Book Review: Amazing Train Journeys, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_amazing_train_journeysThe front cover of this beautiful book from Lonely Planet has the title Amazing Train Journeys superimposed on a blue sky above a train snaking its way alongside a river  with dense forest stretching away towards stark grey mountains. In one corner it has the words “60 unforgettable rail trips and how to experience them”. Inside, before you reach any of this exciting information, there is a two page colour photograph of New Zealand’s TranzAlpine train traversing a bridge over one of our famed braided rivers. If you, the reader, have been lucky enough to have been on the TranzAlpine rail journey, it may be hard to tear yourself away from this fantastic reminder of your experience.  But once you do, you’ll find much more to take your interest and capture your imagination.

The foreword on page 6 notes: ‘There’s something magical about a journey by train. Sometimes the magic is inside – on a train you have room to move and meet people, dine in a restaurant car with white tablecloths, sleep in a private compartment between crisp, clean sheets with the sound of steel wheel swishing on steel rail beneath you.  Sometimes the magic is outside, in the landscape the train traverses – an adventure, an experience, an insight into the heart of a nation.’

So onwards in our journey into the photographs, the information of places, animals, people and, most of all, trains and where they take us. Africa and the Middle East is the first stop. Johannesburg to Capetown across the Great Karoo. Then the journey from Andimeshk to Dorud takes the passenger through the mountainous heart of ancient Persia. Further on, the Bernina Express is described as one of the world’s most beautiful rail journeys. A masterpiece of early 20th century engineering, it takes in 55 tunnels and 196 bridges as it travels from Chur in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy.

There are rail journeys from the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania, which includes the aforementioned TranzAlpine as well as the Northern Explorer from Auckland to Wellington. As is usual with this publisher, the details of each journey are replete with information regarding the time involved, the scenery, notes of interest about the history of the train track and country it passes through, and the people one might meet as companions on the journey.  The photographs are superb, many of them covering two pages and all in full colour.  I can guarantee that many readers will be thinking of saving their pennies and reaching for their passports after reading this book.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Amazing Train Journeys
by Lonely Planet
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781787014305

Book Review: The Birds at My Table, by Darryl Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_birds_at_my_table.jpgThis book, The Birds at My Table is, in the words of its author, ‘an exploration of this fascinating, complex, simple, sometimes compulsive human activity’, the feeding of wild birds.

Darryl Jones writes that the United Nations estimate the global bird-seed industry to be worth US$5-6 billion, growing about 4% annually since the 1980s. He has searched for information from bird feeders all over the world, including here in New Zealand, regarding the effects of this food, which is consumed by the birds on top of what they eat in their normal diet.

Studies done by researchers in countries diverse as New Zealand, the UK and parts of the United States, have shown that 40-50% of households feed wild birds from some form of garden feeder.

In 2002 a journalist writing in the Wall Street Journal headlined his piece American Backyard Feeders May Do Harm To Wild Birds with the subtitle “Feeding Wild Birds Lures Pests, Predators, Causing Illness and Distorting Populations.” Citing this article as a summary of the arguments typically fielded against wild bird feeding, Darryl Jones says about The Birds at My Table– ‘this entire book is an attempt to evaluate and respond to the issues -some legitimate, some just provocative -raised by [the Wall Street Journal’s] piece.’

The average person, buying or preparing food for the birds that live around their home, most probably has never thought further than the pleasure it brings them and the benefits it may bring to the birds. This well researched book, written by a man who takes delight in seeing the wild birds visiting his feeder, opens a window to a greater understanding of the topic of why we feed wild birds and why it matters.

The book has an extensive appendix with notes on each chapter and references to other studies cited and discussed in the body of the book. It is a most interesting book and one that has been written to gently inform those interested, the implications of a pleasurable hobby.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

The Birds at My Table
by Darryl Jones
Published by NewSouth Publishing
ISBN 9781742235974

Book Review: Gabriel’s Bay, by Catherine Robertson

cv_gabriels_bayAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

At 426 pages, Gabriel’s Bay is a book that promises to fill a good few hours of reading time. So well written are the characters and the lives they lead, that I read it in just one and a half days. Catherine Robertson tells us in the book’s accompanying media release that she decided, after three hilarious chick-lit style novels, to try a new tack, focusing on what she feels good at: humour, characters and dialogue. As these are the things that most interest me when well executed, I can say that Catherine has succeeded in her stated aim.

