Book Review: Under the Almond Tree, by Laura McVeigh

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_under_The_almond_tree.jpgLaura McVeigh’s debut novel, Under the Almond Tree, tells the story of a refugee family leaving Kabul, Afghanistan, to escape the Taliban in the 1990s. The narrator is Samar, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on the stories of others while she and her family struggle to continue theirs. From her parents’ stories of Taliban severity after the Soviet invasion, Samar contemplates the atrocities of militant regimes and their destructive ideologies.

The repercussions of the Taliban presence impinge individual freedom. Samar’s affected family is represented, therefore, as a microcosm of a fracturing, imploding society. Apart from inflicting pain and death, the surveillant Taliban regime also severs family ties by sowing seeds of distrust and hatred. Consequently, Samar’s mother (Madar/Azita) and father (Baba/Dil) face many challenges as they strive to protect Samar and her siblings Omar, Ara, Javad, Little Arsalan, and Sitara. The novel also explores the influence of cultural standards and norms on relationships, and conveys a yearning for the past freedoms of Afghan women in particular, such as education and personal liberty, before the Taliban came about.

To cope with the destruction of her homeland and family, Samar finds strength through her talent for storytelling, which equips her with a passion for instilling hope by creating new lives for her family and for herself. What she learns is that while the Taliban can oppress women by banning their education and imposing stringent rules on their manner of dress and daily affairs, they can never take away the intangible, the universal, and the ideals of hope, love and beauty. Such a world lies in the pages of her encyclopedia, grammar books, poetry anthology, travel guides, and her favourite Tolstoy novel, Anna Karenina.

Under the Almond Tree is an emotional, descriptive, and wistful story about the power of ideas and stories, depicted as a form of quiet resistance. Imbued with literary and historical references, this book would appeal to teenagers and young adults. I particularly recommend it to those who have read a thematically similar novel, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief: a story of resilience which takes place in the same century but in a different place and time.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

Under the Almond Tree
By Laura McVeigh
Published by Hachette NZ
ISBN 9781473640849

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Book Reviews: My First Board Book – Colours, and Animals, by Donovan Bixley

Both are available now in bookshops nationwide.

My First Board Book – Colours

cv_colours_bixley.jpgThis is a brightly illustrated board book perfect for a small child getting to grips with Te Reo. Colours are illustrated with clear pictures of a swan, a digger, a caravan and other objects and things that are all associated with being a small fascinated child. The swan is white (ma), the digger is red (whero) – going along the familiar words of the colour song many of those who grew up in the 1980s sang at school.

This is a fabulous book and Sarah our daughter-in-law with her perfect pronunciation reading it to little Quinn, saw Quinn firmly clutch it in her hand, “mine”!

This is a wonderful book to introduce young children to Te Reo, as is Animals, for which my review is below.

cv_animals_bixley.jpgOn the surface, Animals looks like a standard board book for small children but on opening and going through it you realise it is much more.

Starting with the cow, then the horse, sheep, goat, pig and a range of other farm animals all with their Maori names under them.

The pictures are clear and easy for a small child to follow – the trick is in the pronunciation.

It’s really good to see books celebrating the Māori language.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

My First Board Book – Colours
by Donovan Bixley,
Published by Hachette NZ
9781869713447

My First Board Book – Animals
by Donovan Bixley
Published by Hachette NZ
9781869713430

Having a baby? You’ll need (kiwi) books!

By books, I don’t mean books telling you what to do when you have a baby, though a couple of them might be a good idea early on in the pregnancy. Really, don’t look at them later though as it’s a sure way to convince yourself you’ll never be good at this parenting gig. I’m not going to suggest titles of pregnancy/ parenthood books, but Kaz Cooke is amazing and I keep seeing stuff around about Constance Hall’s Like a Queen, and um did you know Emily Writes has a book coming? Anyway.

What is really important, is starting your new bump’s very own library. Your first stop is going to be school fairs – think Spot, Dr Seuss, the eponymous Golden Books. And make sure you have plenty of board books – not only are they tear-proof for destructive-minded toddlers, but they are easier to hold with one hand while breastfeeding. And your second stop – bookshops, of course. Perhaps for Bookshop Day this Saturday 29 October?

