Book Review: The Genius of Bugs, by Simon Pollard

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_genius_of_booksImagine you are a bug living in a bug world, where a blade of grass is as tall as a tree! All around you are other bugs with secret weapons on search and destroy missions. Lurking behind every leaf are mini-masters of disguise waiting to catch you out.

Bugs have been on earth for almost 400 million years. They were here before the dinosaurs and are still here, 65 million years after dinosaurs became extinct. What these critters do is really clever. The genius of bugs is revealed through their use of weapons, feats of engineering, scams and deceptions, and incredible teamwork.

This is a great book to introduce children to the magic of bugs. The use of in-built weapons by the Bombardier beetle, the marvel of miniature engineering of the Dragonfly and how a Portia jumping spider uses its exceptional intelligence to hunt other spiders.

I sat down with 5 ½-year-old Abby to read this book with her. We pored over the pages with her exclaiming ‘ooh yuk’a lot, but fascinated all the same. Afterwards, we took her magnifying glass outside with her net and bug catcher to see what we could find. We found a fine collection of moths, flies, spiders and snails, examined them at length and finally released them back into the wild.

This is a great book with lots of information and facts about bugs. It was great to see a page dedicated to genius bugs from New Zealand, and over all this is a great book for the aspiring biologist.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Genius of Bugs
by Simon Pollard
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN 9780994136213

Book Review: Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dont_dream_its_overThe title for this collaborative book of essays and insights, borrowed from the Crowded House song, “Don’t Dream it’s Over”, is apposite and timely. From the song there is the line “…they come to build a wall between us…”. If we took that literally with regard to journalism, applied to the commercial model for media, it seems that the quality product will soon be found behind a paywall; and the mass media will not provide anything in the way of investigative reporting in the future. The contributors to this book  make it abundantly clear that long-form print journalism is on the wane, and, in any case, the whole future of the print media itself is in doubt.

A lot has already been written about this demise, however, and though covered here the real insights are into the specific role of New Zealand journalism. We like to think of Crowded House as a New Zealand institution, but do we similarly think of any of the local media with this level of esteem? Other than the regard shown for public broadcasting on radio, in the form of RNZ, one’s reaction to the essays in general is to ask what is worth saving in the commercial media? And does it actually matter? Those of us who do listen to RNZ for much of the morning and early evening are still well informed, by and large, and can then pick and choose what to read or view from the commercial outlets. But even then, RNZ can be challenged for its content, as some of the contributors do, on the basis of a deficit in their indigenous and Pacific stories.

Industry insiders, such as Brent Edwards, do concede that there has been a loss of trust between the audience and the media, and he is particularly critical of political coverage. RNZ is actually the only media outlet that covers the proceedings of Parliament, while all the rest of the Press Gallery simply focus on the game of politics without any substance of policymaking. I suggest that the so-called ‘political editors’ don’t actually report anything, but simply provide an insider commentary. Morgan Godfery provides a brilliant chapter ‘Against political commentary’, where he wrestles with his own involvement as a commentator, and trappings of the elite company he has kept. He refers to the idea of ‘savvy commentary’, and the narrow demographic background of commentators creating a hermetically sealed world. He refers to the odd premise that this perpetuates: “a belief that political progress comes from pragmatic insiders who know how to manoeuvre within the system…” With his critique in mind, we should also note how partisan most of the broadcasters have become, even though the media insiders refer to certain examples to counter this.

The book’s editors point to the release of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics as a catalyst for the collection, and contributors refer to the innovative use of the Panama Papers as a counter-example, whereby the government was held to account. Hager has his own chapter in the book, and the Panama Papers are mentioned a number of times, including in Peter Griffin’s essay on New Zealand’s fledgling data journalism ‘scene’. Griffin’s title is ‘Needles in the haystack’, but it might as well have been ‘Missing the wood for the trees’. This is because none of the contributors note that without the release of the Panama Papers as an international story, and with the New Zealand stories actually coming out of the Australian Financial Review, we would never have known that there was a tax haven operating in New Zealand. The local media seem to think that they are responsible for exposing this, and creating policy change, though nothing has actually happened yet to close the tax haven down. In fact, certain business reporters were aware of the trust law and the related industry, that is the basis for the tax haven. These are the same couple of reporters that noted that John Key’s agenda for an ‘international financial hub’ came to grief a few years ago. There is no mention at all of business reporting in this book, and its role in providing expert analysis of economic issues, even when it is still ideologically aligned to the right.

