Book Review: The New Ships, by Kate Duignan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_new_shipsThis book is just superb. Kate Duignan’s The New Ships is a novel set mostly in Wellington about Peter Collie, whose wife Moira has just died, and his relationship with their son Aaron. Aaron is biologically Moira’s but not Peter’s, although the two of them have raised him since birth. A lot of the book is told in flashback, and we learn that Peter’s daughter from a previous relationship may or may not have died as a toddler. Part of the reason we don’t know is because Peter has chosen not to investigate. It’s a pretty huge thing to be uncertain about.

There are a lot of huge uncertainties in this novel, and I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the ‘present’ of the book is set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Peter and Moira are white but Aaron’s unknown birth father was a man of colour, and Aaron’s ethnic identity is another source of uncertainty that troubles Peter. Moira says he was conceived in Australia – might he be Aboriginal? As a child Aaron befriends some Māori and Pasifika kids and declares his ‘real’ dad is Rarotongan. When Aaron boards a plane for London after Moira’s funeral but doesn’t arrive there, Peter starts to panic. Airport security and Islamophobia are peaking, and Aaron is ethnically ambiguous enough to be mistaken for an Arab and labelled a terrorist.

One of the things I really like about The New Ships is that it’s easy to read and also full: of ideas, of story layers, of exceptional writing. Here are a few sentences that I particularly loved: when describing a sailor Peter admires: ‘I’d trust this man to put down a dog I was fond of.’ At the tail end of a family holiday when Peter just wants to go home: ‘I was sick of … sitting like a damp, agitated ghoul at my wife’s side.’ When Peter is facing his first Christmas after Moira’s death: ‘It’s intolerable, summer ahead, all the days fat with beauty, useless.’

Peter is a flawed protagonist. We are in his head the whole way through the book so our sympathies naturally flow towards him, but there’s no denying he’s done some pretty dodgy stuff. Why doesn’t he lift a finger to find out for sure whether his daughter is alive or dead? There’s also a very uncomfortable narrative thread wherein Peter, who is middle-aged and a partner at his law firm, sifts onto a young, attractive female intern while trying to convince himself that he’s “helping” her. I found his behaviour distressing, especially in light of the real-life stories about the way female law interns are treated here.

Duignan resolves some of the uncertainties in The New Ships but not all of them, giving the reader a pleasing sense of narrative satisfaction without anything feeling pat or contrived. I highly recommend The New Ships to lovers of NZ fiction and of good books in general.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage

The New Ships
by Kate Duignan
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561889

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AWF18: Diana Wichtel – Driving to Treblinka

AWF18: Diana Wichtel – Driving to Treblinka

Diana Wichtel, a long-time TV reviewer and journalist, has just won national awards for her first book, Driving to Treblinka, about her search for her father. From the publisher’s blurb: ‘Diana Wichtel was born in Vancouver. Her mother was a New Zealander, her father a Polish Jew who had jumped off a train to the Treblinka death camp and hidden from the Nazis until the end of the war. When Diana was 13 she moved to New Zealand with her mother, sister and brother. Her father was to follow. Diana never saw him again.’

We always used to get the Listener in my house growing up, and I always used to save up Wichtel’s column to read: she was my favourite. I had previously attended The Art of the Critic, where she was the panellist who spoke the least. In my review of that session I mentioned I was puzzled by the way she seemed to speak poorly of her own work. Chair Jeremy Hansen cleared this up straight off the bat: ‘You’ll probably see as we go along that Diana suffers from chronic modesty’.

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Jeremy Hansen and Diana Wichtel, photo courtesy Auckland Writers Festival

Hansen was a good chair, asking interesting questions and drawing Wichtel out without pressuring her. She was a quiet presence on stage but she had a mana about her that drew us in. After thirty years of reading her funny, incisive columns, I had thought Wichtel must be a loudly hilarious person. As the session went on, I began to realise that all that time she was carrying a weight of absence, guilt, and unresolved grief.

