Book Review: Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939, by Margaret Sparrow

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_risking_their_livesDame Margaret Sparrow, since qualifying as a doctor in the 1960s, has played a significant role in promoting the availability of reproductive health services in New Zealand. She openly states that it was thanks to her own ability to access contraceptives, and on one occasion a mail-order abortion drug, that she finished medical school at all. A prominent member of groups including Family Planning and the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, she still makes appearances at pro-choice protests. Recently named Public Health Association champion for 2017, Dame Margaret has been speaking at various events recently, continuing to promote her causes and occasionally startling younger women with frank discussions about masturbation.

She has lent her collection of historical contraceptive devices to be exhibited at Te Papa. She displays a golden speculum-shaped trophy in her living room. In short, Dame Margaret Sparrow is a bloody legend.

Risking their Lives is the third in a series recording abortion history in New Zealand. The earlier books covered the periods 1940 to 1980, and the 1800s. Compiled from coroner’s reports, newspaper reports and some biographical information about key figures who instigated change, the book intersperses historical context with the sad stories of many women whose circumstances led to their deaths from abortion-related causes. This book covers the section of time in between the previous two, during which increasing awareness of deaths from septic abortions led to changing political priorities about women’s health. Eventually.

As shown in the book, women who were pregnant and did not want to be were really between a rock and a hard place: strong social disapproval of childbearing out of wedlock led people to desperate remedies that could kill them. Married couples also feature in these stories; some women who died from abortions already had young children and felt they could not afford another.

Unsurprisingly, this is pretty grim reading. Margaret Sparrow acknowledged as much at the book launch, thanking Victoria University Press for committing to publishing her work despite knowing that abortion death is hardly bestseller material. As she read out one of the narratives, in which a woman on her deathbed was being quizzed by police about which drugs she and her friend might have procured, I suddenly remembered the words on a painting about illegal abortion from 1978: This woman died, I care. This, I thought, must be part of the purpose: to tell the stories of these 90-odd women, who didn’t need to die like that. To show, however belatedly, that someone cares.

After a setting out of historical context, the book divides its stories by the themes of medical causes of death, contraception, the law, then the professions of people most commonly caught up in abortion-related trials and scandals (doctors, nurses, chemists and others). I eventually found this layout slightly confusing, as with each new chapter the stories would start back in the early 1900s and progress on to the late 1930s. Given the evolution of social and medical perspectives being shown throughout the book, I might have found it easier to follow a more strictly chronological arrangement.

The chapter on contraception provided a surprise highlight. Following discussions of contraceptives in the media of the day (disapproving editorials on the one hand, euphemistic newspaper advertisements for “remedies” on the other) the chapter goes on to describe and contrast three pioneering women in the field of birth control: Marie Stopes in the UK, Margaret Sanger in the USA and Ettie Rout in New Zealand. They come across as fascinating characters: they knew each other and had at various times collaborated then strongly disagreed. They all seemed, in their own way, to be rather eccentric. But given the strength of conviction needed to keep pushing their work through, against prevailing social norms, a touch of unconventionality might have been helpful.

The most obvious audience for this book might be students of social and medical history. The book is however a stark reminder to any reader about how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go. It certainly made me grateful to be living with a female reproductive system now rather than 100 years ago. Abortion back then was dangerous, certainly, but naturally-occurring miscarriages could also kill women, and childbirth carried far more risks before modern medicine cut down the rates of fatal infections.

Reading these women’s stories may be an act of bearing witness: This woman died, I care. But we are also reminded that for any progress to be made, people like Margaret Sparrow needed to care. As she notes in her epilogue, we still have abortion in the crimes act, and while so much has improved for women’s health, there are still barriers. The connections between these kinds of stories and the present day need to be heard, because people need to keep on caring enough to keep pushing for change.

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray

Risking their Lives: New Zealand Abortion Stories 1900-1939
by Margaret Sparrow
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561636

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Book Review: I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess, by Petra Kotrotsos and Christina Irini Arathimos

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Id_rather_be_a_fairy_princessLike many 6 year olds, Petra wants to be a fairy princess. Unfortunately, she becomes ill with the cancer neuroblastoma, and has to become a warrior princess to survive the disease.

