Book Review: Shhh! Don’t Wake The Baby…, illustrated by Scott Pearson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_shh_dont_wake_the_baby.jpegYou have to admit, the opportunity was just too good. A new Prime Minister, a husband who’d step up to raise the child while his wife ran the country, and a country captivated by a young vibrant first couple at a time when old, white men were reeking destruction and chaos elsewhere in the world. Quick off the mark, illustrator Scott Pearson has very carefully blended his cartoon style into 10 contemporary scenes that we will instantly recognise.

The ‘story’, if there is one is simple: don’t wake little Neve Te Aroha. But there are many interruptions, unique to this couple. All Black supporters off to the game cheer loudly outside the window; Clarke showing off his fishing skills; camera clicks from the paparazzi; noisy espresso machines during parent coffee mornings; loud tractors on a Morrinsville farm; extra bass during Jacinda’s night club DJ session (a great one, that) and Winston shhhhing Crusher Collins in the House whilst Parliament is sitting. That is my favourite scene. He’s captured the Deputy PM’s grumpiness perfectly. Oddly, apart from Collins, the other MPs don’t look like any currently sitting but that’s a minor point.

There’s not much else you can say about this book apart from that it’s a quintessentially ‘Kiwi’ book. Plenty of small references such as kiwi mobiles, hibiscus flowers in the vase, photos of the beehive on the walls, buzzy bees, caravans at the beach. This is a colourful, vibrant, snatch in time. Sure it’s cashing in on the moment but why not. Even my 6 year old immediately took to it, and she knows very little about current affairs, yet she knew enough to get all the small innuendos and jokes in the pictures. A great book for right now. Adults and kids alike will be happy with this.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Shh… Don’t Wake the Baby
illustrated by Scott Pearson
Published by Moa/ Hachette
ISBN 9781869713942

Book Review: The Peacock Summer, by Hannah Richell

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_peacock_summer.jpgThe Peacock Summer is the latest novel by bestselling Australian-born and England-based author, Hannah Richell. Narrated in the first person, the story centres on the lives of two women, Lillian and Maggie.

In the prime of her life, Lillian finds herself trapped. Encouraged by her aging guardian, Lucinda Daunt, and out of concern for her invalid sister Helena’s medical expenses, Lillian marries the wealthy investor, Charles Oberon. At twenty-six years old, she has become a porcelain beauty in a delicate dollhouse, burrowed within the paintings, ornaments, and collected objects of Charles’s manor. Now Lillian must navigate a world of cake tins and floral dresses, of high-society men and their wives with their expectations and illusory glories.

At the hands of her manipulative husband, Lillian becomes the victim of domestic abuse, which leads to her barrenness. The pains of maternal yearning and a loveless marriage plunge her into a world of deep loneliness. Nevertheless, what keeps Lillian going is Albie, her stepson, whose playfulness and curiosity remind her constantly of the joys of living and loving. Life takes a dramatic turn that summer, when Lillian meets the young artist, Jack Fincher, whom Charles has commissioned to paint the nursery.

Fast forward to the present day: At age twenty-six, Maggie Oberon feels like she is going nowhere. Her parents, Amanda and Albie, left her at a young age, going their separate ways. The rock of Maggie’s whole life was her grandmother, Lillian. Now that the aged Lillian is very ill, Maggie travels from Australia to Lilian’s English manor, Cloudesley, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. As Maggie learns of Lillian’s story, she finds that they are very much alike. Lillian reminds Maggie about the brevity of life and the necessity, therefore, to live boldly and fully.

