Book Review: The March of the Foxgloves, by Karyn Hay

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_march_of_the_foxglovesThe March of the Foxgloves is a carefully crafted work set in the late 1800’s, mostly in New Zealand but also with some key scenes ‘back home’ in England, following protagonist Frances Woodward. We follow Frances’ footsteps as she escapes a restrictive and troubled existence for the chance to start afresh in the antipodes. Frances is a keen and technically savvy photographer – an enjoyable aspect of this text – and Hay has satisfyingly researched and written an authentic artistic voice with the internal dialogue and third person understandings of Frances’ art.

Karyn Hay has an excellent ear for dialogue. Her characters’ interactions are clear, crisp and believable. When main character Frances talks to the children of her hosts at Dunleary in Tauranga, Hay creates convincing and sometimes madly humorous conversations. She obviously has children of her own and one can assume that she has partaken in many such maddening back-and-forths. After taking a photograph, agreed on by both adult and child, one interaction goes like this:

“What shall we call it?”
“What shall we call what?”
“The photograph.”
“What photograph?”
“The photograph I’ve just taken.”
“Can I see it?” Tussie asked eagerly, running towards her.

This Monty Python-esque exchange between the Frances and Tussie suggests that maddening conversations with the young are not, at least in Hay’s mind, restricted to the 21st Century. In fact, the dialogue presented around the children is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Hay’s novel.

A lot of the book moves at slow pace. The plot seems incidental to the finely crafted characterisations and moments – almost vignettes – which are accurately and deliberately described. Minor character Wolf’s descent into the opium den (‘ … behind their eyelids all vision was purely chimerical.’) and Marshall Harding’s feelings for love-sick hostess Hope and his fiancee Callista (‘Her aperture was more compelling than a plate of mutton stew to a sailor.’) are well-crafted moments, but the rhythm of these anecdotes moves the story with unusual rhythm. By the end of the book, though, I hardly cared: the final sections make up in pace and structure for the slow build, as Frances becomes a true heroine and seemingly random moments are shown to be anything but trivial.

There is no doubt that Karyn Hay can write very well. I’m looking forward to seeing what she puts her finely-honed ear to next.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

The March of the Foxgloves
by Karyn Hay
Published by Esom House Press
ISBN 9780473365820

Book Review: The Last Time We Spoke, by Fiona Sussman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_last_time_we_spokeTwo boys, born two years apart in Auckland. One, Jack Reid, born to white middle class parents, Carla and Keith, teacher and farmer respectively. A much longed-for only child, born when his parents had long given up hope of ever becoming parents. Now 18 years old, Jack works in a bank in the city, has a girlfriend and has come home for the night to help his parents celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary, plus to break the dreaded news that he doesn’t want to be a farmer like his dad.

Not too far away geographically, but very far away in every other respect, lives Ben Toroa, 16 years old, survivor of an abortion attempt, living in poverty and chaos with his younger siblings, under the care of his mother who is a punching bag for her latest partner. Unlike Jack, for Ben there is no hope, little education or skill set for adult life, no order or structure, no love. Belonging to a gang, and proving yourself to that gang are the major sources of self-esteem, belonging and making it in this world.

It is on the night of Carla and Keith’s wedding anniversary dinner that these two widely opposing worlds collide in the most brutal of circumstances, leaving one person dead, and another who may as well be. Carla is faced with her world, everything she has known, loved, and given herself to completely destroyed; Ben is facing a life in prison. What follows unfolds over eight or nine years, as both Carla and Ben deal with the enormous fall out of this arbitrary act of violence. The process, as you can imagine, is fraught. For both of them.

Carla is overwhelmed by grief, anger, hopelessness, fear, loss. Ben, only 16 we must remember, is also overwhelmed by the violence in his prison world, the impact on his mental health, the hopelessness of his situation. The one thing, however, deep inside his memory that might, just might offer the slenderest of hopes for him, is that he does remember a mother who once loved him, when he was very small, before the endless cycle of pregnancy, poverty and punching bag took over.

And yet, in small baby steps, some forward and some back, both Carla and Ben rediscover life, a purpose for living, make connections, and begin to find a way forward. One would think this would be easier for Carla living outside the physical confines of a prison, but it is actually Ben who grows the most, finding within the close confines of the prison system the basic human needs of love, respect and in turn self respect that enable him to create a life of value and meaning.

