Book Review: Breaking Ranks, by Sir James McNeish

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_breaking_RanksbigLast year New Zealand lost one of our finest writers, Sir James McNeish. Luckily for us, he had just delivered the final pages for Breaking Ranks to his publisher.

The book concludes with an Epilogue, written by ‘a friend’ Bernard Brown. He details how Sir James had the idea for this book for years, knowing the first two stories and waiting for the third. Of these men, Dr Saxby, Brigadier Miles and Judge Mahon, Sir James knew only Saxby personally, but his meticulous research and the power of his writing make Breaking Ranks feel as if you knew them all while you read through what is, at its heart, a tragic biography of three interrupted lives.

Significance is a word I use a lot in my everyday life now – what makes anything significant and who decides on those parameters? The three men in this book – a doctor, a soldier and a judge – are not necessarily household names in New Zealand, but Breaking Ranks shows that you do not need to be the most famous person to be significant.

Dr John Saxby’s work in psychiatric care no doubt helped countless patients, and continued following his death. Saxby’s story is the longest of the three, and was the only one Sir James knew personally – this works to a great advantage. The details of their interactions, when Saxby would visit the house and help with the family’s DIY, gives you a greater connection, and following his death you feel the pain the McNeishs would have felt upon losing such a close friend in such a tragic way. There is a great and terrible irony in the doctor who ‘has the gift of saving others but not himself.’

Brigadier Reginald Miles survived World War I, headed back to the other side of the world for the Second World War, but did not return. Abandoning his command post to fight to the death with his men did not go as planned and there goes the second life interrupted, and tragic. There is a question mark around this death – I am still getting my own head around it and deciding on the truth. His final letter is published for the first time in Breaking Ranks, and offers some insight into those final days.

In New Zealand, Erebus means the worst air disaster this country has ever seen first, and the mountain second. Judge Peter Mahon fought for truth and justice for the 257 victims, and Sir James details wonderfully the processes Mahon went through to uncover it all – the inquiry, the review, the Privy Council appeal, and Verdict on Erebus. His son, Sam says: ‘If I have learned anything from my father at all, it is an obstinate refusal to back down in the face of adversity.’ Not the worst trait to pick up.

Sir James’ style of writing is personal and colloquial in nature, which I enjoy. The casual ‘I’ve been trying to get my head around it’ during a complicated battle formation makes me smile and feel glad that I’m not alone in my confusion. The failure to conform and fight for what these men believed in caused these lives of become prematurely interrupted. Sir James McNeish was one of our finest writers, and in his final act as a storyteller, he remarkably and skillfully gives the world an insight into the lives of three significant lives we should not forget.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Breaking Ranks: Three Lives Interrupted
by Sir James McNeish
Published by HarperCollins Publishers NZ
ISBN 9781775540908

Book Review: My Father’s Island, by Adam Dudding

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my-fathers-islandMy Father’s Island does more than tell the story of Adam Dudding and his father Robin, the greatest New Zealand literary editor of his generation. It tracks NZ’s literary scene through decades and cities, thanks to Robin’s vast documentations and Adam’s interviews with major cultural figures. So many names are dropped throughout the book I got jealous, wishing I had had Ralph Hotere’s advice while doing a colouring competition, or had read ‘The Smiths and the Joneses’ before it became the Under the Mountain.

Dudding doesn’t stick to a chronological, or location-based, order to the memoir – “The truth remains, though, that I don’t really know how to write this book … I decided early on that simply telling Dad’s story chronologically wasn’t the right approach”. It jumps around, but not so much that you can’t follow, and he acknowledges when he’s re-covering or coming back to a previously told story. Very few memoirs give the immense detail that Adam Dudding does in My Father’s Island. There were several moments of utter surprise for me, re-reading to check that Dudding actually had gone into that much detail for the world to read.

Dudding also acknowledges when his memories of his father have turned out to be misremembered, reminding us all of moments we’ve double guessed after hearing new information – “If I’ve misremembered this, what else have I got wrong?” Dudding gains a vast amount of information for this memoir, interviewing old friends, colleagues, neighbours, and family members. He succeeds in the picture of Robin he builds – an immensely interesting, important and flawed member of NZ’s literary world. He also creates a picture of both himself and his dad as a son and father, their family lives, their personal lives. Dudding’s final chapter is simple and effective, giving the reader a wonderful closure which I feel was as much for Dudding and his family, as it was for the reader.

