Book Review: Annual 2, edited by Kate de Goldi & Susan Paris

Annual-2-cvr-72dpi-max-800Available in bookshops nationwide.

Annual 2 is a beautiful book to behold. With its gentle green colouration, whimsically pop-art styled illustration and thick creamy pages, it is decidedly collectible. On opening the book one is treated to an Aladdin’s cave of the oddball and quirky, with a charming irreverence that is an absolute delight.

For this is no ordinary compendium of stories, compiled from an array of New Zealand authors, illustrators and other creatively-minded people. No, this is a figurative treasure chest to grab and engage the mind and attention. There are short stories, yes, and essays too, plus several comics.

But there is so much more: the board game of “Blended Families”, taking one on a ride roll-and-move through the hazards of step parents and siblings; a slightly twisted interview with a taxidermist (he took up the occupation so he could preserve his beloved cat, Mr Mallory); quirky craft activities (ever wanted to knit a digestive system? Or build an eye-catchingly garish mailbox?); a pancake recipe, complete with how to ferment your own sauerkraut; a double-page spread on the identification of ‘Common Household Biscuits and Slices of New Zealand’ complete with scientific names (Raisin biscuits are known as Deceptus terribloides); strange historic postcards; colourful illustrations; tips on how to be a rock star. There is something for everyone here, something to delight and entertain the young (and young at heart). I urge you to pick it up and take a look!

Annual 2 is a very modern, contemporary collection, with a sophistication one rarely finds in more mainstream annuals. It is the sort of book that will hopefully find its way into Christmas stockings all over the country, into the collections of book lovers, and be passed on through the generations.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Annual 2
edited by Kate De Goldi & Susan Paris
Published by AnnualInk
ISBN 9780473395230

The Topp Twins Treasury of Sing-Along Stories, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

cv_the_topp_twins_treasuryAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

The Topp Twins are just FUN. This book celebrates their total devotion to bringing pleasure to your family.

This is a collection of their published titles, and Jenny Cooper has brought the songs to life with bright humourous illustrations. These illustrations enhance the text, but in no way take over from the story being told. The selection of songs includes old time favourites like Do You Ears Hang Low, The Farmer in the Dell and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.

The CD comes with the book and I suspect there were quite a few laughs among the performers. There is a real country swing to the songs and an appropriate American twang to some. Coupled with the illustrations, a banjo playing hound dog in one, they really communicate a love of traditional songs for children.

I think every family needs a bookshelf of favourite books. These will be shared and enjoyed by each new member, and cause huge disputes when the grown up children divide up their childhood books. I had to buy replica copies of their favourite books, to gift to my kids.

The Topp Twins Treasury deserves a place in your family bookshelf. I even noticed my husband foot tapping to the music.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Topp Twins Treasury of Sing-Along Stories
Music from The Topp Twins, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434306

Book Review: Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_thing_explainerAnybody who is interested in things should have this book. It is for kids who want big science told small, and for adults who lack a degree in practical science (or the associated vocabulary), but who are still interested in knowing why. Munroe has written one previous book – What If?, giving serious answers to silly questions – and is the man behind xkcd, a hilarious popular science blog.

I just have to say first up, that Munroe’s editor deserves a round of applause. I am sure that Munroe did his absolute best to keep within the 1000 words he assigned himself – the 1000 most common words in the English language – but surely the odd “particle” must have jumped in, not to mention “cell” (tiny bags of water you’re made of). The marginal notes must have been things of wonder.

Somehow, not only does Munroe write informatively, he also manages quirky asides throughout his incredibly detailed diagrams of everything from the ‘Shared Space House’ (space station), to ‘Bags of Stuff inside you’ (the human torso), ‘Computer building’ (data center), to the easiest-to-understand diagram of what is in the front of your car (under the bonnet) I have ever seen. I can see myself referring to this frequently, given I’m not even 100% on where the water for the window-wipers goes!

The explanations of hard things in simple language are equally effective without pictures. Munroe has tackled the US Constitution very well. The second amendment is stated, “Since having well-trained normal people with guns is important for keeping the country safe, no stopping people from having guns.” He even manages to explain the way in which their leaders are chosen clearly, no mean feat!

As well as engineering explanations, of machines like microwaves, washing machines, the Large Hadron Collider and clothes dryers; Munroe tackles the botany of trees, as well as the parasites that live off and around them, the tree of life (evolution), meteorology, geology (stuff in the earth we can burn), and of course the most hilarious explanation of the Table of Elements I’ve come across. Though would it have killed him to use some numbers so we can be sure we ‘got’ them all!? Also, the ‘How to Count Things’ page was so simple as to be complicated, unfortunately!

