Book Review: Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England, by Liza Picard

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_chaucers_peopleAs an English lit student, many years ago at University, I was fascinated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The trouble was there was not enough information to help the ordinary reader put the people in context

That is no longer a problem. Liza Picard is a social historian and has written about many periods in English history, giving the background and the depth to the actual events. She brings the same academic excellence and readable scholarship to the world of Chaucer. While many writers of historic events put in too much detail and get side-tracked, she avoids these pitfalls. This book is both informative and engaging. It is perhaps not a Summer beach read, but certainly a book I will dip in to and discuss with others.

Picard takes each of the characters form the Tales and puts them in to a group. She then gives us the information about that group. The Wife of Bath comes under the heading of Country Life, but we then get a description of her occupation as a Weaver. The research is meticulous but this is a readable version of the facts. I enjoyed finding out about The Reeve. I did not realise double entry book-keeping was already in existence in the 1300’s. The medical section is so good I kept reading passages aloud to my long-suffering husband. We find out about surgeons, apothecaries, pestilence, women’s problems and mental illness.

‘Most home remedies relied on common herbs, with perhaps some alcohol and faith. A scalded penis (how could that happen?) called for the ashes of burned cloth on a linen bandage. For snakebite take thine own piss and drink it….’. The section on food includes some Medieval recipes, but the suggestion not to try them!

While this book is perhaps more for those with an academic interest in life in Medieval England, it is an interesting tome for the general reader. I worry that we no longer read to widen our knowledge and understanding, but read only for specific outcomes. To me the beauty of a book, is that it leads me in to an unknown world and helps me understand the present by reflecting on the past. Surely, this is the purpose of historical writing.

Liza Picard will lead the reader into a fascinating world behind the characters Chaucer so well presented to us in the Canterbury Tales. You will embark on your own pilgrimage to Medieval England but beware of Cooks, Reeves, Merchants, Knights and above all, the Doctor of Physic!

by Kathy Watson

Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England
by Liza Picard
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN 9781474606318


Undreamed of… 50 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, by Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_undreamed_of_50_years.jpgArt books, coffee table books, travel books. There are so many out there and they all blur together making it hard to select one. This is not a problem when you come to Undreamed of…50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship. It combines beautiful art, interesting background and a wealth of New Zealand artists and their stories. What more could you ask for?

The Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, established in 1966, supports artists by providing studio space and a stipend for a year. The first fellow was Michael Illingworth. Now it is an established part of the New Zealand art scene.

In 2016/17, the Dunedin Art Gallery and Hocken Gallery exhibited 50 years of work from the recipients of the award. This beautifully illustrated book commemorates the event and the artists involved.

The book begins with three superb articles on the importance of art, the establishment of the fellowship and its impact. I found each of these a work of art in itself. We have Hodgkins commenting on her own art:

‘This present line of work is good… I have got well into the spirit of the place & it is yielding up riches – undreamed of, at first sight…’

This was in 1930 from Flatford Mill where she had a studio and support to enable her to work without financial worries. It is this idea that gave rise to the fellowship, which enabled an artist to focus on their work. The link to the University of Otago was beneficial to the artist who had money and space to work. Julia Morison, Fiona Pardington and Heather Straka were inspired in their work by the Medical school and many artists had their work displayed by the University.

Priscilla Pitts looks closely at the impact of the Fellowship, while Joanne Campbell charts the founding of this award. Charles Brasch preferred to stay in the background but it appears from her research, that he played an important role in the creation and continuance of this grant. It was set up initially to nurture an identifiably national culture though in fact the first two recipients were English emigres. There were two occasions when the Fellowship was in danger from financial strife, as is often the case with awards dependent on sponsorship from outside. In both cases, a solution was found and 50 years of success suggests it will continue to flourish.

Finally, and this is the bulk of the book, come the artists. These are in alphabetical order and include photos, artworks and a biographical summary. In reality, it is a Who’s Who of the New Zealand art world. While the early recipients worked in the more traditional fields of painting and sculpture, the later years include installations, moving image and three-dimensional works. When looking through these pages, it becomes apparent that the selection panel got it right, time after time. The artworks are amazing and I am just disappointed the exhibition did not travel the country and enable us all to benefit from such a rich range of creativity.

