Book Reviews: Brachio, by Jill Eggleton, illustrated by Richard Hoit; Don’t Think About Purple Elephants, by Susan Whelan, illustrated by Gwynneth Jones

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

Brachio, by Jill Eggleton, illustrated by Richard Hoitcv_brachio

Jill Eggleton will be familiar to many New Zealand teachers and parents for her literacy programmes and her huge catalogue of poems. Brachio is a picture book for up to 7 year olds which showcases Eggleton’s rich writing style.

Brachio is much bigger than the other dinosaurs and mouse lizards, so there’s bound to be a few problems when he heads out to join in a dance party. Being a kind and thoughtful kind of dinosaur, Brachio has a few solutions in mind.

Eggleton’s language is full of poetic language, with onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhythm and rhyme, and simile dripping off the page. This is helped by clever text design, which gives the reader lots of clues about where the emphasis should be, and adds visual interest for young readers. Not that visual interest is lacking – Hoit’s illustrations are vivid and colourful, full of the joy of dancing with your friends, and the problems that occur when dancers get a little too enthusiastic!

My class of 5 and 6 year olds love listening to the language as I read to them, and the book was in high demand afterwards, because, dinosaurs! This book also comes with a CD, read by Eggleton, with loads of expression and a fun backing track of dinosaur noises.

Don’t Think About Purple Elephants, by Susan Whelan, illustrated by Gwynneth Jonescv_dont_think_about_purple_elephants

Sophie is a busy, happy girl. She likes school, enjoys her loving family, and has good friends. The problem starts when she’s not busy. At bedtime, as she tries to go to sleep, worries crowd in on her, keeping her awake. All of the suggestions to help her sleep – a special book or teddy, or a drink of warm milk – just give her new things to worry about.
Children’s worries are often dismissed by adults; adults often don’t consider the things children worry about as important when compared to adult concerns. Most children do have worries, however, and to them they feel very real. A quick survey of my class of 5 and 6 year olds showed up common themes: not having someone to play with, someone being mean to them, something bad happening to a loved one, forgetting a book bag or lunch for school, not making it to the toilet on time, not being picked up at the end of the school day.

Whelan and Jones have put some thought into Don’t Think About Purple Elephants; they clearly know children, and they don’t dismiss Sophie’s worries, but try to resolve them. The illustrations are lovely – brightly coloured and happy when Sophie is busy, and grey and ominous with oversized objects when she is worried. The resolution to Sophie’s worries is relatively simple and one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments that parents and teachers have.

This is an enjoyable picture book to read together for children up to 8 or 9 years old, regardless of whether or not the child worries – but it would be a particularly good book to read with a child who is suffering from anxiety, it might just do the trick.

Reviews by Rachel Moore

by Jill Eggleton, illustrated by Richard Hoit
Published by JillE Books
ISBN 9781927307809

Don’t Think About Purple Elephants
by Susan Whelan, illustrated by Gwynneth Jones
Published by EK Books
ISBN 9781921966699

Book Review: Portholes to the Past, by Lloyd Geering

cv_portholes_to_the_pastWell know theologian, Lloyd Geering, takes the reader on a journey into the twentieth century, as he shares a wide range of experiences in his memoir, Portholes to the Past.

At nearly 99 years old Lloyd Geering is well qualified to look back over the last century, discussing the massive social changes he has lived through and evaluating the progress the human race is making.

Born into a world at war on 16 February 1918, he was the youngest in his family, and his three brothers all left home while he was in primary school. The family moved a number of times to enable his father to gain employment. Despite this, and the struggles of the Great Depression, Geering had a good education and went on to University, ultimately training as a Presbyterian minister.

He remembers “men tramping the highways with swags on their backs” during the 1930s, looking for any odd job in return for a meal and a bed in the hay barn, which all changed with the passing of the Social Security Act in 1938 creating the New Zealand welfare state. Geering stated, “the welfare state was founded on two basic principles: that every citizen has a right to enjoy a reasonable standard of living, and that the community is responsible through its elected representatives to ensure that this is achieved.”

Of course one of the greatest changes which occurred during Geering’s life time has been in communications, and young people today would struggle to comprehend how the family was told of the death of his brother. A messenger was sent from Dunedin to the farm at Allanton to inform the family of the passing of Ira due to TB, as they had no telephone. Lloyd then had to travel to Dunedin to let another brother Fred, know of their brother’s passing.

I enjoyed reading this book; it brought back lots of memories of my parents, who talked about many of the same issues, as they were born in the same era. They also had a Presbyterian background and followed Geering’s Christian journey.

In his concluding porthole he is optimistic about the future: “It may not be too much to hope that from the fragments of dismantled Christendom we may rediscover and reinvigorate the moral values of justice, truth and environmental guardianship. Together with the spiritual forces of faith, hope and love, these qualities may yet enable us to create a viable human future.”