Wichtel grew up in an atmosphere of not looking back. Her mother shut down conversations with instructions not to upset your father, but looking back, Wichtel wonders whether he might have liked to have spoken about his wartime experiences. ‘The real problem was that no one wanted to listen.’ After he didn’t turn up in New Zealand, a teenage Wichtel was told there was nothing they could do and no way to contact him. She now realises there probably was, and this rearrangement of the narrative of her life has been disruptive and painful.

Wichtel didn’t find out her father had died until several months after the fact. She was a young woman, flatting in Auckland with her sister. There was no funeral, none of the normal processes of bereavement. ‘His death fell into a silence.’ He was just gone, like his family during the war. After that, Wichtel says she drifted. The world felt absurd. It wasn’t until she had a child of her own that she came back to herself. ‘Having a child, you can’t really deny you exist after that because there’s the proof. Without any thought at all I named my son after my father.’ She says she doesn’t judge her mother for what she did: ‘I can’t judge either of them for anything because of the hard lives they had to live. The book has taught me there’s always another story.’

Wichtel’s book details the process of trying, as an adult and an orphan, to figure out what happened to her father. ‘Going back into the past was a very hypnotic and magical thing to do.’ The past is a haunted space, ‘very seductive and painful’; a parallel universe running alongside our own that we can dip into. ‘I want to stay in the stream of history because that’s where I have contact with my family.’ She has visited the remains of the death camp at Treblinka, and says it is ‘dispiriting in the extreme’ to see the current rise of anti-Semitism.

If we had expected that writing the book would bring about some kind of neat emotional resolution for Wichtel, we were wrong. ‘There’s no closure and I don’t want there to be. I’m happy to sit with the guilt – it’s the least I can do.’ It was an extraordinary note to end my 2018 Auckland Writers Festival experience on.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Driving to Treblinka won both the Best First Book of Non-fiction and the Best Book of Non-fiction prizes at the Ockham Book Awards last week. It is available at bookshops nationwide.

 

 

AWF18: Brain Waves – David Eagleman

AWF18: Brain Waves: David Eagleman

The Aotea Centre had opened up all three levels of the ASB Theatre to accommodate the crowd who gathered to hear Toby Manhire interview neuroscientist, writer, and Harvard professor David Eagleman about brains.

Manhire started with the big question: yanny or laurel? Eagleman explained that we hear different things because that audio file is low quality, which allows your brain to bring its own interpretation to the sound. ‘The brain is locked in silence and darkness inside the skull’ yet we can have a full, rich visual experience with our eyes closed (for example, when we’re dreaming). ‘Your seeing of us now is happening inside your head.’ Already my own head was starting to whirl a bit, but we were only just getting started.

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photo courtesy Auckland Writers Festival

Eagleman has been working on sensory substitution, whereby you feed data into your brain via an unusual sense. For example, deaf people can hear by feeling the sound on their skin. Just when I was trying to figure that one out, we moved on again to the Mr Potato Head model of evolution. I didn’t fully understand it if I’m honest, but it’s got something to do with plugging devices into the brain. For example, could we ‘feel’ the economic movements of the world? Manhire asked whether there was a risk these devices could be hacked. Eagleman said not, but I’m not convinced. That whole thing sounded spooky.

Eagleman compared the brain to an inner cosmos: ‘the densest representation of who you are’. We tend to feel like we know who we are, but the deeper we go into neuroscience, the more uncertain we become. Our brains have a hundred billion neurons with a thousand trillion connections. ‘It’s the kind of thing that totally bankrupts our language.’ No kidding.

Manhire ran through a few brain FAQs. It’s not true that we only use 10% of our brains, actually we’re always using all of it. Consciousness – that tiny part that flickers to life when you wake up – is just a tiny speck of the brain. It’s true that brain cells are not replenished over our lifetime, but false that bigger-brained people are more intelligent.

There was an interesting discussion about how neuroscience can contribute to the criminal justice system. Eagleman told the story of Charles Whitman, who committed the first mass shooting in the US in 1966. Afterwards, he was found to have a brain tumour pressing on his amygdala. So does that mean it wasn’t his fault? ‘It strains our notions about justice. A lot of neuroscientists think we don’t have free will.’

