Book Review: The World, the Flesh & the Devil, by Andrew Sharp

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_world_the_Flesh_and_the_devil.jpgHaving written this review in the lead up to Christmas seemed very appropriate, as it reviews the life of Samuel Marsden, who brought Christian missions to New Zealand with the first service held on Christmas Day 1814 in the Bay of Islands. The traditional Maori Christmas carol Te Harinui commemorates this event. It seems strange then that Samuel Marsden is relatively unknown and absent from representation in New Zealand history.

Andrew Sharp is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Auckland. This latest book is the product of a great deal of research over eight years. It is a very strong addition to New Zealand History in the 1800s. Andrew’s book is strongly referenced and illustrated throughout with images of the locations and people described. It is not a quick read, but a satisfyingly deep one.

Samuel Marsden had a modest upbringing in England. He had a straightforward, uncomplicated belief in The Bible, and in man’s place in society. His belief and scholarship meant that he became involved with the London Missionary Society. He married shortly before leaving England for Australia, after a charmingly awkward written proposal to his future wife, Elizabeth.

Samuel Marsden moved from England to Australia, initially to Botany Bay, then moving to Paramatta. He became a magistrate, and an antagonist of a series of local Australian governors, in particular Governor Macquarie. The feud between Macquarie and Marsden is an excellent example of strong contradicting opinions in local government! It was around this time that he developed his reputation as ‘the flogging parson.’

His ability in Te Reo and friendship with Ruatara and later Hone Heke helped him to settle in New Zealand. It seems remarkable that he met Ruatara, as Ruatara returned from his unsuccessful trip to meet George III. Samuel took care of him during the long sea journey and Ruatara lived with the Marsden family for a few months before attempting to return to New Zealand. Samuel Marsden was very interested in ‘civilizing’ through agriculture, and gave Ruatara wheat seed to take with him.

Overall Samuel Marsden preached a message of adherence to the bible, leading a productive life full of bible reading, church attendance and work, to avoid giving in to the temptations of the flesh and to show commitment to a ‘lively’ repentance from sin. He felt sure that hearing his evangelical message would have a civilizing impact on all audiences. It was felt that you first tame the ‘uncivilised’ population through agriculture and then they would be receptive to his sermons. He was a committed sheep farmer, determined to breed the perfect productive sheep for the local environment.

This is a big book. I would have liked to hear a little more about Marsden’s family life. That being said, given that it was such a long time ago it is probably quite difficult to research that. There are a number of dry sections – explaining religion and English societal structures being two I found that demanded my concentration, but these did provide important context to the events described in later chapters.

Andrew Sharp notes that reviewing people with today’s standards is somewhat unfair. I found Samuel Marsden as a historical character difficult – he is hard to like when you look back. However, his accomplishments and achievements in quite short time periods were quite remarkable. He was active in New Zealand during a really interesting time in our history. Whether or not you agree with his religious beliefs or thoughts on bringing ‘civilisation’ to ‘native populations’ he was someone who got stuff done, and did it with an eye to his ‘eternal reward’ rather than necessarily making friends or seeking glory. A thought-provoking read.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

The World, the Flesh & the Devil
written by Andrew Sharp
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408121

Book Review: How to Win at Feminism, presented by Reductress

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_how_to_win_at_feminismThis is the funniest book I have read in a very long time. There was both snorting and out loud bursts of laughter. How to Win at Feminism is a comedic guide to feminism taking issues in feminism and cleverly addressing them through the appearance of contrived ignorance and marketing speak.

The form of the book cleverly provides an interesting introduction to feminism through clever histories of feminism, explaining why women should support each other, a broad treatment of feminism and beauty (I love the rebranding of the gym chain Curves as ‘Lumps’) and finally men and feminism as well as workplace issues.

This is a terribly easy book to read – with great formatting and magazine style presentation. It is very easy to dip in and out of. Personally I loved the feminist invocations (poems) to Beyonce and Leaning In. The section on ‘femsplaining feminism to your friends’ is pretty clever. . The section on femsplaining feminism to your friends is pretty clever. There are a staggering number of feminism in jokes and some top level shade.