You don’t need to know the subjects, or the literary scene, to enjoy My Father’s Island. Dudding has created an incredibly personal and relatable story of families, relationships and New Zealand. It will have older generations reminiscing of a New Zealand been and gone, and younger generations realising that, yet again, they were born too late.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

My Father’s Island
by Adam Dudding
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560820

Book Review: The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones, by Rich Cohen

cv_the_sun_and_the_moon_and_the_rolling_stoneAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

I have an eclectic taste in music; I know people say that all the time, but right my Spotify is playing Rufus Wainwright’s new version ‘Hallelujah’ with Choir! Choir! Choir!, and, while writing this review, it moved to ‘Go, Go, Go Joseph’ from musical masterpiece Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and then, just by wonderful happenstance, to ‘Angie’ by The Rolling Stones. My dad always told me that no one sings a ballad better than Mick Jagger, and Goat’s Head Soup was, and still is, a constant in his car.

Rich Cohen is what you’d call a Rolling Stones fanatic. Following them on the road as a young journalist, he came under their spell and all that came along with that – from the massive highs and the lowest lows. Cohen’s The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones gives the reader a new understanding and view of the Rolling Stones.

Cohen’s descriptions of the band members give the reader insight into how close and personal he managed to get with the band. While any fan knows Keith Richards isn’t overly articulate these days, unless you’ve spent time around him you wouldn’t know, “Now and then he laughs for no apparent reason, as if the humour of his life suddenly occurred to him, and that laugh often gives way to a coughing fit.”

The book largely discussed the two most recognisable figureheads of the Stones – Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Cohen’s Richards comes across as a down-to-earth survivor of the Stones’ lifestyle after all these years, while Jagger is described as “showbiz, a pop version of the classic Hollywood diva, for whom the show must always go on, for whom obscurity is even more terrifying than death… He stands before the millions but the millions don’t exist. At the centre of the universe, Mick Jagger dances alone.” After finishing this book, it’s surprising to know that Cohen co-created the HBO TV show Vinyl with Jagger and Martin Scorsese which was cancelled after one season – perhaps a blessing in disguise after Jagger reads this book?

While delving into the longevity of the Stones in discussion with Richards, Richards turns it back to Cohen, questioning his birth year (1968), and asking “What’s it like to live in a world where the Stones were always there? For you, there’s always been the sun and the moon and the Rolling Stones.”

Many of us live in this world Richards describes, where some of the most important and long-lasting music ever written came out decades before we were born. We often learn that members of our favourite bands were dead before we started to truly understand the meaning of their music. While not my favourite band to come from the 60’s (long live The Beatles), the music and style of The Rolling Stones will undoubtedly continue, especially following the announcement of their blues album due out in December 2016.

I’m sure The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones and the new album will make an excellent Christmas present for your Stones fan.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones
by Rich Cohen
Published by Headline Book Publishing
ISBN 9781472218032

Book Review: What a Way to Go, by Julia Forster

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_what_a_way_to_goI wasn’t around in the 80s, my parents are still going strong after 34 years of marriage, and I don’t like baked beans. While I found little in common with the life of this narrator, 12-year-old Harper Richardson makes What a Way to Go an easy read, and excellent debut for Julia Forster.

Harper’s mum gets her, the house, and hundreds of cans of baked beans; her dad retains a mouldering cottage in the Midlands. Harper is torn between her parents, trying to fix everyone else’s problems, rather than being her quirky 12-year-old self. That said, she seems to have more sense than the rest of the adult characters, and may even be best-placed to fix these problems. Just a warning – I wouldn’t suggest buying this for a teenager whose parents have divorced recently unless the matter has sunk in well.

The novel walks a thin line between its marketed genre of YA and adult literature. Forster deals with some heavy topics that even the most mature YA reader may find confronting, and some of the 80s references might go over some readers’ heads.

I’m not a huge fiction reader, but I found What a Way to Go a nice break from my usual non-fiction books. Forster has crafted a funny and quirky narrator from Harper, and I’m sure this novel will please both younger and older readers.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

What a Way to Go
by Julia Foster
Published by Atlantic Books
ISBN 9781782397526

Book Reviews: Wine Trails, from Lonely Planet

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

Lonely Planet’s new ‘Perfect Weekends’ series soundcv_wine_trailss like a perfect new collection for your bookshelves, and Wine Trails is a strong and excellent way to kick it off. While they don’t neglect the well-known regions (Napa and Sonoma, Burgundy, Tuscany), they’ve also ventured onto the roads less traveled, in countries like Georgia and Lebanon.

Given the extensive worldwide coverage of Wine Trails (52 perfect short weekend escapes in wine country ), you could pick and choose your next overseas trip, or take a note for closer to home. New Zealand’s own Central Otago, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough are covered, in between Morocco’s Meknes and Portugal’s Douro Valley. Something patriotic stirs within me when I see the stunning photos of New Zealand’s landscape and wineries put alongside others in the book – but we in this country know how beautiful our country and wine can be.

