Book Review: House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery, by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_house_of_dreams.jpgWhat a wonderful biography, of the girl known as ‘Maud’, who was the wonderful writer behind Anne of Green Gables. As well as many other novels, a couple of biographies, and countless poems and stories.

Sometimes you are so secure in your own world, you forget about our collective history as women. That once, women were expected to be no more educated than was required for the purposes of keeping a household in order. And that it was seen as perverse if a woman required any further education, let alone needed money to achieve this end. When relatives died, money was not left for the education or keeping of a female relative, but to the boys in the family.

Reading Maud’s story made me cry several times. Her mother died when she was only two, so the family moved to Cavendish, her mother’s parents’ grand house in Prince Edward Island, where she was raised by them as her father departed to make his fortunes elsewhere in the new country of Canada. Her grandmother showed very little emotion nor love, but cared for her in her own way. Her grandfather is rarely brought into the biography by Rosenberg, except to say ‘no’ when asked for money towards Maud’s education.

Rosenberg portrays Maud’s real love as her writing, and secondly, her friends. She had many deep and lasting friendships, both on Prince Edward Island and later, on the mainland. She was very tied to her home, and was immensely aware of the beauty of the world around her.

This biography puts forward the idea that Maud was manic depressive, and had seasonal affective disorder. Rosenberg uses past biographies, alongside letters and diaries to build this throughout the book, which is told in beautiful prose, balanced with a biographers’ eye for information worthy of inclusion. There were no parts of the book where I couldn’t see the purpose each paragraph played in telling the story of Maud. This is the mark of an excellent biography.

Maud was let down quite severely by many in her life, but never her Grandmother Lucy, for whom she was named (the L is Lucy). Grandmother gave her hard-saved cash from the household fund to help her achieve her two stints at University, as well as helping her to get a job to earn the rest of the cash.

Maud’s success in writing was self-made, and she was extremely driven. After being a teacher for a couple of years, then a journalist (thanks to a suitor getting her a job), she returned back to Cavendish to look after her ailing grandmother, and stop her being kicked out of her home by her uncle John. That is where Anne took seed in her mind, and there is a site nearby the original home, that is labelled as being Green Gables.

There are lovely line-drawings at the front of each chapter, summarising the topic of each chapter – the passions, the depressions and more of Maud as her life plays out. The illustrator is Julie Morstad, and they feel deliberately similar to the turn-of-the-century illustrations of Anne of Green Gables.

I finished this biography with many things to thank feminism and the study of psychiatric medicine for. The ability as a woman to work full time, and have children; the ability to get pills for ailments of the mind; the ability to live independently of a man should I so wish. Rosenberg has brought a truly fascinating story to life with her own writing gift. I’d recommend this to anybody who wants an insight into the life of a writer, and the life of a woman over the turn of the century.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery
by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN 9780763660574

Book Review: The Expatriates, by Martin Edmond

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_expatriates.jpgReading The Expatriates reminded me of my high school years and how I loved history because I had a teacher who made the subject come alive. Martin Edmond has that same talent and I found myself getting caught up in the stories he tells of four New Zealanders who achieved fame in Europe.

Some of the material Edmond based his book on came from the late James McNeish.

Although this book is closer to a textbook than anything else, Edmond writes well, apart from an annoying habit of referring alternately to people by their first and last names, which can be confusing.

The four profiled are Harold Williams, journalist and linguist; Ronald Syme, spy, libertarian, and historian of ancient Rome; John Platts-Mills, radical lawyer (he once defended notorious gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray) and political activist; and Joseph Burney Trapp, librarian, scholar and protector of culture.

The most interesting to me – and possibly Edmond too, as he devotes the largest section of the book to him – was Harold Williams.

The son of a Methodist preacher, Williams became fascinated by foreign languages and mastered a large number. After moving overseas he worked as a correspondent for various publications and reported on conflicts and politics, moving in exalted circles due to his incredible command of languages.

