Book Review: Arlo and The Ginkgo Tree, by Sophie Siers, illustrated by Kate Twhigg

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_arlo_and_the_Gingko_treeThis is the first book I’ve read recently from small publishers Millwood Press, an award-winning publishing company established way back in the 1960s. They are known for producing high quality specialty productions. They cherish books, especially those that touch individuality. They currently focus on children’s books illustrated by contemporary artists in a fine arts tradition. So, as the daughter of historian Judy Siers and photographer Jim Siers (and controller of the company), it seems only right that Sophie Siers should show her hand with the pen.

Sophie has spent plenty of time on a Hawkes Bay farm, so it’s natural that her story should revolve about a boy and a tree – nature in it’s purest form and its most simple. And the story is simple too. It follows little Arlo as he climbs his favourite Ginkgo tree to watch the circle of life revolve around him. In this case, it’s a family of piwakawaka, who come to nest, lay eggs, raise their young and fly off.  Then after autumn and winter, the birds return, to begin the whole process again.

I loved Kate Twhigg’s simple watercolours. She has painted throughout her life, but has never previously been published.  She’s done a pretty good job.  For me, I would have like these images to have been a little sharper – the images are rendered in coloured pencil and watercolour, making them a little blurry.  But they are still very good.  The endpapers with flying birds and butterflies are delightful.

However, both of my girls, the real critics, loved this book. They related to the story, and to the images.  They wanted to go outside in their dressing gowns and hunt for birds’ nests – at 8.30pm! On a school night.

Kate, who sometimes writes in this blog did add one question for Sophie – ‘where’s the backstory about Arlo? Who is he? Why does he climb the tree. Where’s his iPad?  Why does the book he reads have no words on the cover?’  She was disturbed by Arlo’s anonyminity.

Overall, though, this story was a winner.  A perfect bedtime story, and uniquely local, too.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Arlo and The Ginkgo Tree
written by Sophie Siers and illustrated by Kate Twhigg
Published by Millwood Press
ISBN 9780473410940

Book Review: Watch out for the Weka, by Ned Barraud

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_watch_out_for_the_wekaWatch Out for the Weka is the latest superb children’s book from independent publisher Potton & Burton, adding to their list of high quality, informative books which highlight New Zealand’s many natural treasures. Although primarily an entertaining story based on a campfire yarn heard by the author back in the day, there are plenty of details within it that tell you a bit about our cheeky weka – for instance, I had no idea they liked to steal shiny things!

Set in the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park, the illustrations showcase the colours and textures of the New Zealand bush and coastline. The story features Alf, a DOC ranger who spends his summers looking after the tramping hut and visiting trampers. While cooling off in the stream, a weka takes off with the watch his dad gave him. Alf leaps out of the water giving chase but to no avail (cue lots of giggles at that particular illustration). Later that evening, the moonlight on the water gives Alf an idea of how to get his watch back.

Author Ned Barraud spent many childhood summers camping in the Abel Tasman National Park and his love of it is evident in this book. Many young New Zealanders don’t get the opportunity to encounter the weka (or other native birds for that matter) in its natural habitat which makes books such as these so important, as they help bring children closer to their environment, and an understanding of the unique flora and fauna which they share the country with.

The text is well balanced with the illustrations and reads well. Coupled with some weka facts at the end, the book would make a great resource to add to any classroom. Potton & Burton seek to share stories that ‘inspire and matter’, and with Watch Out for the Weka, I would say they and Barraud have got it spot on.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

Watch Out for the Weka
by Ned Barraud
Potton & Burton, 2017
ISBN: 978091450354


Book Review: Buddy’s Brother, by Pete Carter

cv_buddys_brotherAvailable at selected booksellers nationwide.

A mix of charming prose, poems and photography, Buddy’s Brother is Pete Carter’s second collection of poems. We discover that Buddy’s brother is in fact Pete’s father-in-law, a precocious 87-year-old, who has the same cheekiness and earthy nature as the poet himself.