The Peacock Summer is a call to the genuine celebration of life and family. Richell’s prose is highly descriptive, tender, and vibrant. The story touches on the poignant themes of parenthood, loss, longing, and the indefatigability of authentic, sacrificial love. I strongly recommend this excellent book for the upcoming spring and summer months.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Peacock Summer
by Hannah Richell
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9780733640438

Book Review: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC, by Reed Tucker

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_slugfestThe title says it all: Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC. Never have I read a non-fiction book with so many descriptions of conflict and deception. By the final page I felt as though I had done 15 rounds in a boxing ring. Tucker, a Brooklyn (New York) based journalist, has written a detailed history of Marvel and DC’s roles in the volatile comic book industry that he describes as ‘continuously ping-ponging between elation and despair’. The book’s dedication gives a clue to the tone and content that will follow: ‘To the fans who, for decades, have been tirelessly litigating this issue with their voices, keyboards – and occasionally their fists.’ I’m pleased that Tucker used the gender-neutral term ‘fans’ in his dedication, given the frequent assumptions and assertions throughout the book that all comic book fans are male.

If you’re a comic book reader – or even if you’re not – you’re likely aware of the long-standing rivalry between the two giants: Marvel and DC. Tucker’s book chronicles the ups and downs they have both experienced, alongside the shift in how comic books have been perceived over time, and the impact of political, cultural and technological changes on the industry. The ‘iconic trinity’ of DC’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – and other key characters, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man – have survived both on and off the page, and their longevity now seems assured. It’s also interesting to read about characters that sank without a trace (or in some cases never made it to a first issue). They include Brother Power the Geek, The Hawk and the Dove, the Galaxy Green warrior women, Steel and Vixen.

Superman debuted in 1938, with limited powers. Unable to fly, he could however leap one-eighth of a mile. Tucker explains how Superman – and a raft of subsequent action heroes – offered ‘inexpensive escapist entertainment’ to North American readers during the challenging times of the Great Depression and the threat of war.

Not everyone was happy about the rapid growth of comic books, which were thought to be trashy and disreputable. Journalists, psychiatrists and other critics blamed comics and their ‘poisonous effects’ for the rise of the ‘bad behaviour’ of young people. In 1954, a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convened a hearing on the evils of comic books. In response, the industry produced a code of conduct outlining core values and standards for details such as titles, depictions of violence and costumes. Not all publishers could adhere to the code and many went out of business.

The early comic book readers were perceived to be either very young children or older people who ‘weren’t too bright’, according to Stan Lee (an influential Marvel identity who eventually worked for DC too). The same was true in New Zealand. Some of us can still remember Bob Jones’s public graffiti belittling a Labour Party opponent: ‘[This prominent Labour party politician] reads comics’ it read; see Bollinger (2017).

Tucker analyses comic book characters, the people who draw and voice them, and the artwork itself. The artwork is traditionally a key point of differentiation between one publisher and another, even though an artist’s creativity may be constrained by prevailing house styles. Tucker describes the initial DC characters as bland and steady do-gooders, compared with Marvel’s three-dimensional superheroes who had real-world problems and anxieties.

Tucker covers marketing strategies, print runs and distribution tactics, the emergence of brand identities, trends to watch (hello, martial arts), price increases, optimal page counts and the catastrophic effects of weather on delivery schedules during winter. He tells of territorial wars, accusations of plagiarism and spies, defections, hiring and firing dramas, poaching, friction and competition. Apparently insults and punches were frequently traded. Writers were seen as disposable, like oranges: ‘You squeeze them until there’s no juice left then you throw them away.’ Certain executives are described variously as a ‘world-class jerk… [with a] foul temperament’, a ‘grouchy and demanding…crusty…curmudgeon’, ‘abusive…notoriously difficult… [with a] volcanic temper’, and a ‘prickly…vindictive…bad-mouthing…prick’. And worse. Perhaps it’s no wonder that some former workers are described as bitter, and there are stories about the lingering ‘bad blood’ and ‘screw you’ attitudes that followed the departure or defection of key personnel.

Despite the intense rivalry, there have been several successful crossover co-productions, with labour divided between Marvel and DC. For one such publication, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century (1976), Marvel provided the penciller and the colourist, and DC offered the skills of a writer, an inker and a letterer.
Comic book tie-ins emerged as early as 1940, when character-themed merchandise included shirts, soap, pencil sets, belts and watches. Later, licensing and cross-promotion strategies brought in staggering revenue streams. The 1989 Batman film is reported to have generated an estimated $US750 million in merchandising sales. Products ranged from action figures and cereals to tortilla chips and satin jackets. Artists and many others associated with Batman soon became ‘filthy rich’.

