Book Review: Ash Arising, by Mandy Hager

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ash_arisingWow! Before you pick up this book, go and read The Nature of Ash – a brilliant book which I thought was going to be a hard act to follow in keeping up the tension, suspense, thrill and adventure. Turns out I was wrong.

Mandy Hager has done it again. Ash, the reluctant key figure in a New Zealand overrun by dark and manipulative forces, responsible for his younger brother Mikey after their father was killed by those same forces, is now hiding out in Whanganui with his brother, and his friends Ziao and Travis, and his lawyer. Mikey, who has Down’s syndrome, is entirely Ash’s reponsibility and this relationship (so well drawn, and so spot on in its empathy and understanding) just adds an extra layer into the story – but one which provides a wonderful counterbalance to the horror and mayhem going on around.

The government, corrupt as can be, has yet to be overthrown by the handful of good guys who remain, and Ash becomes involved in some seriously frightening stuff. I will not tell you what, it’s just too good to spoil for anyone.

But prepare for nail-biting, uncontrollable page-turning and a determination to read on even though it’s time for bed! Trust me, you won’t be able to sleep until you finish the book.

This book is also a real celebration of brave young people – you know the ones, they think they are bullet proof (because their brains are not fully formed!) – but that’s exactly why they risk everything without second-guessing themselves. Mandy Hager reminds the older and more cynical reader that in fact change can be achieved by the young – and our job, if we still have one, is to assist them in that and refrain from saying old-fart things like ‘it will never work’ and ‘we tried that already’.

Do yourself a favour – go out and buy this book for yourself, and then buy copies for all the teenagers you know, and then lend one to all the old farts you know.  Mandy Hager, you’re amazing.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Ash Arising
by Mandy Hager
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143772439

Book Review: Apartment Living New Zealand, by Catherine Foster

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_apartment_living_new_zealand.jpgEvery weekend about now – when weeds are unfurling and the grass is clearly in need of a trim – my partner and I look at each other and sigh. ‘We’re really apartment people,’ we say wistfully. Having spent time in apartments in Auckland, Wellington, London, Paris, Rome, New York, San Francisco and Melbourne, the lure of the apartment lifestyle is strong.

Author Catherine Foster begins with a brief description of the history of apartments in New Zealand and the changing cultural norms and attitudes towards apartment living. She notes that a lack of affordable land has seen rapid growth in the attraction of apartment ownership, which offers both convenience and quality of life. Significant increases in property prices, geographical restrictions and post-quake upheaval have all contributed to this growth.

Phoebe Gibbons lives with her partner in an inner-city Auckland apartment. She sums up the appeal of apartment living, sentiments that are shared by other apartment owners: ‘We have the city on our doorstep, a park across the road, and our jobs within walking distance. We can’t imagine a different lifestyle.’

Proximity to a city means that many owners walk from A to B, although almost all apartments covered in this book have their own parking space. In fact, one apartment includes parking for up to eight cars.

Foster and a team of photographers cover 20 diverse apartments, grouped by style: classic, contemporary and converted (typically from commercial to residential use). Some were constructed recently, others have been inhabited for close to a century. Auckland apartments feature prominently: 14 of the 20 apartments covered are in Auckland. Three are in Wellington, with one each in Lyttleton, Dunedin and Tauranga. I would have been interested to know Foster’s criteria for selecting the featured apartments and I’m grateful to the owners for sharing their homes.

Beautiful photographs of each apartment are counter-balanced with plenty of white space and interesting text. Each entry includes brief information about the apartment’s owner/s and their motivation for apartment living, followed by the property’s history and key design features. Architectural sketches offer a bird’s-eye view of floor plans, alongside information about the size (in square metres), the stud height, and the year constructed or renovated. Stud heights range from the traditional to a soaring 7m high cathedral ceiling.

