Book Review: Today in New Zealand History, by Atkinson, Green, Phipps and Watters

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_today_in_new_zealand_historyOne of the joys of aging is picking up a book like this and recognising that nearly half of the events happened in my lifetime. I remember most of them too. This is not a highs and lows, shockers and disasters type of  book. Instead, we have a wonderful collection of events which include the quirky (introduction of Jockey Y fronts), the disasters, the political triumphs, cultural firsts (Anna Pavalova dancing here) and plenty of sports. My husband enjoyed the sports clips as they were often the lesser-known events. Interspersed with the events, are the birth of a variety of New Zealanders on this day. These little vignettes could be a book on their own, but included in the text and photos of the main items, they add another layer of enjoyment.

The collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the Alexander Turnbull Library has resulted in a book that is both informative and visually captivating. There is a photo of Michael Joseph Savage on the steps of the Social Security building. It is all art deco and serious but captures the amazing introduction in 1938 of the Social Security Act. The photo of the opening of the Christchurch Town Hall also made me nostalgic, for I sang at the opening and attended a meeting there on the morning of the quake.

By uniting two such esteemed groups, this team have produced a book that rises above the usual coffee table pretty. I found the clear and easy to read text gave me enough information without boring me through detail.

As a teacher, I am constantly saddened by the lack of historical knowledge shown by my pupils. I feel that a knowledge of the past enables us to truly face the challenges of the future. As New Zealanders we have travelled a long way in a short time. This book would be a useful aid to help students focus each day, on an event. My husband commented that he would be able to do this using just sports as there are often 2-3 stories for each day, and sports feature often. There is a pupil like this in every class.

Add to all this a hefty hard cover and wonderful photos. What a great Christmas present for those baby boomer parents who can relive their childhood and educate the grandchildren at the same time.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Today in New Zealand History
by Neill Atkinson, David Green, Gareth Phipps and Steve Watters
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593003

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Book Review: Landscapes with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_landscape_with_invisible_handWeird, bleak and oddly compelling. Landscape with Invisible Hands is more closely aligned to social satire than science-fiction. It asks what would happen if the aliens came offering the ability to cure all illnesses and replace the jobs so that you need never work again? Sounds ideal? Well, it’s not.

The gap between rich and poor increases. The rich — and those who’ve managed to work their way into vuvv society — succeed. The others, left below to scrap over the few jobs that remain, suffer. Adam is one of those left below, living in the shadow of the vuvvs floating city. He is an artist, a painter, and something of a dreamer. Not the most ambitious of youths. After falling in love with a neighbour, the two of them decide to earn an income by starring in vuvv reality TV shows. The vuvv don’t form pair bonds but they do enjoy watching human courtship, circa 1950. It doesn’t end well, and thus Adam’s downward spiral begins…

This is a very readable, and quite relatable look at society — at what makes humans human and the lengths that we will go to both to make money and to please our mostly benevolent (but selfish) overlords. It acts as a social commentary on the division between the wealthy and the poverty-ridden, and how the latter are sometimes dehumanised. The ending falls a little flat but given the characters and the circumstances, I wasn’t expecting it to be dramatic. Overall, quite compelling (with short chapters) and one to make you think.

Review by Angela Oliver

Landscape with Invisible Hand
by M.T. Anderson
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN 9780763687892

Book Review: Matariki: The star of the year, by Rangi Matamua

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_matariki_rangi_matamuaDr Rangi Matamua (Tūhoe), an Associate Professor at the University of Waikato, lectures on Māori language and culture and has a specialist research interest in Māori astronomy and star lore. In recent years he has been involved in public promotion of knowledge about Matariki, the star cluster traditionally associated with midwinter and the beginning of a new year. Most commonly known in Western culture as the Pleiades or “seven sisters” of Greek myth, this cluster of seven (or nine, or more) stars is visible throughout much of the year but disappears in late autumn and rises again in midwinter.

For those of us who have not grown up with stories of Matariki, it appears that the constellation and associated festivities have become more promoted in mainstream Aotearoa New Zealand society just in the last decade or so.  While it is cool to be able to renew a local midwinter celebration, some might note that there’s also a danger of commercialising traditions to the point that the culture behind them is misinterpreted or disregarded. I mean, we haven’t seen “sexy Matariki dressup costumes” in the dollar stores yet, but it’s still possible that whatever is promoted as “Matariki” now has, by being interpreted for a general audience, lost some of its deeper meaning.

Dr Matamua’s book therefore feels timely, as it answers many questions about the culture, history and Mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge) associated with Matariki. This is useful for those of us who would like to understand and mark the Matariki season without getting all insensitive-story-stealing-Pākehā about it. Perhaps most importantly, the book is part of Dr Matamua’s stated mission to ensure Māori ownership of knowledge and practices associated with this star lore; for Māori to stop being written into history and start writing ourselves into history.”