Williams lived and worked in Russia during the turbulent years of Lenin, Trotsky and Rasputin. He married a Russian woman, Ariadna Tyrkova, and devoted much of his life to researching and recording Russia’s history.

Each man has a fascinating life story, and in the case of Platts-Mills, an equally fascinating family. His mother was one of the few female registered doctors in New Zealand in the early 1900s. I’m hoping Edmond may turn his attention to writing a similar book about New Zealand women who achieved fame overseas last century.

This book is a great tribute to four men who went on to make a success of things overseas, and a great reminder that New Zealand has always produced brilliant and revolutionary people.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Expatriates
by Martin Edmond
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781988533179


Book Review: Casting Off – A Memoir, by Elspeth Sandys

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_casting_off_a_memoirCasting Off begins on the eve of Elspeth Sandys’ first marriage in Dunedin in the 1960s where she says, ‘Presbyterianism is in the air you breathe in this town. It is also, and always will be, in my bloodstream’.

This is the second volume of her memoir, the first What Lies Beneath, explained her interesting and challenging background and childhood.

I checked the the difference between an autobiography and memoir before I could write the review, and I learned the autobiography is a chronological recording of the person’s experience while the memoir relies more on the author’s memory, feelings and emotions
Sandys herself says, ‘I will try to stick to the facts, avoiding invention but guided, as I cannot help be, as I have always been, by imagination’.

I have not read the first volume but found this an interesting read and was able to pick up the facts of Sandys early life as the book progressed.

After her marriage the couple left New Zealand to live in England where they enjoy the arts and theatre scene. However, work is intermittent, and by 1968 she is divorced and back in New Zealand with a daughter.

The book is supported with photographs supporting many of the significant events in the author’s life. Many of the earlier photos are black and white but there are also a number of more recent coloured snaps, including The Long House, a home she lived in London during her next marriage.

I enjoyed the inclusion of poems appropriately slotted throughout the book which shows the versatility of Sandys writing.

She has published nine novels, and two collections of short stories as well as numerous original plays and adaptions for the BBC and RNZ, as well as scripts for film and television. She now lives in Wellington, has two children and six grandchildren.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Casting Off – A Memoir
by Elspeth Sandys
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522551




Book Review: A Crime in the Family, by Sacha Batthyany

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_crime_in_the_familyThis book was an intriguing choice from the review pile. The author, Sacha Batthyany, is a journalist, born in Switzerland to Hungarian parents. He belongs to a once aristocratic, wealthy and powerful Hungarian family who lost everything in the Second World War, and in the Communist takeover immediately afterwards. Like many wealthy families, his grandmother’s family chose to flee, in this case to Switzerland. Sometime before the war, his great uncle, Count Batthyany, had married Margit Thyssen-Bornesmisza, sister of Baron Thyssen-Bornesmisza, billionaire Swiss industrialist and famous art collector, and they lived in the castle the family owned in Rechnitz, a town near the Austrian-Hungary border.

Quite by chance, around 2007, Sacha found out that Margit was involved in a massacre of 180 Jews that took place while she was hosting a party one night towards the end of the war at the family castle. Amongst the guests were German aristocrats and SS officers, as well as local officials. This is the first he has heard of such an appalling event, naturally he must find out more, and so his journey begins, the result of which is this memoir.

Once I had finished reading this book, I tracked down via Google what may be the original article that propelled Sacha into investigating and answering the questions about his family’s past. It is clear that the writer of the article, David Litchfield, does not have a high opinion of Sacha Batthyany, but that is another story and just as intriguing as this book. Links to the article and the writer of it are at the bottom of this review.

After so many years, so much death, records destroyed or altered, so many people refusing to speak, it is very hard to know what is the truth and what isn’t. Hungary being behind the Iron Curtain for so long has not helped the dissemination of information, and with virtually no-one from that time still alive, maybe the truth will never come out. However, this does not detract at all from a most interesting and at times very emotional journey that the author must take to track down what his family members did or did not do.

