Book Review: The Devouring Dragon – How China’s rise threatens the natural world, by Craig Simons

I’ve never read a book about zombies, and now I don’t need to. cv_the_devouring_dragonThis book is frightening enough.

Craig Simons is a reporter on the environment, principally from Asia. In this brief account, he describes the effect that China’s phenomenal economic development over the last few decades has had on the environment of the whole planet. He bases this book on reporting trips over the period 2009-2012, and has conversations with many interesting people in some unexpected places. He blends personal stories, reportage, theory, and scientific and historical background, in a lively, often gripping way which carries the reader along a bleak road.

The environment is a broad topic, but there are two main themes: carbon emissions, which of course accelerate the rate of climate change world-wide, and the destruction of the natural world to satisfy China’s ever-growing need for resources.

As far as emissions are concerned, China is, per capita, the largest user of coal in the world. The author details the extent of this use, and discusses rather mournfully the lack of tangible results from the Kyoto and Copenhagen agreements. He puts the blame for this failure not only to China, but the developed world as well, describing the agreements as poorly implemented.

In terms of the natural world, China looks like a giant vacuum cleaner. It is the largest market for threatened species of wild-life, principally for use in traditional medicine. It has changed from being self-sufficient in forestry to stripping huge areas of tropical forests. Soy-beans are needed – so farmers in Brazil clear vast swathes of the Amazonian rain-forests. And there are many more examples, covering a wide geographic range. The author starts in Colorado, visits New Guinea, Brazil, India and many other places. New Zealand gets two mentions: for what is described as the alarming rate in which land is being converted to dairying, and for mining coal. You may disagree with one or both of these and that stimulation of discussion is one of the book’s strengths.factories_china

The issues are described partly by observation – the book becomes a travelogue in places – and partly using a huge number of figures, which are carefully interwoven into the narrative so not to appear as reference material. He covers a vast amount of ground, and while I knew that China’s growth had costs, the full impact and the wide geographical sweep of the depredation astonished me. Many of his figures will be obsolete very quickly of course, but that does not matter: they give a scale which it is sometimes difficult to appreciate: one fifth of humanity, one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, one half of all coal burnt in the world.

But there’s a loaded word in that paragraph. Depredation – really? Why should the Chinese not aspire to the same standard of living as other economies who started their exploitation of the environment earlier? Simons does not shy away from this, and makes it clear that China alone cannot solve the problems. Cooperation on an unheard-of scale between the large economies is the only hope for any solution. This cooperation founders of course on self-interest; NZ is unlikely to want to stop selling dairy products.

Simons is sympathetic towards China, and makes it clear that there is nothing to be gained by being anti-China. He takes a number of historical detours, showing that at least some of the blame lies with the West.tiger_boner

What about solutions? The author describes some attempts that have been made to resolve some of the issues. For example, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a major factor in the dreadful loss of Rhino, Tigers and other animals. Yet many doctors in China realise that TCM is worthless, and are trying to teach the population that this is so. Without much success so far – and it is here that we see the vast range of China, geographically, ethnically and socially. It would be fair to say that while Simons describes solutions in many areas, he is pessimistic about the likelihood of success any time soon.

As always with books on complex topics, I want to be assured that the author is worth trusting. And he is a journalist after all! He is an American, was a Peace Corps volunteer in China, studied widely and now lives in Beijing. He has reported on the environment from “a dozen” Asian nations, for newspapers and magazines. He has taken information from a lot of sources, and talked to a lot of smart people. Often the source material is not allowed to disrupt the flow of the book but is relegated to forty pages of notes, which are reassuringly complete. The writing is excellent – it is well paced, mixes direct observation of situations world-wide with reflection, and he has a great knack for highlighting one small detail which epitomises the big picture. It would have been easy just to write a lament but he hasn’t.

So, no zombies but the book frightened me anyway, and left me both better informed and more concerned. Well worth reading.

The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens the Natural World
by Craig Simmons
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551888

Book Review: How to hear classical music, by Davinia Caddy (Awa Press)

Available in bookstores now.

This is the latest (number 11) in the delightful G11coverPrint_July5“ginger” series from Awa Press. It has been proven that to take an apparently simple task or event, and find an expert in the field to write a short work about it provides the reader with an interesting, insightful and not-too-long volume. It helps that the book is beautifully presented – excellent paper, clear typeface and decent margins. This may sound superficial, but lately it seems to be increasingly difficult to find books which are beautifully produced.

