Book Review: Father Christmas’s Fake Beard, by Terry Pratchett

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_father_christmass_fake_beard.jpgFather Christmas’s Fake Beard is an hilarious story made up of emails or memos within Arnco Supersaver Store from various departmental heads regarding the employment of a Mr Nichols. Apparently Mr Nichols is from the north of Lapland and as a Equal Opportunities Employer they were not going to discriminate against someone from Lapland. He will provide his own costume and will not require false whiskers.

Father Christmas takes upon himself to let the children that come to Father Christmas’s grotto “help themselves” from the selection of gifts, and he offers children the chance to ask for different toys. Reindeer droppings appear overnight which in itself is suspicious, as all of the reindeer are made of plastic. Stuff goes missing from the DIY section, and the temperature in the toy department mysteriously seems to be very cold. And what could possibly see an employee need to leave early on Christmas Eve as he has another “job” to go to?

Ten other stories are included in this book. These stories are amazingly wonderful, for either a read-alone or a book for sharing with a younger child. The stories have titles such as The Blackbury Pie,  Judgement Day or Father Christmas, The Abominable Snow-baby, The Twelve Gifts of Christmas (another version of the twelve days of Christmas – I like this one better!)

I’m keeping this aside for 6 ½ year old granddaughter Abby for Christmas. She can read but doesn’t read my reviews – YET!!! She’s going to love it.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Father Christmas’s Fake Beard
by Terry Pratchett
Published by Doubleday
9780857535504

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Book Review: Point of Order, Mr Speaker?: Modern Māori Political Leaders,edited by Selwyn and Rahui Katene

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_point_of_order_mr_speaker.pngWith the recent election it appears that Māori politics has changed significantly. The Māori  electorate seats have reverted to Labour, and the Māori Party is, at least temporarily, off the stage. A book on Māori leadership could have been highly relevant to this situation. However, with the emphasis on particular individual experiences of life before becoming MPs, this book tries to take a longer view.

It has to be noted that electoral events must affect how the book is read, certainly by a general audience. Of the eight political leaders chosen, two had already retired, and only three have remained in Parliament. All three of the failed candidates were actual party leaders who were contesting Māori  seats. Of the three that were elected only one is the MP for a Māori  electorate; one is the MP for a general seat in Auckland; and Shane Jones secured a winning party list placing despite again failing to win an electorate seat. The substantive shift to Labour amongst Māori voters is not reflected in the choice of leaders, and there is a bias to the pre-election governing parties.

This book is set up in a problematic way, firstly in the foreword by Whatarangi Winiata, the former president of the Māori Party. His short piece mostly focuses on the achievements of the Māori Party. But he also states that the leaders have to be rangatira, in terms of Whakapapa Maori, rather than being a leader who happens to be Māori. He holds Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples as role models.

It is quite difficult to comment on the chapters provided by each individual leader in the first person, especially after what happened to Metiria Turei just after this book had been finalised. However candid the leaders have been about their backgrounds, the critical scrutiny of Ms Turei’s personal situation after admitting an historical benefit ‘fraud’ raises fundamental issues about who (or what) is deemed acceptable in public life, and about those that are making the judgment calls. Although the focus here is just on the Māori influence, there seem to be different forces at play when a leader is elected outside of the arena of Māori politics. On the other hand, there is very little in this book which sheds light on Māori politics: e.g. why Nanaia Mahuta gained votes and increased her majority, when openly opposed by the Māori King.

Another interesting point in the background of the leaders is simply demographic. All of the eight individuals are from the North Island. Most of them had provincial or rural upbringings, apart from Tau Henare and Metiria Turei. Of the four men, three had formative experiences at the St Stephens boarding school, the exclusive Māori institution that is now defunct. Certainly, Shane Jones and Te Ururoa Flavell seem to suggest that this particular form of schooling was crucial in setting them on their path to leadership. But all this doesn’t seem very representative of urban Māori experience.

