group who come together to help in the activism, her mother who is on her own counter-cultural path and a die-hard weird religious cult with a desire to clean up the world, and you have quite a lot of potential. However in my opinion it misses the mark.

Ruby is fairly credible, as is her mum. But many of the other characters are sketchy. Salvador does not work for me as a character – too confused, too easily manipulated. The anonymous organisation backing him is doubtless based on various religious cults, and seems to buy in to the preconceptions and misconceptions surrounding such organisations.

I am not sure what readership was in mind, and really that does not matter, except that I am not sure to whom this will appeal. The writing style is a bit clunky, with moments where it’s actually quite good. But those moments are not enough to rescue the book.

It is one of those books which, as a professional librarian, I would hesitate to recommend to readers\, because it’s not well-enough constructed and it is so clearly pushing a point of view.

If the writing were better crafted, I think it might have worked. As it stands, I think it lacks the wow factor.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Ruby and the Blue Sky
by Katherine Dewar
Published by Ruru Press
ISBN 9780473345501 (UK)