So, to the work itself. I find it fascinating that Caddy has entitled it “how to hear” rather than “how to listen to”. She has a clear understanding of the noise which constantly surrounds us, and is aware of how many of us select what we want to hear via iPods and so on, rather than be assaulted by the cacophany of daily life.

Her writing style is easy, chatty almost, and certainly engaging. She addresses the many ways in which classical music has been presented, from the concert hall recital (“Blow ’em up!”) to the Landfill Harmonic Youtube clip. I found myself heading to the computer to check out many of the artists and  works mentioned, and have a list of music which I ought to own but don’t yet!

To the purist, Davinia Caddy may be challenging. To a rank amateur, she is a tonic – rules of how to  listen to music are forsworn in favour of real-life experiments and experiences ranging from the apparently-randomly-placed pianos which pop up all over European cities, just for people to play on, to Jane Chapman’s revival of music for the harpsichord, and from how phone-music ruins our favourite pieces to how modern opera is transforming itself.

I found it a fascinating and enlightening journey through the development of  classical music, which certainly makes the reader want to explore further and hear music differently.

Highly recommended, 9/10!

Reviewed by Susan Esterman

How to hear classical music
by Davinia Caddy
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551000

Book review: Everyday Cycling in Aotearoa New Zealand by Alastair Smith

cv_everyday_cyclingThis book is in bookstores now

Over the past week, Television New Zealand seem to have hit their viewing audience hard about cyclists sharing the roads with motor vehicles and whether Hi-Vis gear is actually making a difference to road safety.

Most recently, Breakfast interviewed Dr Glen Koorey from University of Canterbury, who discussed findings from his research over the past several years of fatal cycling accidents in New Zealand. He believes that much of the problem is the lack of “road-user education, cycle training and just general understanding and empathy for each other.” If you ask any experienced urban cyclist, they would probably agree with Dr Koorey.

I have been cycling in Wellington for years either for leisure, training for an event or commuting to and from work and I have also had my fair share of ‘close-calls’ with motorists. Sometimes it was their fault, other times it was mine – either way, those close calls could have been avoided if I had taken the time to be a little more cautious of road-traffic behaviour.

Urban cycling also comes down to being confident while riding and there are a lot of training courses in the Wellington region to assist cyclists at all levels, just visit the Greater Wellington Regional Council website for more information. However, if you don’t wish to do a cycle training course or they aren’t readily available where you live, than let me recommend a superb little book called Everyday Cycling in Aotearoa New Zealand by Alastair Smith (Awa Press, December 2012). This book is ideal for first-time cyclist and also has some worthy tips for the more experienced cyclists.

The content layout and colour images are clear, simple to read and very comprehensible; I personally appreciate Awa Press correctly placing macrons on Māori place names. The book is small enough to easily carry around with you, yet sturdy enough to be shoved in the back pocket of your cycling jersey, carried home in the rain, dropped on the tarmac and shared with numerous friends. Please don’t think that I am a book-abuser by nature, I’m quite the opposite, this particular book just happened to forgo a series of unfortunate incidents.

For such a small book, it covers just about everything you can think of for urban cycling, from selecting a bike and cycling gears through to riding skills, bicycles on public transport, basic bicycle maintenance and recommended routes in major cities throughout the country.

I lent this book to my friend who has been cycling for as long as I have, but unlike me, she doesn’t drive and has no intention of ever learning. What she found most useful about this book was the ‘Skills for everyday cycling’ chapter (page 62). Through the use of diagrams, she finally understood how the traffic flowed through intersections and where she should position herself and her bicycle in regards to stationary and moving cars – obviously my previous attempts to show her these lessons while driving, waving my hands about, making animal noises and pointing at spots, weren’t that helpful.

For another friend I lent the book to, who can drive but is new to cycling, I stuck numerous tags to page 44 – the section about safety gear. Hi Vis reflector gear does matter! Wearing black or dark clothing at night in the rain with only a pithy little front light on your handle bars is dangerous. During peak-hour traffic motorists look for big obvious lights or indicators and as Smith says, “Although looking like a road worker may not be chic, [visibility clothing] is a great way to get yourself noticed.”