Tucker acknowledges that the comic book industry was historically dominated almost exclusively by ‘old white guys’. Nevertheless, this book misses opportunities to acknowledge the work carried out by women in the industry. For example, there is only a passing reference to Marie Severin, a pioneering artist and colourist who at one time had the final word on every cover coming out of Marvel. Her contribution was significant as cover art was critical to ensuring an issue’s success.

I found the often male-centric language and tone – and some turns of phrase – off-putting. For example, why describe DC comics as being ‘suddenly as attractive as syphilis’? Why feature a quote reporting that executives ‘squabbled like two old ladies’? One editor apparently ‘went to the bathroom and puked’ when he heard that the next person to lead DC was to be a young woman, Janette Kahn. Kahn, who was well-educated, experienced and clearly the right person for the role, soon proved to be a ‘fresh and energetic…presence’. Her immediate goals were not only to improve the comics but also to treat the writers and artists with more respect.

As well as female industry executives, female characters such as Super Woman and Wonder Woman have played key roles in comic book history. There have also been many other female characters along the way, such as Wonder Girl, Marvel Girl and Elasti-Girl. (Curiously, I note that in the closing acknowledgments Tucker offers both thanks and apologies to his wife.)

Notes accompany each chapter for readers who would like to learn more, with full references linked to key quotes. There’s a fairly comprehensive although not all-inclusive index; some minor characters referenced in the book do not appear in the index. If you’ve ever wondered what DC stands for, Tucker provides both official and unofficial explanations. The range and scope of topics covered is impressive, although tighter editing of some of the verbatim conversations may have made for a better read.

Tucker makes it clear that this is an industry where ‘conflict equals audience engagement’. Indeed, fans are reported as thriving on the conflict that persists to this day between Marvel and DC. Tucker entertains the possibility that there is room for both companies to succeed, although he also notes the risk that DC’s superhero universe may yet suffer ‘a slow, sad descent into irrelevance’. He observes that the industry is heading into new, uncertain directions, having had to remain resilient and resourceful in the face of the decline of print media.

Slugfest would first and foremost appeal to comic-book fans, but may also attract readers interested in the history of publishing, pop culture, superhero movies, and comic book characterisation. It also includes lessons about office politics, divided loyalties, and marketing practices and strategies – if you don’t mind a book where four-letter words, misogynistic comments and put-downs abound. One surprise: the book contains no images other than the cover art and the starburst at the beginning of each chapter.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

Slugfest: Inside the 50-year battle between Marvel and DC
by Reed Tucker
Published by Sphere
ISBN 9780751568974

Book Review: The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, by Leigh Bardugo

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_language_of_thorns.pngNo. 1 New York Times bestselling author, Leigh Bardugo, has charmed the world of fantasy readers yet again with a new book of delightful stories. The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, beautifully illustrated by Sara Kipin, is set in Bardugo’s imaginarium, the Grishaverse.

The six stories, three of which have been previously published, explore the labyrinthine world of desire, love, loss and sacrifice. For most of its inhabitants, the ever-human experience of want keeps them in a state of constant wandering.

‘Ayama and the Thorn Wood’ tells the story of the young Ayama, a girl whose wise tales change the heart of a monster and a kingdom’s future. ‘The Too-Clever Fox‘ concerns the perilous life of an animal community at the mercy of hunters. In ‘The Witch of Duva’, we see a fresh retelling of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, where the magic of the woods brings Nadya to see the bitter truth. In ‘Little Knife, a powerful river spirit deals with the ravages of desire and its damning effects. Similarly, in ‘The Soldier Prince’, a Clocksmith and his clever creation discover the curse of obsession. The final tale, ‘When Water Sang Fire’, is strongly evocative of the The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells the story of two sildroher, Signy and Ulla, whose enchanted voices can summon storms and determine the fate of creatures from the land and sea.

