Book Review: The Unreliable People, by Rosetta Allan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_unreliable_peopleIn 1974 in Kazakhstan, then part of the USSR, a little girl is abducted from her bed. Several days later, the girl arrives back, the abductor having suddenly changed her mind. In 1994, in St Petersburg, Antonina navigates her art studies, a new city in newly broken-up Russia, and a search for her identity.

Antonina was the girl who was abducted by the mysterious Katerina. She is of the Koryo-saram people; a group of Koreans who had immigrated to Russia in the 19th century, settling in the far east of Siberia. They have a long and complicated history that can’t be done justice in a book review; The Unreliable People does deal in some depth with the forced deportation of the entire Koryo-saram population from Siberia to Central Asia in the 1930s. Antonina knows a little about her past and the history of her people, and much of the narrative of the story is her slow uncovering of her own stories. Antonina’s character is the most developed in the story; her mother, two best friends and Katerina are all more sketch-like.

Allan’s descriptions of scenes and landscapes are evocative, and you can see the shabby streets of St Petersburg and the windswept Kazakh steppes easily in your mind’s eye. The narrative moves between time periods and locations, and towards the end also shifts in focus between main characters, which was a little jarring.  The most compelling part of the story for me was Katerina’s experiences during the deportation from Siberia to Kazakhstan, which were horrific and tragic in equal measure – a piece of history I hadn’t been aware of, and certainly nothing that enhances Stalin’s reputation. Other aspects of recent history are touched on such as the breakup of the USSR and nuclear testing.

I enjoyed The Unreliable People, although it took me a while to get the hang of 1994 St Petersburg and its art world. With themes of love, loss, identity and redemption, it has a lot going on, and will appeal to readers who like their books to have a bit of depth.

by Rachel Moore

The Unreliable People
by Rosetta Allan
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143773566

Book Review: Go Girl – A Storybook of Epic New Zealand Women, by Barbara Else

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_go_girl.jpgIn the vein of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls comes Go Girl: A Storybook of Epic New Zealand Women. It is written by well-regarded New Zealand author Barbara Else and illustrations are provided by nine New Zealand artists. This hardback edition is boldly coloured and the contemporary illustrations further enhance this attractive book. In what I hope becomes standard practice in kiwi publishing, macrons are correctly used for words written in Māori.

My daughters (aged seven and eleven) jumped on this book. They then searched the book to see if their favourite high profile women were included. Having completed that, they then searched out stories of women they were unfamiliar with.

Beatrice Tinsley was a profile that particularly resonated with the girls, I had not heard of her astrophysics achievements prior to reading this book. Hūria Mātenga, the famous rescuer of the shipwrecked boat Delaware was an amazing story of strength and bravery.

Barbara Else provides tips at the end of the book for further research on the women covered and we had a fascinating time looking up the Te Ara website for further biographical information. There is a timeline at the back of the book with each woman plotted to show when she was born. This provides a great way of ‘re-ordering’ the stories, which are provided in alphabetical order in the text.

This is a wonderful book. The writing style is clear, and reads like a bedtime story, so is very appealing. Often, the writing style will further reflect the woman portrayed – I particularly enjoyed Margaret Mahy’s profile! I loved the wide range of subjects. With nearly 50 stories, and a range of historic and contemporary women across a variety of disciplines, this is a great book for New Zealand children.

I’m sure that this book will appeal widely in New Zealand homes and schools, quickly becoming a standard resource. It makes a fantastic gift.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Go Girl – A Storybook of Epic New Zealand Women
by Barbara Else
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143771609

Book Review: Finding, by David Hill

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_findingDavid Hill has a remarkable output of fiction for young readers. This latest novel traces the history of several generations of two New Zealand families, one tangata whenua, the other Scottish immigrants.

There are eight sections to the novel, each written from the perspective of a family member of each generation. I found this a really interesting way to bring the history of this place and these people to life.