All of these essential first kiwi books are available in board book format.

cv_the_noisy_book1. The Noisy Book, by Soledad Bravi (Gecko Press)
Nothing beats it. My boys have destroyed two copies of this – the only notable change in the second edition being a PC-ism of Spinach – it was just ‘Yuk’ now it goes ‘Yuk Yum’. Possibly for the American market?
2. Hairy Maclary Touch & Feel, by Lynley Dodd (Puffin)
Your baby will love touch & feel books, and be disappointed with any books that don’t have this function, right until they are around 2.5 years old. This is a favourite, with lots of fuzzy, soft and velvety dog fur.
3. ABC, 123 and Colours, by James Brown and Frances Samuel (Te Papa Press)cv_my_NZ_ABC_book
These books are gorgeous and genuinely inventive. A may be for Apples, but they are big, shiny Billy Apples – we get relevant letter-meanings, gorgeous countables and the most wonderful artwork in Colours. Just brilliant.
4. Duck’s Stuck, by Kyle Mewburn and Ali Teo (Scholastic NZ)
So you don’t believe that a tiny baby discovers their literary taste literally on the boob? Think again! This book was my bedside book while I fed my little baby to sleep, and is still now a fallback when every other book is rejected. Thank you, Kyle – this is a gift he gave me when still pregnant with number 1, and it’s still going strong.
construction_crew5. Roadworks, Demolition and Construction, by Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock (Walker Books) – available now in a box set.
These are must-haves for the machine-mad child. This was so popular with my older boy when he was 2 there were thoughts of “losing” it for awhile…
6. The Wheels on the Bus (Hachette), The Great Kiwi ABC Book (Upstart Press) and Old McDonald Had a Farm (Hachette), by Donovan Bixley
Okay, you may think once you’ve seen one version of these classics you’ve seen them all, but Bixley’s richly detailed, characterful illustrations make sure this isn’t the case with these books.
cv_the_big_book_of_words_and_pictures7. My Big Book of Words and Pictures, by Ole Konnecke (Gecko Press)
My first child, age 2, insisted that we made up stories based on the pictures on each of the pages of this book. Every Single Night. It was wonderful, most of the time. But seriously, this is a top-of-the-line word learning book, with a bit of a story on each page to help the tired parent’s mind. This could, admittedly, be a first birthday present.
8. Stomp! By Ruth Paul (Scholastic NZ)
Ruth Paul’s Stomp! is a great first dinosaur adventure, where small turns the tables on big when it’s their turn to lead the pack. Subtle, effective illustrations make sure there’s something to discover on every re-read. And there will be plenty.
9. Piggity-Wiggity Jiggity-Jig, by Diana Neild, illustrated by Phillip Webb (Scholastic NZ)
One of the best rhythmic books out there, this is the first in a series about Piggity, with the slightly awkward name. A huge favourite with no 1 kid, it didn’t really work for no 2, and fair warning it is a little long when you have a small baby; maybe one to jiggle the cot to for a night-time read.cv_kakahu_getting_dressed
10. Kākahu – Getting Dressed; Kararehe – Animals; and Kanohi – My Face, by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson (Reo Pepi)
Essential first Te Reo titles, teaching the very young some essential first words in Te Reo to begin their understanding of New Zealand’s own language.
11. Colours, and Animals, by Donovan Bixley (Hachette NZ)
A similar concept as above, including Te Reo first words, with Bixley’s usual cast of animated characters, which will be familiar to anybody who has read his Old McDonald’s Farm or Wheels on the Bus stories.
12. Mrs Wishy-Washy, by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Elizabeth Fuller
Mrs Wishy-Washy is an enduring favourite for my youngest boy, though I will admit that sometimes when he has nightmares they appear to include Wishy-Washy and Grandma (possibly related to that one time we left him to go to sleep with Grandma: the trauma!) The words trip off the tongue, and you’ll have it memorised in no time. Joy Cowley is a national treasure.

Now, a disclaimer that will be familiar to anybody who has had the pleasure of being at The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie when John McIntyre hosts a parents night. Before you buy your library, go to the library – with your child, if they are already born! Every child is different – my boys have very few of their preferred books in common – but all of these books are quality. Writing, production & everything: brilliant.

So here’s the sell: It’s NZ Bookshop Day on 29 October: what better chance to go out and get your little ones some quality kiwi (and translated, in the case of the Gecko Press) books! Most of the bookshops participating will be giving out books to kids who come in-store dressed up, and there are children’s authors popping up in bookshops all over New Zealand. Here’s the event calendar, so get your skates on!

by Sarah Forster

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One & Two (Special Rehearsal Edition)

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_harry_potter_and_the_cursed_child_1and2The announcement that J.K. Rowling was releasing an eighth instalment of the Harry Potter story was greeted with massive excitement worldwide. Another rollicking adventure with our much loved, familiar, favourite characters! Let’s rejoice!

Let me disabuse you of those notions now. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is 1) a play, and 2) not actually written by Rowling herself. Instead, playwright Jack Thorne wrote the script, based on a story written by Rowling, Thorne, and the play’s director John Tiffany. Furthermore, the action takes place nineteen years after the events of Deathly Hallows (essentially carrying on from that novel’s Epilogue). As such, the beloved characters of Harry Potter are present in Cursed Child, but in rather different form. Harry, Ron and Hermione are all grown adults, with jobs and kids and adult pressures and responsibilities.