Discussion moved on to the nature of memory. Long story short, it’s nowhere near as reliable as we think. ‘Memory is a myth-making machine. We’re constantly reinventing our past to keep it consistent with who we think we are.’ It doesn’t bode well for this review, that’s for sure. I started to worry that I was taking the wrong notes. I’m including lots of quotes here: what if I’ve misremembered them? Memory is physical change in structure of brain. ‘It’s a live electrical fabric that’s constantly reconfiguring itself.’ We feel we’re the same person we were in the past but in fact we’re completely different. Yikes!

So I’m now a different person from who I was when I became annoyed at a particularly daft audience question – one of those that has led Madeleine Chapman to call for an end to all festival audience questions ever. A person asked, essentially, how can we make wrong people be right? We can’t, nor should we, was Eagleman’s response – if memory serves.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage 

The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World
by David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt
Canongate Books
ISBN 9780857862075

The Brain: The Story of You
by David Eagleman
Canongate Books
ISBN 9781782116615

We also reviewed David Eagleman’s session on The Creative Brain.

AWF18: Michael King Memorial Lecture – Ready or Not – Damon Salesa

AWF18: Michael King Memorial Lecture – Ready or Not – Damon Salesa

There was standing room only to hear Associate Professor of Pacific Studies Damon Salesa deliver the 2018 Michael King Memorial Lecture, which he did with aplomb to an appreciative audience.

Salesa started with an acknowledgement of King’s achievements. He was important for explaining Māori to Pākehā, ‘and then his second career was essentially the reverse’. King was born into a deeply colonial world, but by the time he died Auckland was a Pacific city.

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Photo courtesy Auckland Writers Festival

The theme of Salesa’s lecture was le ūa na fua mai manu’a – the rain came from Manu’a (metaphorically, you should have seen it coming). ‘Have our leaders seen the rain coming? Because it’s pouring.’ Salesa used a combination of statistics (‘numbers tell us certain kinds of truth’) and stories to illustrate the reality of 21st-century Auckland.

We are heading towards a population of old white people and young brown people: the fastest growing group of babies are Māori and Pasifika, and the caregivers for elderly Pākehā will be Pasifika, Māori, and Asian. Aucklanders tell themselves they are super diverse, but they live in very segregated ways. For example, two thirds of Pacific people don’t have a Pākehā person living in their neighbourhood. ‘I found a school with no Pacific students 16km away from a school with 99% Māori and Pacific students.’

Auckland is often called the world’s largest Polynesian city, but really, Salesa says, most Aucklanders live next door to the world’s largest Polynesian city. He compared the ethnic makeup of the members of the Auckland Blues with the members of the team’s board – ‘and the board of the Ministry of Social Development is even whiter’. But on the other hand ‘the NZ public knows something that our organisations have yet to learn’: there are 13 Polynesians in the NZ cabinet and four Pacific ministers (including of course Salesa’s wife, the Hon Jenny Latu Salesa, who was in the audience).

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Photo by Elizabeth Heritage

Salesa noted that Pacific people are often at the sharp end of statistics around poverty and incarceration, but outperform other demographics in wellbeing and happiness. ‘Life is tough but for Pacific people but life is also good’: Pacific people are least likely to be lonely, and most likely to be good neighbours to religious minorities and migrants. Salesa stressed Pacific people’s agency and creativity, giving examples such as Three Wise Cousins (the tenth most successful film of all time in NZ) and the building of the Lesieli Tonga hall in Māngere.

Salesa challenged us to think what it would be like if New Zealand truly became a Pacific nation by embracing Pacific values: compassion, respect, family, speaking the languages of others as well as your own. ‘Pacific people are the future: Pacific people know your future before you do.’ He noted that what we call innovation in NZ is often just adopting what’s happening in the US: ‘most NZers make lousy Americans’ but we are the best in the world at being Pākehā, Māori, and Pasifika. ‘I’m really inspired by this Pacific future.’