Everyday Cycling in Aotearoa New Zealand also has a glossary at the back, very useful for when you go to the bike shop and the mechanic starts telling you about a time when derailleur gears on recumbent got damaged during a dooring. Above all else, this book is a great gift for the person ‘who has everything’ including a bike that’s just sitting in the garage collecting dust. Retailing at $35, this book is worth every cent.

Reviewed by Charlie Holland

Everyday Cycling in Aotearoa New Zealand
by Alastair Smith
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551017

Book Review: Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother by MaryJane Thomson

cv_sarah_vaughan_is_not_my_motherThis is in bookshops now.

The interesting thing about reading memoir, for a seasoned fiction reader, is that memoir (being life) refuses to bow to any of the rules of fiction with which we are so unconsciously familiar. In fiction, if a character has an interesting and significant conversation with, say, a taxi driver, the taxi driver will undoubtedly turn up again later in the story. In memoir though, things happen in a random series of individual events, and any attempt at unravelling or predicting what will happen next is thwarted by the untidiness of life.

In MaryJane Thomson’s Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother, this disconnect is even more evident as the main character, MaryJane herself, is in the throes of psycho-affective disorder, has been sectioned under the mental health act, and is incarcerated in a mental health facility. MaryJane spends her days surviving the monotony of the ward with nicotine and black coffee, and creating artworks on the floor of her bedroom with cold tea, fruit and Coke bottles. To shake off her dependency on illegal drugs, she is numbed instead by prescription medication which, despite its many undesirable side effects, seems to do little to quiet the voice in her head.

The voice in MaryJane’s head is one of the most interesting characters in the book, and although it’s hard to know how accurate her depiction of this might be, it is an interesting and compelling account of what it might be like to live with this type of illness. Her voice variously tells her she is the incarnation of Jesus, has been violently assaulted by pretty much every member of her family and all her friends, and that she is actually black, the natural daughter of music legends Jimi Hendrix and Sarah Vaughan, but that she was “bleached” at birth to disguise her origins.

MaryJane sometimes obeys the voice, sometimes believes it but is hesitant to act on what it tells her to do, and sometimes outright disbelieves it, and tells it so. Her reaction to the voice at any given point is a good indicator of her mental state throughout the book – the more mistrustful she is of the voice, the closer she seems to be to stable mental health.

The dialogue in the book is often quite stilted and unnatural, but it’s hard to tell whether this is the result of a writer unfamiliar with writing dialogue, or a deliberate choice to heighten the surreal nature of MaryJane’s situation. Whichever it was, I found it quite distracting, and more liberal use of contractions (e.g. “I’ve…” rather than “I have…”) and more attention to the natural rhythms of the dialogue would have increased the book’s readability.

The other thing I found unusual about the book was the portion of her story that MaryJane has chosen to tell. Rather than describe her first descent into mental ill-health, or her climb out of it towards recovery, this memoir describes a rather arbitrary section in the middle. Only the author’s note gives us any contextual information about MaryJane, and the epilogue feels a bit tacked on the end. The book itself lacks any sort of character arc, or definite beginning, middle and end, although this is another peculiarity of memoir, as opposed to fiction.

MaryJane’s story is compelling, and provides an honest but sympathetic portrayal of what it is like to be sectioned under the mental health act, suffering from a psychiatric disorder. I would particularly recommend this book to anyone who has a friend or family member going through any sort of struggle with mental ill health, or anyone who has worked in or is interested in working in the mental health sector.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother: A Memoir of Madness 
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551802 (paperback)
ISBN 9781877551819 (e-book)

Book review: Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World By Steve Braunias

This book is in bookstores now.
cv_civilisation twenty places
Steve Braunias is a New Zealander who grew in Mt Manganui and has won 30 national awards for writing. He has written columns for newspapers, magazines and numerous books including Fish of the Week (2008) and also managed to fit in a bit of writing for a few television programmes, including the satirical television series Eating Media Lunch and The Unauthorised History of New Zealand – two series I actually watched and enjoyed.