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Portholes to the Past
by Lloyd Geering
Published by Steele Roberts
ISBN 9780947493332

Book Review: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Colonisation – this is why it came about. The Bible says, “God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'(Genesis 1: 26-28)”

cv_barkskinsBarkskins is a superb novel about forests, those who cut them, those who protect them, and many worlds that have long gone. It takes you hurtling through decades in the lives of the descendents of two men: Rene Sel, and Charles Duquet. Both men come from a labourer’s life in France, brought over by Monsieur Trepagny to clear his land in ‘New France’ – in a region which at that time was part of the Mi’kma’ki lands, though these were contested by the Iroquois. Charles disappears into the woods as soon as he can, while Rene resigns himself to a life as a forester, and is forced to marry a Mi’kmaq woman, Mari. “In every life there are events that reshape one’s sense of existence. Afterward, all is different and the past is dimmed.” This is the beginning of a long line of Sels.

We pick up with Charles at the start of the next section. After being healed of his many infections by some Ojibwa Indians, he decides to go into the fur trade. Wealth from fur trading, particularly in China, leads to his purchase of great forests, and as the chapters on his life end, we see Charles Duquet reform into Charles Duke, and head South into New England to begin a new life with adoptive sons alongside (and a wife safely back in the Netherlands).

As son begets son, begets daughter, I fell in love with many characters, only to have them cruelly wiped out by a forest fire, house fire or sometimes, simply, an infection. Proulx has a gift for giving the perfect deaths to the most awful characters. One particularly petty character was wiped out by a flash frost while on a slow boat on his way back to his daughter. Such a good death. The most surprising death goes to a wife of one of Duquet’s adoptive sons. I won’t say much more than that, but it led to one of the few laugh-aloud moments in the book.

And everything comes back to the forests, the inestimable, ever-lasting forests. Proulx expertly tells these stories of great loss with no emotion, presenting the Native Indian side of the story alongside the ravenous, exploitative colonial side. You mourn the loss of the Native Indian medicinal plants and their native knowledge of how to live off the land; and later, the disgusting way in which they were treated. You mourn as these colonials blindly remove all the life around them, unknowingly destroying the land they have stolen; or taken in exchange for a few kettles, for a few axes.

Indians are seen as wastrels, because of their habit of living in harmony with nature, rather than bending nature to do their bidding. They are slow to take to growing food in gardens, and to farming – and as they are outnumbered due to disease, and have to live by the white men’s rules, and buy their food, they are forced to work for the white men. Throughout the book, we follow many of Sel’s forest-cutting descendents; but always, this work is seen as compromise, and there are sporadic returns to the old hunting grounds, later to the Reservation, to see the changes wreaked. “…they must live in two worlds, they went because inside they carried their old places hidden under the centuries, hidden as beatles under fallen leaves, as pebbles in a closed hand, hidden as memories.”

Every character we encounter tells a piece of the overall arc of story. The most interesting character in feminist terms was Lavinia, as she made great strides forward in being in charge of her destiny, and that of her family. As a woman in business in the 1880’s, she was an enjoyable anomaly. Later, Lavinia’s husband Dieter is the first of several conservationists we encounter in the book: it is through his eyes we begin to understand the changes wrought on the land they have taken.

Barkskins is, without doubt, a master work. I am grateful that Proulx’s publishers trusted her genius wholeheartedly enough to give her the time and space to write this saga. There are so many characters there that we could learn more about, and I’d love to see a follow on story, particularly one involving the formidable Sepatisia.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Annie Proulx
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN  9780008191764



Book Review: The Blackbird Sings at Dusk, by Linda Olsson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_blackbird_sings_at_duskThe cover of The Blackbird Sings at Dusk is soft and gentle, inviting the book to be opened for the reader to be enveloped into the lives of three lonely people. The blackbird drawings at the beginning of each chapter help in making the book inviting.

Elisabeth moves into an apartment block, and shuts herself from the world outside, with her only companion The Woman in Green who appears in her dreams during the night.

Across the hallway, Elias believes a package wrongly delivered to him may belong to the new tenant and tries to make contact with her, only to discover she has blocked up her doorbell. However he leaves the parcel at the door, which Elisabeth finds, and as a way of saying thanks, leaves a book outside Elias’ door. He reads the book with help from his friend Otto who lives upstairs, and after he reciprocates with a book of his, the nightly exchange continues between the pair.

Elias also shares some of his drawings with Elisabeth, and an image of a blackbird had a profound and lasting impression on her: ‘The bird was so delicately painted, just a few brush strokes, yet so alive it might fly off the paper at any moment’.

When Elias is badly beaten up outside the apartment, Elisabeth seeks the help of Otto after going to his aid, and this leads to a gentle friendship, their love of books slowly leading all three back out into the real world. The reader gradually discovers what has led the characters to the apartment building and as they unpeel their backgrounds they help each other to heal and move forward.

I enjoyed devouring this book slowly, it is a beautiful piece of writing and author Linda Olsson includes fascinating glimpses of her homeland Sweden. The ending was a surprise and leaves the reader wondering.