Sacha has a number of sources in his search. Firstly, his father is still alive, and as a small boy lived in the castle, although too young to remember what happened in 1944. He is most reluctant to speak about what happened, the rumours, any coverup. Sacha’s grandmother, Maritta, kept a diary during the terrible war years, and it is in reading this that Sacha comes across another tragic and violent episode involving a local Jewish family. Sacha again has to question everything he has heard about his family and what went on during those years.

His investigations uncover the daughter of the Jewish family, Agnes, now very elderly and living in South America with her own daughters. She was a friend of Sacha’s grandmother and also kept a diary during the war years, survived Auschwitz and its aftermath, but never knew what had happened to her parents or her brother. The family very generously allow Sacha to read the diaries, and eventually he is able to return to Agnes and tell her exactly what happened to the rest of her family.

Secrets, secrets and more secrets. As the years pass, the survivors of the war years are dying. In many cases they take the secrets of what happened to them, to their communities, betrayals, good deeds and bad, to the grave with them. It was a truly terrible time, and who can blame them for wanting to bury it all as deep as they can. That their children and now grandchildren are beginning their own investigations is producing many many books of this ilk such as The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Vaal. Sacha Batthyany is clearly very troubled about what his family did or omitted to do during the war, and the veil of silence he appears to keep coming up against is difficult for him to bear.

This book is as much about the author’s journey of discovery as it is about what actually happened. At least two trips to the town of Rechnitz, one with his elderly and reluctant father, another to Buenos Aires, and weekly visits with his psychoanalyst are all carefully documented. He actually struggles more with what happened to Agnes’s family than he does the massacre. This may be because the massacre has been well-documented, accurately or otherwise, but the deaths of Agnes’s parents not at all. His ‘family’ guilt almost consumes him, and as annoying as I found them, the weekly sessions with Dr Strassberg have their own reveal.

Sacha Batthyany is just one of many thousands of descendants of people who have lived through terrible times such as the Second World War. There will be many, many other stories such as what he has uncovered, and it is good that we get to hear of them, wondering what we would ourselves do in such situations that aren’t really all that long ago. For these reasons alone it is worth reading, and I am putting this into my book club, because I know it will lead to all sorts of discussions.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

A Crime in the Family
by  Sacha Batthyany
Published by Quercus
ISBN 9781786480552

Book Review: Spider From Mars – My Life with Bowie, by Woody Woodmansey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_spider_from_marsI approached this book a little apprehensively. Sometimes people who feed off fame by association, do so for very narcissistic reasons. But I was so wrong. While I am a long time Bowie fan, I knew little about the development of his public face, the creation of the albums and in particular, the part his band of Spiders played in this.

Woody Woodmansey begins his story with an unremarkable childhood in Driffield, Yorkshire. He tells his tale well, with family, friends, school and work all important at various times. He relates his early attempts as a drummer and the lengths he went to in pursuing his dream. Of course all this builds up to his introduction to David Bowie. He recalls the phone call from Bowie in 1970. No audition was required and he was given a place to live, but the move from Hull to London was a big decision. Woodmansey honestly relates his fears and concerns as he had been offered a very good job working for Vertex, the spectacle makers. Against the wishes of his parents he accepts and begins his life with Bowie. On reflection, he sees this decision as a turning point: the ordinary life or the dream life.

For anyone who knows and loves Bowie, this book gives wonderful day-to-day images of the development of both the songs, but also the style which became so famous.

Woodmansey does not just focus on his part, but on the overall vision which Bowie was developing. He recounts Bowie taking the band to see the Nutcracker ballet. This was to experience the part lighting could play in a live performance. Likewise, they go shopping with Bowie and his wife, Angie, to Liberty in London. Here they select fabrics to create some of the costumes which were so much a part of the band. The arrangements of songs, the naming of albums, the lyrics, the mime, the hairstyles and makeup. All these ideas are described in fascinating detail and you really get a first-hand account of life with Bowie.