I highly commend Bardugo’s writing. The originality of her tales lies in their plot twists and stark thematic and image contrasts, which liken fantasy to the thorny world of reality wherein pain and beauty are inseparable. I was hooked at the very beginning of each story.

It helps that the stories in The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic can be read on their own. They form an excellent starting point for potential sojourners of the Grishaverse: home to The Shadow and Bone Trilogy and The Six of Crows Duology. Step inside, the dark woods await . . .

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic
by Leigh Bardugo
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9781510104518

Book Review: The Haunting, by Margaret Mahy

cv_the_hauntingAvailable in bookshops nationwide. 

Eight-year-old Barney Palmer lives an almost-ordinary life with an almost-ordinary family, with two exceptions. Barney has been haunted all his childhood, and the Palmers are a family of magical blood. Every generation a ‘Palmer magician’ is born; this is seen as both a gift and a curse to the family. When Barney feels a “faint dizzy twist” in the world around him on the way home from school, he knows that he is about to be haunted again…but something is different about this haunting. For one, it seems to be linked to the death of Barney’s great-uncle (and namesake) Barnaby.

It soon becomes clear to Barney and his family that Barney is being haunted by something potentially dangerous. Barney begins to hear voices, has bizarre dreams and begins to look rather ghostly himself; pale-faced and constantly tired. Sometimes his eyes don’t appear to be his own. Sometimes his body feels like somebody else’s. With the help of his sisters – silent, mysteriously tidy Troy and talkative, curious Tabitha – Barney begins to get to the bottom of his family’s history.

My favourite thing about this book would have to be the characters; they feel fresh and bold, and their dialogue is so realistic. Tabitha and Barney both seem to share the role of the protagonist; while Barney is being haunted he feels like a ghost sometimes, observant and silent. On the other hand, Tabitha’s personality is so bubbly and overwhelming that she dominates the story with her note-taking, matter-of-fact commentary and constant stream of questions. I like Tabitha.

Only a few pages in, I could already see why this book had received the Carnegie Medal back in 1982. Margaret Mahy’s use of language is completely unique, and her way of storytelling is so effective. Conversations between the characters seem to crackle with energy, while the story progresses at a satisfying pace. The events of Barney’s haunting are told through the eyes of the children, so there’s this innocence about the way the story is told. (At first Barney refuses to confess that he is being haunted at all; he does this because he is afraid that he will upset his beloved stepmother Claire, who is expecting a baby.) Somehow it makes the scarier parts of the story that more chilling.

Overall, The Haunting is the perfect paranormal thriller – it manages to be a story that readers of any age will be gripped by, as they have been for 35 years now. Margaret Mahy is just one of those authors whose work is really timeless; that word gets thrown around a lot, but her work really does suit the description. I can imagine in another decade that The Haunting would have the same effect on its readers.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon

The Haunting
by Margaret Mahy
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9781869713676

Book Review: The Hate Race, by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Available now in bookshops nationwide. A must-read. cv_the_hate_race

Maxine and I grew up in the same country, during the same era. As a New Zealander, I was also a little different, and I was discriminated against by one particular teacher, but this wasn’t widespread. I am white. My best friend was Australian-Indian – she was born there, but her parents weren’t. Reading this book made me think harder about what the impact the colour of her skin must have had on her. To me, she was my BFF. When we returned to NZ when I was 11, I was none the wiser about her experience.

What happened to Maxine Beneba Clarke by virtue of the colour of her skin, growing up in a small town in NSW, Australia, was unforgiveable. Maxine is Australian, her parents, as far as she was aware, were from England. Her first experience of racism was at preschool, at the hands of a pretty blond girl who stated, “You are brown”. While she had realised she wasn’t white, she hadn’t realised that this was perceived as a bad thing until that point. And from that point forward, many wouldn’t let her forget it. At primary school, she was star of the week, and when telling her teacher her parents were a Mathematician and an Actress she was assumed, by the teacher, to be lying.