This book reads like a labour of both love and scholarship.  Flicking to the back first, I made the rather mundane observation that there’s a short index but a relatively lengthy bibliography and list of citations for each chapter. It became clear as I started reading that while this is not a long book, it is the distilled result of many years of research. Not just the author’s academic research either: the information in this book has been passed down through experts in his family. A 400-page manuscript about Māori star lore was compiled by a father and son in Ruatāhuna between 1898 and 1933, at a time when many customs were ceasing to be practised due to colonisation. The son passed the manuscript on to his grandson, who later passed it on to his own grandson, Rangi Matamua.

Matariki has many names, so the book begins with an overview of how the star cluster is known in different parts of the world and in other ancient myths, showing the connections between traditions in other parts of Polynesia. But even in Māori culture, it is associated with multiple meanings. Experts meticulously observed the stars to inform navigation and harvesting activities, while also upholding spiritual beliefs about the connection that each star had to people on earth. Each star in the Matariki constellation has a role in watching over sources of food, wellbeing and weather.

Matamua points out early on that the practises of astronomy and astrology are blended in Māori star lore. Appropriately, this book weaves technical observations with explanations of cultural practices and various proverbs about Matariki. Artist Te Haunui Tuna has provided beautiful black and white illustrations throughout, which similarly blend the technical and spiritual. These show the place and movement of celestial bodies (eg position of the sun relative to stars; phases of the moon) along with the Atua personalities associated with each – so the sun and each star in the Matariki cluster gets a distinctive face to match their mythological personality.

The book dispels some common misconceptions. For example, that Matariki is not a harvest festival – by the time it has risen, the harvest should be mostly done. Rather, it is a time to gather and feast during the more barren time of year, honouring the deceased and offering sustenance to Matariki in the hope for a prosperous new season. Also that the timing for this observation – as with many of the traditional Māori seasons – cannot be mapped tightly onto a Western calendar that remains static each year regardless of the environmental conditions. Matariki was not even observed at the same time or in the same way throughout Māori communities, which makes sense considering that constellations become visible in different parts of the country at different times.

There is a helpful table projecting the setting and rising of Matariki every year from now to 2050, showing how the period of Matariki varies year to year. Should we ever get to the point of declaring a midwinter public holiday for Matariki, there is no one calendar date it could be attached to; it seems more like Easter, moving every year according to what’s going on in the sky. Rangi Matamua concludes his book with a discussion about the revitalisation of Matariki customs in recent years. He hopes that it can develop as a celebration that, while inclusive and modern, is underpinned by Māori culture, language, traditional practices and beliefs. Judging from this book, his research could provide a valuable resource to help achieve that aim.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Matariki: The star of the year
by Rangi Matamua
Published by Huia Publishers
ISBN 9781775503255

Book Review: Tess, by Kirsten McDougall

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tessThis novel, the first by McDougall, who has previously published a collection of short stories, is a gripping read from the first words: ‘at first she was a blur of light and movement on the steaming road’.

The subject is Tess, a young woman on the run from a fairly disastrous relationship. She’s the product of similarly disastrous parenting, saved only by her grandmother. She has the gift of sight – not in the usual sense, but an ability to see what’s going on in the heads of others – which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective.

It sounds a bit Gothic, and indeed it is, but so cleverly written and with such empathy for the characters that even if gothic literature is not your first choice, I think you’ll still be engaged by this novel.

Tess is rescued by a middle-aged father who has his own raft of issues, none of which Tess wants to hear about: she has enough problems of her own to deal with – a broken relationship with a violent partner just for starters. She is trying to find a way to heal herself, and how this comes about is sensitively done. Family and relationship tensions and difficulties not only in Tess’ life but in the lives of most of the characters ring true.

She is drawn, despite herself, to stay on in the Masterton home where she puts her gardening skills to effective use and where the relationship with the father – which in the beginning feels as if it’s going to be really dodgy – turns out to be something far deeper. The complicated relationships between the characters are well-drawn and credible, and the tensions are effectively maintained. The twist at the end is good, not totally predictable, and there’s a satisfying conclusion to the whole story.

I think it’s a good read and recommend it.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Tess
by Kirsten McDougall
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561001

Editor’s Note: I bought and read this too, and I agree: It’s brilliant, well worth a read! – Sarah Forster

Book Review: I want to be in a Scary Story, by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Jean Jullien

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_i_want_to_be_in_a_scary_storyHello, Little Monster.
What do you want today?
Can I be in a story?

Imagination is a great thing and most children role play making up their own stories.  I witnessed this over a weekend recently with two of my grandchildren, aged 6 years and 3 years.

Monsters feature in most children’s imagination at some time or another. This monster wants to be in a story – but does it want to be a scary monster scaring other people or be the one being scared? The play around these concepts is wonderful. 3-year-old Quinn liked this idea, often playing hide and seek: a “boo” is always the goal, surprising the person trying to find you.

The illustrations are bold but use simple colours. You can’t have a scary story without a witch – or perhaps a ghost?

A very much enjoyed book, highly recommended.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

I want to be in a Scary Story
by Sean Taylor  Illustrated by Jean Jullien
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406363463

Book Review: The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser, by David McGill

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_plot_to_kill_peter_FraserThe Plot to Kill Peter Fraser is a novel set in immediate post World War Two Wellington.  As such, it provides a fascinating insight into daily life as New Zealand starts to recover from war.  The protagonist is former detective Dav Delany (a character continuing from the book The Death Ray Debacle) who is back home after a long war with his refugee wife, Rina.