Once I started reading this extraordinary book, I found it hard to put it down. Steve spent three years travelling throughout New Zealand. He also travelled to Scott Base in Antarctica, and Apia in Samoa, both of which have strong links to New Zealand. He visited places, met people and for a short time lived amongst them. Steve spent many hours observing people and places and then managed to get them to open up about their lives, with what seems, not much effort. Their stories are at times unbelievable and some are even slightly bizarre.

Hicks Bay – we meet Lance Roberts, who was just about to turn 85 who used to work as a slaughterman at the local freezing works along the coast at Tokomaru and now lives in an apartment he had fashioned out of part of the old freezing works – Lance bought it in 1984 for $25,000. Part of the purchase were the 69 acres which he then cut it up into seven paddocks, planting trees and knocking it into shape. There were blackberry and woolly nightshade and every other thing you could put a name to.

We learn about the history of the frozen export industry in early New Zealand history. I felt myself being transported back to my 5th form history class with Mr Hunt. – I got 23 percent in School Certificate History – my essays were often described as fairy stories!. Steve has spurred an interest I certainly never had at school.

Waiouru – population 2,000 and our Army training base. Major Chas Charlton says “Waiouru is our college and our university.” There are stories of ghosts and spirits. A woman was killed in a car accident many years ago and is sometimes seen driving along the Desert Road. We meet Teahu Peters 18, who joined up to change his life. He’d been in a bit of trouble with the Police. Outside the army camp is a sign that tells you that the security alert level is black. It has stayed that colour since 9/11.

Apia in Samoa, a place I visited a few years ago on holiday and was not one I personally would ever go back to – too many churches for my liking, with already struggling families tithing with money sent from families back in New Zealand. Steve meets the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi. He talks to him in length and to the locals. We get a feeling through the pages that perhaps the Prime Minister has a questionable style of leadership which is being upheld by the Samoan Government, and maybe not necessarily for the benefit of its island residents. I felt a roller-coaster of emotions, but mainly outrage as I read on, mainly on behalf of the people that lived in a village near the sea at Sigo. They were paid 3,000 tala to move out after the tsunami, not because it had borne the brunt and suffered major damage, like so many other seaside villages, but because the Government wanted the land to put up a new Government building.

Mt Roskill, in Auckland. A place that at one time was known as New Zealand’s Bible belt and for the outspoken religious views of the late Keith Hay, who I think from memory, was at one time Mayor of Mt Roskill. He founded the building company Keith Hay Homes. Now days you can find religions and people from other places. What used to be the Christian Congregational Church of Samoa is now a Hindu temple and a fitness centre, which on the surface sounds a rather strange combination. There are now an estimated 36,000 Muslims in New Zealand with refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. They have 41 different nationalities who attend the Mosque. The largest population of Muslims live in Mt Roskill. You have blocks of shops that include the Khoobsurat Hair and Beauty Salon, Mohammed’s Halal Meats.

In old Mt Roskill on the corner of Sandringham Road stands the shop owned by the Giles brothers, Kevin, Alan and Phillip – Giles Carpets. They have been in business since 1981. Stoddard Road and Stoddard Creek is semi-industrial. Zeb Mohammed, a Pakistani, is the proprietor of Khyber Foods and Spices. He sells anything from ox tongues, to Thums Up colas. A nearby shop window offers something that sounds rather bizarre – Dr Wasfy Shahin advertising that he will be doing circumcisions. A Palestinian from Iraq refugee Loia Mouhmod makes delicious semolina squares sold at King Tut. Mt Roskill has changed beyond recognition. It now sounds a much more interesting place.

Steve visited Hicks Bay, Pegasus, Waiouru, St Bathans, Ohinemutu and Whakarewarewa, the Hauraki Plains, Miranda and Birdland, Scott Base in Antarctica, Apia in Samoa, Mt Roskill,, Wanganui (or Whanganui, and still being debated amongst the local residents), Mercer, Winton, Tangimoana, Mosgiel, Wanaka, Greymouth, Collingwood, Wainuiomata, and last but not least, the Maromaku Valley. I’ve only touched on a few of the twenty places. Stories of people and places that seemed out of odds with what I deem normal, but then what is normal?

I have enjoyed meeting through the pages of this book, the many personalities, the places, and their stories. I found this book funny, sad, and at times, I felt outrage. Not at Steve, but at the hopelessness of situations within some communities. Many of the places I have visited at one time or another, but note that I have observed nothing. Next visit I must take time to really look!

