Book Review: Back With The Human Condition, by Nick Ascroft

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_back_with_the_human_conditionMuch like the author photo proudly displayed on the back cover, Back With The Human Condition presents itself as a serious collection, but one that is filled with slightly more relaxed and satirical moments. At face value the book feels like a philosophical exploration. Love. Money. Death. Complaints. And while the gravity of the first three subjects can weigh heavily, it is the fourth and final, the slight twist, that delights and carries itself throughout the collection.

These four sections act as a guide, a reference point by which we can look into the poems. Through them Ascroft focuses the readers attention in a very effective manner, the subjects are after all relatable to us as readers in some way. And by keeping his overarching subjects so broad, we can read our own experiences into his writing. It is a rare thing for an author to pull this off successfully, but Ascroft has managed it, seemingly with ease.

Reading through the collection, one can see the fine crafting that has gone into each and every poem. In ‘The Tide’ we find a powerful description of a lover’s touch.

Your touch if it was made of notes wouldn’t be in the woodwind from
the bulrushes at your voice’s base, curling up and down your throat
and flowering into tight seedheads of words, but in the syncopation
of high black ticking piano keys, offbeat and ticklish like long grass.

The images conjured by Ascroft’s elegant poetry can instil powerful and relatable emotions in the reader. And while this poem grabbed my attention, each person who picks up this book could find a poem or passage that truly speaks to them, that connects with their own human condition.

On the other side there are poems that border on the satirical, and clever poems whose enjoyment comes from a more simple part of human nature. The poem Subject-Verb Agreement plays around with language on multiple levels, titles like Whereby I Compare You to a Cow and Try to Dig My Way Out, and Jonathan Relieves Himself out a Bus Window in India are enough to illicit a chuckle, and poems like This Poem Is Guaranteed to Awaken a Coma Victim play around with modern conventions. Back With the Human Condition recognises and explores all parts of human nature, providing a varied and enjoyable experience.

But this collection is not just about a connection on a human level. Ascroft ventures beyond this to some degree with poems like The Bearded Blog, an experimental piece that visually emulates a page of web code. This collection about us is not just drawing on our experiences and using those to present itself, but also providing new angles of thought, new avenues to tread down as humans. So in the end, perhaps Ascroft is more philosophical then I thought, though the bathrobe still reminds me of the lighter side of his writing.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Back With The Human Condition
by Nick Ascroft
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560844

Book Review: Currents of Change, by Darian Smith

cv_currents_of_changeAvailable now in selected bookshops.

Well-written and deliciously addictive. This spine-chilling ghost story kept me up until midnight, until just past the point where it stopped being a ghost story and became something else…

Sara is a troubled heroine, fleeing from her past, but burdened with self-doubts and shattered esteem. It is hard for her to trust, to open herself, and thus she protects herself with a wall of angry, sharp retorts. Her family home, in the isolated township of Kowhiowhio, Northland, provides the sanctuary she needs, but it brings with it darkness too. And not just because of the lack of electricity.

Sara’s sharp but endearing personality, her fragility edged with razors, make her an engaging heroine, and her friendship with general-all-round-good-guy neighbour, Nate, with his frank and generally cheerful nature, a good counterpoint. His sister-in-law, sharp, almost vicious, Moana adds a welcome dose of conflict and thrown into the whole weave is Great Aunt Bridget (long dead, but not at rest), a dark family secret, an adorable kitten, an almost-as-adorable little girl and an extremely unpleasant estranged husband.

This is an engaging read, although the sudden twist from ghost story to something else entirely derailed me for a heartbeat or three. Despite this, I would consider it a damn fine read.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Currents of Change
by Darian Smith
Published by Wooden Tiger Press
ISBN 9780473318109

Book Review: The Mt Pisa Station Story, by Nicola McCloy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_mt_pisa_station_storyOne of the pleasures of living in a relatively recently-settled country, is that we have only really started to record the history of the land and the people. That history is still recent enough for us to tell the full tale, to fill in the spaces, to join the dots. Add to that the wonderful scenery of the Inland South Island through the seasons and the ages, and you have a great book.