I like that the novel is set in a recognisable New Zealand. The character who holds the whole cast together is a young man from the UK who, after making a shambles of his life at home, answers an ad for a home help in the small township of Gabriel’s Bay. Unlike some books of similar ilk, the people who live there are not cheerfully stoical and determinedly positive. They are a more realistic portrayal of the people who live in the little townships down the road from where you live, or perhaps, even, your next door neighbours in your own little township.

We get to know the characters well as as the young man becomes involved in the fabric of the village throughout the novel. Issues that we are familiar with in our own lives are dealt with in a way that fit into the story being told without dominating it or detracting from the tension the reader experiences.

Not all the ends are neatly tied at the finish just as they never are in real life, but the author has written a book that is so well tuned to real life that I, as the reader was satisfied that the characters had ended their tales on a note of optimism. I identified with each and every one of them, even the not so nice, and to me that is the mark of a story well told.

New Zealand can be proud of the work of our authors and poets. Catherine Robertson has written a novel that testifies strongly to that. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Gabriel’s Bay
by Catherine Robertson
Published by Black Swan
ISBN 9780143771456

Book Review: Epic Drives of the World, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_epic_drives_of_the_worldI’ve long been a fan of Lonely Planet publications, especially since they have included New Zealand in their reviews of great places to see and visit.  This book is no exception.  Epic Drives of the World contains three drives in New Zealand, in both the North and South Islands, and the very first two page illustration is of a VW campervan parked overlooking a portion of the East Coast somewhere in our beautiful country.

Fifty drives are described in detail with photographs of the terrain traversed, covering all parts of the globe from Africa and the Middle East, through the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. The drives are graded from Easy through to Epic.  And an added bonus is a feature which gives information about similar drives to the initial one being described.  For instance, even though only three major drives are featured here in New Zealand, the index in the back of the book has the information that there are eleven routes covered somewhere in the book describing drives in Central Otago, the Kaikoura coast, Southern scenic route, thermal hot spots and Waiheke Island to name a few.

An indication of the extensive research which has gone into the book is the description for the Pacific Coast Highway.  To quote: ‘New Zealand’s indigenous Māori culture, coastal scenery and Art Deco design combine in this off-the-beaten track journey around the country’s Pacific Ocean coastline. Start at Whakatane, one of New Zealand’s sunniest cities, and the departure point for boat trips to Whakaari (White Island), a sulfurous active volcano off the coast.  Nearby Ohope is close to the protected wildlife refuge of Moutuhora (Whale Island). The remote region beyond Opotiki around NZ’s easternmost point is steeped in the traditional ways of the Ngāti Porou iwi (tribe), with local Marae (Māori meeting houses) displaying beautiful wooden carvings.’

Napier-Napier-s-art-deco-architectureAlongside this description (reproduced in part) is a full page colour photograph of Napier with some of the Art Deco buildings and its white sand beach.  This drive was in the ‘More Like This’ section which follows many of the harder, epic drives throughout the book.

The book is a visual feast, being A4 size with a hard cover, and containing many photos and colour illustrations.  Little maps are at the beginning of each main drive showing where they are in the country represented, and each drive has the starting location, the end point, the distance covered, how to get there and, in some cases, what to take, when to go, where to eat, and websites to connect to for further info.  It’s packed full of information about the countries visited, the wildlife to watch out for and some history or relevant information about the country.

Epic Drives of the World is a real cracker of a book which would delight all sorts of readers, from the die hard adventurer through to the stay at home imagineers.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Epic Drives of the World
by Lonely Planet
Published by Lonely Planet Global
ISBN 9781786578648

Book Review: Boo!, by Ben Newman

cv_boo.jpgAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

This is the kind of book youngsters love; short and pithy with graphic pictures, and a narrative that even the littlest child can sense is going to end in a bang.

Ben Newman has his audience in the palm of his hand from the start, from the garishly coloured cover with its cut out eyes spelling “Boo” through to the ending which is funny and expected but also not expected, by an audience of the littlest. The five- and seven-year-old loved it and the older ones pretended not to, while looking over the shoulder of the reader and trying not to laugh at the unabated mirth of their siblings after each rendition.