‘Getting catcalled for your personality’ was simultaneously hilarious and distressing – in a week when both my self and a colleague had to deal with unwanted catcalling in real life. There is so often truth in great comedy and the three authors of this book have done a great job.

Of all the books I’ve ever reviewed this is the one that I had to work hardest to stop people stealing from my handbag – any regular viewers of the Reductress website will know that this book is out and eagerly awaited. Because of the excellent way the authors deal with marketing to women throughout the book I’m loath to recommend it as a good buy! That being said I would have been very happy to receive a copy of this book for Christmas.

Review by Emma Rutherford

How to Win at Feminism
presented by Reductress
Published by HQ
ISBN 9780008214289

Book Review: In the Month of the Midnight Sun, by Cecilia Ekback

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_in_the_month_of_the_midnight_sunIn the Month of the Midnight Sun, in some ways, follows on from Cecilia’s previous book Wolf Winter. It features the same location, the mountain Blackasen, but is set some 150 years later in a different season. The story has three narrators: Magnus, whose father-in-law has sent him on a delicate mission, his sister-in-law Lovisa who is sent along to get her out of town and Ester, a woman from a nomadic group of Sami people, who has recently lost her husband.

Cecilia Ekback creates a gloomy, restless environment. The reader knows that something bad has happened, and probably will shortly happen. The bleak landscape of Lapland provides an oppressive background to the story. Magnus has been sent to survey Blackasen mountain – and at the same time investigate a murder that has taken place. His father in law, a government Minister has sent him on this mission and at the last minute required that he take along his sister-in-law, Lovisa. Magnus is in no position to refuse the inconvenient request.

At the same time, Ester is adjusting to the loss of her husband. There are hints that she is perhaps glad that he is dead, but now uncertain of her place. Her tribe are moving on to another location and Ester is left behind to determine the spot that they will return to next summer.

Lovisa’s accounts were the most fascinating to me. She is a complex character, and she and her father are at odds. Lovisa often gets close to an analysis of an event or character – and then it is interrupted by her habit of stealing items.

I found the multiple narratives initially challenging, as the different characters are so focused on different aspects of the events that it is hard to know in a sense how reliably they are documenting the events. However, there is an overarching narrative theme of ‘mapping’ – and the real life mapping quest is mirrored in different ways by each character. You get a sense of everyone in the story being driven to Blackasen village with a strong sense of inevitability.

There are many complexities to this story, and it requires a focused read. It is though rewarding, and I have been left pondering the story and characters for some time.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

In the Month of the Midnight Sun
by Cecilia Ekback
Published by Hodder & Stoughton

Book Review: Girl Stuff for girls 8-12, by Kaz Cooke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_girl_stuff_for_girls_aged_8-12Kaz Cooke is a very accessible and humourous Australian author and cartoonist who specialises in writing books on health and well being for women (and girls). I can still remember her hilarious descriptions of pregnancy in Up the Duff, which were fantastically described in both words and pictures. Her Kidwrangling guide to raising children was a natural purchase for me once I had children, and I now find myself in the position of having a child in the right age bracket for her latest book, Girl Stuff 8-12.

The first chapter leaps right on in with changes in your body during puberty. All descriptions are factual, simply explained and occasionally humourous. Kaz is very careful to ensure that the book outlines the wide variety in body types and experiences of puberty. My daughter found this chapter very interesting (actually, I did too). I particularly liked her suggestions on responding to comments from people about body changes. There are some excellently pragmatic comments around periods, and I sincerely wish that I had read this book when I was younger!

Later chapters deal a lot with social issues – such as friendships and bullying as well as ‘not-so-happy families.’ There is a great chapter on confidence, and positive self talk. I found her list for parents and girls regarding online safety useful and I will be adopting some of the tips for use. The back of the book has a very useful ‘more info’ section with really good websites and phone numbers (including New Zealand numbers). There is a theme throughout the book of getting good advice and information – such as avoiding advertising messages or asking adults how to manage privacy settings.

My daughter and I read the first chapter on body changes together. I knew that the book was hitting the mark when my daughter took off with the book and finished reading it very quickly by herself! She particularly liked the ‘real life’ comments made by girls throughout the book. When I spoke to her about it afterwards it was clear that she had understood the content, so I think that the book is well written in that respect.