Highly Recommended

Review by Christine Frayling

Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World
by Steve Braunias
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551352

Book review: Vinacular: A Wine Lover’s A-Z by Scott Kennedy and John Saker

cv_vinacularThis book is in bookstores now.

With books that are a combined effort between a writer and an artist, it seems to be the norm that on the cover the writer’s name goes first. But in this little gem, the artist’s name is the first on the cover. Is it because K comes before S? Or is it because the illustrations, that are so perfect in every way, stand out more than the writing?

I like to think this could be the case, as the illustrations really are quite lovely – gorgeous quirky little drawings, bold but not overpowering use of colour, that capture so succinctly equally well worded snippets of wine trivia that Mr Saker has so neatly defined for us. Together the two make this a very nicely produced little book that is a pleasure to pick up, open, randomly read, chuckle, put down and very quickly pick up again.

I wonder how much wine passed Mr Saker’s lips while he was researching and formulating his definitions? Some really are quite funny – “Entry Level Wines – Entry level wines are like ground-floor apartments. It’s where you start out, pay less, get no kind of a view and wonder how good it must be up there in the penthouse. (Or how hideous down in the basement.)”Or Quaffer – “Quaff a quaffer to quickly quench, but factor in the quality quotient, for down so easy can go quite queasy. ‘He made me a quaffer I should have refused!’ “ And so it goes on for the other 24 letters of the alphabet.

I know Christmas has been and gone, and this book was in the shops then. But it really is the most perfect little gift book, and you don’t have to be a wine expert to enjoy the match between words and pictures. I bet Mr Kennedy and Mr Saker had way more fun putting this together than we could ever have reading and re-reading it, but that joy and passion for what they do comes flying off the pages for us to enjoy. With a glass of wine and a companion to laugh with. And you couldn’t possibly get the same enjoyment from reading this on an E-Reader. After all where would all the red wine drips and drops, evidence of a good time, go?

Reviewed by Felicty Murray who blogs as Kiwi Flora Reads

Vinacular: A Wine Lover’s A-Z
by Scott Kennedy and John Saker
Published by Awa Press
ISBN  9781877551611

Book review: An Indescribable Beauty by Friedrich August Krull

cv_an_indescribable_beautyThis book is in bookstores now.

I love finding new ways to look at our history. It’s so tempting to think of colonial times as English vs Maori that it’s easy to disregard all the other nationalities and peoples who arrived on all those ships, all those years ago. On 22 January 1859, the Equator delivered a young German man from Neubrandenburg to Wellington, and I am very glad he came.

Friedrich August Krull must have been an extraordinarily warm, capable and interesting man. The person who emerges from these letters is a curious and welcoming observer, and a charming teller of tales. I really wish I’d had this book during my history degree, because it gives you a real sense of what it would have been like to live here in the nineteenth century. Krull describes the people, places and ways of living so deftly and vividly that I felt a shock of new understanding.

It was a different time. Societies and lands were being formed, broken, and reformed in new patterns. Maori outnumbered Pakeha and the threat of interracial violence was never too far below the surface. Krull’s observations of the Maori he met are fascinating: he comments on their strange customs but seems to be free of the common European urge to ‘civilise’. He exchanges gifts and makes friends wherever he goes.

The natural environment was different then too. My favourite part of my journey with Friedrich was tramping with him through the bush: gluttonous foliage and deafening birdsong for miles upon miles upon miles. The mozzies must have been dire but he doesn’t dwell on them, describing instead his enchantment with the fresh and bursting beauty of the nineteenth-century Wellington landscape.

The publisher has sprinkled period illustrations liberally throughout the text, but I found them to be a distraction. With such a vivid, luscious film unspooling through my head from Friedrich’s words, the tiny, drab watercolours and amateur sketches looked dreary and at odds with the story. I also found I had to intentionally ignore the illustrations’ captions, in order to not interrupt the flow of the text.

But, in the main, Krull’s letters have been lovingly and beautifully published. The book is physically solid and satisfying – it feels exactly the right size, weight and texture, and the design and typesetting is superb (well done Greg Simpson). I particularly liked the choices of fonts, which work together in a way I wouldn’t have thought of, but which is exactly right.