But, overall, the Freerange Press has done a great job with this book, and every chapter is worthwhile. Peter Arnett provides a foreword, and reflects on his being a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, something of a high point for the international press. There is also a chapter on the views of some journalism students, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they almost all want to work for major international broadcasters, other than the one who is happy to find a job at RNZ. The book has some very good design features, and some impressive motifs for each chapter heading, and the ‘tags’ at the end of the book. The ‘tags’ appear in place of a conventional index, which may, however, have been of some use given the length of the text. There is even a chapter that discusses the role of design in the digital age, which adds another dimension.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
edited by Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett
Published by Freerange Press
ISBN 9780473364946

Book Review: No Place to Hide, by Jim Flynn

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_no_place_to_hidJim Flynn encourages the reader of his book to “critically examine” what he has written about the climate debate, not elevating it to “the status of scripture, but assess[ing] everything I say”. He, himself, set out to discover the true facts after, as he puts it, “being assailed by contradictory opinions that ranged from nightmare scenarios to reassurance”.

In his extensively researched book, Flynn comes to the sobering conclusion that at a certain date, likely as early as 2050, global warming may become a self-sustaining process – a state of no return. The greatest illusion, he states, is that the nations will agree to cut their carbon emissions in time to avoid this point of no return.

He sums his findings up with two propositions that were put forward by climate change observers in past studies. The first is that even if current emissions were cut immediately by 20, 50 or 80 percent, 2050 would still be the point of no return where the melting of the polar glaciers, the acidity of the oceans and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere will mean new higher temperatures that will persist for thousands of years.

Secondly, there is no way of de-carbonising the world’s economy that is viable within the next fifty years. For various reasons, all thoroughly explored, conversion of dirty technologies to cleaner ones will initially raise emissions, as the infrastructures of the latter are created and put into place.

The staggering amount of research Flynn has done in producing this book, gives the reader an idea of the complexities of the situation we find ourselves in. There are many factors involved, all interrelated in ways that add to the effects of the damage our planet is sustaining.

Writing before the results of the election in the US were known, Flynn comments – “If the Republicans win the election in 2016 you can kiss American carbon targets goodbye”. He further states that “even if a sane president is elected…” the pressure from the coal, gas and oil lobbies will make it extremely unlikely that the phasing out of the use of fossil fuels will be on the political agenda.

In the last chapter, Flynn puts forward suggestions founded on various studies, of possible solutions, which, in light of his preceding conclusions, seem almost like wishful thinking, a clutching at straws with little hope of seeing a fulfilment. He concludes by asserting that global planning is needed. Clean energy and climate engineering are fundamental to any effective long term strategy. 2050 need not be the point of no return if governments stop making gestures and face reality.

As a reader I feel his earlier words are more likely, that the greatest illusion is that all nations will agree to cut carbon emissions. But one thing this book does is inform those who take the time to read it, of the immensity of the problems facing us as we head into the future.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

No Place to Hide
by James Flynn
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503246

Book Review: The Dunedin Sound: Some Disenchanted Evening, by Ian Chapman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dunedin_soundEven though I was  born and raised in Dunedin I have to say the phrase “The Dunedin Sound” is completely new to me. Not being from the generation that encapsulates that label is perhaps a contributing factor, but I have come to realize that it is a fascinating subject and The Dunedin Sound by Ian Chapman has been a learning curve for me in music coming from my own hometown, during what is largely considered to be the greatest era of music.