Foster outlines the challenges architects face working with the demands of the Building Code, zoning restrictions and resource constraints, especially when renovating a heritage building. Patience is key during what some describe as ‘combative’ and ‘onerous’ processes. During renovations there’s a need to balance respect for the integrity of an original historic building with practical requirements for modern-day fixtures and plentiful storage. In some cases original fittings are still in use, such as the stunning bronze and glass lights in Wellington’s former Dental Clinic building.

Wellington_at_dawn

Panorama of Wellington at dawn, from Wikimedia Commons. 

There are many clever and sometimes surprising features, including a firefighter’s pole offering a quick descent as an alternative to an adjacent staircase, and self-contained pod bedrooms that can be easily reconfigured by future owners for commercial rather than residential use. In a Parnell apartment, enormously tall laser-cut aluminium screens double as folding shutters, providing both privacy and light control. And I’ve never seen anything else quite like the invisibly supported table suspended blade-like from one apartment’s kitchen wall.

Foster explains how both light and colour are used to best advantage, such as the bands of coloured glass brightening an exterior wall. Paint is also used to good effect: pastel shades to maximize space, blackboard paint on a kitchen wall to increase visual depth, and the 26 different shades of white in an apartment that serves as both home and office.

I appreciated the additional details Foster provides about artworks and other objects on display, such as sculptures and hand-blown glass vessels. An apartment owned by major patrons of the arts was constructed to showcase an extensive and eclectic collection that includes works by Warhol, Walters, McCahon, Upritchard, Killeen and others.

The combination of forward-thinking architects and open-minded clients results in clever design elements, such as the digital clock-tower in a Wellington apartment complex. Floor-to-ceiling cupboards offer not only spacious storage, but also help to reduce noise levels. In one apartment there’s a television hidden behind a mirror. In another, a mirrored splashback makes a small kitchen space appear deeper and reflects a bowl of juicy citrus fruit.

The apartments have diverse outlooks, including urban environments, ports and oceans, cityscapes, the Waitakere Ranges, and even the outer oval in the grounds of Eden Park.

There’s beauty in the writing too – ‘light washing down [that] creates a pattern of intersecting shadows; ‘the delicacy of a glazed atrium’; ‘bedrooms…quiet in both mood and decoration’; the ‘views of the Waitemata Harbour across the tumbling roofs of nearby houses’.

The final chapter outlines a pragmatic list for potential apartment owners to consider – safety, for example, as well as the need to look carefully at body corporate records. (Are there disputes between neighbours? What is the maintenance schedule? What are the annual fees?) The emotional implications are also teased out – for example, are pets allowed? Are occupiers allowed to make their own mark by changing the internal layout? A checklist and design prompts help to ensure that prospective purchasers know what to look for (including the direction of sunlight and prevailing winds), and what to avoid. A glossary lists real estate, architectural and legal terms as currently used and understood in New Zealand. A design directory lists most – but not all – of the architects and designers whose work appears in the book. Additional references include books, articles and websites dedicated to apartment living.

As an inveterate open-homer, I savoured every page of this elegant book. It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite apartment – given a choice, I would spend a month in each. Until then I shall tackle the weeds and mow the lawn and dream of one day waking up in an apartment of my very own.

by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Apartment Living New Zealand
by Catherine Foster
Publisher: Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143770510

Book Review: Heloise, by Mandy Hager

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_heloise.jpgThis is a big book. Not big in size at a reasonable 381 pages, but big in scope and ideas. It’s a book that you want to take time and care with, so that you can appreciate it as it deserves.

Lots of people may know the names of Heloise and Abelard, even if like me, they don’t really know the details. Abelard was widely celebrated as one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century; Heloise was among the most lauded of his students, made more notable because of her gender in a time when women were most definitely meant to be barely seen and certainly not heard.

Mandy Hager tells the story from Heloise’s perspective, filling in the historical gaps with seamless narrative. She starts with Heloise’s childhood, about which next to nothing is known, and traces her life through to her teenage years and adulthood, and her fateful meeting with Peter Abelard. The story is well paced and rich, with excerpts from Abelard and Heloise’s own writing, and many references to other great thinkers including Ovid, Seneca, Aristotle and Socrates. With a lot of the story taking place within a religious setting, Sts Augustine and Jerome also get regular look-ins. The content is quite dense – not in a negative way, but in the way that a lets you know you’re reading a book that’s been really well thought-through, researched and edited.