There are shades of Barry Crump humour in this work, the kind of everyman writing style that spurns figurative language, or ‘riddles’ as Pete puts it, in favour of the matter of fact. Here is someone who calls a spade a spade. It’s a refreshing read, an amble through memoir and personal reflections, from a writer who loves his family and his pets. He may not like poems he doesn’t understand, but what he does know is the value of a sense of humour and the occasional jaunt (or cycle) to blow away the cobwebs and get things in perspective.

The centrepiece of the book is Pete’s reflective memoir of ticking off an important item on his bucket list, walking the South West Coast Path in the UK (over 1000 kilometres). It is a pilgrimage of sorts, in the footsteps of his father, who had a personal connection to the historic path. The photo reveals a quintessential lake district vista of stone walls and green, rolling hills. It wasn’t all a walk in the park however, to coin a phrase:

Some days were glorious, cliff-top walking at its finest, some days
were miserable, stuck between a barbed-wire fence and a hawthorn
hedge, unable to see the sea or the slippery path through brambles
and nettles and sweat.

Pete touches on the original purpose of the path – for coastguards to keep an eye out for smugglers. Regardless of any romantic tales and eccentric local hosts (a punk rocker who fought in the Falklands), the walk was mostly just hard yakka. ‘So I’ve done it. I’ve knocked the bastard off,’ he tells us. You can tell from the photo of him at the end of it, that it was taxing.

In between the slightly grumpy nostalgic prose, we have Pete’s photographs, and a smattering of poems about New Zealand birds. His portrait of the kereru is pleasing, the poem humorous: ‘an over-indulged specimen…the feathered glutton…they’re good eating apparently.’ It is caricature that brings a chuckle. His take on the tui borders on sacrilegious: ‘these swooping miscreants…with testicles on their throats…a gang of hyperactive flying kids…’ Not quite your usual Tourism New Zealand portrait of the much-loved bird. It’s curmudgeonly but somehow endearing, with similarities to Denis Glover.

Overall, reading Buddy’s Brother is akin to sitting down for a cuppa with your favourite uncle and having a laugh and a bit of a yarn.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Buddy’s Brother
by Pete Carter
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780994129901

Book Review: Vernacular, by Philip Smith, photos by David Straight


cv_vernacularAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

How much notice do you take of the design of fences, gates and steps as you drive around your suburb? I can assure you when you read Vernacular you will look at some of these structures with renewed interest and fascination.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English gives the definition of ‘Vernacular’
(of language) of one’s own native country, not of foreign origin…
(of architecture) concerned with ordinary rather than monumental buildings”.

Philip Smith is an Auckland based landscape designer with a particular interest in advocating for New Zealand’s threatened plant species. He is also interested in the human imprint within New Zealand, particularly the forms and objects that arise from everyday lives.

David Straight’s interest in the built environment started in London and New York and he is now based in Auckland. His work includes photographing architecture for some leading New Zealand architects as well as an ongoing exploration of the transitional landscape of post-earthquake Christchurch.

The reader is taken on a journey through New Zealand as the author and photographer check out culverts, gates, fences, walls, pavements, stairs and even marker posts: fundamental elements of our built environment. No matter where you live, there is something of interest and you will have seen many of the structures which are photographed.

The book is divided into various chapters addressing different landscape types, as well as looking at other aspects such as nature of materials, as the author points out, “Many aspects of the vernacular landscape are built with materials close at hand.”

The author has dedicated one chapter to Māori structures, but there are numerous other references throughout the book and I was particularly interested in the discussion and photographs of the upper and lower redoubts at Te Pōrere Redoubt, the earthen structure erected for defense during The New Zealand Wars at the end of the 1860’s.

Water is of great significance and importance to New Zealand and wonderful photographs of coastal views and structures are dispersed throughout the book, and it includes a chapter on hidden waterways and manhole covers. With irrigation such a big part of the New Zealand farming scene the chapter entitled “Big Ditch, Little Ditch” is particularly interesting and illustrates how the water races first used for gold-mining can still be useful in the modern world of irrigation.

There is a lot in this book and a reader will not absorb it all in the first reading. It would sit nicely on the coffee table to be enjoyed and re-read a number of times, by anyone interested in the natural environment and the world around them. I enjoyed this book, and I am looking forward to having more time to pick it up and read it in more depth and study the excellent photos. I particularly liked the cover photos; the fence with the flat standard and the brown tussocks grasslands of the Mackenzie reflect the real New Zealand.