Hill builds an interesting, well-balanced and credible picture of life in New Zealand, in a country area, and is particularly effective in drawing the relationships between the families. There are shared stories which are retold and sometimes recreated in each succeeding generation.

The importance of the land on which the families live, and the river which runs through it, comes through strongly; the shared experiences – happy, sad, dangerous, amusing – help in developing a real sense of knowing the families and understanding the need for and importance of trusted friends and neighbours.

The voices in each section are authentic and the stories are full of interest, danger, excitement and a great understanding of how New Zealand has been shaped by our inhabitants.

There are things which I am sure readers will identify with – for example the axe which almost did for Duncan becomes a kind of taonga and helps to save Alan’s life; the reaction of Hahona’s family when they first hear the bagpipes, and how that reaction becomes part of the shared family histories; the interconnections of the families through marriage – all these and much more are woven into a lovely generational story.

I can see this being a great book to use as a teaching resource, but as well I think it will appeal to a wide readership.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

by David Hill
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143772392
readNZ logo red and black - final 1

Book Review: Jack and Charlie – Boys of the Bush, by Jack Marcotte

Available in bookshops nationwide.

 Jack and Charlie – Boys of the Bush, is a finalist in the Elsie Locke Award for Non-fiction, part of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

cv_jack_and_charlie_boys_of_the_bushWhen I first picked up this book I was curious to see how a whole story could centre around a couple of Kiwi boys living with their parents on the West Coast and playing in the bush. I now realise what a stupid, modern world assumption I was making. I only need to think back 50 years to my own childhood to remember the joys of the outdoors before devices took over.

Nine-year-old Jack and his seven year old brother, Charlie, live with their parents and baby brother at Ross on the West Coast. Their Dad is a bushman, their Mum a keen gardener and they delight in the world on the doorstep. The chapters lead us through their world from Camping and Rafting, Going Bush, Huntin’ and Shootin’ to fishing. They also help out in the garden, attend the local school and learn all the household tasks essential for survival: wood chopping and stacking, and cooking.

Illustrated with superb photographs, this is a tale of simple pleasures and exciting challenges. The book is written by Jack, and it is his voice we hear throughout. I worried that the large amount of text would be a challenge for younger readers, but quickly realised that the language is easy to understand and includes the vocabulary and expressions of a nine-year-old. I could see this as a great read aloud for a family but a read alone for a capable eight-year-old.

Jack takes us in to his world with a keen eye for detail. I was impressed by the lessons his parents were giving about safety and ethics.

‘We only shoot what we can eat…Dad says it’s good ethics. Having good ethics means doing the right thing all the time – even when no one is watching.’

So this is like a travel guide to the West Coast bush, with an entertaining and informative guide. The fact that Jack is nine simply means we get a better view of the ground than normal. Each chapter contains the details of the activity, photos of the setting and action and some deep philosophy from a nine-year-old.

I grew up reading David Boy of the High Country, the story of David Innes and his family in the MacKenzie basin. My own children also enjoyed this story as we had holidays in Twizel. It too had wonderful photos (black and white) and inspired us with tales of Correspondence school and farming antics.

This book deserves to become a classic for the next generation of kids living or holidaying on the West Coast. In a world dominated by the internet and technology, this is a journey to the back of beyond and to another time. I loved it.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Jack and Charlie: Boys of the Bush
by Jack Marcotte
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143574149

DWRF17: Mothers Day Brunch with Emily Writes

When I say Emily Writes’ name, I feel like I am making a statement. I know it’s a nom de plume, but nevertheless, saying it aloud makes me smile. Emily Writes. Noun and verb. Yes, she does, I think to myself. And, boy, the stuff she writes is such valuable stuff! If we want a truly functioning society for our kids and families, people everywhere should be reading what she is putting down.