The Mt Pisa Station Story ticks all the boxes. It begins with the Māori settlement, or passing through that took place. Then came the hardy early men, explorers, Scottish travellers, younger sons. Gold brought a massive rise in population, but also an opportunity to provide the essentials of life to the needy miners. A series of managers ran the station for many years, some knew this land and flourished, others struggled with the terrain and challenges of weather. The introduction of exotic animals to provide food or to control pests is a story in itself. While we all know about pigs and ferrets and rabbits, I was less familiar with the cat. In 1888 200 cats were introduced to the station to make “bloody war on the bunny”. It is these details and the accompanying photographs which make this book so much more than a farm story.

Perhaps the most important part of this tale is the subdivision of the station into 10 lots to be won by ballot. So in 1924 the MacMillan family became part of the Mt Pisa story. This family still remains today and the second part of the book deals with the struggles and successes as the family grew and flourished. Again, this was not an easy task and the book chronicles the depression years, the impact of war, the Rabbit Board decisions and the hydro schemes.

I loved this book. It tells a real story about real people. It does not gloss over the difficulties of farming over the years, but instead celebrates the diversification and vision which is essential to adapt and survive in changing times. If you know the region, it will give you the back story to the places and the names. If you have never been there, you will be planning a trip sometime soon. This book is perfectly timed to make a great Christmas gift, combining story, family, beautiful photos and a tiny snapshot of the history of New Zealand farming.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Mt Pisa Station Story: A stroke of luck
by Nicola McCloy
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869539467

Book Review: Lily Max – Slope, Style, Fashion, by Jane Bloomfield

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lily_max_slope_style_fashionThis is the second in Jane Bloomfield’s Lily Max series, published by Luncheon Sausage Books, and as you would suspect, it is all about fashion, baby. Every budding fashionista needs these books.

Lily Max lives a slightly surreal life in an unnamed town quite like Queenstown, with her clothes designer / seamstress mum, her snow sculptor dad, her bothersome (but getting easier to get along with) sister Angelica, her 3-year-old brother Rocco, and their cat Dottie. The book opens on a snow day, with pancakes and snow sculpting and the small matter of a slightly over-decorated school issue ski suit. Lily Max is getting ready for the first of six weeks of school ski days; she can’t ski even a little, her best friend Greer is still in LA, and she has nothing to wear.

Before they get on the bus to the skifield, Lily Max’s teacher Mr Younger gives her a flier advertising a Charity Ski Fashion Show. Then, when they get there, Lily Max’s ski instructor is super-hot Swiss guy Fabien, who seems to be related to her friend Jonathon, and swears that nobody fails his classes. So we are set for the plot: learning to ski, and pulling together a fashion extravaganza. While solving the mystery of her Gran’s ski career coming to an end thanks to a certain Edgar from Switzerland.

The best thing in the book for me is Bloomfield’s description of what it is like to be a beginner skier – and what it is like to start getting the hang of it, when you suddenly start flying and realise that this what snow is for. Her writing literally made me dream of skiing, I woke up as the weightlessness of zooming down the mountain made me lose my balance in bed. “I push down on one leg then the next. Left. Right. Left. Right. Down we go. Wheee! The wind whistles around my Vuarnet sunglasses and into my eyes. Tears stream down my face but i am not crying. I’m so happy! I’m skiing! Finally!”

I was a little disappointed that the book had such a similar plot angle to the previous one; putting Lily Max outside of her fashion comfort zone – away from her arch-enemy Violet, for one – may have developed her pretty cool character even further. Mimi was a welcome new character though, with her awesome national costume and her very useful mum (who sews Korean wedding dresses for a living!) But you know what, kids who enjoyed the first book will love this*, and the attention to fashion detail is superb. “The flared legs of my deep-yellow ski pants fit snugly over my black punk-effect ski boots. I just added two brass buttons on each boot; they shine bright. Mini medallions of hope and determination.”