Following David Bowie’s death in 2016, this the first account of those early years and the development of the band. Following the hectic tours, it also details the eventual breakup of the original group. I really enjoyed reading the stories behind the sound. The photos are from another era and made me nostalgic for my psychedelic teenage years. It is a wonderful read for Bowie fans, and a great handbook for aspiring drummers.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Spider from Mars – My Life with Bowie
by Woody Woodmansey
Published by Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd
ISBN 9780283072734

Book Review: Please Enjoy Your Happiness, by Paul Brinkley-Rogers

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_please_enjoy_your_happinessThis is a love story, a fine romance but there is nothing mushy about it. Mills & Boon it is not.

Instead, it is a beautifully written snapshot of the authors’ First Love, based on his time spent in Japan as a serviceman, which still resonates today with the author.

Just 19 years old when he is sent to serve in Japan, Paul and the older, more sophisticated Kaji Yukiko are an unlikely match. She is on the run from very unpleasant circumstances, and he is a very young serviceman. It is a shared love of poetry, music and the theatre that draws them together, unleashing a love that will continue to have an impact on the rest of Brinkley-Rogers’ life. This all happened during a time when there was no email or social media, and there was limited telephone access. People wrote letters – and it was a rediscovery and rereading of Kaji’s letters to him that enabled Brinkley-Rodgers to realise that after all he had been through, Kaji was still the love of his life, and that the love had never died.

This is really quite a special book, Brinkley-Rogers’ story is beautifully written and very engaging and without artifice. It is honest and warm, there is plenty of room for thought, especially with regards “lost” love – love that may in fact not have been lost, but has been forgotten, where only hindsight can remind us of the impact that these loves have had on us. Brinkley-Rogers invites us to look back, acknowledge and celebrate our loves and honour them, and he does so in a very readable book which keeps the reader turning the pages.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Please Enjoy Your Happiness
by Paul Brinkley-Rogers
Published by Macmillan
ISBN  9781509806089

Book Review: A Few Hares to Chase, by Alan Bollard

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_few_hares_to_chaseDr Bill Phillips is not a household name, even if he was the pre-eminent New Zealand economist of the twentieth century. A self-effacing, if not enigmatic man, he obviously left an impression on Alan Bollard, a young post-graduate student at Auckland University in the 1970s, that led to a biography some 40 years later. What should we now think of the almost forgotten economist, remembered only in name for a contentious macroeconomic conundrum, who spent most of his life overseas?

Alan Bollard’s book is a game of two halves, with the first part describing the young Bill Phillips’ ‘search for adventure’, and the latter part being his post-war experience as an academic economist. Not surprisingly, the first half is more interesting to read. Bollard writes of his Phillips’ family background in the remote Te Rehunga district, in the Tararua area, which is no longer on the map (in fact a historical map of the area would have been useful). Although the farm was in the southern part of the Ninety-Mile bush region, and the nearby Scandanavian settlement, Bollard sticks to the familial rather than regional history.

Bill Phillips grows up in troubling economic times, gets an electrical apprenticeship, and heads to the remote Taui camp near Waikaremoana. A restless young man, he is soon off on a great O.E., first across the Tasman, and then into combat zones in Asia that would leave a lasting impression. There are obvious comparisons with another New Zealander travelling across the Soviet Union, – Bill Sutch, – but Bollard is either unaware of that contemporary tale or chooses not to tell.make that link.

800px-MONIACdashboardPhillips ended up in London in the late 1930s, and with the outbreak of war he is back to Asia with the RAF, and eventual imprisonment for three years. Despite surviving this ordeal, his health is never the same, and he picks up a heavy tobacco addiction on the way. He uses his rehabilitation money to enrol for a sociology degree in the London School of Economics, which he struggles with until he finds his true calling, and somehow manages to get a PhD in economics in four years, inventing the famous MONIAC machine along the way (right) which provided an archetypal model of the macro-economy. This is all quite a compelling story, and is written sympathetically by Bollard, though rather too briefly. Dr Bollard has to provide a lot of contextual information about the economic and cultural events of the time. He then tends to speculate about whether Phillips would have attended certain events. The tentative links made between Phillips and other New Zealanders in London can also be misleading. On page 202 he suggests that Phillips worked on a modelling problem with the help of a Peter Whittle, but by the end of the paragraph it seems uncertain that they ever met. It is actually Phillips’ association with his contemporary academic economists that really counts, and the big names in the pantheon of the profession.