Emily Writes, Photograph © Chris Tse

When I first read Emily I was impressed by her guts and sense of humour. It was the now-infamous Skarsgård piece; my actual best friend shared it with me. Years of True Blood had us already in the zone, but Emily actually put it on the page. Upon reading more of her work, I loved what she was saying about parenting and motherhood; she was the real deal.

This Mothers Day brunch was a different format for the Festival: the venue was the lovely Scenic Circle Southern Cross, and the brunch itself was a seated, semi-formal event. The food was divine – bircher muesli, white raspberry brownies and platters of melon – but the real highlight was Emily. I don’t think Emily knows how fabulous Emily is. She is the woman you meet and instantly wish was your best friend: she’s down to earth, swears like a trouper but in the most appropriate places, and battles fiercely on your behalf. Please be my best friend, Emily! I thought to myself after she opened her mouth and the gold flowed.

cv_Rants-in_the_darkHearing her speak today was just like reading her writing. Humour, honesty and absolute compassion for women and their families is what seems to drive Emily. Her opening story was an off-the-cuff description of going out the night before and drinking quite a bit of wine at dinner with Jesse Mulligan. Her self-deprecating style when sharing the shenanigans of the previous evening, and her, ahem, ‘womanly’ admiration of Mulligan had the audience pretty much crippled with laughter.

Later, and on a more serious note, Emily talked about the unreal pressures women (and women as mothers, in particular) are under, and how she hoped her writing helps address these things. She pointed out that the normalisation of taboo topics like prenatal and postnatal depression would be a really positive thing, and would mean fewer mothers were lost to families.

I think what is so attractive about Emily Writes is that she doesn’t know how amazing she is. She sees herself as a regular mum – a self-declared bogan – who is parenting children and who happens to also write. It’s this ‘normal’ vision of self that has perhaps made her so attractive to the general population in New Zealand; she’s one of us, but she’s also giving voice to us from the inside out, and it’s a voice that is usually silent. If you haven’t read her book Rants in the Dark, go out right now and get it. You’ll be so happy you did.

Attended and reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Rants in the Dark
by Emily Writes
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143770183

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

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

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

Book Review: Going Up is Easy, by Lydia Bradey, with Laurence Fearnley

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_going_up_is_easyIn this world of great achievements, it’s a real treat to read about Kiwis making a name for themselves on the world stage, against adversity and with attitude. Lydia Brady is one of New Zealand’s top mountaineers and adventurers, and the first woman to ascend Everest without oxygen. In Going Up is Easy, she tells the story of many of her great climbs including the ascent of Mt Everest, giving us a wonderful insight into the world above 8,000m.

One of Lydia’s earlier experiences is hair-raising, as she attempted the climb to Kedernath Dome in India in 1987. Exhausted after days on the mountain and in bad weather, Lydia and fellow climber Jon Muir were swept away by no less than 3 avalanches in a row. Reading how the soft whoosh surprised her and carried her away makes you fearful as you imagine yourself in that situation. Struggling to stay upright and dog paddling to keep her head above the surface, Lydia didn’t know which way was up when she was buried. The pair survived, but they knew they’d used up most of their 9 lives on that trip.

There are risks in mountaineering, but the payoffs are huge. For some people it’s the challenge they can’t find in their everyday life, and for others it’s the sport of it, the connection with the earth and life, and the views that keep them going. Lydia talks of the gap between being a strong, confident and clear-thinking mountaineer and being dead as very small. At altitude you do not always think your best or clearest, so climbing high needs both mental and physical strength, so you know when to go on and when to turn back.

The day-to-day experience is also a memorable part of the journey, not just the success of ascent. Living on what you can carry, making friends, laughing and enjoying the trip, mountaineering can be an addictive pastime. Expect the unexpected too: imagine sitting in a tent high in the mountains, crowding with your mates in a tent telling stories when you hear a ripping sound and a massive dagger-like icicle pierces the tent from a cliff above, missing someone’s head by 3cm. Lydia and the team slept with helmets on that night.