Written when she was 7 and published at 20, I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess is Petra Kotrotsos’ own story of her battle with cancer. It shows her strength and determination to overcome her cancer with the support of her family and friends. Told with a mixture of innocent imagination and matter-of-factness, the story explains the diagnosis, the treatments and the reality of living with cancer.

The pictures in I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess are lovely, with a softness to them which belies the hard topic that the book deals with. They suit the word beautifully, by matching the hope of the text perfectly.

I’m not sure how to recommend this book. It would definitely be a good book for a family trying to explain cancer to a younger child, or even within a classroom setting if it were relevant. The tone of hope and determination is a useful one, and the descriptions of x-rays, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and the helpful and caring nurses would help to take some of the fear away that a child may have about themselves or someone they care about following a diagnosis. I don’t know about recommending it as a general book for bedtime reading or the like – I think it would depend on the child. As the adult who knows your child best, have a read through first, and see what you think.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess
by Petra Kotrotsos and Christina Irini
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994137944

Book Review: Aotearoa, by Gavin Bishop

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aotearoa_the_new_zealand_storyGavin Bishop’s Aotearoa has been atop the Nielsen Bestsellers list virtually since its release. I spotted Gavin at the Storylines Hui the day after it was launch and he said ‘It sold 140 copies at the launch! I’ve never written a bestseller!’

Gavin has been writing and illustrating books for over 40 years. He has gone through many phases of illustration – the illustrations in this book are most similar in style to his The House that Jack Built, which was re-published a few years ago by Gecko Press, but also bring in elements (particularly in the people) of the broad style he used in Mister Whistler.

Aotearoa tells the story of our nation, from the big bang, via dinosaurs, through Kupe’s discovery of Aotearoa (so named by Kupe’s wife Kuramārōtini) and so on. My first favourite page – there are many – is the Voyages to Aotearoa, which depicts each of the waka that we know sailed to settle in New Zealand from Hawaiki. Along with people, came gods, and the stories of our gods are flawlessly woven into the narrative.

As iwi settled the land, each named its sacred mountain, and set about naming the birds, fish and insects of Aotearoa – and the land: Te Waipounamu and Te Ika-a-Māui. On the following spread, came war: the Māori war god Tūmatauenga makes several appearances as our people go to war. While disputes over land led to fighting, the first Pākehā arrived. Gavin takes us inside their minds to show how they drew the coastline of New Zealand, and the illustrations give further information about what was introduced and traded.

Something notable if you have never read a history book that has an integrated world-view of New Zealand: the Treaty of Waitangi isn’t signed until page 20 – one-third of the way through the book. There was a lot of history in Aotearoa before Pākehā came and carved it up, and this book ensures the younger generation doesn’t forget it. I will also add, for me the best parts of the book are those which tell about the settlement of New Zealand by all its peoples.

From the late 19th century on, Gavin does break-out ‘survey’ pages telling about progress in different areas of life and society. Transport, employment, houses, education. Each of these are finely drawn, but as somebody who tends to view things in a linear manner, I couldn’t help but want the images to sit in a more time-oriented manner!

The things he brings out though are wonderful, and there are several juxtapositions that made me smile to myself – in housing, these three things are close together: 1937: State houses were built for those who could not afford their own; 2008: A house in Masterton designed by the Wellington firm Melling Morse Architects; 2015: The number of homeless people who slept on the streets increased.

Gavin has also very cleverly given potted histories of famous architects, significant visionaries, and so on throughout his illustrations. His war illustrations are majestic artworks of the sort that I hope go on tour through Painted Stories.

I will stop myself gushing over every page and think about audience for a second. There is nothing that Gavin has done that hasn’t got kids in the centre of his thinking. The lollies page is fantastic; the clothes page – which involves many members of his own family – could inspire a class study of fashions using old family photos; the sports section is brilliant – and of course the All Blacks are running across the South Island. The disasters section is a starter page for 100s of school projects in the future. He has chosen famous people that children can relate to (Jamie Curry, Annabel Langbein, Witi Ihimaera, Lorde) and singers, writers, actors, dancers and artists as well. I’m pleased to see he has drawn himself in there.