Harry in particular is not the sometimes troubled impulsive teenager from the books. Instead he’s tired, overworked from his Ministry job, and perplexed by his inability to connect with this son Albus (who seems to have taken on the mantle of ‘resentful “woe is me” teenage boy’, so ably presented to us by fifteen-year-old Harry in Order of the Phoenix).

In general, I found the changes in the characters understandable and refreshing without being jarring. It was quite nice to see that grown-up Ron no longer has the emotional range of a teaspoon, and it was understandable to me that Harry would be at a loss as to how to parent his resentful son; plenty of parents would be, and Harry, being an orphan, would be at a particular disadvantage since he never had a father on whom he could base his own parenting. The overall theme of the play was, indeed, fathers and their children—how to be a father, and the struggle to shake off and live up to the shadow of your own. As such, the play was also thematically more grown up than the books.

Cursed Child is a play (or, more accurately, it’s the rehearsal script of the play—the definitive version of the script, complete with final stage directions and annotations, will be published in 2017). Since it’s a play script, Cursed Child suffers by comparison to the books. It lacks the books’ richness of detail and world-building aspects—and necessarily so. Those details would have been left to the play’s production and staging team, and as such, reading Cursed Child is like reading only half of the story. It feels a little anaemic. Luckily though, the characters jump off the page. Scorpius Malfoy, Draco Malfoy’s son, is particularly memorable, hilarious and endearingly dorky—completely unlike his father.

The plot is also compelling—a typically Rowling-esque page-turning romp, which also gives us the chance to revisit familiar people and places from the books (a clear crowd-pleasing manoeuvre, but entertaining nonetheless). One particular plot device seemed a little too convenient, but in general the machinery of the plot worked well, and the result was a script that is enjoyable and compulsively readable.

Cursed Child isn’t, however, comparable to the books—it feels limited by the change in medium, and the timeshift and subsequent change in characters may well be enough to put off some fans. Nevertheless, it’s still worth reading—not least for the little snippets of new information it reveals of the HP universe we love and thought we already knew.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One & Two (Special Rehearsal Edition)
by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9780751565355

Book Review: Good Morning, Midnight, by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_good_morning_midnightWorld-famous scientist Augie has spent his whole life searching the stars, trying to unlock secrets held light years away. His brilliant mind is attuned to the vastness of space, but closed to the workings of human life on earth. Always looking up and out, he shuns relationships and closes himself off. Sully has also spent her life looking up. Inspired by her mother’s work in astronomy, she too has dedicated her life to space. Closing herself off from her husband and young daughter, family and friends, she sacrifices all in order to fulfil her ambition to travel further in space than anyone before.

This compelling tale takes a close look at human connections and does so by isolating the two main characters. One is stranded deep in the Arctic Circle winter, the other is part of a small space crew on the long and slow journey home from Jupiter. Not only physically isolated, our characters are also isolated by a catastrophic event on Earth which kills everyone else. What this horrific event is, is never expanded upon; neither is it important. The aftermath is where we see Augie and Sully face their emotional isolation; stripped of the ’noise’ of daily interactions of human life, the stillness and silence gives them pause to reflect on their life journeys.

Even with four other crew mates, Sully has remained closed off, and as the sudden silence from Earth presses on their fears and the reality of their dangerous situation hits home, she comes to understand just what she has truly left behind. As winter thaws slowly into spring, Augie finds his soul too slowly thawing, with the help of the mysterious Iris, a young girl left behind in the research camp evacuation. He looks after her, begrudgingly at first, and in that cold, desolate landscape, he finally learns what it means to care for another person.

Good Morning, Midnight is not my usual type of read, however the tag question on the cover ‘When the world stops listening, who do you become?’ intrigued me. I did find myself wanting to know what had happened to everyone on Earth but that is a different type of story to tell.

Lily Brooks-Dalton paints a vivid picture of both settings – the cold frozen Arctic outpost, the sun slowly returning in symmetry with Augie’s personal thawing, and the small enclosed ship adrift in endless space, cut off from the security of communication with ground control. Both vast and dangerous, both depicted in believable and crisp detail that entwines cleverly with a plot driven by the characters’ personal development and acceptance of their fates.

