Book Review: Lewisville, by Alexandra Tidswell

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lewisville.jpgOur stories are an important part of who we are. This is especially so in New Zealand, which really was the ends of the earth to our brave and intrepid forebears. Why would someone choose to travel in appalling conditions to a land of promise but little fact, far away from all their family, friends and culture?

Alexandra Tidswell has taken on the challenge presented by her own family to answer this question. As a seventh generation New Zealander, she had the initial stories, a 1960’s search and some 1980’s genealogical data as a starting point. From this, she has created a story which gripped me to the end.

Martha Grimm escapes to New Zealand with her daughter Mary Ann from Warwickshire in 1814. She left behind parents, other children and a husband, who had been transported to Australia. She leaves to follow her dream of escaping poverty and make a new life. While the novel is based on true events, the setting and characters are beautifully rounded and add real depth to the story. This is not a poetic foray into the beauties of the New Zealand landscape. At no time was I bogged down in treacle description. Rather, the storyline is strong and urgent. Martha has a determined and ambitious plan which she works hard to bring about. The tension in the story arises with the tale of her husband, as he too tries to escape the poverty and injustice of convict life in Australia. As his wife has remarried and become something of a society lady in Wellington, will her past catch up with her?

Tidswell has treated each part of the story with a genuine honesty and sympathy for the characters and their response to events. While we could view Martha as a selfish woman who cares little for her children left in the workhouse, we are drawn into the dream of a better future. The possibility that she might claim her children when she has succeeded, is always there. However, the stories of the children are also handled masterfully as they make their own way without the care of their parents. We cannot help but share the dream of Martha.

Likewise, the role played by the indigenous people, both in Australia and New Zealand, in supporting the naïve and unprepared immigrants in this new environment, is handled well. It is not overplayed but the information is there as part of the overall view.

Wellington residents will enjoy the description of early Wellington streets and suburbs as the settlement grows and the early homes are replaced by more substantial residences.
I see Lewisville as a coming-of-age book. The family story in integral but it is a really gripping story with real characters and identifiable places. This is a valuable contribution to the backstory of our country. It is well-told, excellently edited and researched and very readable. A great way for me to start my holidays.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

By Alexandra Tidswell
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994137906

Book Review: Song of the Skylark, by Erica James

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_song_of_the_skylarkYou know you have been well and truly drawn into a story when you have a wee tear or two at the end of it, and such is the charm of Song of the Skylark. This is a lovely tale of two women; one coming to the end of her life story and the other at a turning point of hers. Initially we meet Lizzie, newly fired from her job where she has been having an affair with her boss – not one of her better life decisions, and one that has impacted on her family: “Poor Mum and Dad, it couldn’t be easy having her back with them again. Not only that, they were still a long way from understanding why she’d ended her four-year relationship with Simon in favour of a man they’d yet to meet – a married man to boot.”

While she is seeking new employment, she finds herself back at her parent’s house and is coerced into taking over her mother’s volunteer position at a local rest home. Reluctantly, Lizzie heads off and here she meets Mrs Clarissa Dallimore. As they begin chatting, Mrs Dallimore reveals a past that is more interesting than Lizzie first thought. As a radio station researcher, her interest in the older lady’s history is sparked, and so too is a friendship between the two. For Mrs Dallimore, talking to Lizzie allows her to revisit old friends and places. For Lizzie, the friendship and gentle counsel of the older woman leads her to a bit of soul searching. She finds herself comparing her life and personal outlook to that of the courageous Mrs Dallimore and determines to take a leaf out of the old lady’s book:

‘You might find this hard to believe,’ she said at length, ‘but before I came downstairs I was trying to sort out some of the clutter going on inside my head.’
‘Why would you think I’d find that hard to believe?’
Lizzie shrugged. ‘I know how people see me, Mum, that I’m a hopeless flibbertigibbet who can’t get anything right.’

The two heroines in Song of the Skylark and the cast of varied characters who feature alongside them, are personable and easy to relate to, the kind you would love to have a cuppa and a chat with. The story easily moves from WWII to modern times and both women’s stories engage you, leaving you wanting to see how they will win through and ensuring you are smiling along with their happy moments. Told alongside Lizzie’s story is a sub-plot involving her parents and, her twin brother and his aloof wife which, by the way, I would love to see developed into their own story (please, Ms James!).

A chick-lit story that is both historical and contemporary, it is perfect for either a beach holiday or a winter weekend. It might be a good idea to have some tissues handy.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Song of the Skylark
by Erica James
Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781409159568

Book Review: Speed of Light, by Joy Cowley

Speed of Light will be launched at the Children’s Bookshop Kilbirnie on Thursday 14 August. To attend, RSVP to by the end of Tuesday 12 August.