This novel has been some years in the making. A number of rural home invasions in New Zealand in the 1990s were the catalyst for Fiona Sussman’s immersion into the violent world of youth offending, gang initiations, prison life, childhoods of deprivation, violence and dysfunction. She spent time visiting prisons, meeting with prisoners, speaking with police, victim impact organisations, It must have been very confronting for her to spend time in the underbelly of our society, an underbelly that the vast majority of us do not want to know about or ever had any exposure to. It is easy for most of those who read this novel to identify with Carla and her grief, but not so easy to begin to have any understanding of the world that Ben comes from.

Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff was very confrontational for many people, lifting a veil from what most of us either chose not to see, or simply did not think existed. This novel takes us deeper into the violent and despairing life of many Maori in this country, essentially a result of colonisation by the British in the 1800s, forfeiture of land, and breakdown of traditional mores, cultural and family bonds. It is not a novel written in anger, but there is a certain despair and powerlessness that has allowed such a deprived strata of society to develop. Fiona Sussman digs deep into the essence of the wounded and damaged themselves, in this case Carla and Ben. Time may not heal, but it certainly dulls and softens the pain, suffering and despair, our natural healing processes allowing for hope and optimism to enter and begin to work their magic.

This really is a remarkable book, I cannot praise it enough. It touched something deep inside me. As a 6th generation New Zealander, who has had a very comfortable and easy ride in this country, I am ashamed that at the same time my predecessors have done well in this country, there are many who have not. The author is a new citizen of this country, and yet she has such insight and compassion into such a big issue. New Zealand is of course not the only British colony to have its indigenous population decimated, the author’s own country of South Africa with its more turbulent and disturbing history. But New Zealand is her country now too, and she has done what good writers do – educate and inform, open our eyes, show us a different way of looking at things and ourselves. Transport us. Read this, be humbled and see how we can all make a difference.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Last Time We Spoke
by Fiona Sussman
Published by Allison & Busby
ISBN 9780749020262

Book Review: Billy Bird, by Emma Neale

“…If sex can accidentally make something as wild, complex, erratic, dogged, miraculous, sensitive, vulnerable, solid, unaware, bizarre, intractable, awful and joyful as a human child, why, in a specific instance, couldn’t it be said to help make love?”

cv_billy_birdThis is the voice of somebody who understands children, and parenthood. Billy Bird is a magnificent book. It’s sad, and happy, and funny, and brutal – and paradigm-breaking. As you will already know if you have read the blurb, or indeed the title: Billy is becoming a bird. He doesn’t want to be a bird, he is starting to behave as one would, for hours sometimes. This story is about how a family operates emotionally – and how important communication is when it is time to heal.

This is the point where I wonder – how much of a spoiler is it to say somebody significant dies? I think I can say that, and possibly that that somebody is a child. Because I get a bit sensitive around the death of a child, so if this is something you do not like to read about, here is your warning. But yet. Even if you do, and it triggers, this book may be the book that starts your healing. So don’t be shy of it. I will go just one step further and say: this is not a murder mystery. But you could probably tell that from the marked lack of black and red on the cover.

So this happens, and nothing changes. Well, not quite. Everything changes. But it takes awhile for their emotional power to be understood by our protagonists, who as we start driving towards the solution, are Billy, aged 8 or so, and his mum Iris and dad Liam. Iris’s voice: “Maybe…death had turned up her sensitivity to these things: The daily news-alarms of storms, acidic seas, dwindling species, drought, energy wars, religious wars, civil wars, avenging blood with blood, as if that ever brought the dead back…This sense of the world on the precipice…was it worse than it had ever been, or was she losing her own equilibrium?”

After events in the novel come to a head, the family finds a safe space to talk, with a Psychologist and her nurse. Billy is wondering about his dad “…if he’d be like that when he was a man. Did he have to be? What if you didn’t want to be like your mum or your dad? Was there some third person he could be?” The space created by his mum and dad’s non-communication fills with a pile of worries, big and small; and a lot of bird-feelings for Billy.

