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

Book Review: The Boy in the Book, by Nathan Penlington

cv_the_boy_in_the_bookAvailable now in bookstores nationwide.

Do you remember those fabulously fun Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980’s? Writer and performer, Nathan Penlington does. And he adored them. So when, as an adult, he stumbles across a bulk lot of the books on eBay, he can’t resist buying them. What he discovers however is a glimpse into the life of the books’ former teenage owner, through a small diary extract left inside one of the covers. Thus begins Nathan’s obsession to find out more about that seemingly troubled teen, the meaning behind the cryptic diary entries, and the ultimate fate of Terry Prendergast.

Nathan is more than a little bit obsessive-compulsive by nature, and his completely all-consuming quest to find out more about Terry Prendergast is both entertaining and alarming. You can’t help but feel for his patient saint of girlfriend who has to live with his fanatical obsession about Terry: “It’s now 7.45am on Saturday morning [on the morning Nathan has arranged to meet with Terry] and I’ve already spent an hour trying on different outfits and following Sarah around the flat to ask what she thinks. She gave up on having a lie-in at 6.46am … While she is humouring me, I can tell that I’m close to overstepping the line. … Sarah looks up from her laptop, ‘Nathan, you look nice, smart yet casual. Clean. Exactly like the last outfit…’.”

Nathan sees something of his teenage self in the depressed, bullied previous owner of the books. In unravelling Terry’s childhood, Nathan retraces his own adolescence and revisits people and places from his past. Being much the same age as Nathan and Terry, I found this reflection on their teenage years quite poignant – and amusing; it’s not often these days that you come across a reference to Charlene from Neighbours and Sam Fox’s ‘Touch Me, I want Your Body’ on the same page. Nathan’s examination of his own awkward youth is honest and touching, and at times quite sad. He spent much of his childhood in and out of hospitals with mysterious ailments, missing school and the usual social milestones.

True to the nature of Choose Your Own Adventure books, Nathan dwells a lot on the concept of choices and the consequences of our decisions. He has long conversations with the creator of the genre, American Edward Packard, with psychologists, a graphologist, a curator of a huge diary repository project, and his extremely patient friends, and eventually concludes that:

“The person I am today is the product of all the choices I’ve made in the past. They have lead me to this exact point, all the wrong decisions and the ones that turned out to be right. … No path in life is the right path. And if you don’t like the one you’re on, choose another one.”

A wise sentiment for all of us.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Boy in the Book

by Nathan Penlington
Published by Headline Publishing Group
ISBN 9780755365692

Book Review: Awakening, by Natalie King

Available in bookstores now. 

When Zelie Taylor moves with her family to cv_awakeningNew Zealand, she has no idea how drastically her life is about to change. She is suddenly surrounded with strangers, can’t stop thinking about the charismatic Otis Hayes, and is trying to move on after the sudden death of her mother. Zelie’s first week in New Zealand has been a hectic one, but things are about to get a lot stranger…

Fragile Kate Hearn certainly doesn’t seem like a witch at first; and yet all of a sudden, she has tricked Zelie into retrieving a pendant from the icy depths of Lake Tekapo. This is no ordinary pendant, however – inside it lives the mind and soul of a seventeen-year-old boy from 19th century Europe. By the time Zelie has tried on the pendant on Kate’s orders, it is too late to go back. A spell has bound Zelie’s life to the life inside the pendant – and if she takes it off, the boy inside will die.

Several things become quite clear over the next few days; first of all, Tamas is not going to be easy to ignore. Just as confused as Zelie is, he demands news about the modern-day world, exhausting her mind as he scavenges for information. Then there’s the problem that Tamas sees everything through Zelie’s eyes, completely invading her privacy. This means never being alone at any time, and at first Zelie can’t stand it. She is desperate to get rid of the pendant – and Tamas – as soon as possible…all she needs to do is wait until he is strong enough to survive without her. But Tamas is no ordinary boy – it soon becomes obvious that he has powers even stronger than Kate’s.

Zelie is slowly drawn into this bewildering world of magic, and realises that when the time comes, Tamas will no longer need her. Will she be able to forget about the brave and witty soul that she has known for what seems like years? Or will Zelie never be safe from the magical dangers that sweep around Lake Tekapo? Only one thing is certain as Zelie tries to decide what the right thing to do is – nobody can be trusted, and nobody is safe…

Awakening by Christchurch author Natalie King is a novel for young adults that will thrill and inspire, intrigue and mystify. An addictive fantastical romance, readers will find themselves reading for hours on end as the complex relationship builds between Zelie and Tamas, and as they try to identify the true villain who is hidden in plain sight. This book is certain to become a huge hit with New Zealand teens, as it is sophisticated yet never dull. Unpredicable and filled with both relatable and eccentric characters, Awakening teaches readers that they needn’t go looking far to find their own adventure.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon

Awakening
by Natalie King
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143570790