There’s no question that any novel by Joy Cowley will make you think and suck you incv_speed_of_light. She’s not only a great story teller but a clever narrative architect. This is a simple tale of a boy whose life is surrounded by chaos. He is visited by a mystery, only he doesn’t comprehend the meaning or the rationale. Not yet, anyway. This book is a classic building of layer upon layer, keeping the tension right through to the end.

Jeff is a boy from a privileged household. But his family are not perfect. His brother is holed up in a Thai prison for drug smuggling. His loving, but promiscuous sister is constantly blurring the lines and pushing the boundaries, despite looking out for her little brother – when it suits her. His father is the archetypal rich dad – grumpy, business-obsessed with a real estate deal that goes foul, and blind to what’s happening in his own world, to his own family. His mother works, if only to escape boredom of a rich captive lifestyle.

Jeff can’t rely on anything – except mathematics. Numerology and mathematics are the only truths he knows. This interplays with a mysterious woman who appears in his garden during a storm. She appears again and again, and passes on strange messages, indicating that she is not who she appears to be. Everyone else passes her off as a strange deluded old lady but Jeff is not so sure. Is she an angel? Or something else?

Cowley’s interplay between the false façade of adult authority and a child’s interpretation of reality is imminent here. It’s wonderful to see how, as the story plays out, the adults all fall over each other as the main character, Jeff, remains true to himself to pull it all together. It’s a story that will appeal to boys who don’t necessarily want to blow everything up. Perhaps they might want to spend some time dealing with the complications of growing up without the puberty blues. In many ways this tale is very real and ordinary. To me, that gave it more authenticity. I also enjoyed the bus trips and walks that Jeff took around the city of my childhood, Wellington. I particularly enjoyed the tiny insignificant details that carry the story along. It’s a delightful, understated story.

Underlying the story is the moral theme of hope, which we need when adults are too obsessed with themselves to understand their children. It’s not an original theme but its one worth revisiting. If boys, who notoriously shun any emotive, sensitive literature can be encouraged to pick up this book, then there is some hope of getting through and perhaps changing a destiny or two. Let’s make that happen.

by Tim Gruar

Speed of Light
by Joy Cowley
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781877579936

Book Review: Delicious!, by Ruth Reichl

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

First up: a disclaimer. I’ve been enjoying Ruth Reichl’s writing cv_delicious!for years. It started with Garlic and Sapphires − her account of her time as the New York Times’ Restaurant Reviewer. It was the book that propelled me into two new reading loves: food writing and beautifully composed autobiographical writing (if you have ever been turned off autobiographies by reading something written by, say a former Head of State, then try one of Ruth’s delightfully crafted books). I tittered when I met her for a book signing after her session at the 2008 New Zealand Writers and Readers Festival here in Wellington. I’ll do my best to be impartial, but, well, you are dealing with a fan here!

Delicious! is Ruth’s first fiction work. The protagonist, Billie starts working for Delicious! magazine − a few weeks before it is shut down. She is the sole member of staff retained and her job of answering calls and letters about published recipes, leaves her plenty of time to explore the heritage building that housed the magazine. She discovers a trail of correspondence hidden throughout the files of Delicious! between a twelve year old girl and James Beard (a real chef). This framework is then filled with completely-drawn supporting characters, details of cooking challenges during World War Two, puzzles, grief, wisdom, the underground railroad and journeys of personal discovery.

On the first reading there were some traits of Billie that bugged me. In a similarity with ‘chick lit’ novels she is unsure of herself, very beautiful (not that she knows it) and everyone who meets her instantly takes her under their wings, showering jobs and time on her. Her romance in the book also follows a familiar path. However, Billie’s character, while superficially finishing the book in a manner familiar to female characters, goes through a lot to get there. Her character comes of age, and the development of Billie rings true – if the same character was ten years older then the story couldn’t have happened as it did.

A couple of times I felt that the book was a little too much. It is very detailed, obviously well researched and not at all pretentious in the use of this research to flesh out the story or characters. But everything is well-detailed. Every character has a story. Initially this was overwhelming, but ultimately I appreciated the work that went into the story. There was so much to take in, every page in the book worked hard to further multiple stories. When I finished the book I was quite astounded at the journey the story took.

KokumA small thing that fans of Ruth Reichl’s writing may enjoy: a couple of familiar ingredients and phrases from her previous books appear. I’m determined to get hold of kokum (above) and try it. And one day I hope to brave enough to say to a Japanese chef ‘I am in your hands’ and allow the menu to be decided for me!

The book is so many things! A mystery. Food writing. Love and family. Passionate people sharing their obsessions with people. It was quite a whirlwind. A great book for someone wanting to escape into a beautifully woven story.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

written by Ruth Reichl
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781743319765