Recommended to boys and girls of fashion, and those who just love a touch of the outrageous – pop this in their Christmas stocking and they’ll love you for it.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Lily Max: Slope, Style, Fashion
by Jane Bloomfield, illustrations by Guy Fisher
Published by Luncheon Sausage Books
ISBN 9780908689934

*When I was the age that these books are written for, I was utterly obsessed with the The Gymnasts series by Elizabeth Levy, not to mention Babysitter’s Club. The Gymnasts series in particular always angled towards the big ‘meet’, with arch-enemies galore. They were the same every time, and I used to read them consecutively once a year between the ages of 7-9. Jane Bloomfield knows her audience (and it’s kids like I was).

Book Review: Dance with Me, by Penny Harrison, illustrated by Gwynneth Jones                         

Available in bookshops nationwide.Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dance_with_meThis story of a music box ballerina and her changing relationship with the girl who owns he is an exquisite story, simple and delicate in its telling, yet threaded through with childish joy and the warmth of the things that cause us to form memories.

There is disappointment,change, adventures, there is scary stuff, there is resilience, then a most delightful twist. The introduction of the outside environment gives a whole lift to the story and takes it out of what could have been ordinary and gives the story a whole new dimension.

I very much liked how the story traveled along. The illustrations complimented the story perfectly, the colours fit with what was happening, they added an almost musical effect.

A delightful book that would make a wonderful gift, ballet fans would be enchanted but so would almost everyone else who picked it up.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Dance with Me
by Penny Harrison, illustrated by Gwynneth Jones
Published by EK Books
ISBN 9781925335231

 

Book Review: Ruby and the Blue Sky, by Katherine Dewar

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ruby_and_the_blue_skyWell, this is an interesting thing. A self-published, cause-driven novel by a first-time author. Clearly Katherine Dewar has a message she wants to get out. She does that quite effectively but as with a lot of self-published books, there could have been a good deal of copy-editing which would have improved matters.

Ruby, of the title, is a punk-rock singer/songwriter who is conscious of the effects our consumerism, amongst other things, is having on our planet. Fired by a spur of the moment and seemingly throwaway line, she finds herself the spokesperson for serious counter-political action. Throw in her band, the group who come together to help in the activism, her mother who is on her own counter-cultural path and a die-hard weird religious cult with a desire to clean up the world, and you have quite a lot of potential. However in my opinion it misses the mark.

Ruby is fairly credible, as is her mum. But many of the other characters are sketchy. Salvador does not work for me as a character – too confused, too easily manipulated. The anonymous organisation backing him is doubtless based on various religious cults, and seems to buy in to the preconceptions and misconceptions surrounding such organisations.

I am not sure what readership was in mind, and really that does not matter, except that I am not sure to whom this will appeal. The writing style is a bit clunky, with moments where it’s actually quite good. But those moments are not enough to rescue the book.

It is one of those books which, as a professional librarian, I would hesitate to recommend to readers\, because it’s not well-enough constructed and it is so clearly pushing a point of view.

If the writing were better crafted, I think it might have worked. As it stands, I think it lacks the wow factor.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Ruby and the Blue Sky
by Katherine Dewar
Published by Ruru Press
ISBN 9780473345501 (UK)

Book Review: The Revelations of Carey Ravine, by Debra Daley

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_revelations_of_carey_ravineCarey Ravine appears to have it all. She’s living a happily decadent life in 1770s London with her husband, the charming Oliver Nash. Life is all about parties in stately homes, gorgeous dresses, and sleeping till noon.

Appearances, of course, can be deceiving. Carey’s past is not as innocent as she likes to pretend. She has secrets, not least a father who disappeared into the depths of the Indian jungle. In her efforts to keep her own skeletons firmly in the closet, she has been wilfully blind to her husband’s own secrets, too eager to take at face value all the lies that he has told her. And the Nashes are quickly running short of funds, with creditors lurking at the door.