Even for those of us who have read a bit of economic theory the latter part of the book is a difficult one. Once Bollard starts to write about the ‘Phillips Curve’ it begins to read like an academic article and this isn’t helped by the use of the APA referencing system, when there are endnotes as well. Bollard suggests that Phillips’s work on a statistical relationship between unemployment and inflation is of fundamental importance, even though it was quite amateurish at the time. Phillips certainly preferred an inductive method, as opposed to the deductive approach favoured by other theoreticians, which can also be seen as ideological. Bollard has extrapolated the influence of Phillips’ work for the kind of inflation targeting that he was involved in as governor of the Reserve Bank (page 138). This seems a bit of a stretch, and for someone who studied stabilisation in the economy it seems odd to foreground a technical aspect, when the essentially ‘Keynesian’ policy approach became passé. Of course, Bill Phillips missed the destabilising effects of the new monetary policy, when the workers’ expectations workers had of inflation had replaced expectations of keeping a job.

As a whole the Phillips biography still seems to lack a sense of the man, and would have benefitted from a comparison to other New Zealand-based economists who are better known here. It’s as if the respect of the fellow Dons is more important, and there is but a glimpse in some of the long quotations. The key one is on page 105, when Professor Robbins is interrupted by a “wild man from New Zealand waving blueprints in one hand and queer shaped pieces of Perspex in the other.” This certainly describes Phillips as an enthusiastic amateur with original ideas, and it is in fact the MONIAC machine that is his legacy. Phillips and his machine can be seen on the cover of the book, in a rather dark and unappealing reproduction. The obvious late decision to change the cover (the alternative appears in the review page of North & South) and the sub-title reflects an almost too retiring subject for a book project. The magnificent machine, however, is held in the Reserve Bank museum for all to see.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce. Boyce is currently completing a PhD thesis on the topic of tax havens. He has previously worked within central government in the area of Finance and Economics.

A Few Hares to Chase: The Life and Economics of Bill Phillips
by Alan Bollard
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408299

Book Review: World of Wearable Art – 30 designers tell their stories, edited by Naomi Arnold

cv_world_of_wearable_art_30_designersAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

The World of Wearable Arts competition is nearly 30 years old, and the small show that started in Nelson is now a major event hosted in Wellington. Designers and passionate crafters from all around the world compete in categories such as Creative Excellence: Architecture, Performance Art or Bizarre Bras. The finalists are selected and a beautiful stage show is compiled. It is truly a magnificent event.

This book, World of Wearable Art, tells the stories of thirty designers who have been involved in the competition. My appreciation for the work involved, and creative process is so high. Some designers have an ephemeral concept, some have an entry that is a triumph over a material, and others produce entries that are a complex mixture of symbols and story. Many of the finalists have created garments so original and startling that their images remain in the national consciousness long after the competition has ended.

This is a beautifully produced book. The photos are all high quality, and the layout of the book (white, uncluttered, good space for images and texts) makes this book so very readable. The only thing that I did want was more photos – sometimes the story told by the designer emphasised entries that were not included in the accompanying photos. It is though, a small criticism.

I’ve followed Fifi Colston’s work for a few years now so it was really nice to see her story included in here. I was very taken with the Peter Wakeman and David Walker stories as well. Designers who have competed many times, as well as those with only one entry are included. The passion of the designers really came through. Many learnt completely new skills in the process of creating their entries, while others display niche skills that they bring to their designs – such as saddlery.