Interestingly, the publishers have made the decision to use modern spellings of place-names, including macrons for Maori words where appropriate. While I understand this drive to change the author’s voice for the sake of clarity, I would have been curious to learn, for example, how Krull spelled ‘Maori’ in German.

Overall, then, I highly recommend letting Friedrich August Krull take you on a guided tour around his Wellington. He is so enthusiastic, so curious, so eager to learn, to be pleased and to teach. An Indescribable Beauty is an unexpected joy.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

An Indescribable Beauty: Letters home to Germany from Wellington, New Zealand, 1859 & 1862
by Friedrich August Krull
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551338

Book Review: Fate & Philosophy by Jim Flynn

This book is in bookstores now.

I was a little apprehensive before I started reading this book, given its lofty subject matter: free will, morality, God, and the nature of reality. I needn’t have worried – while it’s not exactly light reading, it’s also aimed at readers who are mere dabblers in philosophy, rather than experts. Jim Flynn’s prose is also highly readable, bringing a potentially dry topic to life.

I found the page-turning quality of the writing was something of a double-edged sword; I kept forging onwards even when I knew I ought to stop and let concepts settle in my mind. This is a book that really needs to be absorbed in a leisurely manner.

Possibly due to my impatient reading habits, I found much of Fate & Philosophy left me feeling both vindicated and confused. In each chapter Flynn goes through a specific philosophical quandary and explores alternative viewpoints on the issue. I found this disorienting at times as it felt like the author was switching ‘sides’ mid-stream. Also frustrating was that so many of the chapters seemed to end on the note of ‘Well, actually there isn’t one true answer to this question.’ Apparently ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly legitimate philosophical conclusion – good to know!

Fate & Philosophy certainly covers some potentially knotty problems. Is there an objective moral standard with absolute rules on what’s right and wrong? This is a question that’s mildly bothered me for years. I’ve always instinctively rejected the idea that right and wrong depend on your point of view, but I’ve never been convinced of the existence of an objective standard either. Jim Flynn also admits defeat in his search for an objective moral standard, but suggests that this doesn’t mean it’s necessary to abandon humanist ideals. I’m completely on board with his conclusion, but I have to admit I didn’t entirely follow the chain of reasoning that led to it.

Although in his introduction Jim Flynn states that this is a book for philosophy newbies, I occasionally found myself floundering. He is constantly mentioning past philosophical thinkers and schools of philosophy – I had a hard time keeping track of all the names, arguments and time periods.

I initially had quite a lot of enthusiasm for the book, but I started to flag about halfway through. I’m not sure if this is because there’s only so much philosophy one can take over a relatively short space of time, or if the writing/topics became less interesting as they went on. The last few chapters deal with the subject of religion, but even as an atheist I found the arguments against God weak and unpersuasive.

Overall, I enjoyed Fate & Philosophy. This isn’t a book that will persuade you out of whatever beliefs you currently hold, but anyone keen to dip their toes into the philosophy waters will find it an engaging and thought-provoking read.

Reviewed by Amber Carter

Fate & Philosophy
by Jim Flynn
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551321

Book review: The Owl That Fell from the Sky by Brian Gill

This book is in bookstores now.

It would be easy to underestimate this new release from Awa Press being that it’s small in stature (14cm x 14cm) with an elegant, yet unassuming cover. Yet what a mistake you would make.

I was entirely captivated by The Owl That Fell from the Sky – a journey through the stories of 15 museum objects held in collections around the country.

As author Brian Gill writes on page 23, “These stories – of which a selection from my own experiences make up this book – show how developing, curating and understanding collections can provide richness and endless fascination.”

My copy is now shamefully dog eared (I spent a lot of time flicking from the stories to the excellent appendixes) and has several corners turned over (the books is very quotable and you want to access those again).

Far from being simple stories of museum objects, these are detailed, rich tales that are captivating, contemporary (in their writing), upbeat and at times very funny.

“Like hospitals, postage stamps, fire brigades, and sliced bread, public museums were such a good idea they caught on everywhere.” (Page 7, introduction).

The Owl That Fell from the Sky is also the start of a potential adventure – I found myself immediately wanting to see the Kaikoura moa egg in real life – and thanks to some very well done referencing, the cataloguing details, including museum registration details are listed at the back of the book.