Carey is a most frustrating young woman. She’s like that naively sweet friend who you suspect is being led on a merry dance by a rotten boyfriend but who is stubbornly incapable of hearing the truth. The reader begins to harbour suspicions about Nash’s true character long before Carey begins to question his shady past. Ultimately a visit from a mysterious stranger leads Carey to commence unraveling the web of lies, leading to a series of revelations about the men in her past and her present.

If you’re among the many lamenting the recent findings that New Zealanders don’t read much local fiction, then this is a great book for you to add to your To Read list. Although the novel is set in London’s high society and the jungles of India, Daley is herself a Kiwi writer, living in the Bay of Plenty.

The Revelations of Carey Ravine is a most entertaining and surprisingly dark glimpse into 18th century London’s secret societies, with a party scene to rival any soiree that Jay Gatsby ever hosted.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

The Revelations of Carey Ravine
by Debra Daley
Published by Quercus
ISBN 9781782069942

 

The Topp Twins Treasury of Sing-Along Stories, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

cv_the_topp_twins_treasuryAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

The Topp Twins are just FUN. This book celebrates their total devotion to bringing pleasure to your family.

This is a collection of their published titles, and Jenny Cooper has brought the songs to life with bright humourous illustrations. These illustrations enhance the text, but in no way take over from the story being told. The selection of songs includes old time favourites like Do You Ears Hang Low, The Farmer in the Dell and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.

The CD comes with the book and I suspect there were quite a few laughs among the performers. There is a real country swing to the songs and an appropriate American twang to some. Coupled with the illustrations, a banjo playing hound dog in one, they really communicate a love of traditional songs for children.

I think every family needs a bookshelf of favourite books. These will be shared and enjoyed by each new member, and cause huge disputes when the grown up children divide up their childhood books. I had to buy replica copies of their favourite books, to gift to my kids.

The Topp Twins Treasury deserves a place in your family bookshelf. I even noticed my husband foot tapping to the music.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Topp Twins Treasury of Sing-Along Stories
Music from The Topp Twins, illustrated by Jenny Cooper
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775434306

Book Review: A Moment’s Silence – Stalking the Stalker, by Christopher Abbey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_moments_silenceI love a good thriller and when this one landed on my doorstep I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

Martyn Percival is a New Zealander on holiday in the UK. He was travelling for 7 days on a British “Sampler Tour”. It is Sunday 7 May 1995 – a long weekend commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of VE day. His marriage of more than 30 years has broken up, he’s recently started up his own accounting practice after being made redundant, and he is now taking a well needed break.

A dusty Vauxhall Cavalier comes into view beneath Martyn’s window. Travelling on a bus has its advantages – you can look down on things and see things that perhaps you wouldn’t notice travelling in a car. The number plate of the Vauxhall J 842 MMP caught Martyn’s eye. As a child plate watching was his family’s travelling game. Families have their own games when travelling with children – it keeps everyone amused and entertained hopefully for hours. In Martyn’s case his fixation with numbers drove him to be an accountant. His coach creeps forward, grinding a few metres further up the hill. The car remains stationary.

Suddenly the Cavalier accelerates into view, squealing across the median line. Martyn cranes his head for a better view. The coach inches forward right alongside the grimy maroon Vaxhall. The car’s rear ledge has been removed and what appears to be a large metal-framed black box fills the boot space. On its top lies a grey flat moulded case, too large for a violin. The lid is sprung partly open, half-covered by a tartan travel rug. Two automatic weapons can now clearly be seen. One is a rifle with a folded metal butt embedded in foam in the case. The other – a smaller machine gun lies loose on the box top. Martyn points them out to a fellow passenger who confirms his suspicions. Definitely not AK-47’s, but some sort of assault weapons. Horrified at what he’s seen Martyn gets his camera out and clicks off a few frames.