I am not sure I will still be here to celebrate 100 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, but after reading this book, I am sure it will occur.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Undreamed of…50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship
by Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522568

Book Review: Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War, by Chris Bourke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_good-bye_maorilandOver the past few years, we have remembered many of the events during the Great War, 100 years on. Each battle is commemorated, medals are displayed, letters rediscovered and exhibitions opened to the public. The influence of the Great War on our distinctive New Zealand music was a story waiting to be told. I was delighted to find Chris Bourke has contributed another book to help chart the growth of music in our land. In his previous book, Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of Popular Music 1918-1964, he covered a huge range of styles and developments over 50 years. In Good-Bye Maoriland, he looks at the individuals and influences on our New Zealand music as a result of the Great War. Chris Bourke is a writer, radio producer and editor. He is meticulous in his research and I always appreciate the thorough notes that support his writing.

Bourke begins by describing the place of music in the family home. In 1916, 40% of New Zealand homes contained a piano. This is a staggering statistic when you consider the pianos were imported, heavy and very expensive. Music shops flourished selling the latest sheet music and music making was an important part of life for towns and cities. This was the era of Brass bands, the local Choir and Vaudeville Shows, which often travelled the length of the country and included visiting celebrities. However, the idea of making a living from music was still undeveloped for most citizens and the part played by music during the war shows how important it was as in uniting and entertaining the troops. Add to that, the patriotic nature of many songs and we begin to see the influence on the war to the development of New Zealand music.

The chapters follow a logical progression as they include the songs to stir recruits, the memories of soldiers lost, the Concert Parties, Waiata Maori and returning home. Each section shows the changes that occurred as the war advanced. It also charts a maturing of a distinctly New Zealand music. I can see Bourke writing Blue Smoke and realising that the Great War was a rich story on its own. Often it is not until we begin to seek answers that other questions arise.

This book is not just a well-researched history. Every page is illustrated with appropriate photographs. I found these fascinating as formal and informal shots allowed the reader to see the high standing in which music making was held. The cover artwork of many New Zealand written songs could actually make another book in the future. Especially, because so much of this music will be lost as families move and downsize.
This book will inform those interested in both war and the cultural history of New Zealand. It is a source book for anyone working with music of the period and a fascinating read for the generally curious, like me.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War
by Chris Bourke
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408718

Book Review: Force of Nature, by Jane Harper

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_force_of_natureThis is the much-anticipated second novel from Jane Harper. Her debut, The Dry, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the film rights were snapped up. Jane Harper lives in Melbourne and has worked as a print journalist in Australia and the UK for thirteen years.  I loved her debut and was keen to see if her second novel was as engaging. I was not disappointed.

In Force of Nature, we once again meet Aaron Faulk, a Federal Police Agent working in the rugged outback of Australia (he in The Dry, and too good to be a one-novel wonder). He is asked to help to search for a woman missing in the bush. While five women embark on a corporate team building exercise, only four make it out three days later. For Faulk, this is more than a missing person case, as the woman is his key source for an investigation into her employer’s dealings.

Faulk is a man troubled by his past, a little of which was exposed in The Dry. We again glimpse his background through a series of tramping maps left to him by his late father. These maps include the area of the search, and Faulk is forced to recall his memories and ] re-evaluate his ideas about his father.

The Australian landscape is very much a part of this story. The bush, the mountains and the struggle to exist in a small town. I like Harper’s style. She keeps the pace up but manages to capture patterns of speech and the guilt of survivors. As the story unravels, we discover all is not as it first appears. There are tensions within the family company, and suspicions among the staff. This is the stuff of an excellent crime novel.

Force of Nature is a great Australian crime novel because we are drawn into a world where land and man work together to reveal the truth. This is the Christmas novel that will be passed around our family and never actually make it back to me.

by Kathy Watson

Force of Nature
by Jane Harper
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781743549094

Book Review: False River, by Paula Morris

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_false_riverThis is a very sophisticated collection of short stories, which sit comfortably together. While many have been previously published in magazines, or read on radio, bringing them together allows the reader to appreciate the true depth of Morris’s writing. The title story, False River was a finalist in the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in the UK, and Morris is no stranger to awards for her writing.

I am not a regular reader of short stories as once I have sorted out characters and setting, I prefer to settle in for a long read. But this collection allowed me to enter each world quickly and with minimal fuss as I became engrossed by the stories. It was a revelation.

Morris knows her settings. Be it New Orleans, Mexico or Latvia, we are quickly immersed in a familiar world where small details add depth. Some stories deal with relationships such as the delightful story Isn’t It. Here we have the Auckland housing crisis meeting family mourning. The meeting of these two worlds is beautifully portrayed.

