Book Review: The Christmas Tree Tangle, by Margaret Mahy

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

Icv_the_christmas_tree_tangle am sadly just a decade too old to have actually grown up with this book, but I wish I had! Mahy is fabulous fun in this tale of a hapless kitten stuck up a Christmas Tree.

It has all the elements we know and love Mahy for: flawless rhyme, rhythm and cadence, a solid story in several acts, and a wicked sense of fun. And the word ‘horrakapotchkin’ – probably my favourite of all the coined words Mahy uses.

The feel of this as you read it is similar to singing the 12 days of Christmas, or I know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly. First cat, then dog, then goat, then pigs ascend the tree, and as the story builds we have a couplet given to each: The cat splits the night with a woeful wail, the dog barks in the Christmas night, the goat teeters, entreating, while the kitting clings with her claws to the Christmas star.

Spoiler alert – none of these animals are quite as good at climbing as the kitten… but they do make extremely good stepping stones!

Sarah Davis’s illustrations are playful and wild, matching the tone of the book perfectly. The things that befall the animals are hilarious – the cat’s tail gets caught in the teeth of a nutcracker ornament, while the dog is tangled in some pretty strong beads. And the manner in which the child at the end ascends the tree is perfect – using a collection of Christmas-themed helium balloons. (Check out Sarah Davis’s article on The Sapling about her attempts at illustrating the kitten!)

Buy and read this with your children this Christmas (if you can find a copy!): our copy is going under the tree as a Christmas Eve read.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Christmas Tree Tangle
by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Sarah Davis
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 97801437709800


Love Letter to University Book Shop, Dunedin from Eileen Merriman


Go into your local bookshop & write a love letter, and be in to win $500 in Book Tokens! 

Dear UBS Dunedin

We first made our acquaintance in 1993, when I arrived as a student. Dunedin was smaller than Wellington, older and colder, yet full of possibilities. You were upstairs-and-downstairs then, although I can’t remember what was upstairs, only that you smelt like damp wood. I’d pore over the medical textbooks, dreaming of a place in medical school (I was one of 999 students vying for 160 places, mere plankton in a limitless ocean).

When I was sick of studying (the Krebs cycle, meiosis and mitosis, the anatomy of dogfish), I’d drift into the fiction section.  There, I was transported by Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), enraptured by A S Byatt (Possession), and intoxicated by Donna Tartt (The Secret History).


I didn’t get my place in medical school, not that time. I returned to Dunedin in 1994, and bought textbooks for my Medical Laboratory Science degree – Haematology, Biochemistry, Pathology, Microbiology. The books smelt glossy. My room smelt like mildew. I studied with a hot water bottle on my knees, a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. When I met my future husband, a fellow Med Lab student, I lent him my battered copy of Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes. He said, ‘I think you should read this again’. I did.

Tomorrow came. In December 1996, I received my acceptance letter from Otago Medical School. I returned to your ever-expanding bookstore to buy my coveted textbooks. The Anatomy Atlas was my favourite, with its photographs of grey-brown embalmed bodies. I learned the tortuous path of the cranial nerves, the muscles of the thigh, the neurotransmitters of addiction (dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline).

My love of fiction never waned ­– Paullina Simons, Wally Lamb, Donna Tartt. I dreamed of writing. I didn’t write. I’d stopped writing in 1992, my last year of high school. Writing was for other people, people who weren’t cramming their brains with lists of medications and causes of anaemia and medical statistics. I thought I’d lost the knack.

But still, I kept reading. I returned to you, again and again. You never failed to disappoint.

While rain streamed down your windows, I lingered over F Scott Fitzgerald and Richard Dawkins and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I bought coloured pens, highlighters, exercise books with clean lines and virgin-white paper. So many books, so little time. I moved to Christchurch, Nelson, Melbourne, Auckland. I played around, dabbled in other bookshops. They weren’t the same. Like a first kiss, you lingered.