Lydia Bradey on the Minarets, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, photo by Michael Chapman-Smith from

Lydia’s ascent of Everest is a great read, she climbed up on her own and without oxygen, sticking to her plan of rest and rehydration on the way, but unable to take photos at the top because her camera had frozen – this was back in 1988. She allowed herself ten minutes at the top, viewing the various Himalayan peaks around and below her, and keeping her balance in the strong wind.

Lydia also bravely addresses the feelings she had on returning to the wider world’s disbelief that she had actually climbed Everest at all, coming from media as well as those in her own climbing group which included respected New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall. It took time to prove that she had indeed completed the ascent, but there was more than a few years of disillusionment for Lydia in between.

As one of a group of aspiring mountaineers on a beginner Snowcraft course, I was lucky enough to hear Lydia speak last year. Lydia was leading a technical climbing course based in the same Mt Ruapehu lodge and was very generous in sparing her evening to chat to us about what life was like as a professional mountain guide. Her stories were magnetic and jaw-dropping; covering danger, rescues, medical mishaps, and daring adventure.

I’m pleased to see that even more adventures are covered in Going Up is Easy. I highly recommend it as a great read for anyone, it’ll give you a good injection of inspiration, motivation and encouragement for whatever you aim to achieve.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

Going Up is Easy
by Lydia Bradey, with Laurence Fearnley
Published by Penguin Books (NZ)
ISBN 9780143573234

Book Review: In the hands of strangers…a memoir by Beverly Wardle-Jackson

Available at bookstores nationwide.cv_in_the_hands_of_strangers

This is a powerful and disturbing book, the story of a child removed from her home and family and thrown into a Child Welfare system that should have protected and nurtured her, but in fact did the opposite.

For whatever reasons, her mother found herself unable/unwilling to cope with the demands of raising Beverly and her siblings, and in what was considered a good option in those days, handed them over to Child Welfare, perhaps imagining that the children were going to live a life that would be far better than the one on offer with her.

They were not. Beverly, a pretty, intelligent girl found herself being beaten, punished for the most trivial of childish behaviour, the smallest mistakes and the simple behaviour we would now call adolescence. Nothing was unworthy of a good beating at the hands of the adults that most rational outsiders would have thought were there to look out for the children. It is very hard to imagine the mindsets of these “caregivers”, how anything in their psyche could have lead them to believe that they were doing the right thing for the children. One might simply say that at one time in NZ, children were perceived as being in need of correction to the extent that it was decided that beating, abusing them, and locking them up was the best way to go.

This book was not an easy read, but it was a very good one. Beverly tells her story with a straight up honesty and a transparency that you can’t help but be moved by. In spite of all her trauma and suffering, despite the psychiatric treatment forced upon her, Beverly has moved forward, leading a very normal and satisfying life with children and grandchildren. She is active in seeking justice for her suffering, and in making society aware of what went on in those once highly-regarded Social Welfare Homes; and the damage caused to the many thousands who passed through them. On top of their ill treatment, these children also lost their families, their identities and are still relatively voiceless to this day.

A well-written book, it adds a voice to a time and place in New Zealand history that shouldn’t simply be brushed aside. This book should be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to work with children who have come into our still-flawed welfare system; it should also be read by those working with suffers of PTSD which can be traced back to their childhood and adolescence experiences in schools and homes linked to Social Welfare Care.

I thank Penguin Random House for this book.

Reivewed by Marion Dreadon

In the hands of strangers…a memoir
by Beverly Wardle-Jackson
Published by Penguin Books (NZ)
ISBN 9780143572329

Book Review: Trinity, by Conn Iggulden

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_trinity

Conn Iggulden is a best-selling author of historical fiction, with previous works covering Ancient Rome and Mongolia, as well as the Dangerous Books for Boys series.