In a society which thrives on connection and constant communication, the concept of total silence to many may seem incomprehensible; alarming almost. It is within this enforced silence however that both protagonists begin to truly hear and understand themselves. It is also from this silence that they make a connection that is a long time overdue, one that becomes more obvious and fitting as the story plays out. A reflective and absorbing story; it is one to savour to the last word.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Good Morning, Midnight
by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 9781474600590

National Writers Forum: The Clocks are Striking Thirteen, by Chris Cleave

Apparently Chris Cleave has been on the road promoting his new book, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, since January. On hearing this, I half expected a bedraggled Cleave to front for the keynote speech of our first National Writers Forum: crumpled notes in hand, world-weary and longingly counting down the days until home. Instead, Cleave presented the most calm, thoughtful, and compelling commentary I’ve heard on the current global socio-economic climate and the resulting challenges writers are facing, not just in their work, but also in their lives.

Cleave had obviously done his research. He started with a discussion of New Zealand literature and his experiences with a country that maintains a cultural focus while still having a healthy curiosity for the outward world. New Zealand, Cleave says, “punches well above its weight in literature”, sometimes much to his chagrin, what with all these New Zealand Man Booker Prize wins. Yet, he assures us, he doesn’t hate us.

But hate is on the rise, and the hard right is resurgent. As Cleave so aptly put it: “People are building walls again, and topping them with barbed wire.” And the problem with this hate? It’s catching – and so much more readily compressible; perfectly adapted to the digital medium. Rage has become the fuelling emotion of our era. 

So, in a world filled with viral sound bites of hate, what can writers do to be useful? Cleave detailed a list of five things that writers can do to matter in an Orwellian world of fuelled by “Two Minutes Hate” – I thoroughly recommend that you read this list, along with the full transcript of Chris’s speech, on his website (link below). They’re points that deserve thoughtful reflection, and a pause for breath.

Though I’m sure that all writers and the bookishly inclined will gain something different from Cleave’s list, the one that really stuck with me was number four: tell stories in a world no longer listening to fact. With science, reason and statistical analysis all failing to hold authority in our current political climates, storytellers have become the most powerful change makers. While this is a dangerous and somewhat scary thought, I do find something thrillingly Foucauldian about the idea. That this might be a step towards empowering subjugated knowledges – those low-ranking knowledges embodied and learned through human experience – is comforting in a way that cold, hard facts never could be.

 We live in a storied world. As Cleave puts it: “When we act like human beings we write like human beings. And when we write like human beings, people are drawn to read us.” Evil may be quick, dominating, and seductive; but appealing to humanity – something that writers have always done well – has the power to change this narrative, and to know when it has achieved its purpose.

Read the full transcript of Chris Cleave’s amazing speech here.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

National Writers Forum: The Clocks are Striking Thirteen: Chris Cleave

Book Review: Black Water-lilies, by Michel Bussi

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_black_water_liliesMichel Bussi writes French detective novels, some of which have been translated into English. He is one of France’s bestselling writers of this genre. Black Water Lilies was first published in French in 2011 as Nympheas Noirs.

A widow who sees everything but whom no one sees narrates part of this book. She observes and stores the information she sees. As she watches the people in this small close knit community she manages to merge into the local landscape, to remain almost invisible. A dog Neptune is her only companion. We are told that the story will cover 13 days, and will begin and end with a murder.

In the village of Giverney, where the artist Claude Monet lived and painted his famous water lily pictures, a body is found face down in a stream. The strange thing is that cause of death is not necessarily as it seems. The body may have been moved. Why did it have a gash to the skull with the head under the water, and a wound to the heart? Did he drown or did he die from the blow to the head or the cut from the blade? The victim is local bigwig Jerome Morval, a well-known ophthalmologist. Inspector Laurenc Serenac and Inspector Sylvio Benavides are between them, investigating Morval’s death.

Jerome Morval had been born and grown up in the village and was married to a local girl Patrica Cheron and appears on the surface to have had a happy marriage. He came back to Giverney after he had finished his medical studies. Morval also had a roving eye and was not averse to flirting with a pretty woman. The two inspectors visit the widow showing her a postcard with the typed message “ELEVEN YEARS OLD. HAPPY BIRTHDAY” with some strange words underneath: “The crime of dreaming, I agree to its creation.” The postcard had been found in one of her husband’s pockets. Patricia has never seen the postcard before and has no idea what the words mean.

An envelope is delivered to the police station with 5 photographs in it. Jerome Morval is present in every one but none of the women in the photos are his wife. The only woman that is able to be identified is the local school teacher Stephanie Dupain. The detectives have to follow every possible lead from trying to ascertain whose boots belong to the footprint recovered from the crime scene and if a jealous lover or husband has committed the crime.

The story then becomes rather muddied. We find ourselves following a story-line of the village children; Fanette a young talented artist and her friends Camille, Vincent and Mary. I initially couldn’t understand where this part actually fitted into the story, but then, the penny dropped. This is a book you really have to think about. The past and the present become intertwined. The ending is shocking.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Black Water-lilies
by Michel Bussi
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN 9781474601757