As the author says, “As a society, we should afford our landscapes much more than a cursory glance, for it is looking intently at them that we gain an appreciation of the depth and diversity of our culture”.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Vernacular – The Everyday Landscape of New Zealand
Written by Philip Smith, with photographs by David Straight
Published with the assistance of the Friedlander Foundation by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9781927213490

AWF15: H is for Hawk, with Helen Macdonald

helen mcdonaldNoelle McCarthy introduced and interviewed Helen Madonald (left), beginning, ‘H is for Hawk and B is for Brilliant’. The book is a history of grief, a biography of T H White, a tale of the taming of a goshawk, and the result, I agree, is a ‘magical hybrid.’ I hadn’t read anything quite like it when I picked it up in January, it is truly a unique experience, and one I thank Macdonald for providing us all with. McCarthy was an excellent chair, and Macdonald a generous participant.

Goshawks have a reputation as psychopathic killers trained by burly bikie types, and Macdonald had never wanted to train one prior to the sudden death of her father. When he died, the logical part of her mind closed down. She realised you can’t tame grief; but you can tame a hawk, and the freedom from language was what she needed at that time. As she put it “I went absolutely nuts”, as she bought into the tradition of nature writing, seeing nature as a place of renewal and solace.When out with her hawk she identified so strongly with her that she thought she was viewing nature through the hawk’s eyes. It was “a radical dislocation of identity.”

Macdonald noted, ‘We use nature to mirror our own needs, and we use nature to prove our own concepts to us’. When asked a question regarding the tendency to anthropomorphise creatures, to try and understand them, she said, ‘reciprocity is what makes the relationships between people and their creatures so fascinating. You get a very good knowledge of how your animal is feeling.’ And you must also never lay the guilt of a human for killing, onto a goshawk – they are innocent.

Macdonald has always been drawn to birds and falconry – when she was about six, she used to try and sleep with her arms folded behind her back like a bird, and she also adopted Horus – the Egyptian god – as her god, praying the Lord’s Prayer to him in school. She began training falcons at the age of 11, apprenticing herself to a falconry club (where they offered her snuff) to learn the art of being an austringer.

h is for hawkMcCarthy asked Macdonald how she could have remembered all the details of the training of this hawk so accurately, to which she said that in the year after her father died, her memory sharpened. Her memory of detail was related to her grief. She deliberately made her book feel immediate because after you have had a hawk for training, you get more aware of the immediacy of life.

Macdonald finds it strange to talk about grief, as she doesn’t claim to be an expert. She “grew around the hole” in her life eventually, and after that year, she said she could identify it as sadness, making it easier to cope with. On reflection, Macdonald says that unmooring herself in the way she did, to train the goshawk, could only be done because she didn’t have a partner, or kids.

Macdonald says that being an austringer is not, as some have assumed, all about domination – it is about demonstrating wise governance. This is why it was so popular with royals back in the middle ages. It is a specialised skill, but one that is no longer confined to the royalty, and the rich.

Touching on the biography of T H White within H is for Hawk, she said that his attempt to train the goshawk was a battle with himself. This poses the question, is it possible to interact the natural world without projecting? Yes, says Macdonald, but not without a lot of effort to distance yourself, something that T H White couldn’t do. He was so involved with his goshawk that he used it to project his own sadistic tendencies. The joy of nature, as she sees it, is thinking of a world as full of things that are not like you. There is a battle of feeling with expertise.

The final part of the discussion before questions from the audience, was about the naming of hawks – the cuter the name, the more efficient they are meant to be as killers! – and about the place of women in the world of falconry. Macdonald said that around 10-12% of new falconers are women, and that there is no way to reduce experiences with nature as ‘female’ as opposed to ‘male.’

This was a wonderful session, and one well worth coming to. I urge anybody who hasn’t yet, to read H is for Hawk. I got my copy signed, and she was very gracious despite the staggeringly long queue!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper


Available in bookstores nationwide.