A reader with modern sensibilities will rage against the unfairness with which Heloise is treated, where even Abelard, who professes to love and respect her, treats her as a chattel without feelings and ambition of her own. Abelard eventually comes across as a fairly unsympathetic character, even though Heloise’s love and forgiveness of his behaviour wins out time and again. I found myself snarling at some of the male characters in the story quite regularly … the perils of being a modern reader of historical fiction, I suppose!

Heloise reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, dealing in depth as it does with a historical figure who has name recognition, even if the reader doesn’t know much more. It’s substantial in the same way, and immerses you in a world that may be 800 years gone, but still echoes now in the 21st century. It’s not a light holiday read, but perfect for when you have time and space to read something substantial. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Heloise
by Mandy Hager
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143770992

Book Review: Maui and other Maori Legends: 8 Classic Tales of Aotearoa, by Peter Gossage

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_maui_and_other_maori_legendsThis bind-up collects eight classic Maori myths, the original picture books of which form some of my most visual memories from when I was a child. Six of the books that are reproduced here were published between 1975 and 1985, with the others from the early 2000’s. I remember clearly, sitting on the floor of the library at St Brigid’s Primary School, poring over these potent celebrations of Maori mythology, spellbound by the swirling style of the art within.

The first six of these stories are based on the mythology of Maui, arguably our most famous cultural ancestor. Many wonderful authors and illustrators have ensured our Maori mythology has endured, but Gossage’s bold, colourful art is the real joy of this collection, while his lyrical tellings are a pleasure to read aloud.

But Maui was still alive!
The wave children of Tangaroa and Hine-moana bore him on their backs.
The clouds shielded him from the fierce sun,
and Tawhiri the wind cooled him.

This collection is published beautifully by Penguin, and the handy bookmark ribbon has been a source of entertainment to my son Dan, who has happily started reading it to himself, making sure to keep his place with the ribbon provided.

My family is Pakeha, and my children’s main access to Maori myth is in essential books like this. It is a joy to re-read these old favourites and share them with my children. Please make sure you have this book in your library; it is still relevant and important.

Maui and other Maori Legends: 8 Classic Tales of Aotearoa
by Peter Gossage
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143309291

Book Review: Reach, by Laurence Fearnley

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

I was delighted to receive this book for review, as I had notcv_reach_fearnley read anything by Laurence Fearnley except other reviews of previous books! And while I had intended catching up, I had not yet managed that.

That has changed, or more precisely reading Reach has made me head off to the shelves to get hold of her earlier books.

The title, no pun intended, has far-reaching implications. Chambers Dictionary gives some of the definitions of the verb reach as: to stretch forth; hold out; to succeed in touching or getting; to communicate with; to arrive at; and some of the definitions of the noun form include: the act of reaching; a stretch or portion between defined limits.

All of these can be found encapsulated in this very clever and readable novel. The three central characters Quinn, Marcus and Callum are linked at first tenuously but finally inextricably,as their lives are connected by various events.

Quinn at first seems the most complex character, but all three have flaws and strengths peculiar to themselves.

Fearnley explores the various ways in which we reach, or can be reached by, others; how we interact, how personal space is important to everyone, how very singular individuals can be brought together – and indeed pushed apart. She does this by using the form of a countdown – Quinn, an artist, is preparing for a new exhibition, and the challenges which she faces in her work, her relationship with Marcus, and her friendship with Callum are all explored in depth, with great insight into the complexity of human relationships, the challenges faced and the decisions which must be made.

When I finished reading, I thought about the book a lot. At first I thought that there was very little dialogue, and that much of the text was around the unspoken thoughts of the characters. But then I realised that was not the case – there’s plenty of dialogue, and it’s powerful. However the real insights seem to come through in the way Laurence Fearnley writes about the mind.