Linda Olsson moved to New Zealand from Sweden in 1990 and has written three other novels. The Blackbird Sings at Dusk will be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys a bit of intrigue, and romance.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Blackbird Sings at Dusk
by Linda Olsson
Published by Penguin Books (NZ)
ISBN  9780143573661

Book Review: My Father’s Ears, by Karen Goa

Available at selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_fathers_earsEvery family has a past, most of which is concealed in collective and individual whispers. The resulting silence creates wide gaps between parents and children, brothers and sisters. Yet the time eventually comes when some people, tired of distance, look for answers.

My Father’s Ears, the debut novel of New Zealand-based travel writer Karen Goa, tells the story of Sophia Sanzari, the daughter of an Italian-Canadian immigrant, Lou. Right at the beginning of the novel, Sophia finds out that she has a brother. His name is Alex and he comes all the way from New Zealand. The purpose of his visit in Canada is to get to know more about the history of the Sanzari family, now that he has a son.

At the arrival of Lou’s long-sought son, Sophia is initially sceptical. She gradually warms up to Alex and finds herself discovering new truths about her family, which has been pulled apart by their history of journeys and mysteries. She learns not only about Lou and Alex, but also her own mother, Rose. As he relates his childhood experiences, Lou (“Luigi” in Italian) reveals that he and his brother, Antonio, suffered at an internment camp during World War II. They faced abuse simply for belonging to the nation headed by the fascist dictator, Mussolini. What made matters worse for the boys was their separation from their mother and their sisters, Carmina and Margherita. Through her father Lou, Sophia learns about the bleak reality of war and loneliness, the eagerness to escape and the conflict between one’s needs and those of others.

This story of familial relationships is set against an emotional backdrop of war and immigration history. Through the character of Sophia, the story is painful, comical, dramatic, and sincere. And Goa’s skillful incorporation of Italian culture, language and gastronomy enlivens the narrative, inviting the reader to travel through time, from continent to continent, with the reassuring thought that anyone can open a door to the future despite a past of darkness.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

My Father’s Ears
By Karen Goa
Published by GoaNotesNZ
ISBN 9780473335878

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

Book Review: Empty Bones and other stories, by Breton Dukes

Available in bookstores nationwide.

This is the second book written by Breton Dukes cv_empty_bones_and_other_storiesand published by VUP. Like the first, Bird North, it is a collection of stories, but only six rather than seventeen as in the first. I haven’t read the author’s first book, but I understand from reading online reviews that is a hard-hitting and not very attractive look at the underbelly of the young New Zealand man. Hmm, says this reviewer – over 50-female, just my cup of tea. Is his latest book more of the same?

The cover features a woman, in a swimsuit no less, one hand on a ladder rung and the other holding a fishing line, apparently some distance from land. The character on the cover, Laura, is one of three adult siblings in the story ‘Empty Bones’. This story, according to the blurb, is a novella; the remaining five being short stories, although to be honest, it read more like a long short story.

In ‘Empty Bones’, Laura’s father Ian is hosting a bit of a weekend family reunion at the family bach. Ian and his three offspring have plenty of baggage between them as well as the usual love-hate stuff that goes on between siblings. By any family’s account, this is certainly a very strange family with peculiar dynamics happening. For a start, Ian has just had a major facelift.

A family reunion, for a writer, is a marvellous place for emotions to run high, for events to tilt slightly out of control, and for issues to be resolved, which all happens in this story. The author penetrates very deeply into the psyche of his characters, which is somewhat disturbing, as none of them are very likeable, and the things they do aren’t very admirable, but I guess there really are people like that out there, and not just in New Zealand.

The five other stories, being considerably shorter than ‘Empty Bones’, have a lot more tension, dysfunction, and unease packed into them. And all with the same degree of intense characterisation as in the longer story. This, I feel, is the author’s strength – he has the ability to get into the souls and heart of his characters, their complexities. And none of them are nice.

I can’t say I liked reading these stories. I didn’t like the characters, mostly young to middle aged men, who seem to have little direction in life, very little to get up for each day, users and bludgers of other people. Other than Laura, who has her own issues, the only other story with a main character who is not a man, is the story about Rachel. Plenty of potential perhaps for things to turn out a little differently maybe? But no, same downward spiral as the others. In all of his stories, the characters seem to have got to a point in their lives where they seem to have lost control of where they see their life going. And didn’t seem to know or be able to see how to get it back.

Maybe that is the author’s point, to get us thinking a little more about the type of society we are living in and the type of people it is turning out. Are these behaviour issues something people are born with or a product of their upbringing/the passage of their lives/alcohol/drugs. Or maybe this underbelly of human nature has always been there, and he is simply bringing it to our attention.

Whatever we may think of the subject matter of the stories, the unlikeable characters the author has created for his reader, and the future of masculinity in New Zealand, there is no denying the quality of the writing. These are well written stories, very evocative, they leave powerful images, and if they can bring about a strong emotion from the reader, then maybe the author has been successful in communicating his message.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Empty Bones and other stories
by Breton Dukes
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864739186