She prays to a God she doesn’t believe in to become white, like everybody else, and one day it happens. Her skin starts turning white. Her mum takes her to the dermatologist, who diagnoses vitiligo. It doesn’t last, she turns dark again once the summer returns. Later she notes, “By grade eight, the wake-up-white prayers of my childhood had been well and truly reality-checked. I knew it would take an awful lot for broad-nosed, coffee-toned, B-cup, study-freak me to make the grass-greener leap.”

Maxine is a skilful storyteller, and grounds each segment of the book in its place politically, and socially. Her love for her family and friends shines, while she tells her stories of torment without the grainy taste of revenge. And it was torment – every time she moved schools, changed after-school activities, there would be a group of people who had been allowed, even trained by their culture to ridicule her. There is no doubt in the book, that this treatment of race was/is insidious and endemic in the White Australian culture. She spoke to a guidance counsellor who said it was a ‘little bit of teasing,’ when she had nasty notes being placed in her bag, her books, telling her to “go home”. She took another bullying incident to the principal, bawling, who said ‘It’s just a little bit of nonsense.’

But though there is misery, and this is a memoir, it is not – somehow – an overwhelmingly downbeat read. “The margins between events have blended and shifted in the tell of it. There’s that folklore way West Indians have of weaving a tale: facts just so, gasps and guffaws in all the right places, because after all, what else is a story for?” Maxine’s storytelling lifts us when we need it, and the depths we plumb are of the behaviour of others, and how Maxine changed as a result. The boys at her high school played a game at the entrance to the girl’s toilets: ‘What are you?’ She had to give the right answer – “A blackie.” – to get past. It is in that chapter that we get the full sense of how this was creating her as a person:
“…I was Sooty, Boong, Thick Lips.
Somewhere along the line we give up counting.
Somewhere along the line, we just give in.
Somewhere along the line, we stop reporting.
Somewhere along the line, we die a little.”

I had the privilege to see Maxine at Auckland Writer’s Festival, speaking live to a multicultural group of high school students. She was one of the most powerful performers I’ve ever seen on stage.

I think every white person should read this, everywhere. Not just in Australia, nor just in New Zealand: everywhere. “Everyday racism” shouldn’t be a thing. “Black Lives Matter” shouldn’t be necessary to state. All high schools, too, should have this book on their shelves. This is about racism: this is about bullying based on something a person can’t change. It is important for teenagers to understand the impact words can have.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Hate Race
by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9780733632280

Book Review: A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, by Natasha Lester

Image

cv_a_kiss_from_mr_fitzgeraldI thoroughly enjoyed A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.

Evie (Evelyn Lockhart) is quite the character. Born into the upper class, she is unwilling to become a lady of leisure, filling her days with needlecraft and entertaining guests. No, she is determined to make a mark, to do more with her life. And when a school friend is found by the river, in the advanced stages of labour, alone and afraid, Evie knows what she wants to do: become a doctor. Not a nurse, a doctor. It is something she must fight for, however, for female doctors are not taken seriously. To qualify, she must prove she is the best. And, to pursue her dream, she must set aside her childhood friend, Charlie, whom everyone expects her to marry.

Her studies take her to the glitz and glamour of Manhattan. Here she finds that a life of relative freedom – as in freedom from her relatives – can be hers. However, becoming a doctor is neither easy, nor cheap, leading her to seek employment as a showgirl at the infamous Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. It is a life, that if revealed, could cause scandal and destroy her fledgling romance with Upper East-side banker, Thomas Whitman. But Evie is game to any challenge, but will her dedication and determination pay off? Or is the world not ready for her yet?

Evelyn is a great character, a woman with a mind of her own, and the strength of will to follow it, in an era when women’s suffrage was newly recognised, and not always appreciated. The rest of the cast are equally memorable: her competitive sister Viola; her wilful and stubborn mother; Charlie, her childhood friend, now spurned and bitter; and, of course, Thomas. Overall, a highly enjoyable read, with more than a few surprises, I found it both satisfying and engaging.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald
by Natasha Lester
Reviewed by Hachette
9780733634635