I’ve used a lot of quotes in this review, because there were so many times when I thought ‘Exactly!’ and ‘man how can I explain what this writing does to you.’ Writing this wonderful is unusual and rare, though it sometimes happens when poets turn to prose. There are sections of the novel in verse – the initial sex scene, ingeniously –and this adds an otherworldly brilliance to the writing.

I know of Emma Neale as an excellent editor: now I am going to go back and read everything else Emma Neale has written. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Like all truly good books, it fills you with empathy, and a sense of joy in words and in life. I hope this makes it onto the longlist for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

Book Review: The Quiet Spectacular, by Laurence Fearnley

Available from Monday 27 June in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_quiet_spectacularThe lives of three females come together in a small hut in a wetland reserve. They each bring their struggles, their quirks and their sense of longing for change. But this is not a novel of angst and pain. Instead it is a celebration of the possibilities all women carry deep inside. Loretta, the librarian, who wants to celebrate the women of the world who have achieved so much, allows us to glimpse the spectacular in life. Chance, a schoolgirl, who was accidentally named Porsche, has to establish herself as a person separate from her literary Mum, and Riva, the woman who came back to New Zealand to create and nurture a wetland area.

You know you are reading a good book when you find that the author seems to be inside your own head, and knows your secret thoughts. While the story itself twists and turns between the main characters, it is the inner thoughts which are so clearly expressed that resonate with me. Men do feature but they are like footnotes, and it is the strength of the women which gives energy to the story. There is a strong storyline and purpose in the telling, as each character has to resolve their own problems. The writing is beautiful and captures the place as well as the emotions in this corner of the South Island.

Laurence Fearnley continues to write about the struggles we have to be ourselves in a world which wants us to conform. The Hut Builder (2011) did this so well, and she has continued to explore such relationships in The Quiet Spectacular. The title, the cover and the chapter illustrations add an extra layer of beauty to the story with detailed plant sketches. Truly spectacular.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Quiet Spectacular
by Laurence Fearnley
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143574156

Book Review: The Harmonica, by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burden

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_harmonicaWhen Carlos finds Uncle Jack’s harmonica ‘in a dusty old box tucked back against the wall shadow’ of the attic, he knows he has found a very special thing indeed. His mother has told him about the music Uncle Jack used to play with it, and it seems the harmonica is waiting to be played: ‘He heard the music, barely a sigh but it filled the attic with a promise.’

Carlos begins to teach himself how to play using the sounds of nature as his guide. He starts off quietly at night in his bed and slowly learns the song of the moon, the storm and the wind and rain. Keeping the harmonica a secret for now, he draws more inspiration from the grasses and crickets ‘he sat up and added the sway of the trees’ until one day he is ready to share his secret with his mum. She is delighted to see the harmonica and says she wishes he had been able to get to know his Uncle Jack; to which Carlos replies that he has met him in the music – a beautiful and poignant message. The story comes full circle as he plays his harmonica to the hills beyond, just as Uncle Jack did.

Set in New Zealand’s rural landscape and featuring a boy and his faithful puppy, Andrew Burden’s natural and almost dreamlike illustrations work perfectly with Dawn McMillan’s gentle lyrical prose. Carlos’s connections to nature and his Uncle are reinforced through the harmonica, as Carlos breathes life into it, so too does he bring Uncle Jack’s memory to life. The music imagery is presented so well in the text and illustrations that you can almost hear the harmonica playing.

The subject matter of a soldier who has been killed in service is a serious and important one to tackle for a children’s picture book, and The Harmonica has handled it respectfully and sensitively at a level that is appropriate for young children. Uncle Jack’s death is implied without the need for detail that could be unsettling. While we can guess at where he was serving, more important is the scene showing Uncle Jack sharing his music with his troop; this moment of bonding and closeness is surely what the ANZAC spirit embodies.

