Book Review: Only Two for Everest, by Lyn McKinnon

cv_only_two_for_everestAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Most, if not all, New Zealanders know of Sir Edmund Hillary and his successful ascent of Everest. What many, including myself, didn’t know, was that the events that lead up to that first ascent of the world’s highest mountain could have meant that a different New Zealander could well have stood triumphantly on the summit in 1953.

Lyn McKinnon has researched and written an excellent account of the early years of mountain climbing in New Zealand, and the young men involved. Two in particular were Earle Riddiford and Ed Cotter. Contempories of Hillary and George Lowe, they climbed with them in the Himalayas. Cotter and Riddiford, along with Pasang Dawa Lama, made the first ascent of Mukut Parbat in 1951. Hillary and Lowe accompanied them on the first part of the climb but turned back after deciding the summit was too difficult to reach. It was this climb which brought the New Zealanders to the attention of the Alpine Club in London who were in the process of organising a British Reconnaissance of Mt. Everest. An invitation was sent to the four climbers while still in the Himalayas, for two of them to join the party. On receipt of the telegram, a day and a half of bitter dispute divided the men and set in motion events reaching even into our time. Only two men could go and this is where the title of the book comes in.

The two men who did go were the members of the expedition who eventually summitted Everest. The two who missed out, Earle Riddiford and Ed Cotter, have their stories told at last in Only Two For Everest. Lyn McKinnon has drawn on private papers as well as published work, and interviewed Ed Cotter, the families of both men and many other contemporary climbers to set the record straight about these two extraordinary men, whose climbing achievements have been eclipsed by the prominence given to the man who reached the summit.

Riddiford and Cotter deserved to have their stories told and McKinnon has done them justice in a book rich in detail and photographs.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Only Two for Everest
by Lyn McKinnon
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781927322406

Book Review: Working Class Boy, by Jimmy Barnes

cv_working_class_boyAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Jimmy Barnes says of his writing this account of his early life: “the time I have spent writing this book has caused me a lot of pain.” He was born in Scotland, one of six children. His father was an alcoholic who drank away his wages, and the children learned to fear the violent rows that ensued when his mother confronted him each time she was faced with having to scratch to feed the family. The area of Glasgow where they lived was mired in poverty, and drunken fights and mindless violence, even amongst the children, were horrifyingly common. Jimmy, at four, survived a life threatening attack by boys not much older than he by running away as fast as he could. His friend wasn’t as lucky. The youngster was pelted with rocks and bottles and finally set on fire. He ended up in hospital for a long time and Jimmy still carries guilt for leaving him behind.

The family eventually became “ten pound tourists,” so called because that was what it cost for such ones to emigrate to Australia to become Australian citizens. Arriving in the “lucky country” in 1962 when Jimmy was five, things went from bad to worse. Dwindling money, fraying tempers and too much alcohol gave way to more violence and finally, despair. The mother who had sworn she would never leave them, left one night without a sound. The children woke to find that they were effectively on their own.

The loneliness of the young boy as he struggles to deal with the neglect and the chaos makes for hard reading, but Jimmy, the adult, tells the story with a candour and humour that imbues it with a sense of hope. Many times that hope would have been difficult for Jimmy and his siblings to imagine, especially as they grew into their teens in the hellish conditions of the Adelaide suburbs where drugs and alcohol-fuelled violence in the streets as well as in the home.

Jimmy left his home to join a band and that’s where his account ends. It’s not where his story ends though, as those of us who have listened to his songs over the years know.

Reading about his harrowing early life gives a greater understanding of both the belting lyrics and the softer, sometimes haunting, music he has produced. As Sam Neill writes in his own review of this book, “Remarkably, out of all this bedlam one of the best men I know emerges – a great artist, a terrific friend and – how does this happen- a devoted loving family man.”

This moving account of Jimmy Barnes’ early life is an example of how a terrible childhood doesn’t necessarily doom one to a life of misery. But it also shows in grim detail the enormous effort Jimmy had to put in to become the man he is.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Working Class Boy
by Jimmy Barnes
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460752135

Book Review: Days are like Grass, by Sue Younger

cv_days-are-like-grassThis is a great read from a new New Zealand novelist, and is available now at bookshops nationwide.

Claire Bowerman has returned to New Zealand from London at the behest of her fiancée, Yossi. She is a pediatric surgeon at Starship hospital in Auckland, working with young patients suffering various ailments and traumas. In one such case, parents of a child with Wilm’s tumour refuse chemo and surgery, preferring alternative treatment. The resulting furore and media attention focuses unwelcome attention on Claire’s past, a past that she has spent a lifetime trying to forget. As she struggles against the encroaching memories, her relationship with Yossi begins to fray. Her fifteen year old daughter, Roimata, is also caught up in the turmoil as her own past begins to be revealed.

Claire’s reactions are very human and at times make for uncomfortable reading as she takes her anxiety and distress out on her family members, even as she attempts to keep them safe from the harm that she is sure threatens them all. It is hard to predict how things will be resolved and it is this very unpredictability which makes it hard to put the book down.

The characters are well drawn, believable and human. The Auckland landscape is equally detailed.

Sue Younger has written a novel that can take a well-deserved place on any bookshelf, and could easily be one that might be read again in a bid to take in detail missed on the first read.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Days are Like Grass
by Sue Younger
Published by Eunoia
ISBN 9780994104762

Book Review: Stag Doo, by ‘Big Al’ Lester

cv-stag_dooAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Having grown up with male relatives who enjoyed hunting and fishing in the great New Zealand outdoors, I thought I’d enjoy this book. I did, but I think I’ve grown out of my youthful desire to be one of the boys..