The book ends with some assessment of individual achievements, which is odd in places. Hekia Parata and Paula Bennett are commended for introducing unpopular policies, as if this was essentially strong leadership. Arguably, it just reflected the National Party’s view on undeserving categories, whether it be the teacher unions (Parata) or welfare beneficiaries (Bennett). The fact that Bennett also exposed the private information of beneficiaries should be condemned rather than celebrated.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Point of Order, Mr Speaker?: Modern Māori Political Leaders
edited by Selwyn and Rahui Katene
Published by Huia Publishing
ISBN 9781775503323

Book Review: It’s My Egg (and you can’t have it!), by Heather Hunt and Kennedy Warne

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_its_my_egg.jpgFrom the very first picture on the cover of this lovely new picture book, you are left in no doubt as to the hero of our story. It’s my egg (and you can’t have it!) is the tale of one brave kiwi’s fight to protect his unborn chick from all manner of two and four-legged predators in the bush.

I had the perfect audience to test out this new New Zealand picture book: my visiting 5-year-old Australian niece who knew little about the threats facing our native bird. The book led to a lot of questions and a very educational discussion with other visiting relatives whose dog had recently graduated from kiwi-aversion training.

It is clear that a great deal of thought and care has gone into the design of this book. Kennedy Warne’s bright white prose stands out beautifully on the moodily dark pages. Heather Hunt’s bright colourful (“neon” piped up my nine year old) illustrations of the dangerous predators contrast starkly with the dark background and the softer colours of our protective kiwi dad. The scratchy sketchy style of the drawings gives extra menace and edge to the stoat with his viciously sharp teeth. The five year old squealed with glee as the stoat met his sudden demise. (More sensitively-minded children might require some extra explanation about trapping and its benefits.)

This book will be a fantastic resource for early childhood education centres and families wishing to educate their young ones about the risks to and resilience of our wonderful kiwi.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

it’s my egg (and you can’t have it!)
by Heather Hunt and Kennedy Warne
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503567

Book Review: False River, by Paula Morris

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_false_riverThis is a very sophisticated collection of short stories, which sit comfortably together. While many have been previously published in magazines, or read on radio, bringing them together allows the reader to appreciate the true depth of Morris’s writing. The title story, False River was a finalist in the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in the UK, and Morris is no stranger to awards for her writing.

I am not a regular reader of short stories as once I have sorted out characters and setting, I prefer to settle in for a long read. But this collection allowed me to enter each world quickly and with minimal fuss as I became engrossed by the stories. It was a revelation.

Morris knows her settings. Be it New Orleans, Mexico or Latvia, we are quickly immersed in a familiar world where small details add depth. Some stories deal with relationships such as the delightful story Isn’t It. Here we have the Auckland housing crisis meeting family mourning. The meeting of these two worlds is beautifully portrayed.

A well-chosen black and white photo follows some stories. I like the inclusion of visual art within the written text as it adds another layer for the reader. However, I was a little disappointed at the cover of the collection. The dark blue, understated cover did not live up to the quality of the stories and artwork within the  book. Even the endpapers were more creative.

I really enjoyed this collection: it seems, after a thirty-year standoff with short stories, Paula Morris has lured me back. I would pick the book up to read one story, and then sneak another too. Of course, this meant I was running late!

This is the perfect summer read. A sleep, a swim or even a small wine could follow each story.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

False River
by Paula Morris
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780143771630

 

 

Book Review: Sodden Downstream, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sodden_downstreamSodden Downstream has one of the best high concepts of any recent New Zealand novel; a major storm hits Wellington and all public transport has stopped, but Sita, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, has to get from the Hutt Valley to the city or risk losing her zero-hour cleaning job. Along the way, she’s helped by a varied cast of economically struggling characters also caught in the storm.

The novel’s a tonal departure for author Brannavan Gnanalingam, whose previous books have been more comic, and it’s a mixed success as a genre experiment. I liked the crisp prose style, but it’s often needlessly explicit, as if unconfident it’s getting the point across. There’s a good paragraph about excessive WINZ scrutiny spoiled by the blandly didactic sentence ‘Struggling people weren’t allowed to make mistakes’, a point the rest of the paragraph was making perfectly well.

Sodden Downstream’s narration is limited to Sita’s perspective, but the interior monologue we get doesn’t always gel with the actions of the character. Satirist Gnanalingam wants Sita insightful, while the plot needs her naïve; sometimes she’ll express confusion with New Zealand social norms, then a few sentences later make a wry, knowing observation about them. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with her being a smart, funny character, but her inconsistent cultural vocabulary leads to moments where you’re sharply aware you’re not listening to a barely-getting-by refugee but a middle-class Wellington intellectual. At one point she says her cooking wasn’t going to get a Michelin star, which I thought was one of those bits of cultural knowledge limited to people who had to wear ties to high school; I’d assumed a restaurant having one star meant it was rubbish and had to look it up.