Now I return with my children, nine and three years old. They make straight for your children’s section, where we choose a Rick Riordan book for Mini-Me the first and a Charlie and Lola book for Mini-Me the second. I leave them to pore over their delights while I escape into the adult section, fraternising with Haruki Murakami, Charlotte Grimshaw, and David Mitchell.

You are my dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is activated by nicotine, cocaine, sex and… books. Serotonin makes one happier, calmer and more focused. Your bookshop doesn’t make me more focused. It induces a trance-like state. It sends me back in time. Flats with threadbare carpet and weeping windows, burning couches and black ice, life-changing grades next to a never-to-be-forgotten student ID number (930284), the scents of formaldehyde and sea-salt, the best of times, the worst of times, and through it all, the power of the written word.

It’s twenty-four years since I first set foot in your bookshop. We were both smaller then. One of my proudest moments is the day my mother-in-law, a resident of St Clair, sent me a photo. My debut young adult novel, Pieces of You, was displayed in your children and young adult section. I’d come home. I’ve never really left.

Yours truly and forever,

Eileen Merriman
Eileen Merriman is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer from New Zealand. Her young adult novel, Pieces of You, was published in May 2017 (Penguin Random House); the manuscript was awarded a mentorship by the New Zealand Society of Authors in 2015. A second YA novel, Catch Me When You Fallis due for publication on Jan 2nd, 2018.

Otago University Bookshop
The University Book Ship is always heavy with treasure, so wear your best pirate outfit to The University Bookshop in Otago from 10am -4pm, and celebrate books and bookshops with piratical treats in store all day. Pirate Cupcakes! Gold doubloons! Enjoy them… or add them to your hoard. There will be treasure hunting and pirate crafts and you can make your own parrot, or maybe you need a silver hook?

At 10.30am, 12.30am and 2.30pm, they will host pirate story-times and perhaps the odd sea-shanty. See live writers writing at the Captain’s table and you could share a doubloon or two with them, after all, they are creating treasure for us all!


Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me, by Lily Collins

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_unfilteredLily Collins is a popular actress and Instagram star who has just released her autobiography. Her book, Unfiltered, is a series of essays about her life. There is a particular emphasis on relationships, being true to yourself and her early years.

As I was unfamiliar with her work this was a completely fresh introduction to Lily Collins and I found her writing very easy to read. Lily has written one essay about her father (the musician Phil Collins) and her relationship with her mother, who mostly raised her, flows through the other essays. Most interesting is her determination – she decided teen magazines needed actual teen input and through a lot of work talked her way into a regular column in ELLE Girl magazine. This lead to other freelance work (while still in her teens) for Teen Vogue and other publications. This lead to TV journalism work – and from there to acting. It is a really interesting story.

Like many essay collections, it suffers from a lack of cohesion. It felt like many subjects were not discussed in depth, or conflicted with information previously discussed. One chapter discussed an abusive relationship – but the vagueness of detail lessened the impact – it was mentioned obliquely, then she moved on.

As a structure for an autobiography it made for somewhat disjointed reading. It is a shame, as there were some interesting events and experiences that might have made more sense in a more traditional chronological format.

Her main point in the book is to be yourself. This fits with her main charity focus – peer support and bullying prevention. Lily was involved in peer support programmes as a student and has been involved in youth advocacy for counselling centres. It is always nice to hear people’s accounts of what they remembered (and used) from High School days. She is also involved in ‘We day’ – a children’s advocacy charity.

At the end of the book there are links to resources to deal with issues raised in the book. I note this because the book deals with eating disorders and relationship violence. For this reason I would recommend the book for older teenagers.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me
by Lily Collins
Published by Ebury Press
ISBN 9781785034107

Book Review: 4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_4321.jpgPaul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1, his first in seven years, is a sweeping river of a book, taking us on a ride through the heady events of America’s 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, and all told through the eyes of one young man called Ferguson. Or, rather, told through the eyes of four different versions of that young man Ferguson. Ferguson’s genetic makeup and personality stay the same, but from the moment of his birth, Ferguson’s life splits four different ways and the novel travels down four increasingly divergent paths, following four increasingly different Fergusons. In so doing Auster writes four versions of the great American novel, all running alongside each other at the same time.