For the more earnest amongst us I can imagine this book sitting nicely in the glove compartment of the car – to be whipped out for spontaneous object viewing around New Zealand museums.

There’s also quite a lot of detail for amateurs wishing to learn more about how museums operate. I found the description of naming conventions particularly interesting – especially in relation to what is and isn’t acceptable to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

Brian Gill not only takes us through great objects, but great careers and the idiosyncrasies of life as a museum employee. For almost six years I worked in the exhibitions team at Te Papa so when reading about the career of Peter Whitehead (1930-1992) that, “[Whitehead] worked on the draft of a satirical novel about events behind the scenes in the running of the museum,” I laughed out loud.

I’m a bit old fashioned in that I think to be called an expert in your field you need to have either a) studied to the highest degree, b) given your life to your subject or c) (and most preferable) both. As a web editor it makes me INSANE to hear people talking about ‘social media experts’ so Owl by contrast was refreshing – it was filled with ‘real’ experts whose life and work was written about in the most honourable and endearing way.

[Thomas Cheeseman] “While a strong advocate of the museum’s work and a top biologist was by all accounts a quiet achiever and a gentleman.”

The stories in Owl are far bigger than the ten or so pages that each occupies and this is surely the type of book that should be read, re-read and referenced by its owners for years to come.

It’s also filled with all sorts of jolly good inside information – like how the former paging system of the Auckland Museum worked (it’s hilarious), the public service the museum playing during the war by publishing guides for airmen of what fruits and vegetables were safe to eat if shipwrecked or lost in the Pacific, and where the best place to dry elephant bones was.

By far my favourite story was about Rajah the elephant – one of the sadder stories but also one of the most gripping. There’s no detail spared about how to taxidermy an elephant (including scraping, draping and drying); “in some places his skin was five centimetres thick,” so that’s one best left for well after dinner.

Many of the stories in Owl include a call from the public that can either be nothing or lead to incredible discoveries, and in some cases, corrections of history.

“An unexpected telephone call or visitor, heralding what may be a rare or unusual find, adds spice to the natural history curator’s day. Amid routine interruptions there will sooner or later, and quite at random, be an event to write home about.”

The Owl That Fell from the Sky is definitely a book to write home about.

Reviewed by Emma McCleary, web editor at Booksellers NZ

The Owl That Fell from the Sky: stories of a museum curator
by Brian Gill
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551130

Book review: So Brilliantly Clever by Peter Graham

 This book is in stores now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

58 years ago a murder occurred in New Zealand’s Garden City.  Christchurch in the 1950’s was a very different time and place to the world we live in today.  Murder in this time was not a daily occurrence.  The lives of two families would be forever intertwined due to the friendship of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker.

I admit to being a huge fan of murder mysteries – what drives a person to commit murder – are some people just born evil or are some people just changed by the circumstances thrust upon them?

In this fascinating piece of New Zealand history, Peter Graham delves deeply into these very questions – what drives a daughter to kill her mother? What causes the mother of another child to destroy material  evidence?  What really happened that fateful day in Victoria Park? Was the sanity verdict correct – or was it a case of Folie à deux?

Graham’s research into the case is staggering – here we have access to transcripts from the trial, in-depth analysis into the psyche of these two teenagers, and insight into the lives of these two women nearly six decades later.

Of course many would have first heard of this trial through the acclaimed Peter Jacskon movie Heavenly Creatures, but there is so much more to this story that could never have been told on the screen.

Whilst I found this book fascinating there were a few things that bothered me.  Namely – well names! After reading the book we discover that there were many names for the people associated with this trial – the girls themselves had many nick-names for each other, however the frequent name changes of the mother between Parker and Rieper were, I must admit, very confusing at the beginning.  My wish was that there was a more detailed breakdown of who was who in this case.  And (my pet hate) I found at least two bad typos in this particular copy.  Where was the editor?

However these are minor quibbles, but I DO believe a review should dish it all out – the good and the bad.

On the whole I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about this fascinating case, has an interest in New Zealand and Christchurch in the middle of the 20th century – far different from our current social network-driven lives, or just, like me, loves a really good read.  It is quite simply (apologies for the bad English) “un put-downable”

Reviewed by Julia Leathwick

So Brilliantly Clever
by Peter Graham
Published by Awa Press
ISBN  9781877551123