‘Big Al’ Lester collects mates and their stories like a gumboot sock collects burrs. The stories are well told and I enjoyed them mainly for this reason. I have male friends now who love sharing tales of their derring-do in the wilderness, and this book would make a welcome gift, one to be read over a few beers, while reminiscing with like-minded mates. I don’t think many of the stories in the book have been too exaggerated in the telling. This makes for some head shaking moments as one reads, if the reader is someone who has never experienced such adventures in person. But even such a reader will enjoy the humour and eccentricity revealed as ‘Big Al’ encourages his mates to tell all. As he says in the epilogue- “the hills are full of hard case characters who are out there simply being themselves.” And one can identify with them to some extent because, like us, they’re human.

I enjoyed the photographs that were included, but I would have liked to see what some of the biggest ‘character’s looked like. And the book contains a glossary at the back which explains terms which may be unfamiliar to the townie. All in all, a good read for the hunter in your life who loves to laugh at the mishaps of his or her fellows.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Stag Doo
by ‘Big Al’ Lester
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143574064

Book Review: All Day at the Movies, by Fiona Kidman

cv_all_day_at_the_moviesAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

I can honestly say that this is one of the best books I have ever read.  I began to read it on a Sunday morning around 11:30 and finished it at 7:48 the same evening. I couldn’t put it down.

Dame Fiona Kidman has captured the New Zealand I grew up in, her words drawing pictures of the way we lived, the issues we faced and the people who accompanied us on our journeys as we grew. She does this so thoroughly, it was as though I was looking at a box of photographs dug out from the back of a closet. Dealing as it does with the members of one family, it never becomes mired in sentimentality, nor does it veer off into pathos.

Many readers of an age to remember the issues the characters face will find feelings being stirred that were perhaps long buried or forgotten, such is the reality evoked by Kidman’s writing. Life could be harsh for those who were vulnerable, (it still is of course) and society pretended to live by a stricter moral code than is followed today. All members of the family portrayed in the book live within the constraints of the same society, yet all are affected in different ways. The roads they travel are as random and arbitrary as most of ours turn out to be and we can identify with them because of this, our interest held by the very uncertainty of their destinations.

At the same time, the familiarity, the beautiful familiarity, of their lives holds us in thrall. Introduced to the mother at the beginning of the book we follow her children as they deal with the circumstances they encounter. The siblings take different paths, growing apart due not only to distance but also to life experiences. Their reactions to what happens to them are entirely believable, and I found myself identifying with them often, so skilfully are they drawn.

The book is 320 pages in total and so perfectly written, the reader comes to the end of them satisfied with the final glimpses we are given of the characters and their fortunes, while still carrying a lingering sense of loss.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

 All Day at the Movies
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Vintage NZ (PRH)
ISBN 9781775538905

 

Book Review: Shelf Life, by C. K. Stead

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_shelf_lifeI looked forward to reading this book by our former poet laureate and well known man of letters. It transpired, though, to be less of a read and more of a dip in and out. Stead is a thoughtful man with strong opinions which are based on a long experience of the literary world in New Zealand and the people that world has contained over the years. An argument well presented is always interesting, even if only as a comparison to one’s own opinion or beliefs, and I found myself reading an essay or interview then spending time reflecting on Stead’s words.

His writings on Mansfield and the criticisms leveled at her by those who came after her, present a microcosm of the Colonial’s dilemma – how to wrench oneself free of the home country’s influence while attempting to rise above the cultural cringe engendered by comparisons with literary giants from the past.

The book is a delight of words, valuable for that alone, when language is no longer valued for the most part. But to read the thoughts of an erudite man, familiar, as Stead is, with his subject, is to enjoy the company of those of whom he writes, whether still alive or long dead.

His reviews of others’ work are thoughtful and concise with many examples added, which enables the reader to build his own understanding and knowledge of a poet or author. The index at the back of the book gives an indication of how wide Stead’s range of interests are, and offers the reader a regular smorgasbord of subjects for contemplation and consideration.

As Stead says of Patrick Evans novel Gifted, this is “literature for the literate and the literary,” and it is certainly a treat for those such inclined. But even a mild interest in the thoughts of a man with a wide experience of New Zealand writing would be rewarded by a dip into its pages.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences
by C. K. Stead
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408497

Book Review: Horses Who Heal, by Sue Spence

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_horses_who_healI looked forward to reading this book as I’m a believer in the premise that animals and humans are able to bond in a way that enriches the lives of both. Horses, being prey animals that rely on an innate ability to read the emotions of other creatures, are especially sensitive to such cues and many caring people have built strong friendships with them. Sue Spence mentions some of these in this book and she can be counted among their number.

As a child, Sue found that her interaction with horses could settle her into a calm state that banished upsets and problems temporarily. Her sensitivity enabled her to read the horse’s state of mind and to engage with the animal in a way which, over time, developed into a deep and mutual friendship. This aspect of her personality countered the energy she brought to other activities as she grew into adulthood, an energy that was so frenetic it brought her, several times, to the brink of disaster. With greater knowledge and understanding of herself, Sue was able to use her remarkable talent to engage on a very deep level with both animals and humans to create an enterprise which teaches disadvantaged youth, among others, how to engage and grow and communicate.

This is more than a narrative of a life with its ups and downs. It is an inspiring account of a person discovering herself, her strengths and weaknesses, and using these discoveries to live a life of compassion and empathy. It is a book that should be on the top of the list of intended reads for those who love horses as well as those who would like to know how to live their lives more fully.

Sue has written an account of her life to date which captures her personality so well I felt that I had been in a conversation with her rather than reading her words on a page. I enjoyed it immensely, so much so that I wish I could get to know Sue better. She is the kind of person who makes a good friend, both of humans and of animals. And she has the skills to show us how to be a friend in return.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Horses Who Heal
by Sue Spence
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781743535028