I think this is a really good book. It’s well-written, intelligent, complex and creative. I’ll even read it again, which is unusual for me. And now I’m off to start The Hut Builder. I can’t wait to see what it’s like.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Reach
by Laurence Fearnley
Published by Penguin, 2014
ISBN 9780143571728

Book Review: Bread by Dean Brettschneider

cv_bread

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Reviewing this book has involved a journey familiar to those witnessing my food experiments. I’ve been through seven kilogrammes of flour, the new family pet is my sourdough starter and I sat in a restaurant anxiously clock-watching as I was concerned that my Walnut Crown Bread was over-proving. I’ve tracked down diastatic malt flour, and in the process have met Lower Hutt’s most famous sourdough bread baker and took into my possession one of his bannetons. It has been quite a journey.

Dean Brettschneider, also known as the ‘Global Baker’ is well known to New Zealanders through his recipe books and stint as judge on New Zealand’s Hottest Home Baker. His bread making and bakery skills are tremendously impressive, with over twenty five years working in baking. His latest book, simply titled Bread provides technical background on the entire process (including a QR code to watch a video on bread making techniques). And then there are the recipes, beautiful, precise recipes. Each recipe is accompanied by photos – with some very beautifully moody shots of the various breads, as well as lots of photos to aid with correct technique.

If you have never baked a loaf of bread before then you will certainly learn everything that you need to know to make bread successfully. However, you do need to be prepared to invest time in making these recipes. There is a chapter on fast breads, and I was very pleased with the Cranberry and Orange Twisted Loaf (pictured below). While it does suggest preparing the filling the day prior to baking, it only took me 45 minutes from start to finish.

twists_for_breadCreating your own sourdough starter is required for a few of the recipes which means that you have, at minimum, two weeks of work before you can start baking. It can also feel at times like a truly wasteful process as you create (and then dump large portions) of starter. The starter needs frequent attention and feeding. I’ve tried making sourdough bread before, and my personal blog documents many grumpy encounters with the process in the past. But none of those starters was as effective as this one. I think that the use of precise measurements help – you do need a digital set of scales to make many of these recipes. I have tried to assuage my guilt at the vast volumes of thrown out starter by setting aside portions of the final starter in the fridge to pass on to good homes!

The fine layer of flour dust that seems to have permanently settled in my kitchen was redeemed by the making of Walnut Crown Bread. My sourdough starter worked as it should and I was able to use the last of my beautiful local walnuts purchased in a school fundraiser. The diastatic malt flour (you can purchase this on Trademe, the type sold in brew stores is often the wrong type) really does make a difference to the final result – my bread was a beautiful dark caramel and smelt amazing. As I type, the leftover bread is being turned into crostini in the oven (a tip from Dean in the book).

walnut_crownYou do need to plan when making the sourdough breads, and Dean provides very helpful suggested timetables, as well as precise times and descriptions of the proving process so you can ensure that your bread is developing properly. I feel that I should mention that you can often buy sourdough starters online or in organic food stores. You may even be able to persuade a bakery to part with some. It would save a lot of time. A lot.

This is a really special book, I want to cook so many of the breads for so many different reasons. I’m waiting for the perfect occasion to cook a Brie & Caramelised Garlic Pain Miche (a large wheel of brie cooked inside a loaf of sourdough bread and topped with caramelised garlic). Dean’s Kiwi heritage is well represented with Raspberry-Iced Cream Finger Buns, Boston Buns (Sally Luns) and Jason’s Hundreds & Thousands Iced Buns. There is a section on celebration breads and my oldest daughter has strongly encouraged me to make the Cinnamon Donut Balls. The Beetroot and Thyme Baguettes would be amazing in a picnic with some top quality sausages and salad.

I have a large collection of cookbooks. Bread is already covered in flour and well-thumbed through. My knowledge of bread making has increased exponentially in the last three weeks and I feel like I have joined a secret club of those who have the knowledge to create amazing bread. It has been quite a journey.