The Harmonica will be a welcome addition to school resources, linking history to current day for ANZAC learning. Dawn and Andrew have created a moving modern day ANZAC story which gently reminds us all that our service men and women continue to do their duty and serve our country. And that not all of them come home.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Harmonica
By Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burden
Scholastic NZ, 2016
ISBN: 9781775433446

Book Review: Bloodtree Chronicles: Bragonsthyme, by Elizabeth Pulford

cv_bragonsthymeLike its predecessor, Sanspell, Bragonsthyme is a beautiful book. The cover, hauntingly illustrated by the talented Donovan Bixley, evokes the icy feel and darkness that you will find wrapped within its pages. The prose, too, is equally evocative, rich with imagery. Even the first sentence is mesmerising: “The faint sound of a bell floated beneath the falling snowflakes. Like a whisper it was there.” This delicious use of language continues throughout the pages, taking the reader with Abigail on her journey into the worlds of the Bloodtree.

For Abigail, the events of Sanspell have faded into memories, but it is time for her to make a return to the Silvering Kingdom. Guided once more by her mysterious aunts, she must once more become Spindale, as she is thrust into another thrilling adventure, seeking to restore the happy endings to the stories of fable. This time, she goes into Bragonsthyme, a city frozen in time, or to be precise, frozen by Thyme – the ice dragon of legend. His story began, or perhaps ended, with a dark heart and a broken promise.

But Spindale is not the only one with a special mission – Flint is on a quest of his own, a quest to find the father he never knew. A quest that will take him, accompanied by the prickly Bramble, into the heart of the frozen city. Unbeknownst to all, their tales are bound to intertwine, uncovering a long-lost mystery and a secret that will alter the shape of the world as they know it. But success will not be easy, for power-greedy Zezmena, and her deadly father, Rackenard, have reasons of their own for hunting the children.

Fun, charming and fast-paced, Bragonsthyme continues what Sanspell started – a sophisticated and enjoyable tale for the 9-12 age range. It should appeal to both boys and girls.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Bragonsthyme
by Elizabeth Pulford
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775432869

Book Review: For someone I love, by Arapera Blank

cv_for_someone_i_loveAvailable in selected bookshops.

Spanning over 40 years of writing, of history and culture, of love and life, For someone I love moves in phases, shifting through its sections. The poetry begins with the title poem, a collection of love poetry flowing forth beautifully on the page, complimented by the photography of Pius Blank, to whom most of these poems are addressed to or about. The pictures of the two in wedding clothes set the tone for the written words, but slowly this shifts. The photography becomes more focused on places, and the poetry moves along with it. The romantic love becomes more subtle, and instead we are confronted with feminism and the issues surrounding Māori culture.

The central concern in the longer pieces is that of the Māori way of life as their culture and people were becoming more and more ingrained in European society. The shift to the cities, the European schooling and religion influencing the younger generations as well as the older. The writing is reflexive, asking about the meaning of Māoritanga (‘Yielding to the new’), the integration of Māori children into Pakeha schools and the possible loss of culture and language that comes with this, and the influence of Christian values on Māori culture (‘Innocence of sin’ and ‘Ahakoa he aha’). The informal style of the prose, short sentences, realistic speech, the mixing of Māori and English, all lend themselves to creating a believable depiction of this transitional time for Māori. The characters range from a child starting his first day at school to a girl leaving home for the first time to move to the city, and the range represented here, from childhood to young adulthood, paints a picture of a generation dealing with these changes.

Arapera’s essays deal with the same issues that are dealt with in her prose fiction, mainly those of the Maori culture and its confrontation with the dominant Pakeha world. But here we see a framing through the lens of feminism, and the question of the place of not only Māori, but Māori women, is explored in detail. Motherhood and the upbringing of children in the split world of the 1960’s and 70’s is challenged. This reflexive and critical analyses of both Māori and Pakeha culture and integration is still relevant today, many issues having been lessened, but not necessarily solved. These pieces, written in the 1970’s and 80’s, contain thoughts and ideas that are useful in developing our own understanding of both our society as it was in the past, and what problems and issues we face today in continuing the change that was wrought during Arapera’s time.

For someone I love collects together the writing of a New Zealander whose thoughts are centred on the Kiwi way of life, and especially on the relationship between Māori and Pakeha. Her own relationship with Pius is a romanticized ideal of this, shown through her poetry. But the issues she tackles in her prose and her essays are important for a New Zealand public, as they help us to confront the past, and think about how we deal with the present, and the future.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

For someone I love
by Arapera Blank
Published by Anton Blank
ISBN 9780473299187