Written in alternating chapters, the first Ferguson’s life story focuses on his romance with Amy Schneiderman, the great love of his adolescence and young adulthood. By contrast, Amy never even enters the story of the second Ferguson, and in the third Ferguson’s story, Amy is much longed for but eventually set aside in exchange for the confusing and exhilarating experiences Ferguson 3 experiences in Paris, where he eventually moves. In Ferguson 4’s story, his home life is vastly different — eventually his family becomes a blended melting pot of step-siblings and step-uncles.

Having said that, each Ferguson stays in many ways the same — baseball and books seem like the most important things in all the Fergusons’ lives, as well as his family, especially his mother. As such, Auster doesn’t seem interested therefore in seeing how much he can make each Ferguson’s path diverge from the others (though they do in some cases diverge widely). Rather, Auster is interested in the ‘what if?’ What if I had journeyed down the path less traveled? What if that relationship I wanted so badly had actually worked out? What if I had moved to Paris like I always wanted to? What if I had been born rich? What if I had been born poor? What if my father, or my grandfather died, or I died when I was a child? How would things be different? Who would I be, and what world would I be living in?

4 3 2 1 always gives you the feeling of movement – flowing or running through the years like a boat borne on a swift tide. Auster’s long spinning sentences, some of them lasting a full, hefty, paragraph, contribute significantly to this effect. But these sentences never become annoying or tiresome. They only speed you along, making this novel something of a page turner (which sure helps to make this 800-page tome more digestible). And the pace of the book itself is quick without being rushed. We move swiftly through the fifties, sixties and seventies but we still manage to get a good sense of how those decades felt — especially the sections set in the late sixties, where scenes of young anarchists marching on campus and disenfranchised black New Jerseyans rioting in the streets were hair-raising to read, and in some ways hair-raisingly familiar.

I cannot pretend that I didn’t get a bit confused between the different Fergusons, especially in his adolescent years when the Fergusons were all living fairly similar lives. But that confusion was never enough to make me want to stop reading. And amazingly, after having made my way through all 800 pages, my first thought was: I want to read it again. A great plot, written in an athletic style, with above all the central character of Ferguson, a Jewish everyman whom you grow to love. Why wouldn’t I want to read it again? I can’t think of a single reason. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
Faber and Faber
ISBN 9780571324620

Book Review: We’re All Wonders, by R. J. Palacio

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_wereallwonders.jpgThis is a beautiful reflection on difference and how we react. While as a Mum, I wanted my three children to be curious and ask questions, I always struggled with the loudly voiced,’ Why does that girl have…?’.

This simple but clear picture book gives the perspective from the inside. The opening statement declares, ‘I know I’m not an ordinary kid.’ The story follows the everyday actions which all children enjoy, but being stared at, left out and bullied becomes the norm.

R J Palacio wrote the novel Wonder from this perspective and has followed it with a number of related tales. Here we have a simplified version of Wonder, where the message is easy for all to follow. I can see this book being a useful starter in classrooms at all levels. My Year 11 class engaged in a robust discussion about appearance and pressure to conform. As a parent and grandparent this is a treasure to share.

The final statement is a heartfelt message for child and adult: ‘I know I can’t change the way I look BUT maybe, just maybe, people can change the way they see…’

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

We’re All Wonders
by R. J. Palacio
Published by Puffin
ISBN 9780141386416

Book Review: Leap of Faith, by Jenny Pattrick

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_leap_of_faith_bigPattrick, an experienced New Zealand historic novelist, brings the Volcanic Plateau to life in her latest book Leap of Faith.

Set in 1907, Pattrick takes the reader on a journey on what life may have been like for those drawn to the area by the railroad work, to construct the Makatote viaduct. This pioneering work made it possible to travel the whole length of the North Island, from Wellington to Auckland, by train.