Dust, water, fish, deer. In the open arms of the wild earth, the elements and God’s creatures move together in a rural dance. Gophers are sacrificed so the land can better support. A daughter will always ‘know where to punch a calf to kill it, if it needs it. And hard enough.’ Prairie Canada seems the same but so very different to the rural experience everywhere else. The same: life and death are but a waltz apart. Different: there is dust, geographic specificity and the Canadian voice – ‘Doesn’t look like Russell’s back yet, hey?’

Although the uniquely Canadian aspects appeal, it is the universal that really draws us in to Hooper’s story. Etta and Otto are both at the curtain-call end of their lives – their life – together. More than 60 years of prairie living have passed in what one assumes is contented and compatible companionship. Except Russell lives next door, and Russell has also been a part of their lives for more than that 60 years of prairie living. The subtlety of their shared story resonates beyond the pages. The tale of Etta and Otto and Russell is centred by two locations; where they meet and when they part. The setting is importantly both of these things – time and place. The reader moves between historical wartime and present day as crucial decisions made almost by accident are relayed and related. ‘Russell waltzed instead of walked’ because of an accident on Otto’s family farm – even here at the start, Otto and Russell’s stories are intertwined.

As is Etta’s. Young Etta is a teacher. She has suffered the loss of her dear sister Alma and turns to teachers’ college, perhaps to stay near to her vulnerable parents. Otto is one of 15 Vogel children, attending the school at which Etta is teaching. When Otto signs up for active duty during wartime, Etta becomes his pen pal. Slowly and with absolute grace, these letters lead to love. Russell, because he ‘waltzes’, is left behind. Such is to be the story of his life.

Letters are present in older age, too. Otto writes to Etta, knowing they may not get to her. He signs these ‘Here, Otto’; a reminder of place and belonging. She has left; ‘I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there’, she writes. But she is ‘Yours (always), Etta.’ Her memory is failing – dementia? Alzheimers? Perhaps just aging, so she carries a piece of paper that reminds her of self, family and others. There is a satisfying symmetry of action here; at the beginning of their story, he leaves her, and at the end, it is Etta’s turn for adventure. Otto remains and channels his grief through cooking Etta’s recipes, and creating papier-mâché creatures that bring him state-wide fame.

Fish are an important trope throughout. Not only because they live in the water Etta is yearning, but also because they provide a tenuous link to her lost sister. ‘They can come back alive when they touch your skin,’ says Alma of fish skulls. Etta wonders if ‘being against the skin of her fingers’ is enough to ‘wake them up, to make them talk.’ Later, as she consumes fish to survive, they whisper Il faut manger – it is necessary to eat. Sacrifice is necessary. ‘One small fish skull’ is one of very few precious belongings that Etta takes on her journey – a reminder that grief may settle but never really leaves.

Russell’s grief is the most heartbreaking. He loves Etta timelessly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was wonderful?’ he asks of Otto after his first day at school with his new teacher, a young Etta. She falls into his arms but once, when Otto is at war and all seems lost, except dancing. And so they do. As an old man, he is their neighbour, and yet can never share what Otto and Etta have. When Etta leaves to walk 2000 kilometres to the sea, he is frustrated and chases her. Otto wisely realises ‘it’s not what she wants, Russell,’ conveying an intuitive understanding that only one who shares intimacy with a person over decades can.

The magic realist elements in this text are harmoniously woven throughout the story. James is a coyote companion gifted words, although it would seem named, in another nod to the power of grief and memory, after Alma’s stillborn son. He is perhaps there to be looked after, as well as look after, Etta on her journey – a surrogate son or nephew. For Etta and Otto never have children, and little is said about this throughout.

The many evocations of grief and memory sting the reader, too. I felt for Russell, who spends his life pining after what he doesn’t have. He, Etta and Otto are at the end of their lives, and so there is a natural inclination to feel a certain sadness when reading. The book evokes a wistful and nostalgic air reminiscent of good poetry or music, and left me thinking for a long time about the exquisite pain and the exquisite beauty that is to be found in the irretractable rhythm of our lives as we simply and plainly just go about living them.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
by Emma Hooper
Published by Fig Tree
ISBN 9780241185865