The book does not really get into relationships or sex – there is a follow up book that covers those topics in greater depth. However, if you are after a factual book about puberty for younger girls then this is a great guide. I will definitely be getting the following book in the series.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Girl Stuff for girls 8-12
by Kaz Cooke
Published by Viking Australia
ISBN 9780143573999


Book Review: The Muse, by Jessie Burton

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_museThere’s something magical about Jesse Burton’s The Muse. It’s visually immersive in a way I haven’t experienced in a long while. The language feels painterly – a style that reverberates with the content and themes of the novel, and there’s an effortlessness in the prose that feels like ‘viewing’ rather than ‘reading’.

The Muse presents two narratives, starting in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, an immigrant from Trinidad and a writer who’s more familiar with London’s feet than its journals. Unsatisfied with her job in a shoe shop, she’s offered a position at the Skelton Gallery as a typist, and is swept under the wing of Marjorie Quick. She soon becomes enraptured by the origins of a newly-surfaced painting, its owner, and what Quick may be hiding about her knowledge of it.

The painting’s origins are unearthed in the 1936 story of Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer and a secret painter herself, whose sexual awakening and coming-of-age manifests in an obsession with a local artist. The two narratives enhance the telling of each other in ways that almost necessitate a second reading – there are some truly beautiful insights on life, loneliness, otherness and creativity; yes, some brutal realities are swept over, but so the brush keeps moving.

The John Berger epigraph: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” is so fitting, not only in keeping with the novel itself, but also in encompassing its creation. Jesse Burton’s first book The Miniaturist was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies. On her blog, Burton has been quite open about her struggles with depression and anxiety following the success of her first novel (link to her amazing post below). Themes of artistry, creativity and success in The Muse are marked by the author’s fingerprints of experience. I’ve mused on a fair few passages myself – the reading was at times truly cathartic.

Although a little heavy-handed at times, The Muse is one of my favourite books this year. It’s multi-faceted and poignant, and it resonated personally. I thinkBurton makes good on the sentiment she expressed in February, where she so openly discussed the process drafting this book:

“I have tried to write a novel full of life. I have written a book whose themes interest me, a book I would like you to read on a gloomy English night, a book to transport you as much as it chimes close to home.”

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

The Muse
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250944

Book Review: The Watercolourist, by Beatrice Masini

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_watercolouristBeatrice Masini spent ten years working on this novel, which I find fascinating, as this story features a number of characters working on lengthy creative endeavours, some more successful than others. The Watercolourist‘s central character is Bianca. Bianca. who is young and recently orphaned, is offered a post as illustrator for a well-known author. Her job is to document and colour every single plant on the large summer estate. As the project is so lengthy, Bianca becomes involved with the large family and other semi-permanent guests.

Bianca’s role is somewhere between employee and guest. Although there is a clear barrier between her and the female members of the family, she isn’t popular with the other employees, who see her as ‘above her station’. So Bianca is both involved and apart – and this starts her down her trail of observing the household members.

This is a cleverly written book. It starts out very focused on Bianca’s everyday experiences – her work, her efforts at getting to know the family. It then slowly turns more insular, and we learn more of Bianca’s developing thoughts – thoughts that distract and consume her. Her art, her main concern and occupation at the start, changes over time as her inner thoughts become her chief affair. She is oblivious to the danger in this – while ruminating over the lives of the family she lives with, she does not observe the risk in her situation.

I read the last few pages of the book in a great rush, fascinated by the ending. It was very good, and exceptionally well done. As a historical novel, it offers an insight into Milan in the nineteenth century. There is political unrest, as well as a lot of detail on the lives and choices available to women of different classes. Even though it is a historic novel, it feels more like a drama or even a mystery. I was really impressed. I highly recommend this book.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

The Watercolourist
by Beatrice Masini, translated by Clarissa Ghelli
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447257714

Book Review: Parenting for the Digital Age, by Bill Ratner

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_parenting_for_the_digital_ageAfter reading this book, I went to the internet to learn more about the author and publisher. I love watching a movie, then reading all about it on IMDB. I wish that there was something similar for books. Goodreads is nearly there – but imagine having a page where you could click on trivia about the book, character break-downs and then click through to learn more about the illustrator or publisher. It is the sign of a thought-provoking book when you want to learn more about it.