Working on the railroad is somber and tough, with co-op gangs incentivised by targets to ensure the railroad is completed on time. It’s also a harsh and, at times, perilous environment. Despite these conditions, the railroad attracts a variety of characters.

At the heart of the novel is young and impressionable Billy, only 14 years old when he goes to join the camps at Makatote. He’s later joined by his siblings Maggie and Freeman, and quickly becomes good friends with Ruri, one of a few Māori working on the railroad.

It’s not long till Billy is swept up by the gospel and charm of Gabriel Locke, a preacher with a dodgy past, who passes through the town hoping to build a community of dedicated followers. Gabriel also quickly charms Amelia Grice, a prohibitionist who is determined to figure out who’s supplying sly grog to the workers.

This novel develops over two years switching between perspectives of the different characters. It also switches between past and present, which I found a little confusing at times. The pace of the book is fairly slow but finally picks up a quarter of the way into the book when an unfortunate event ties several of the characters together. This helps to move the plot along and adds some suspense to the novel – in such a small community, secrets don’t last long.

Historical novels aren’t a genre I read often and with this book I longed for more of a connection with the characters. That being said, I admired the amount of research Pattrick has clearly done. Pattrick shows a deep knowledge of not only the area but also in the construction of the railroad and the time period. She expertly weaves New Zealand’s native bush and unique rural landscapes throughout the novel:

‘The mountain appeared for the first time in months, while majestic at the head of the valley. Woodpigeons erupted from what was left of the bush, flying from ridge to ridge flashing their blue-green wings’.

Anyone interested by the New Zealand railroad or with connections to the area will find this an intriguing and enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Sarah Young

Leap of Faith
by Jenny Pattrick
Published by Black Swan – PRH
ISBN 9780143770916

Book Review: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hag-seedIn my 35 years, I’ve learned a thing or two about life. Put cold water in the pot after making porridge or you’ll be scrubbing concrete. Set up bill payments to go out on payday so you don’t run out of money and have to pay late fees. Eat before you start drinking, especially if you’re mixing beer and tequila, because no matter how huge and delicious the 2am kebab, you’ll feel terrible all day tomorrow.

And don’t get excited about a new Margaret Atwood as you might be setting yourself up for a major disappointment.

I mean, it would have been really, really hard not to get excited about a re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by the psychologically shrewd, mesmerising writer of Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale and other novels I devoured and recommended to everyone who’d listen. I feel like you can’t hold it against me. It’s, like, a natural law: Margaret Atwood’s an objectively great novelist.

But with Hag-Seed it’s as if we’ve snuck into her study, rummaged through her bottom desk-drawer, and read an early draft that she did to get Ideas out of her system before starting on the actual book.

If I hadn’t known who wrote it, I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years who did. Not that Atwood’s books are, or should be, all the same – but Hag-Seed, for me, was missing so many of the things I read Atwood for. Sub-plots and layers, and characters that feel so real you could slap them. Themes that are hidden and smart and unsaid. Ideas that are a bit too clever for me but compel me on anyway because they’re wrapped up in writing that’s effortless and magnetic.

I’m so sorry. Who do I think I am.

Maybe I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t like this book. Maybe I’m the most special of snowflakes!

You’ll probably like it. Flash reviewers do. People are raving about it all over the internet, in The Guardian and New York Times and Washington Post and Publishers Weekly, using words like “ingenious”, “delightful”, “funny” and even goddamn “triumph”.

Mate, I don’t agree. If I were being forced to describe it in those kind of terms, I’d use “obvious”, “average”, “a bit lame” and kinda “forgettable”. Sorry. I found one – just one – review that was more in line with my feels: Kirkus Reviews said, “the bulk of the novel can feel like spending some 300 pages in a high school English class.” I loved high school English, but, yeah. Wouldn’t want to be back there. Wouldn’t want it to fail to live up to my memories, like a disappointing book by Margaret Atwood.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

by Margaret Atwood
Published by Hogarth
ISBN 9781781090237