Another voice issue is that we just don’t feel the urgency the plot needs. The mock-epic needs the same amount of tension as a straight quest narrative, especially when the tone’s as serious as it’s meant to be here, but Sodden Downstream feels almost casual when it’s meant to be pressing. There’s a very effective punctuationless chapter near the end where Sita flashes back to the civil war, but prior to this we don’t get that much of a sense of the strain she’s under.

This might be by design; what’s the trial she’s facing now compared to those she’s faced in the past? But it creates a major technical problem – if the novel’s about how bad things are now, and also how much worse they were before, it devalues the current struggle from a narrative perspective, which is the exact opposite of the book’s political intent.

Sita doesn’t set out on her quest until about 50 pages into the 180 page novel, a structural choice I can’t see the logic behind. This is a novel with a clean, stark premise, but it’s bogged down with a conventional expository first act instead of starting the story with the clock ticking. Because the details of Sita’s stressful home life are kept separate from the main action, we nearly forget about them once things are moving, and we don’t feel the connection between her life and her journey – we don’t have a strong enough sense of what she’s fighting for. If these details were spread throughout the story they’d cement that connection, and they’d be more interesting because we’re already identifying with her struggle. It’d help with the voice problems too – wouldn’t a woman in Sita’s situation be more likely to fret about the home life she might lose than strangers’ micro-aggressive questions about cricket?

The other characters are types, but generally well-drawn ones. Gnanalingam, a Lower Hutt native, has a great feeling for the area’s personalities and a precise ear for its idiom; a scene where Sita meets a just-released prisoner is especially good. The baddies are handled with less grace, though. They’re cheap targets, for one; cops, SUV drivers, WINZ. They’re painted a little more sympathetically than the monster in Alien, a little less sympathetically than Jew Süss. They’re moustache-twirling bastards, devoid of charisma, uninterested in even trying to conceal their essential bastardry. When Sita’s boss calls her, he uses the word ‘odium’ five times in two pages as a power move and calls her by a hated nickname every other sentence.

Would someone really act like this? I conceded they might, even that the specificity of ‘odium’ suggests it might be taken straight from a real-life anecdote. But realist fiction is a technical trick, a genre with a set of arbitrary conventions; it doesn’t matter if something is real, it has to feel real. Probably the rich are as awful as Gnanalingam makes out, but real life’s allowed to be cartoonish, while realist fiction readers demand complexity even when it’s phony. Especially bad is a scene where a red-faced, tight-uniformed cop bullies a troubled teenager, where he’s so blandly, typically wicked that I felt perversely compelled to take his side, if only to liven up the scene’s tired dynamic. Sure, it’s also a tired, familiar dynamic in real life, but we can at least ask fiction to inject a little specificity into everyday tyranny, right?

The flaws mean that this isn’t as strongly-worded a social critique as you might expect from the premise. Since only consensus villains are called out, readers are unlikely to feel their beliefs have been challenged. The non-villains are often casually, clumsily offensive, but are otherwise lovely, full of compassion and local colour and bonhomie, and there’s a slightly uncomfortable amount of praise of New Zealand from Sita. Chalk this up to cultural cringe, maybe – I was also pretty uneasy with the novel’s extensive use of the word ‘Kiwi’, which I associate mostly with advertisements – but it feels like calculated punch-pulling, as if Gnanalingam’s pre-empting an attack on his patriotic credentials from the Plunket-Hoskings-Garner editorial triangle.

Why can’t Sita be resentful? Why does she have to be the kind of noble, staunchly suffering refugee the Herald might write a fluff piece on? When you write a perfectly virtuous character who’s defined by their social type (and Sita certainly is), you’re playing into the idea that those people have to prove something, that the validity of their suffering is tied to them being better-than-average human beings. Since someone’s personal morality has nothing at all to do with the injustice of their social position, the really radical thing to do would be to write about a refugee who’s a total prick and demonstrate its complete irrelevance to the ethics of refugee policy. It might make for a better yarn, too.