 

To round off his lecture, Salesa had invited some Pasifika students to perform a song they had written. They introduced themselves as The Black Friars and proudly sang: ‘Make a change, make a choice, raise your hands and raise your voice’. It was an inspiring and energising session, and a great tribute to the legacy of King.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

readNZ logo red and black - final 1

 

 

AWF18: Writing the Suffrage Past

AWF18: Writing the Suffrage Past, with Alice Canton, Emma Espiner, Linda Olsson and Tusiata Avia

Feelings. FEELINGS! I have them.

One of the things I really like about Auckland Writers Festival is the way it puts me in touch with the whakapapa of NZ feminism. I remember having a great old chat with older queer women in the audience for Gloria Steinem a couple of years back about second-wave feminism and how it’s different from contemporary feminism. Sitting in the audience for Writing the Suffrage Past I got talking to my neighbours again: I had (I think) an older lesbian couple on one side, and (I think) a teenage girl and her mother on the other. The intergenerational vibe was also set with an introduction from Claire Mabey, who, like our Prime Minister, is hapū.

IMG_20180519_152841648The four writers were Alice Canton, Emma Espiner, Linda Olsson, and Tusiata Avia. Canton is a NZ-Chinese theatre artist; Espiner is Māori journalist and medical student; Olsson is a Swedish novelist; and Avia is a Samoan-NZ poet. Each writer had been given access to the “Are we there yet?” exhibition about NZ feminism at Auckland Museum, and had written a piece inspired by something from the collection. An image of their chosen piece was displayed on the screens as each writer gave their talk.

Olsson was up first. The object she had chosen was a photograph from a protest with one woman holding up a sign that read “I can’t believe I am still protesting this shit”, which got a laugh of recognition from the crowded room. She spoke about a recent Oxfam report which has found that we must achieve gender equality if we are to end financial inequality. It is not enough to integrate women into existing financial structures; the structures themselves must be changed.

Olsson read out a piece she had written that was a conversation between herself and one of her female ancestors who had been sent to prison. Prison was not sad: it was safe. The women all looked the same, so they felt safe.

Next up was Espiner, who began by speaking her mihi. The objects she had chosen were issues of Broadsheet, NZ’s seminal feminist magazine that ran from 1972 to 1997. She spoke with great humour and affection about growing up with a radical feminist lesbian mother, and how what now looks like a feminist utopia felt, to a child who just wanted to fit in with her peers, like a terrible affliction. She would choose Women’s Weekly but her mother always threw it out of the supermarket trolley: ‘Broadsheet reflected our reality’.

Espiner is studying medicine and spoke about how healthcare has often been deeply misogynistic, citing in particular Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s “An Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s”. Some progress has been made towards equality in the medical world, though: ‘the feminisation of medicine and surgery has been positive and valuable’.

Espiner honoured her mother for being a Pākehā woman who understands Māori sovereignty: ‘Doing the right thing when nobody is looking is the definition of an ally’. She ended by addressing her mother Colleen Smith directly: ‘I’m sorry for being a shit, you were right about everything’.

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Next up was Canton. Her object was a black and white photograph of an unnamed servant maybe a century ago. She invited us to reconsider the way we view the suffrage movement in NZ. We tend to picture middle-class white women with their ‘spunky Elizabeth Bennet charm in the face of adversity’. But what about the no-names?

Canton used an over/under formula to invite us to think about which women are over- and under-represented in our feminism. Under: working-class women, rural women, Māori and Chinese women; disabled, queer, migrant, and indigenous women; women of colour, queer women of colour, poor women, fat women, old women, trans women. Over: cis-gendered and white women. Canton said that, even at the risk of splintering the movement, we must acknowledge that not everyone is equally benefiting from feminist achievements. As with the previous writers, she sat down to enthusiastic applause.

The final writer was Avia. Her object was a photograph of women on a protest in 1977 holding a sign on which is a photograph of a woman who has died from a backstreet abortion and “this woman died, we care” is written. Like Espiner, Avia grew up as the daughter of a lesbian feminist. She performed for us a poem she had written about being home sick one day when she was 11 years old, reading her mother’s issues of Broadsheet, and seeing the photograph on the sign. Avia looked for the photograph again in the museum’s collection for this event, because she still remembered it after all this time. Avia said of her poem: ‘Only I could have written this piece, but I don’t think it’s particularly special. It’s a glimpse into a huge female experience.’