A well-chosen black and white photo follows some stories. I like the inclusion of visual art within the written text as it adds another layer for the reader. However, I was a little disappointed at the cover of the collection. The dark blue, understated cover did not live up to the quality of the stories and artwork within the  book. Even the endpapers were more creative.

I really enjoyed this collection: it seems, after a thirty-year standoff with short stories, Paula Morris has lured me back. I would pick the book up to read one story, and then sneak another too. Of course, this meant I was running late!

This is the perfect summer read. A sleep, a swim or even a small wine could follow each story.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

False River
by Paula Morris
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780143771630



Book Review: Big Pacific, by Rebecca Tansley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_big_pacificThe Pacific Ocean contains half the world’s water and covers a third of the world’s surface. This alone makes it one of the most fascinating places on our planet. Add to that a diversity of lifeforms, landscapes and peoples, and you have the formula for a great book.

Big Pacific has been produced to accompany the Natural History New Zealand four-part series to screen on Prime Television. The images used come from the documentary but there is an added bonus. Interspersed between the stories of plant and animal life, are little vignettes about the actual making of the documentary. These added an in-depth look at the difficulties and joys of shooting a series over an extended period. It gives the human stories behind the images. I loved this Kiwi down-to-earth touch.

The chapters are creatively designed to avoid the usual land, sea and people classification. Here we have a chapter on population growth, one on hunger, a section about secrets and finally one about mayhem, which defies the title of Pacific (peaceful). Such a creative way to organise material means that you can pick up the book and dip in to any part. The images are superb and the text is enough to inform and engage, but not to bore. Each section includes a map showing where in the Pacific this creature or life form is located.

An introduction gives a little background to the discovery and naming of the Pacific, but the main focus is on the diversity of this ocean. The start includes maps of the Pacific that makes for easy reference when reading. Along with the expected inhabitants, such as sharks, seals, whales, Tuatara, Iguana and turtles, you will also meet Wolf Eels, Jellyfish, Red sea urchin, squid and palolo worms. The final section includes some geology and archaeology associated with this vast area.

This book tackles a huge and diverse area of our world. While it cannot cover every aspect of the Pacific, I think it makes a wonderful introduction. I can see this book on the coffee tables of countless burees around the Pacific Islands. It will inform the travelers from the Northern climes, about our large slice of paradise. For New Zealand readers, it will encourage you to search a little harder for your Pacific island getaway. While a gentle beach is appealing, a trip to view some of these amazing creatures would be a special holiday.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Big Pacific
by Rebecca Tansley
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869539634

Book Review: A Wise Adventure II: New Zealand and Antarctica after 1960, by Malcolm Templeton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_wise_adventure_2New Zealand has always had a close association with Antarctica from the very first. Early exploration often set out from New Zealand and continuing contact was based in Christchurch, in particular with the American Deep Freeze base.

In A Wise Adventure (VUP 2000) Templeton covered the period of 1920-1960.This included the establishment of the Antarctic Treaty system. In this companion volume, he looks more closely at the developments and negotiations since then. The Antarctic Treaty was set up to ensure access to scientific research and the peaceful management of the area and resources. While this seems a relatively simple premise, the actual process of establishing legal documentation, of getting the agreement of all interested parties and finally of enforcing these rules, is more complex.

Templeton is a former New Zealand Foreign Service Officer and has served at the United Nations and as Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Using archival materials and his own meticulous research, he has collated the information into this excellent record of the negotiations and decisions behind the treaties.

To the outsider, it appears a straightforward task to gather the interested parties and sign an agreement. In the case of Antarctica, where many diverse nations wished to have a say, it was complex. Both the fishing and more recently, the mineral resources of this area, are an important focus for countries far removed by geography. The treaties included environmental protection and management of living resources in a sustainable way while also ensuring that those countries, who claimed sovereignty and those who opposed such claims, were acknowledged.

In A Wise Adventure II we see the important role played by New Zealand since 1960. With the 60th Anniversary of the Ross Dependency at Scott Base, in December this year, it is timely to have this publication.

While this book is not light bedtime reading, it is an essential read for those interested and concerned about the future of Antarctica. It is by reading about the journey traveled, that we can be better prepared for the challenges ahead.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

A Wise Adventure II: New Zealand and Antarctica after 1960
by Malcolm Templeton
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561681