The book opens with a German political detainee swimming from Matiu Somes Island to the mainland to deliver mail and collect contraband. One letter is to warn Peter Fraser that an attack on his life is planned. On his return to the island the detainee is drowned by other prisoners. The scene then switches to a political rally with Peter Fraser in Auckland. It is Dan’s first day back in New Zealand and his focus is to start a new life. At the conclusion of the rally, he intervenes to stop a knife attack and quickly finds himself reemployed and transferred to Wellington to investigate a threat on Peter Fraser.

The author, David McGill, is a prolific author and the research he undertook is evident throughout the book. I was fascinated to learn more about Peter Fraser, and his role in the set-up of the United Nations. Peter undertook to get protections for smaller nations, which put him at odds with the previous war allies. He also protested the ‘great nations’ having veto powers. Therefore, the idea that someone might wish to remove his influence by harming him is plausible. David McGill includes notes at the end of the novel, directing the reader to further learn about Peter Fraser.

The book then proceeds in a more typical ‘whodunnit’ fashion with numerous likely suspects. I really valued much of the detail in the book – the world building was clear and a real strength. Unfortunately, I think the author gives too big a clue to the identity of the assassin – the ending would have been a little more shocking for the revelation without the foreshadowing. However, I was left with a real desire to know what happened after the story ended, and if there was a further book in the series I’d be keen to read it.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser
by David McGill
Published by Silver Owl Press
ISBN 9780992262259

Book Review: Home, edited by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_new_writingThere was a flood of excitement when this collection came out, and understandably so. It’s beautiful and thick with a classy list of contributors and a solid concept; personal essays from NZ writers on what home means to them. It’s also from a new publisher, Massy University Press. The theme is topical, and timeless; intensely personal, and universal – it’s everything we want a personal essay to be. Mostly this collection is all of those things, but occasionally it meanders off into upper-middle-class small talk slush.  The theme might be too personal for some writers. A few got caught up in describing their household furniture.

Some of the pieces are absolute literature, particularly those that ruminate on home, and something else. Ashleigh Young, in my new favourite Ashleigh Young essay – Matrices, writes about home and secrets, specifically those of other people. With the accuracy and honesty that characterise her writing, she writes of her childhood self, ‘The truth is, whenever I flagrantly invaded someone’s privacy, I felt that somehow I’d won. It was as if we were always playing a game but others kept forgetting we were playing it.’

Gina Cole’s Grandma instructs her on how to dive for turtles and they watch TV together, among many other things. She’s hard to quote without typing out the whole thing (I like this essay, the turtles are worth knowing about!) so I’ll stick with a very brilliant metaphor for Muldoon’s hair: ‘His left cheek is pulled into a rictus of a smile. He looks bald although there are thin strips of hair combed straight back from a neat receding hairline and running down the middle of his head and on each side of his ears… like tiny tentacles gripping on to an egg.’

Martin Edmond writes a biography of Mollie, a circus elephant now buried in Ohakune. Sarah Jane Barnett is marvellous on running as a way to find a home in your own body, a point past pain where you can be in solitude and peace with yourself.

I felt very at home with Helen Lehndorf, who writes with power and honesty about her son’s autism, and about love. ‘All the good fights I fought, I fought for him.’

In Bonnie Etherington’s essay, ‘Never Coming Home,’ a village elder in West Papua tells her father, ‘In the past we knew who the enemy was. It was Suharto, so we could fight him. But now, we know we are being destroyed, but we don’t know who by. How do you fight something when you don’t know what or who it is?’ and she continues, ‘Suharto’s fall was meant to solve many things. And people can move now without feeling his eyes on them. But the scars in Papua’s dirt grow and the trees keep falling, squeezing people from their gardens and their homes as they watch people from elsewhere in Indonesia move in on the ‘empty’ land.’

I have more favourites, but I don’t want to simply quote and praise things I liked, because as I said it often felt a lot like small talk. There are a lot of middle-aged, daddish sentences like, ‘In our family we all saw sport as a stimulating challenge, physically, mentally and technically. That’s why we liked it so much.’

I don’t want to single anyone out because it happens right across the board, including in some of my favourites. Halfway through the collection I started wondering what I would submit if commissioned to write a personal essay about home? My essay would be terribly self-indulgent and tedious. It would be about how glad I am that the Karori Countdown have widened their selection of teas, but how I still think that, actually, it would lovely to have a few more options. So, when I think about how bad things might have been, this collection is exceptionally good.

Not that Home is an uninteresting or irrelevant topic, far from it. But it’s a subject that can bring out the most dreary in anyone if they’re not careful.

Home is fun to read, relevant, compassionate and frequently sharp. It’s a big book, and not too expensive, so I’d recommend it to anyone on the condition that they make sure not to beat themselves up if they end up skipping the odd page, or even a few whole essays.

Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems

Home: New Writing
by Thom Conroy
Published by Massey University PRess
ISBN 9780994140753