I have to confess I enjoyed it too. Books like this one build a foundation for an ongoing love of reading in children, as well as developing in them a desire to discover things. The words and pictures may be simple but the message they teach is that it’s fun to learn, and that something unexpected is just around the corner if we keep on going.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Boo!
by Ben Newman
Published by Flying Eye Books
ISBN 9781911171058

Book Review: I Don’t Have Time, by Audrey Thomas and Emma Grey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_I_don't_have_time.jpgIt took quite a long time to read this book, rather ironically, because it contains material that needs to be well thought over. It is written, according to Audrey and Emma, the authors, for ‘women of a certain age, splashing dramatically in a sea of self-inflicted over-commitment’ who need to realise that they do have time to do the things that will add satisfaction to their lives. The sub title of the book is “15 -minute ways to Shape A Life You Love”.

A quick flick through it offers some quick-flick ideas common to self-help literature, and this book fits into that genre. But a deeper reading reveals that Audrey and Emma have lived much of what they write about. It has an honesty about it which appeals and which prevents the material from being slick or glib. As some other reviewers noted, this is ‘a time management book for real people by real people.’

It’s a book that not only encourages us to look for ways to engage in activities that we enjoy, but gives us the motivation and energy to do so by recounting the success of others, detailing their efforts and their thoughts. It covers areas of life that matter most to us, exploring the excuses we make to keep us from achieving happiness and satisfaction. I enjoyed it even though I felt older than the intended readers (it is primarily, but not exclusively, written for the younger woman overwhelmed by the pressures and self-inflicted commitments of career building, child-rearing and home-making), because it enabled me to see how I’d managed my life through that time, and feel a little smug that I’d come through it reasonably well-adjusted.

Having said that, I enjoyed it also because of its approach. It appeals to the person we are, to the humanity we share and to the burdens and problems we suffer under, and it offers solutions that we can see will work.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

I Don’t Have Time
by Audrey Thomas and Emma Grey
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593218

Book Review: No Place to Hide, by Jim Flynn

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_no_place_to_hidJim Flynn encourages the reader of his book to “critically examine” what he has written about the climate debate, not elevating it to “the status of scripture, but assess[ing] everything I say”. He, himself, set out to discover the true facts after, as he puts it, “being assailed by contradictory opinions that ranged from nightmare scenarios to reassurance”.

In his extensively researched book, Flynn comes to the sobering conclusion that at a certain date, likely as early as 2050, global warming may become a self-sustaining process – a state of no return. The greatest illusion, he states, is that the nations will agree to cut their carbon emissions in time to avoid this point of no return.

He sums his findings up with two propositions that were put forward by climate change observers in past studies. The first is that even if current emissions were cut immediately by 20, 50 or 80 percent, 2050 would still be the point of no return where the melting of the polar glaciers, the acidity of the oceans and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere will mean new higher temperatures that will persist for thousands of years.

Secondly, there is no way of de-carbonising the world’s economy that is viable within the next fifty years. For various reasons, all thoroughly explored, conversion of dirty technologies to cleaner ones will initially raise emissions, as the infrastructures of the latter are created and put into place.

The staggering amount of research Flynn has done in producing this book, gives the reader an idea of the complexities of the situation we find ourselves in. There are many factors involved, all interrelated in ways that add to the effects of the damage our planet is sustaining.

Writing before the results of the election in the US were known, Flynn comments – “If the Republicans win the election in 2016 you can kiss American carbon targets goodbye”. He further states that “even if a sane president is elected…” the pressure from the coal, gas and oil lobbies will make it extremely unlikely that the phasing out of the use of fossil fuels will be on the political agenda.

In the last chapter, Flynn puts forward suggestions founded on various studies, of possible solutions, which, in light of his preceding conclusions, seem almost like wishful thinking, a clutching at straws with little hope of seeing a fulfilment. He concludes by asserting that global planning is needed. Clean energy and climate engineering are fundamental to any effective long term strategy. 2050 need not be the point of no return if governments stop making gestures and face reality.

As a reader I feel his earlier words are more likely, that the greatest illusion is that all nations will agree to cut carbon emissions. But one thing this book does is inform those who take the time to read it, of the immensity of the problems facing us as we head into the future.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

No Place to Hide
by James Flynn
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503246