Gavin has not been afraid to put his worldview across. ‘1840: The Treaty of Waitangi gave Māori the rights of British citizens. But for over 100 years it was ignored and ruled irrelevant to New Zealand law and government’. He has told briefly of land marches, protests, Bastion Point and Moutoa Gardens, hikoi, and wrongful Anti-terror raids. He has also called out those who are destroying our land: ‘Careless use of the environment threatens all life.’ Possibly the cutest drawing of the south island has it turned into a possum…

But the book ends with hope. Electric transport is being brought in. Kāpiti Island is a bird sanctuary, the Southern Ocean is a whale sanctuary. There are good things happening in agriculture. And finally, we have children flying the flag for the future. Just perfect.
It doesn’t matter what age you are, you will learn something from this book. You will understand how history has formed our land. Gavin has used the academic work of our most important historians to focus his drawings, and he has done a superlative job. Step out of the way, everybody, the award goes to…

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story
by Gavin Bishop
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780143770350

 

Book Review: Our Future is in the Air, by Tim Corballis

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_our_future_is_in_the_airOur Future is in the Air is Wellington author Tim Corballis’ fourth novel. He’s a past winner of Creative New Zealand’s Berlin Writers’ Residency (2015) and a holder of a PhD in aesthetic theory. In 2015 he was Writer in Residence at Victoria University. Oh, and he’s a father of twin daughters – probably the best qualification for this particular project – a project of future and hope. Sort of, anyway.

It’s 1975. A time of protest and upheaval is ending. A few years earlier, the world was in disarray. There are protesters in the street and change is everywhere. Meanwhile science is making leaps and bounds into unknown territories, off the back of the Space Race and Nuclear Armament development.

The book opens with a dry and technical account of the experiments that led to the discovery and development of a new technology that would alter how we think, plan and govern going forward. There is whispered talk of the lead scientist, only known by his, or her initials. It seems that sometime in the 20th Century it was discovered that it was possible to receive information from the future. And then it was possible to send people into the future as well. And then, for a short time in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, visiting the future was possible. But this had some pretty monumental consequences.

Time Travel, like recreational drugs, was big in the counter-culture. Hippies found a way to trip out without acid. Personal time travel became popular. But there were also some dark discoveries. Some of the visions of the future had extreme impacts. The 9/11 attacks in New York were witnessed and so, because of that the building of the Twin Towers were put on hold. Building was cancelled to prevent future catastrophe. Investment into airlines and mass airline travel was literally stopped in its tracks: the Boeing 747 was shelved as an idea, the Dreamliners of today were never developed, and as a result everything in the travel space stagnated. There was no crash landing on the Hudson or bombing over Lockerbie.

Consequently, New Zealand was affected. Tourism as we know it today was affected. Our economy was still buoyed up by shipping and Lamb sales but our sense of isolation and the access to the great OE was greatly impacted. Our connection to the world never grew to the levels it is today. The internet never happened.

And now? When time travel was made illegal, it moved underground – servicing a demimonde of addicts, spies, bankers and activists. In amongst this, there’s a mystery. One character, Pen, is missing. His friends and family start to wonder where he’s got to. He’s known to go on benders in the past but somehow this is different. So much of the book is around the search for him. It transpires that he’s been sneaking around behind his wife’s back time travelling. In his case, it becomes addictive. He can’t stop. The book becomes a sort of mystery search and rescue, of a man who doesn’t realise he’s missing.

Written from the perspective of the 1970’s, Corballis intentionally sets out to write this book as realism. He wanted something of a documentary truth to it, like a book that accompanies a series or film. He lays out the evidence with a number of devices including an array of voices, pseudo-documents, blog entries, etc. If you look at the current documentary on Stuff called The Valley, about Afghanistan, you’ll see how investigative journalists have painstakingly tried to construct the full story from fragments of evidence, conscious that the main players, like the NZ Defence force, choose to remain silent. And in a similar way, Corballis puts his findings before us in an attempt to tell the story.

He’s on record as arguing that this is a Sci-Fi novel due to the geeky references to technology and the general concepts of time travel. In other ways, though, it’s not Sci-Fi because it’s not really about our future because it’s set in our past. A recognisable but alternative one at that.

One of the delights of this story is that, in the future, it is understood that it is possible for ghosts to exist. You get this communication and cohabitation between the parties. In a similar way to how we react with virtual people on our devices and real people in the room.