The Dunedin Sound delves into 17 bands that were and are closely associated with the sound, providing background and explanations about the bands along with corresponding pictures that speak volumes. Amongst those we find written contributions from people that in some way or another have a connection to The Dunedin Sound. Their experiences vary greatly, as of course does how they personally view the music attached to The Dunedin Sound, but that is what gives the book a deeper meaning (rather than just biographies of some old bands that a few people want to reminisce about). It was reading about what attracted these people in the first place to the music, that makes me want to explore the treasure created in my backyard, hidden to my generation as the result of decades passing. Ian Chapman chose his contributors extremely effectively; they range from critics to fans to musicians, to music writers and more. All have a different take but all are united on the front that a vast majority of ‘80s bands from Dunedin had something special.

Throughout the book the snapshots and newspaper clippings, as well as posters (many of them hand-drawn) and the odd scribbled note here and there really made it feel like you had opened a time capsule from those days – a very well-presented and preserved one. One writer in the book talks about how ‘those days are gone now and, as is inevitable, a mythology is created and sold.’ The writer then makes the point that The Dunedin Sound is part of that, ‘but in it, relics are left to tell their own stories’, which is exactly what they do.

The only exposure I had personally had to the music written about was listening to ‘Pink Frost’ by The Chills, and it has only been since reading this book that I clicked that The Chills were a Dunedin band. But I have now discovered The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, more fully The Chills and I know there is much more yet to explore. Ian Chapman and his many contributors have provided those like myself with the insight of what the Dunedin music scene was made up of in the ‘80s and has already proven to be an excellent guide in my initial introduction to The Dunedin Sound. He has also given many others the opportunity to revisit times passed, giving extra information about bands that they might have known and seen perform, and in that way provided a tribute to the bands of The Dunedin Sound but also to their loyal followers.

I would highly recommend this book thanks to this dual appeal, and Chapman achieves this without making his aims obvious: The Dunedin Sound is blunt in it’s truthfulness. In my opinion, those who are familiar with the books subject matter will appreciate that, and for the others who aren’t, it will prove to be a reliable source of knowledge about the esteemed Dunedin Sound.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Dunedin Sound: Some Disenchanted Evening
by Ian Chapman
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869538958

Book Review: A Road Tour of American Song Titles, by Karl du Fresne

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_road_Tour_of_American_song_titles.jpgBeing of a similar vintage to Karl du Fresne meant this book really resonated with me. The journalist and music lover and his wife visited the United States of America three times, covering thousands of miles and taking in 24 towns and cities mentioned in song titles.

There were the familiar, like Galveston, Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa, Viva Las Vegas and Little Old Lady From Pasadena, but there were also songs I’d never heard of, like Bowling Green, Streets of Bakersfield, and Saginaw, Michigan. Whenever I came across a song I wasn’t familiar with, I sought out the YouTube version and listened to it before reading that chapter, often listening to it more than once to pick up things du Fresne mentioned.

There were also songs that I was familiar with but never knew what they were called, like Mendocino, Lodi, and Nashville Cats – so it was an education for me learning their names as well as reading where the inspiration for the songs came from.

The book meanders across the country, part-history lesson, part-education, part-geography, part-music and part-restaurant review. It’s a good yarn and one that will appeal to many. The writer’s travels take him across states and into backwaters most people aren’t even aware of. He tells of racial tension, heartbreak and misfortune as well as success, and gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who wrote and performed the songs many of us grew up listening to.

I found myself hunting through my own collection to hear a number of the songs featured in the book and it gave me a whole new appreciation of them. I had been guilty of listening to them over the years without really taking in the lyrics, and now when Galveston or Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa are played on classic hits stations, I remember the stories behind the songs.

A Road Tour of American Song Titles is much more than a road trip, it’s like the best of campfire stories told by someone who has an easy way of writing that carries you along on the journey.

Unfortunately royalty fees and difficulties tracking down the owners meant du Fresne was unable to reproduce the lyrics to the songs, but they are available online for anyone who wants to hunt them down.