Avia is an extraordinary performance poet and, despite the fact that she had recently  fainted backstage, this occasion was no exception. She sat and spoke calmly but we were hanging on her every word. The poem was about backstreet abortions, and it was visceral. ‘I flinch for forty years.’ We groaned and grimaced. The photograph of the dead woman shows her lying on the bathroom floor naked. Avia called the V of her legs ‘her final vanishing point’ and said ‘I have not misremembered her aloneness / I never forgot that’.

This was a really powerful session that gave me a great sense of community and of the whakapapa of mana wāhine in Aotearoa. In a similar vein, I recommend the podcast On the Rag from The Spinoff about Kiwi feminism. (I am a massive fan and keep secretly hoping they will invite me to join them.)

Words and photos by Elizabeth Heritage

Books by each of the writers participating are available nationwide.

AWF18: The Art of the Critic, with Charlotte Grimshaw, Alan Taylor and Diana Wichtel

AWF18: The Art of the Critic, with Charlotte Grimshaw, Alan Taylor and Diana Wichtel

To the chair, Dione Joseph, who began and ended this session in beautifully spoken te reo: ngā mihi nui ki a koe. It was a real pleasure to hear you.

The upper NZI room was packed out to hear Joseph chair a discussion with Diana Wichtel, Charlotte Grimshaw, and Alan Taylor about the art and practice of criticism. Wichtel is a long-time TV reviewer for The Listener who has just won a national book award; Grimshaw writes and reviews fiction; and Taylor is the editor of the Scottish Review of Books.

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Wichtel said that a review has to be a thing in itself; something interesting to read. I was surprised how down she was on TV reviewing, given how good she is at it: ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to claim that a TV review is art’. (Taylor disagreed, as I would too.)

Grimshaw said she used to do real hatchet jobs on books she disliked: ‘A huge amount of what you read is absolute shit – I had this mad idea that people would be grateful to hear the truth’. She said that Kiwis refusing to review local literature for fear of backlash is
‘understandable but not laudable’.

There is always a danger with this kind of session that it will devolve into a moan fest about how the internet is killing ‘proper’ culture. It is undoubtedly true that there is less space for cultural criticism in the mainstream media and that reviewing as we have known it is in danger of becoming a dying art. I myself know very well how hard it is to earn any kind of living as a critic: Steve Braunias recently did a run-down at The Spinoff of how much book reviewers are paid in Aotearoa. (Spoiler: not much.)

The chair tried to keep things upbeat and future-focussed, but the person who ended up talking the most was Taylor. The list of things he dislikes includes but is not limited to:
Young people
Young people who write books
Books written by young people
Sentences that lack “cadence”
Books written by JK Rowling
The 44 Scotland Sreet novels (actually I agree with him on that one)
Genre novels
People who write genre novels
People who have opinions that have not been culturally sanctioned
Celebrities
John Bayley’s memoirs about Iris Murdoch
People who judge the Booker Prize these days (not like when Taylor did in the 90s)
People who enter the Booker Prize these days, especially Americans
The Booker Prize these days
Writers who persist in being alive when everyone knows all the “greats” are properly dead
Writers who put themselves forward instead of remaining in morally incorruptible seclusion
Writers who appear in literary festivals, thereby proving they have no goddam self-respect
People who make him feel old by persistently being younger than him

(In Taylor’s defence, I must note that when I went to chat to him afterwards he was perfectly nice to me, despite my (relative) youth and incurable habit of putting myself forward, and gave me some valuable career advice that I will be following. Kia ora Alan.)

At one point the chair pointed out that the panel comprised three women including a woman of colour and one man, and invited the panellists to reflect on diversity and privilege. Unfortunately this discussion didn’t go very far.

I would have been interested to hear more on that topic, and on the reality that, as so much of reviewing is paid either poorly or not at all, we are at risk of only hearing from people rich enough to be able to write for free, thus losing valuable perspectives. Joseph also asked the panellists how we can support the next generation of critics: I was poised to take detailed notes for my own career, but unfortunately, again, there was no real answer. In Scotland they have a mentoring programme for young critics that sounds wonderful. If anyone from Creative New Zealand is reading: let’s talk.