With bright pages, fantastic photographs and illustrated maps, there is still just as much to read about each area as there is to catch and draw your eye. Aside from listing the wineries in each region, a list of places to stay, places to eat, other activities and local celebrations are given, making Wine Travels a true Lonely Planet all-in-one guide.

I haven’t always been a wine drinker, but as I grew out of my university ‘under $10 BYO’ rule, I began to see why my parents have always appreciated wine, and weekend trips to Martinborough helped push my palate. This book is the perfect gift for both the wine lover wanting to know more about the global industry, and the wine connoisseur itching to get travelling. Wine Trails has certainly given me an starting point in my own backyard to try, and a few more adventures to inform my future travel.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Wine Trails
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781743607503

 

Book Review: Gin: The Art and Craft of the Artisan Revival, by Aaron Knoll

Hcv_ginow writing about gin became one man’s life, I’ll never know and always be jealous. Aaron Knoll’s Gin: The Art and Craft of the Artisan Revival has its origins in his blog, The Gin is In. The blog reviews gins from around the world, focusing on ‘the local, the craft and the states.’ Started in 2009 and updated weekly, no wonder Knoll had the content for Gin.

From the origins and uses of the juniper berry, to women’s role in distilling, Gin boasts a wealth of knowledge. Knoll details how gin is made – creating the base spirit, to the botany of gin and its flavours (juniper, coriander, angelica and a bunch of other things I had never heard of). He gives a detailed step-by-step of how to taste gin properly (sips, not shots), and goes through the many different types of gin (contemporary, classic, aged, sloe, cordial, etc.)

The key section of the book for the gin lovers will be the Tasting of Gin, followed by the Drinking of Gin. Working his way around the world, Knoll gives his top gins and distilleries – New Zealand’s own Lighthouse Gin and Vaione Pacific Gin even make the cut. Knoll follows this up with his top gin drinks, how to make them, and the best places around the world to drink them. From Berlin for a G&T, to Florence for a negroni, this book has given me an excellent travel itinerary.

The book itself is beautiful – laid out in an easy-to-read format, and beautiful with the dust cover on or off. Gin is an excellent gift for the gin-lover in your life, and perhaps if you’re lucky, they’ll take the hint and add a bottle of Knoll’s homemade infused gin recipe for you.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Gin: The Art and Craft of the Artisan Revival
by Aaron Knoll
Published by Jacqui Small LLP
ISBN 9781910254097

Book Review: Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater – A Writer’s Early Life, by Albert Wendt

cv_out_of_the_vaipeAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

A short and concise history of the very early life of Albert Wendt, Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater gives the reader a great insight into boyhood split between Samoa and New Zealand.

The first chapter poses an interesting question – how reliable is an autobiography? Wendt acknowledges and defiantly states “Don’t trust me, be suspicious. I’m deliberately leaving out most of the story – it’s none of your business, and I don’t want to hurt the people I love.” I found this simply wonderful – for the author to say from the get-go, “it’s not the whole story and don’t expect it” is rare these days, and I took the rest of the book with a pinch of salt.

Covering his early life in Samoa and scholarship to New Zealand, Wendt pays homage to teachers and places that influenced his life and his writing. At New Plymouth Boys’ High School he published poems for the first time, and wrote and published more during his time at Ardmore Teachers’ College. The Wendt the world reads and enjoys would not exist without the New Zealand education he worked so hard to gain a scholarship for.

The suburb of Apia, Samoa where Albert Wendt spent his boyhood is something of a myth to Wendt now – “Is the Vaipe I’ve created in my stories, poetry and novels really the Vaipe that existed and exists in real life? Or is it real only in my books? Where does fact end and fiction begin?” I feel that this is probably true of many hometowns for people – while we’re not all writers, we sometimes morph and create a place different to remember than the one we actually grew up in. Wendt has immortalised his own upbringing through his writing, excerpts of which are scattered perfectly throughout the book.

On top of this, Wendt has delved in to deeply personal matters – a near death experience in the swimming pool, intense exam stress, severe home sickness in a foreign land very far from home, a mother’s death at a young age,and the somewhat reluctant acceptance of the Maualaivao title.

The uncertainty of the truth to this account didn’t diminish my enjoyment for Wendt’s story; I love a good life story, even if I don’t see the whole picture. There is so much heart thrown in to the pages, and every reader will take something away from such a well-written and informative tale.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Out of the Vaipe, the Deadwater – A Writer’s Early Life
by Albert Wendt
Published by BWB Texts
ISBN 9780908321223