Parenting for the Digital Age is written by Bill Ratner, a voiceover artist perhaps best known for voicing ‘Flint’ in the 1980s GI Joe cartoons. He learned a lot through having a father work in advertising and through his own voiceover and promotions work in advertising. This book is quite simply his explanation of advertising, television and the kind of harm it can do to children.

Not in the least dry or prescriptive, this book is very engaging, with quite an engrossing narrative. Bill is quite an accomplished storyteller (he even competes in storytelling competitions) and his book mostly outlines his experiences. He focuses heavily on the purpose of advertising and his commitment to limit the influence of this advertising on his family. He talks a lot about how he and his wife decided to be very deliberate about what their children were exposed to – they do not oppose all movies or TV for example, just unexamined, mindless watching.

There are no lists or directives, rather Bill seeks to persuade you of his approach through his accounts. It is more persuasive I think for presenting his information this way. However, some quick summaries of his main points might have been useful. There are, though, references and suggestions for websites to assist parents if they wish to get specific tips on digital parenting.

This is a very simple to read book, and a good starting point for thinking about parenting in a world full of devices.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

Parenting for the Digital Age
by Bill Ratner
Published by Familius
ISBN 9781939629050

Book Review: Bicycling to the moon, by Timo Parvela and Virpi Talvitie

cv_bicycling_to_the_moonAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Gecko Press has arranged a very sweet translation of this book by famed Finnish children’s author Timo Parvela. Bicycling to the Moon is a chapter book about Purdy and Barker, a cat and dog that are opposites in all ways and live together “in a sky-blue house on top of a hill.” The odd-couple pairing allows the set up of many charming conflicts between the pair.

The stories are quite detailed character studies and it is nice to see a children’s book with such well-developed characters. My youngest daughter liked guessing what would happen next, based on what she knew about the characters. It is a fantastic read aloud book for five- and six-year-olds. She enjoyed it when the the pair were setting each other up for pranks. I really enjoyed how Barker and Purdy would stop just short of being horrid to each other as their mutual regard reigned in their mischief.

Older independent readers will enjoy the stories – while there is a link between the stories it is quite easy to just read a chapter by itself. All ages should enjoy the attractive illustrations. Indeed, my memories of the story are strongly based on the illustrations. This beautiful book will make a great birthday gift for any child.

Review of Bicycling to the Moon by Hannah Wong-Ming, age nine.

Purdy is very playful and impatient whereas Barker is disciplined and focused. They each have different ideas and goals and Purdy gets on Barker’s fur a lot! There are some really funny pictures and I like how the first letter of each chapter is drawn. At one point Purdy asks for a surprise party and another time he bosses around Barker when going fishing. Barker is very caring about his vegetable patch and seems to have a good memory.

I liked this book because of how one event flows into another. I liked the illustrations, especially the one that is on the bookmark.

I would recommend this book for fluent readers aged 8-12.

Reviewed by Emma and Hannah Wong-Ming

Bicycling to the Moon
by Timo Parvela and Virpi Talvitie
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN  9781776570324

Review & Interview: Under Italian Skies, by Nicky Pellegrino

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_under_italian_skiesUnder Italian Skies is the latest book by Nicky Pellegrino. Nicky was kind enough to answer questions about her book and I’ve incorporated them into this review.

Stella, a sensible soul, is faced with needing to reevaluate her life after her friend (and boss) dies. She is unsure what she wants to do in terms of employment, just knows that she needs new direction. She is inspired by the concept of a gap year, and comes across the idea of an international house swap. Unlike women portrayed in similar novels, she does not fall apart and she isn’t running away. She just creates a scenario where she can get inspiration. I asked Nicky(below right) if she had a real life inspiration for Stella:

pp_nicky_pellegrino“I tend to avoid change in my own life. But often it’s forced on us and we have to deal with it; which is Stella’s situation. I think she does panic to begin with because she’s a person who is used to having a plan and making things happen. Then when she comes up with the house-swap idea she throws herself into it with all the efficiency she brought to her working life. The character wasn’t inspired by any one real person but I guess I always take bits and pieces of things that people say and do, and end up stitching them into my stories.”