The only thing I wasn’t so fond of was the footnotes, as I felt they interrupted the narrative flow. Aside from that, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope – as there are plenty more song titles he could cover – there is a sequel.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

A Road Tour of American Song Titles
by Karl du Fresne
Published by Bateman
ISBN 9781869539382

 

Book Review: Bruce Wants to go Faster, by Dreydon Sobanja and Murray Dewhurst

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bruce_wants_to_go_fasterBruce Wants to go Faster is the latest in the Inspirational Kiwis series of children’s books – the others are Ed Climbs a Big Hill and Jean Dreams of Flying. Based on some of our most iconic kiwis, the books have underlying themes about dreams, goals, hard work, and more.

This book outlines the life of Bruce McLaren, a kiwi motor-racing star who put New Zealand on the world map, going on to become the youngest driver (aged 22) to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Bruce’s father was a keen motorcyclist and car racer, and Bruce initially dreamed of being a motorcycle racer. After developing a limp when he was 11, he was diagnosed with Perthes Syndrome and spent two years confined to bed with his legs in plaster. To overcome the boredom he organised gurney (wheeled stretcher) races around the wards at night when the nurses were off duty, and carved racing cars out of pieces of wood.

At 15, Bruce got his driver’s licence and began racing at the Auckland Car Club’s competition days. The book follows Bruce taking part in his first International GP race in Auckland in 1956 alongside superstars like Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham. A year later he and his father bought Jack’s Cooper T41 Climax racing car and that is when Bruce’s luck changed. He won his first hill climb in the car, and three races at the Levin circuit. Eventually he ended up in England where he began competing against the best. He raced in Europe, and won his first GP race in the United States when he was 22.

In the years to come, frustrated by cars he felt often let him down, Bruce decided to design his own cars. In 1964 he won the NZIGP and was working on developing the first McLaren sports cars, the M1. The following year he had a contract to develop the GT40 racing car for Ford, and in 1966, he and fellow kiwi, Chris Amon, won the Le Mans 24-hour race in that car.

The last chapter of the book delves into the themes that we can all learn from Bruce McLaren, including belief, continual improvement, dreaming, hard work, passion, patience and persistence. The pictorial timeline at the back shows the progression from Bruce’s tricycle in 1941 to the McLaren M6GT in 1968.

While the book is aimed at older readers, there’s nothing to stop a parent reading this book to their younger car-mad sons and daughters to inspire them. However, I do think it’s a book that may need to be read alongside some research into Bruce McLaren and together with someone who has a bit of a passion for the subject. A bit of judicious editing before publication wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Bruce Wants to go Faster
by Dreydon Sobanja and Murray Dewhurst
Published by Inspired Kids Ltd
ISBN 9780473360627

 

Book Review: Sacred histories in Secular New Zealand, ed. Geoffrey Troughton and Stuart Lange

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sacred_histories_in_secular_nzThis is an interesting collection of scholarly articles on the history of Christianity in New Zealand. I think it will be of interest primarily to scholars in the field, but also to those concerned about the apparent decline in religious observance and practice amongst Christians. It’s the work of lecturers and scholars in religious studies at particular universities and bible colleges in New Zealand. There is only one woman in the mix.

I detected a little bit of historical defensiveness, particularly in the chapters on Christian beginnings amongst Maori, and the one on William Pember Reeves. However that serves to make the reader think and consider the work of our major historians.

Various other chapters address the sectarian rivalry of the military chaplaincy during the First World War; the work of two novelists who wrote passionately and from a deeply-held belief in God, but whose works are now largely forgotten. The writer, Kirstine Moffat, comments at the end of her piece “We may not share …(their) beliefs…….but their refusal to settle for the status quo epitomizes and energy and a utopian striving that is admirable”. Perhaps the increasing secularisation and permissiveness of society at large is not necessarily a good thing, but that’s for each reader to decide.

Peter Lineham’s piece on the interweaving of culture and religion surround Christmas observance will be of interest to many readers, as it draws together the various practices which surround Christmas and gives their history – much of it not in the least Christian in origin!

Overall, I think this is a useful addition to work on spirituality and religion in New Zealand. It draws together essays which might not otherwise be easily available to the lay person. I would be very interested to see similar writing on the history and development of observance in other religions in New Zealand.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Sacred Histories in Secular New Zealand
ed. Geoffrey Troughton and Stuart Lange
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560950