This is not entirely new. Many cultures walk alongside ghosts and spirits. When I was recently in the Cook Islands I was told how people bury the dead in their front gardens so that they can include then in their everyday affairs like eating with them during social occasions. This appreciation and assimilation is similar in Corballis’ book.

His ghosts are echoes of the past. He wraps his story around specific dates. 1975 wraps into 2008. 1968 turns into 2001. He does this to see if history can be collapsed in a little, if two different time periods can plausibly coexist. It may be his comment on the acceleration of time – or our perception of it.

To make it more real he references the politics, land rights, fashion, of a 1970’s Labour Government run New Zealand, a place which is just sufficiently far back in our memories to be a little fuzzy around the edges but still close enough to be instantly recognisable. There was hope for the future. Utopian dreams. Investment in environmental causes. Many of the protest movements of that time were to do with the future, such as human rights. Extrapolate that out and it’s possible to see that they may have impacted events, indirectly or even unintendedly in the future.

Interestingly, we don’t have that same relationship with the future that we once did. Mainly, it seems, because the rate of change is so face the future is almost in the past. Imagine the future, crowd fund the idea and it’s happened. That’s the dream. So, to make his point he looks at how he can play with the future – albeit in the past. So much of our sci-fi is apocalyptic and negative. Our future is doomed – movies, books etc all set us in a time when humans, the environment and other factors have almost destroyed us. Dreadful dystopian stuff. Is there really a future for us humans?

It seems Corballis wants to find the future in our past, that 1970’s was the last time we looked hopefully into the lens with positivity. And that is the lesson he gives us. The dystopian lens paints a black future, informed by religious beliefs and myths of woe. He doesn’t want to follow that direction. For him, as a writer, defaulting to an Armageddon theme is all to easy and perhaps a little passé. There are times in our past that we need to get back to learn and plot the next steps objectively, for a change. There’s got to be better ways of thinking about what comes next.

The Future is in the Air is an exploration of an alternative history. A what if? There’s no lesson here, except maybe to think in parallel about the decisions we made. We often think it would be great to jump in a time machine and leap forward to get the answers we want. This might just be the cautionary tale that accompanies that thinking.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Our Future is in the Air
by Tim Corballis
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561179

Book Review: The Empty Coffin, by Gary Moore

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_empty_coffinIn Gary Moore’s debut thriller set in Auckland, crime is a burgeoning reality. Its imprints are challenged, yet coupled with obscurities, thus seemingly perpetuating the endemic pattern of wounding and wrongdoing.

Six-year-old Kerry Preston, an abducted girl, is found unscathed and unaffected by her tormentor. Constable Mary Clarke is shocked to find the child speaking to her like a grown-up and divulging Mary’s past life  all before resuming her juvenile self. Later, while crossing through a sports field one evening, fourteen-year-old Dean Bradley is murdered for his brand new sports shoes. Bradley’s murderer, Tom Heke, is on the run. He steals his friend’s mother’s money and joins the members of an ethnic gang, the Black Mamba. The big mystery lies in the disappearance of Bradley’s body from undertaker Ken Tamati’s funeral parlour.

Moore’s debut novel portrays just about every societal ill: murder, rape, theft, and gang violence, and dysfunctional families and communities. Each chapter in the novel opens with a radio network news broadcast, featuring reports and updates on crime and local politics all over New Zealand’s busiest city. The paths of the media, police and victims converge at the pursuit and question of “the Rainbow Man,” a mysterious saviour who punishes the violent attackers of several victims. A common detail in these victims’ contrasting accounts is the nebulous figure’s ability to heal the victims with a dazzling blue light, thus removing all pain and fear. While police try to gather information on this ostensibly supernatural being, the media circulates the public’s thought that it is the Second Coming.

The Empty Coffin is a superb debut thriller: action-packed, original and hauntingly intense. Due to its mature themes, this thriller would be suitable for older readers.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Empty Coffin
by Gary Moore
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473388959

Book Reviews: Dinosaur Trouble: The Lava Melt Shake & Dinosaur Trouble: The Great Egg Stink, by Kyle Mewburn, illustrated by Donovan Bixley

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_dinosaur_trouble_lava_melt_shakeIf you are trying to get girls or boys interested in reading and they just won’t budge, then have a go at these. Short, punchy and full of gross references like farts, dinosaur poos and eating vomit this series is about as kid-friendly as it comes. Better still the plots are mind numbing and dumb and completely without morals, scruples or any hint of a message of any kind.