The audience for this book is wide. If you enjoy learning about how experts make things I think you will enjoy this book. Crafters and lovers of design will also appreciate this book. My older daughter enjoyed seeing the pictures and learning about how artists create wearable art. A really engrossing read.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

World Of WearableArt: 30 Designers Tell Their Stories
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9781927213506

Book Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day

cv_youre_never_weird_on_the_internetAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Before Zoella and Alfie, and the multitude of other vloggers, there was Felicia Day, one of the first to make her mark on YouTube. I’m not generally a biography/memoir reader, but Felicia’s had me hooked from the start: it had me wishing I knew her personally and by the end, I felt like I did. Candid and forthcoming, this autobiography made me laugh, (almost) cry, and experience practically every other emotion in between.

Day recounts her life from her early childhood in Alabama and Mississippi, a liberal, hippyish family living in America’s bible belt. With her unconventional upbringing, her mother’s fairly erratic attitude to home-schooling and her utter determination to be the best at what she does, Felicia rises in her teens to double major in violin and math. From there, she makes the move to Los Angeles, following her dream to become an actress. Through it all, she remains self-effacing, a socially awkward young lady who tenaciously strives for her goals – be they maintaining her 4.0 GPA or impressing her various tutors – sometimes to the detriment of her own social life and health.

Like many of us socially-awkward folks, Felicia finds her comfort zone within the internet. And she becomes addicted to the World of Warcraft. This sows the seeds to what becomes her most ambitious project yet – her YouTube series The Guild. Once you have read the amount of effort, the emotional investment, the energy, that was poured into that show, it makes you appreciate it in a whole new light.

But amongst the humour and the determination, there is a darker side to success, for the more popular that Felicia got, the more anxious she became. She writes candidly of her struggles with depression and anxiety, as her determination to not disappoint anybody almost breaks her. It all makes her very easy to identify with – and at times during reading it I wanted to reach out to her, give her a hug and say “it’s gonna be OK”. There is also a section on #GamerGate, and doxxing, that makes one aware of how terrifying the internet can really be.

Overall, through this book, Felicia has taught me that even if you feel awkward and weird, a misfit in society, there is a place for you. That if you have a goal, no matter how over-the-top, ridiculous and impossible it may seem, with determination, a few tears and a hearty dose of encouragement, you can make your mark in the world. Thank you Felicia, now I’m off to make mine.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)
by Felicia Day
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751562460

Book Review: One Life: My Mother’s Story, by Kate Grenville

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_one_lifeMy mother wasn’t the sort of person biographies are usually written about. She wasn’t famous, had no public life beyond one letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald, did nothing that would ever make the history books. Just the same, I think her story is worth telling.”

After her mother passed away in 2002, Kate Grenville discovered fragments of a memoir her mother had been determined to write – “Up til’ now I’ve never had the time or the right pencil, but now that I have one foot in the grave, it’s time to get on with it.” She never did finish, or properly start.

Any parent’s story is worthy of a biography, if we took the time to learn it. Most of us do not have the resources or indeed the skill to do what Grenville has for her mother in One Life: My Mother’s Story. Fortunately, Nance Russell’s story is one of 20th-century struggle and success that will resonate with many.

Born in 1912, Nance’s early life was one of a constant pattern – settle, upheaval, settle, repeat – until she was able to determine her own life path. Transient parents made for a tough upbringing, and this struggle to freedom is beautifully portrayed. The breaking of this cycle, a determination to be a woman with a career, is liberating to the reader, and made me admire Nance and the countless others like her who fought to be their own person.
There are many truths in One Life that would be hard for any child to know about their family. However, Grenville’s handling of Nance’s story is professional – there is no underlying beatification of her mother, nor is there any mention of Kate herself until near the end (this really is an entire life story). She has simply taken Nance’s fragments and created a memorial to her mother that will live on for many years.

An award-winning author writing a biography about her not-so-famous mother could have been a disaster. It’s easy to assume the book would need to rely on Grenville’s famous status to sell copies, but One Life doesn’t do this, and shouldn’t. Nance’s life is engaging without her being Grenville’s mother, and her love of her children and the life she made for herself will connect with any reader.

“What other people did was up to them. Your job was to live – as richly and honestly as you could – your one life.”

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

One Life: My Mother’s Story
by Kate Grenville
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781922182050