Trinity is the second of a trilogy of books covering the Wars of the Roses, when the English noble families were at war with each other: from the ascension of Henry VI in 1422 to the more-or-less resolution with the crowning of Henry VII in 1485. It is a fascinating and complex period of English history, with strong characters and twists and turns of fortune. The Wars of the Roses has been fertile ground for historical fiction writers, with a list of authors as long as your arm; the period might be most familiar to some New Zealanders after the broadcast of the TV series The White Queen last year, which was based on three novels by Philippa Gregory, although events in Trinity predate those in The White Queen.

Starting in 1454, the novel picks up with Henry VI ill with some sort of catatonic sickness, his French queen Margaret of Anjou trying to protect her husband and her son, and the Duke of York and his cousins the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick (the Trinity of the title) ruling the country. These are the main players, along with a fictional character, spymaster Derry Brewer.

A good historical novel needs to be thoroughly researched, and Trinity (and the first book in the trilogy, Stormbird, which I recommend you read first) most certainly are. Because the major events are generally a matter of public record, the author needs to come up with some sort of hook to keep the reader interested. Iggulden does a great job of keeping the pace moving, not getting bogged down in minutiae, and presenting multiple viewpoints. Many authors and historians present Margaret of Anjou as unsympathetic, and it is refreshing to read Iggulden’s Margaret as a woman who is motivated by protecting her husband’s birthright, rather than a power-crazed harpy. Iggulden interestingly presents Richard, Duke of York, as a loyal supporter of the King, who is pushed by his relatives and circumstance into fateful rebellion.

The only criticism that I have, is that the trade paperback review copy is lacking in family trees and also a couple of maps (these are less crucial than the family trees) which are present in my local library’s hardcopy. The family trees are essential for anyone trying to follow the tangled web of who is related to who, and how, and what the various competing claims to the throne are (these are legion). Given that the paperback has 14 blank pages at the end of the book, I cannot see why the publishers chose to leave these out –perhaps this has been rectified in future editions.

Don’t let that stop you reading the book though – the relevant family trees are easy to find online if you want them for reference, even if the hard copy versions are specifically presented to fit the characters and conflicts within the book. Trinity is a well-written, absorbing page turner, making a murky and convoluted period of British history much more accessible. Enjoyable, and highly recommended (but do read Stormbird first).

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

War of the Roses: Trinity
by Conn Iggulden
Published by Michael Joseph Ltd
ISBN 9780718159863

Book Review: Wild Westie – The Incredible Life of Bob Harvey, by Hazel Phillips

This book is available now in bookstores nationwide. 

The original Wild Westie was in fact born and raised in Newton cv_wild_westieGully in Auckland. The circumstances of his actual birth were unknown to Bob himself until 1990, when all was revealed, which was a devastating blow to him at the time. This blow came though as Harvey could only look back on a life that had been lived at full throttle, and with a panache that gave him a kind of benediction.The way he had lived his life made him the object of much love and support, but equally made him the object of derision and dislike.

Living in the Gully, where in fact my mother was raised, was hard scrabble, but filled with experiences that gave Harvey a thirst for a life that was much bigger than the average. Ambitious, driven, talented, good-looking, Bob Harvey wanted to make something of his life, of his youth, of his vision and with hard work, good luck and tenacity, he did.

Advertising, politics, entertainment, sport, surf life saving, celebrities, family…nothing was untouched and in the area of advertising in particular, Harvey really was the man. Hip and in touch, Harvey and his cohorts brought the big America ideas to quiet old New Zealand and changed everything, a pattern Harvey would use throughout his life to advance both his and his Waitakere City ambitions.

He was conversely a family man, generous, kind and very down to earth, even when he was surrounded by the rich, the famous and the somewhat notorious. Phillips has done a great job, the book is well written, therefore readable, and it’s a great little history of a time, a place and a man who sat in the centre of much that impacted long term on this part of Auckland.

This book adds much to the history of West Auckland and it documents in a very accessible way the life of one of the real builders of the modern ‘Out West’. A great read.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Wild Westie: The incredible life of Bob Harvey
by Hazel Phillips
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143569770