The book as a whole is an onslaught of information, designed to be peeked at for a laugh and learn session occasionally, which may just lead you to devour it as a whole. It is a book designed to lie around. Perhaps put it on your table to look at while eating your toast, ensuring your breakfast not only fuels your body, but enriches your mind. Ideal for ages 8 to 99.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words
by Randall Munroe
Published by John Murray
ISBN 9781473620919

Book Review: Lost for Words, by Edward St Aubyn


Lost for Words, a novel by the rather charmingly cv_lost_for_wordsnamed Edward St Aubyn, is a satire onthe Man Booker Prize for Fiction – which meant that Eleanor Catton was very much on my mind as I read. Featuring a cross-section cast of the literary elite, Lost for Words particularly pokes fun at the pretension, ineptitude and general ill-qualification of the prize’s judges. The plot follows one iteration of the Elysian Prize from the assembly of the judging committee to the announcement of the winner.

Of course, a novelist satirising literature’s highest prize for novels cannot help but appear to be, at best, self defeating, and, at worst, harbouring rather sour grapes. This feeling only intensifies when you realise that one of St Aubyn’s previous novels, Mother’s Milk, was Booker shortlisted in 2006, and failed to win. Then everything gets odder when you learn that, with Lost for Words, St Aubyn has just won the UK’s prestigious Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction.

So is it any good? I have to say that I really enjoyed it. It is very, very funny. The characters  − judges, publishers, authors, literary critics  − are splendidly and mercilessly drawn. The bite to St Aubyn’s satire keeps the book bubbling along nicely; his real anger lending it an urgency and candour without which Lost for Words would have been self-serving and tedious. There is even − and how very dare he  − what seems to be a swipe at our own literary golden girl: one of the long-listed titles is an historical novel written by a young New Zealander. We read an excerpt from it over one of St Aubyn’s characters’ shoulders and it is dreadful: crude and ridiculous. If this is intended as a dig at Catton’s sumptuous The Luminaries then it is very far from the mark.

Part of the pleasure of reading Lost for Words is in joining St Aubyn on his patch of judgemental moral high ground. The sheer ridiculousness of (for example) a self-published cookbook being mistaken for a post-modern novel and longlisted for one of world literature’s most serious awards is just possible enough to make the reader delightedly aghast. And of course St Aubyn is flattering us throughout, assuming that we − like he, one presumes  − are able to call a literary spade a spade.

But are we? Who are we to say which is the best novel? What criteria would we impose? As my favourite character in the book, Didier the philosopher, puts it: “What is literature? … What is this privilege we grant to certain verbal communications, although they employ the very same words we use to buy our bread and count our money? Words are our slaves: they may be used to fetch a pair of slippers, or to build the great pyramid of Giza: they depend on syntax to make the order of the world manifest, to raise stones into arches and arches into aqueducts.”

There is a lot more in this vein. Didier is loquacious; every time he appears on the page, a torrent of words spills from his mouth. Other characters are constantly trying to get him to shut up; one even resorts to kissing him to stop him talking. Although he is hyper-articulate, the reader very soon begins to worry that his cascade of sentences hides a confusion of thought. There is no doubt that St Aubyn intends him as a parody, a caricature of literary theorists.

And here again, Catton came to mind. I saw her deliver the New Zealand Book Council lecture at Wellington Writers Week earlier this year and was delighted and inspired by her articulate confidence and intellectual grace  − huzzah for successful Kiwi women! I was also very relieved not to be reviewing her lecture (as I had been reviewing other Writers Week events), because I didn’t entirely understand what she was trying to tell me. It reminded me of being in English Lit theory classes and being uneasily unsure whether my failure to grasp (for example) post-structuralism was down to my own intellectual ineptitude or a fault in the way the theory was explained.

David Larsen’s review of Catton’s lecture in The Listener was very revealing: “Not saying nearly enough is going to be my whole approach here, and one day, when this lecture is printed in a book of Catton’s essays, you can read it, and then read it three more times, and then you will understand why … let me concede frankly that the task [of explaining what Catton’s lecture was about] exceeds my abilities … I write this in terrified awareness that one day [Catton’s] non-hypothetical book of essays is going to put you in a position to judge just how badly I’ve got this wrong”.

This, I feel, is the core of the cultural problem that St Aubyn is trying to address. How can we assess the value of that which we don’t understand? To what extent should literature be judged on its ability to communicate? − and to whom? The cultural elite? The lowest common denominator? What does this mean for our cultural and intellectual ecosystem? What kinds of ideas  − and people  − can thrive in this environment?

As a satire, and as the title would suggest, Lost for Words takes a very dim view of the situation. Writers are self-absorbed, publishers are unfaithful, judges are blindly partisan, critics are spellbound by meaningless gush − and readers are entirely absent from the equation. The world of literature is doomed; a shrinking pool of self-referential, elitist tosh.

Personally, I am more optimistic than St Aubyn. I accept that judging will always be subjective and I’m sure there inevitably are political agendas at play − but I still find literary prizes to be useful signposts in a gigantic, ever-growing maze of books. And, if at first I don’t understand something, but I wish to, I am willing to re-engage with complex ideas. (I will be buying Catton’s book of essays when it is published.) Besides, if I fully understood everything I ever read or heard immediately, that would limit the possibilities of my intellectual development, and  − like Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest − I intend to develop in many directions. But then, I’ve never been turned down for a Booker. That’s got to sting.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Lost for Words
by Edward St Aubyn