These two are the first in the series, with plenty more to come I expect. They are short ‘incident’ stories featuring Arg (a very clever cave boy); Hng (his teen-dumb sister); Shlok (Arg’s BFF); and his mum and dad.

The Lava Melt Shake: When the ground begins to shake and volcanoes spew flames, Arg’s tribe is in danger! Arg is confined to barracks (i.e. his bedroom) to sit out the lava-storm. But does he listen? Of course not. After all there’s dinosaurs to fight and triceratops snot to content with. Plus a heap of other gooey and sticky situations. Against the dumb advice of the adult, Arg and his friend Shlok save the day, but in a very messy way. I Really enjoyed the way that Mewburn stacks gross event upon gross event. They wants us to bring up our lunch! Throwing in something cringeworthy and icky at every turn they can. After all living in the dinosaur age was pretty ‘basic’ and er, ‘base’. I think the boys of my 6 year old’s class would be rolling upon the carpet after listening to this one. My little one was too!

cv_dinosaur_trouble_the_great_egg_stink.jpgThe Great Egg Stink: This one is more of the same. Arg our smart wonder kid discovers his breakfast when mum brings home a dinosaur egg. His food is too cute to eat. But saving his new friend gets mega-messy! And so we get to meet Krrk-Krrk, a cute and loveable microceratops, who has all the charm and manners of a new puppy. Arg has to hide the critter from his family so he won’t get eaten. But that’s not an easy task. Sticking him down his top the lil’ dino farts, wees and even eats vomit – eeeew! Cool, eh? Not exactly the way to stay inconspicuous. You’ll have to read the book to find out how Arg gets away with it.

Both of these books fit the Scholastic Books template to a T – they are designed to get kids, and I suspect mainly boys, reading. Even if they are giggling over the gross bits it’s better than burying their nose in a tablet or XBox game. With Bixley’s trademark cartoon humour and Newburn’s short snappy sentences these short chapter books are good gateways to other material like Andy Griffith and Terry Denton’s XX-Story Treehouse series, which in turn could lead toward David Walliams and even Roald Dahl. Who knows. Either way, it’s a good thing.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Dinosaur Trouble: The Lava Melt Shake
by Kyle Mewburn
illustrated by Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775433675

Dinosaur Trouble: The Great Egg Stink
by Kyle Mewburn
illustrated by Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775433668

Book Review: Slave Power, by Raewyn Dawson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_slave_powerSlave Power is the first in The Amazon Series, and introduces a new voice in the Young Adult market. It is a tale of friendship, of determination, of love, and of dedication. Set in the historic world, and around the Black Sea, it follows two very different girls, brought together by unfortunate circumstances.

The fifteen-year old heroine, Melo, is one of the most talented Riders in the Wild Horse Tribe. Her prowess, combined with her compassion, has stirred the jealousies of older beauty, Mithrida. Envious, and devious, Mithrida hatches a plan to remove Melo from the tribe, a plot which results in Melo falling into the hands of slave traders. Here she befriends a young girl, Atalanta. Atalanta’s family, and her entire tribe, fell to the slave traders, many slaughtered, others captured.

They are taken to a isolated island to train as fighter-slaves. Here, Melo meets Sofia, a young priestess-in-training, and her older brother, Mati, captures Melo’s eye (and perhaps her heart as well). Whilst Melo helps to inspire and improve the spirits of her fellow slaves, the Amazon tribes must unite against the very real threat of the slave traders. Meanwhile, Mithrida, still plotting and planning for her own gain, forms an allegiance with the enemy.

The author has taught classical studies, so she knows her era well, and creates her world in evocative detail. With strong female role models, messages of compassion, kindness and finding value in others, “Slave Power” is an inspiration read for young adults, contrasting sharply with the more dark-world dystopia that currently floods the market. It promotes cooperation, and peaceful resolution. Romantic relationships are minimal, with the teenage heroine pursuing friendship first – a worthy message for the youth of today!

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Slave Power
by Raewyn Dawson
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473389376