Sodden Downstream is an alright novel with the components of a really good one, but they’ve been carelessly assembled. It could’ve been vastly improved with another serious edit, both for the narrative issues and technical ones – there’s a grammar error in the dedication, two sentences into the book, and more follow. Gnanalingam, a lawyer as well as a prolific essayist, critic and a five-time novelist in six years, feels like he writes as fast as he presumably must, and this work doesn’t seem to have gotten the attention it needed.

I like prolific writers because, as a rule, they’re weirder – more obsessive, less rigorously self-censored, closer to the lumpy, eerie source and further from good taste. But Sodden Downstream isn’t idiosyncratic enough to justify its very fixable issues; it’s not especially formally daring, or politically controversial, or boldly sentimental, or angry, or exuberant. It’s tasteful, and happy to exist in a familiar political conversation rather than push it anywhere. It’d be ideal for a year 11 English class; it’s got humanism and swearing.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Sodden Downstream
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473410292

Book Review: Feed Your Brain: The Cookbook, by Delia McCabe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_feed_your_brainIn Feed your Brain: The Cookbook, Delia McCabe applies her Masters in Psychology and over 20 years of research into the connection between nutrition and brain health to deliver over 100 plant-based recipes covering breakfast, mains, soups, dessert and more.

The book is well laid out and begins with an brief summary of the seven steps to improving your mental well-being, which was the subject of her first book Feed Your Brain, published in 2016. It also includes insightful FAQs such as the best sweeteners to use and meal prep suggestions.

Moving onto the recipes, they are easy to follow and McCabe covers a good variety of dishes such as stir-fry’s, burgers and salads. Most dishes have also been gorgeously photographed and styled. I made the bean soup, which was very easy to throw together. It wasn’t the most exciting soup but it’s a simple, healthy and cheap recipe to go to when you’re feeling lazy. I also made the lentil apricot salad (below). This was surprisingly tasty with the dressing and apricots bursting with flavour to create the most exciting lentil dish I’ve ever eaten.
lentil-apricol.jpg

Overall, this cookbook packs a lot more than just recipes and would be a good source for those ready to move towards a more plant-based diet.

One aspect I did find annoying were the spotlights on ingredients (usually vegetables or nuts) scattered throughout the book. These weren’t particular interesting and, due to the theme of the cookbook, could’ve had stronger links to benefits for the brain or body. While I am slowly shifting my diet towards more healthier and nutritious food, I think I would only flick through this cookbook occasionally or as a go to if I needed to find a make a dish that could cater for a vegan or gluten-free friend.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Feed Your Brain: The Cookbook
by Delia McCabe
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781925335613

Book Review: Edmund Hillary – A Biography, by Michael Gill

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_edmind_hillary_a_biography.jpgAuthor Michael Gill was a long-time friend of Sir Edmund Hillary’s. He accompanied him for over 50 years on many expedition, and was heavily involved in the Himalayan Trust, building schools and hospitals. The Hillary family gave Gill access to private papers and photos and others that had been donated by the family to the Auckland Museum, which enabled Gill to write probably the most in-depth book ever written about one of our national heroes.

This book looks at Sir Ed’s early life and how he became interested in climbing, telling the stories of his numerous attempts at Everest. Excerpts from letters that Sir Ed wrote have been included in this book, tying in the events surrounding them.

I have long been a fan of Sir Ed and have read every book he ever wrote and watched every television and film documentary made about his exploits over many years. He was my hero right through childhood and into adulthood. His feats to me were astounding.  As somebody who is experienced in outdoor adventures, one of the things that stood out to me was the equipment they carried on the early expeditions, and how far outdoor clothing and equipment has come over the years.

Edmund Hillary was not only a climber of Everest, he was an adventurer, a close friend of many, a son, a brother, a husband and a father to his 3 children. The tragedy of his wife Louise and his youngest daughter Belinda dying in a light air craft accident was an event that shocked the nation and the world. His wife Louise had been his rock and the love of his life for 22 years. The shock of her death sent Sir Ed spiralling into deep depression from which he eventually emerges, some years later marrying Peter Mulgrew’s widow, June. Peter Mulgrew was on the Erebus flight alongside others on that ill-fated flight.  Ed and Louise and Peter and June had been lifetime friends.

I was in my happy place reading this book. It is a fabulous book with many wonderful photos and stories never before published,of expeditions Sir Ed was involved in.  He had a very rich and exciting life that only some of us can dream about .

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Edmund Hillary – A Biography
by Michael Gill
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN  9780947503383