My favourite aspect of the story was the character of Stella. Stella seeks direction and in watching her do so, we learn a lot about her life, career, friendships and relationships. She is not defined by any of these domains and is a very well-rounded character. Nicky says, “I think about my characters all the time; like I would a good friend who was at a crossroads in their life. I might be driving along or walking the dogs or lying in bed or blow-drying my hair; but my brain is busy turning them and their situation over in my mind. So in the end they are real to me and hopefully to the reader.

I think in my books the story is generally driven by the characters, so it’s important they are rounded and balanced.”

A lot of books that are involve the protagonist visiting a foreign location see the setting through the character’s eyes only. The setting is there just to be different, and is really there just for the character to comment on its difference. I was really impressed with how strong the fictional ‘Triente’ came across in Under Italian Skies. This is helped by Triente having such a passionate advocate – the owner of the house Stella swaps with is keen for her to experience the region through visiting interesting destinations and meeting people. He enjoys her emails discussing her adventures and really wants her to love the house and Triente as he does. The beauty of the region is well explained, without being corny.

Maratea_real_trienteNicky Pellegrino spent her childhood summers in Italy and I asked if there was a particular influence for Triente. Nicky says,”It’s actually a real place, called Maratea (image to left), which is beside the coast of Basilicata in the south west of Italy. My father’s cousin has a house there which we’ve stayed in several times: that is what Villa Rosa is based on. It’s a beautiful area – kind of like Amalfi but without the crowds – but I changed its name because I wanted to be free to do a bit of creative “town planning”. There is a linen shop there though, that is very like the one in my books. And many churches and a harbour area with lots of seafood restaurants. It’s become a special place to me over the years.”

This is great sit-by-a-sunny-window read – an inspiration for creating change or resetting your life without requiring extreme chaos to do so. There are so many fantastic supporting characters – people who are helped by Stella as she is helped by them. I could think of real life acquaintances who remind me of these characters, so had quite a giggle. Under Italian Skies can be quite funny at times but its success as a novel ultimately rests in the strength of its characters and their interactions. I really enjoyed reading it.

Review and Interview by Emma Wong-Ming

Under Italian Skies
by Nicky Pellegrino
Published by Orion
ISBN 9781409150862

Book Review: Golden Month, by Jenny Allison

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_golden_monthGolden Month is a little yellow hardcover book with beautiful endcover art. It promises a satisfying reading experience while simply holding the book in your hands. The book is written by Jenny Allison, an acupuncturist who believes women in the ‘western’ world should follow the traditional practices of some cultural groups worldwide in respecting the forty days after birth with special health practices.

Jenny’s background is in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and there is quite a lot of detail about TCM concepts of health.There are a few recipes included that, from a TCM or ‘paleo’ diet approach, are considered healthy. My favourites though were the recipes of food considered healthy after birth from around the world. Having worked at a hospital in the past, I’ve observed post-birth foods from deli platters and sushi, to KFC. New Zealand recipes were not included.

For me the book highlighted just how difficult it is to provide a culturally appropriate service to women in New Zealand who are pregnant and give birth. Our funding system does not allow for the lengthier postnatal stays in hospitals/ birthing units that are familiar to other cultures. We are lucky to receive midwife visits in the home, but support with meals and housework are not available under normal circumstances. Women in New Zealand are encouraged to write their own birth plans, but I’ve never seen a ‘template’ for one that starts off with ‘What is birth like in your family?’ ‘What treatment do you need during and after birth to feel as though your health is restored and strengthened?’ ‘What foods would you need provided to you if you birth in a hospital/ birthing unit?’

In some sense the book is too short. I wanted a lot more detail about the cultures mentioned rather than a few short narrative accounts of the experience of some women. I felt perhaps that there was an oversimplification that women in the groups discussed were healthier than ‘western’ women by virtue of their traditional practices. Some comparisons of relevant health indicators might have been useful.

However, narrative-based approaches are familiar in women’s health and I hope that it will encourage further work on ‘golden months.’ I think it is a text that is useful to prompt discussions among people with an interest in birth and culture, as well as health professionals involved in pregnancy and birth. It definitely made me reflect on cultural concepts of health and well-being.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

Golden Month
by Jenny Allison
Published by Beatnik Publishing
ISBN 9780992264840