After finishing the tour, Martyn hires a car to explore areas he visited on his recent bus trip. Sitting in a pub recommended to him by the B & B where he is staying in the Cotswolds, the television flashes up a bombing of Commando Memorial in Scotland, which he had visited on his bus trip. A memory of that day comes back to Martyn with sudden realisation that the Vauxhall Cavalier was parked in the vicinity – he can’t get the Vauxhall’s number plate out of his head – J 842 MMP. After some deliberation Martyn decides that he must report what he has seen, with the photos he took as further evidence.

What Martyn doesn’t know is a rogue IRA operative is on the loose – one Linus Calleson. Calleson 8 months earlier had put a plan to his superiors to blow up the Commando Memorial in Scotland on 11 November 1994 – Remembrance Day. His superiors put this plan on hold as peace talks had been held. Linus was bitterly disappointed but decided to go ahead without their support. To go against orders would be treason which carries only one penalty – death.

What follows is real a boys own annual story (well perhaps a grown up version) – the IRA, bombings, sex, murder, romance and of course not forgetting the villain Linus, with Martyn being in the thick of being stalked by Linus for being a “nosey bloody tourist”.
The characters and story flowed with actual events being slotted into make this even more believable and very realistic. The characters all have flaws making them even more human.

This was a gritty story that had me struggling between life commitments and finishing the book. This is the author Christopher Abbey’s first book.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

A Moment’s Silence – Stalking the Stalker
by Christopher Abbey
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473361891

Book Review: Hunters & Collectors, by Matt Suddain

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hunters_and_collectorsThis book has been described as experimental. I agree with that, but I could add a whole host of extra descriptors to go along with experimental.

Suddain has created a fantastical work of sci-fi, horror, black humour (and I mean REALLY black humour). I was caught up in the weirdness from the first few pages, and although I am not and have never been a sci-fi aficionado, I was enjoying myself; although struggling a bit with the complexity of the plot lines, and the other-worldliness of the whole story, I persevered. But there’s more….

There are many levels in this huge novel– there’s the narrator, Jonathan, who is a self-styled “forensic gastronomist” whose life’s work and passion is food and drink. He travels through the many cosmic worlds which make up the particular planetary system he inhabits, in search of the perfect meal. Because his work is apparently fraught with danger (he is a critic!) he has a minder (Beast) and a bodyguard (Gladys). Gladys is a wonderful character. She is apparently part Water Bear, and sleeps like a duck – never entirely asleep, which in this book is a useful trait.

There are rafts of more-than passing-strange characters, most of whom are integral to the story. There’s a writer/psychoanalyst/crossdresser/villain who gets into Jonathan’s head in very manipulative and clever ways and is to my mind quite evil. There are giants, nymphs, chefs, thugs, all with their own peculiarities. The characters in general are brilliantly drawn and in a very weird way entirely, unexpectedly, credible.

There’s the temporal aspect – where and when, and in which worlds, are we? Is any of this real? Could it ever be real? All questions which I cannot attempt to answer until I find someone who actually grasped all of the plot and storylines!

So back to the “wait, there’s more…” Following a series of unfortunate incidents, Jonathan and crew journey to find the perfect meal, for which Jonathan has booked. This is where the horror kicks in. The location is yet another world, where people are seemingly killed for alarmingly minor reasons.

But are they in fact killed? Are they real? How much of what we see is merely hologram? Does Jonathan ever get that meal?

No spoilers in this review, you have to see for yourself.

What is real, for the less bloodthirsty readers like me, is the horror and absolute gruesomeness of the killings. At least at first…but as it goes on, and the bloodbaths continue, the warped humour of it all comes through.

I kept picking this book up, and then, particularly before bed, putting it down rapidly! Finally I just powered through the last quarter of the book, determined to see what happened. It’s probably a flaw in my reading that I am still uncertain if any of Jonathan’s story is in fact true .

Recommended to readers with strong stomachs!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Hunters and Collectors
by M. Suddain
Published by The Bodley Head Ltd
ISBN 9780224097048