I got up at the end and asked the panel to recommend their favourite critics to read. Here is the list for your reading pleasure: Andy O’Hagan, Ali Smith, James Wood, Anthony Lane, Elizabeth Hardwick, Clive James, AA Gill, Grace Dent, Nancy Banks-Smith, and The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis. I’d like to end by echoing Taylor’s remark: readers have power. If you’d like to see more and better quality reviewing in our media, get in touch with the editors and tell them so.

And if anyone would like to review my review of the reviewers, I’m all ears. Kia kaha.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Other events that participants are in:

Sun, 20 May 2018 4:30pm – 5:30pm
ASB Theatre
Charlotte Grimshaw is in:
Disappearances
Sun, 20 May 2018 1:30pm – 2:20pm

Limelight Theatre

Alan Taylor is in:
Dear Muriel
Sunday, 20 May 2018 3:00pm – 4:00pm
Lower NZI Room, Aotea Centre

AWF18: Women of Substance, with Sue Bradford and Joan Withers

AWF: Women of Substance, with Sue Bradford and Joan Withers 

My first session of Auckland Writers Festival 2018 was Women of Substance: I feel sure this is an excellent omen. Activist Sue Bradford and businesswoman Joan Withers were in conversation with Rob Campbell.

Bradford’s biography (Constant Radical by Jenny Chamberlain) and Withers’ memoir A Woman’s Place (ghost-written by Jenny McManus) are out now. Awkwardly, Bradford had read Withers’ book but not vice versa. There was potential for a lot more awkwardness: Withers is a high-powered and very powerful executive; Bradford is a radical left wing activist and ex Green Party MP. But although difficult topics were not avoided, both women treated each other with a respect and courtesy I’d like to see more of in public discourse.IMG_20180518_104008910

Of course the elephant in the room was the current scandal about Warehouse Group businesses – of which Withers is Chair – not paying their workers for all the hours they work. Withers took pretty much the line you’d expect: they take this issue very seriously and are looking into it. Bradford said that her partner Brian is ‘out there fighting for those workers right now’.

Bradford commented that the world of the corporate boardroom is often enemy territory, which was why she was so interested to read Withers’ memoir. Withers said the issues she has lived through in her corporate career have been challenging, so her book has been ‘heavily legalled’. Both women spoke about how they had been trepiditious to put so much of their own lives in the public domain.

Both women spoke about the importance of women being represented in every area of life. Bradford noted that the current Parliament has 40% women in chamber, which is better than it was but not yet good enough. Women are often reluctant to enter public life for fear that some things that have happened to them would become public knowledge. ‘For some of us there is no political party we can have faith in. I’d love to see a political party where the interests of women and children were put first.’

From the perspective of women on boards and in senior corporate leadership, Withers said ‘Representation is moving forward but it’s glacially slow’. At one point TVNZ had a board that was 63% female, but The Warehouse Group has just 33%. Withers is opposed to quotas because they are ‘potentially demeaning’. If you cast the net wide enough, you will find women who are well qualified.
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The difference between the circles that Bradford and Withers move in was often quite stark. Bradford said ‘Business feels irrelevant when you’re working with people who have no money, and no hope for themselves and their children. I’ve always accepted invitations from any group wanting to have discussions, but I’ve never been invited by in by corporates. Our place has usually been outside banging on the doors.’

An audience member asked an interesting question about the combative language Bradford uses, and whether it’s helpful. Bradford said ‘A war on the poor is what’s happening in this country; it’s a class war’. She said she believes there’s a balance between naming what’s going on, and behaving in a civilised and ethical manner so as not to alienate others.

There were obviously lots of Bradford fans in the audience – several times her remarks were greeted with applause. Both women spoke with great mana, and ended the session speaking about how they both have hope for the future. A great way to start the festival!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

A Woman’s Life: Life, leadership and lessons from the boardroom
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9781525250071

Constant Radical
Published by Fraser Books
ISBN 9780994136008