Written by Emma Wong-Ming

Bread
by Dean Brettschneider 
Published by Penguin NZ 
ISBN 9780143571117

Book Review: The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall

The Bright Side of my Condition is a finalist in the Fiction category of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards.cv_the_bright_side_of_my_condition

“Maybe next time I get it right.  Forget special.  Next time I come back as a whalefish breathing steady in the lovely deeps.”  So speaks Bloodworth, convict-narrator of Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of my Condition.  And Randall indeed seems to be grappling with just that − what is the point of our brief human lives?  When we eventually shuffle off this mortal coil, should we be remembered for, or remember ourselves as ‘special’, or should our successes instead be measured by the twin metric of beauty and enjoyment?  As Bloodworth muses, the penguins know:

… their useless stumpy wings that don’t fly, their duck feet that don’t walk, their bodies jes a starchy morning suit, but look how they contrive to free their selfs from their limits and enjoy their lives.

Look how they grin, he says.

Randall writes her first person narrative as the man of the time would speak.  The opening sections bloom with ‘I dint say a word’ and ‘I’m Bloodworth.  It aint a name I ever heared of before it were thrust upon me.’  This jars, to begin with.  But as the story progresses, it quickly becomes a an obviously strong narrative voice.  Bloodworth is hard to like, but he must have grown on me − the surreal change of form at the end of the book left me caring for his fate, and I was surprised by this.  He is not really a likeable character, but is richly imagined.  More importantly, his experience is an allegorical tale that explores issues of existentialism, freedom and choice. “And yer have to ask,” says Bloodworth, “… what even were I brung here for?  Jes to walk alone across these cliffs?”

the_snares

The Snares islands

In three parts, the novel addresses ‘The Early Years’, ‘The Middle Years’, and ‘Eternity’ of the experiences of four convicts who escaped from Norfolk Island onto a sealing ship. The ship did not have enough food to feed the crew and the convicts, and so they were discharged onto one of The Snares, a group of subantarctic islands 200 kilometres from the South Island of New Zealand. The collective area of these islands equate to 3.5 kilometres squared. If it sounds foreboding and harsh, it is. The experiences of the four men are of the environment, each other and the self, for that is all there really is. Seals are murdered for their skins, and these skins hid away and counted as a measure of time passing. Interactions between Bloodworth, Gargantua, Toper and Slangam are brutal and bitchy. Imagine being stuck on an inhospitable island with three other law-breakers; a sack of potatoes, rice and rum the only provisions; the promise of rescue at least a year away. There is little to hope for except rescue. At least in a prison, your sentence, you would presume, would end. Here, on the island, the reader already knows that rescue is actually a decade away. And then what?

Gargantua believes he will be delivered as a hero to the literary circles of England, and that the story he has to tell of the experience will define him as ‘special’. Toper seems a bit stupid − his religion and natural inclination to follow rather than lead make him a prime candidate for manipulation. Slangam sees himself as boss, and so it is. Bloodworth eventually sours of interaction and heads out alone to a cave, rejecting company for penguin and albatross watching, and internal philosophising. ‘The Early Years’ and ‘The Middle Years’ follow these internal and external journeys.

Wandering Albatross Kaikoura 19 Nov 12_990

Copyright Stephen Burch Kaikoura Pelagic, New Zealand, 19 November 2012 EOS 7D & 400mmf4DO. 1/5000 sec f5.6 ISO 800

It is in ‘Eternity’ that things dramatically diverge. We still have our narrator, but his situation changes. This is the smallest section of the book − 30 pages − but the most interesting as far as form goes. Randall has talked about how the ideas in this part of the story actually prompted her writing The Bright Side of my Condition. Things end as they start – the bickering and bitching continues – and the questioning of self and others goes on.

And what of Bloodworth? He continues to grapple with the exquisite pain of living. At one point he asks: “But were there more of a plan for me? … Were I made special for a special life?” Randall’s response comes through words that swell from Bloodworth’s pre-convict life: “Living do the making.” We are as we choose to live, so choose to live wisely.

by Lara Liesbeth

The Bright Side of My Condition
by Charlotte Randall
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143570660