Book Review: Girl Stuff for girls 8-12, by Kaz Cooke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_girl_stuff_for_girls_aged_8-12Kaz Cooke is a very accessible and humourous Australian author and cartoonist who specialises in writing books on health and well being for women (and girls). I can still remember her hilarious descriptions of pregnancy in Up the Duff, which were fantastically described in both words and pictures. Her Kidwrangling guide to raising children was a natural purchase for me once I had children, and I now find myself in the position of having a child in the right age bracket for her latest book, Girl Stuff 8-12.

The first chapter leaps right on in with changes in your body during puberty. All descriptions are factual, simply explained and occasionally humourous. Kaz is very careful to ensure that the book outlines the wide variety in body types and experiences of puberty. My daughter found this chapter very interesting (actually, I did too). I particularly liked her suggestions on responding to comments from people about body changes. There are some excellently pragmatic comments around periods, and I sincerely wish that I had read this book when I was younger!

Later chapters deal a lot with social issues – such as friendships and bullying as well as ‘not-so-happy families.’ There is a great chapter on confidence, and positive self talk. I found her list for parents and girls regarding online safety useful and I will be adopting some of the tips for use. The back of the book has a very useful ‘more info’ section with really good websites and phone numbers (including New Zealand numbers). There is a theme throughout the book of getting good advice and information – such as avoiding advertising messages or asking adults how to manage privacy settings.

My daughter and I read the first chapter on body changes together. I knew that the book was hitting the mark when my daughter took off with the book and finished reading it very quickly by herself! She particularly liked the ‘real life’ comments made by girls throughout the book. When I spoke to her about it afterwards it was clear that she had understood the content, so I think that the book is well written in that respect.

The book does not really get into relationships or sex – there is a follow up book that covers those topics in greater depth. However, if you are after a factual book about puberty for younger girls then this is a great guide. I will definitely be getting the following book in the series.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Girl Stuff for girls 8-12
by Kaz Cooke
Published by Viking Australia
ISBN 9780143573999

 

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Book Review: The Last Days of Summer, by Vanessa Ronan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_last_days_of_summerSet in a small Texan prairie town that is in the midst of a hot, dry and unforgiving summer, this tale takes a close look at society’s willingness to forgive a monster. After serving ten years for a violent assault against a woman in the town, Jasper is released from prison and, having nowhere else to go, returns to his childhood home to live with his sister, Lizzie.

A single mum due to the repercussions of Jasper’s horrific act, Lizzie takes him in, acknowledging her conflict even as she does so: ‘But Lizzie stands paralyzed, listening to her brother’s laugh that is not her brothers, spoon held before her like some useless shield against whatever unknowns may come to pass. The reverend’s words haunt her. Half a day with Jasper and her inner response is still the same: I reckon I don’t know at all.’

To her, Jasper is both the big brother who looked after and loved her, and the psychopath who cannot be fully trusted. Familial ties win out and she lets him into her home, trusting that he will not harm her or her two daughters – the teenage Katie who doesn’t trust her uncle and the younger tween Joanne, who is innocently trustful and intrigued by this uncle she does not know.

The town is not so understanding of Lizzie’s decision to help her brother, nor are they willing to move past Jasper’s history, unfortunately Jasper’s insistence that he is not looking for trouble falls on deaf ears.

Cleverly set out with no chapter breaks to keep the tension building, Vanessa Ronan’s prose is both vividly descriptive and dramatic; her short, sharp sentences paint a family and town on edge. “The shop smells mildly of cat piss and mothballs, a smell that slaps the nostrils and jerks back the head…” From the first page, you can feel major trouble looming.

The characters are in a way stereotypical: the reverend who offers no practical help, the un-supportive parole officer and his blowsy receptionist, the rich oil man and his handsome son, the gun-toting vigilante brigade; however in this story, they work. Without them you could not consider each perspective of forgiveness – the Christian act of turning the other cheek, the town’s very understandable fear of him in their midst once again, the wronged family’s desire for vengeance, the pull of kin and shared childhood. Set against these viewpoints is a perpetrator who is aware of his actions but takes no responsibility for them; if Jasper is unremorseful and does not seek forgiveness, is he entitled to it?

Edgy, shocking and intense, this is no light-hearted read but a compelling one nonetheless. Very well written and, as disturbing as some parts of it are, I couldn’t put it down.

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The Last Days of Summer
by Vanessa Ronan
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9781844883660

 

The Kids are All Right: Cornelia Funke, Sally Gardner, Ted Dawe, Mandy Hager

Mandy Hager was the best chair I have seen in action this Writer’s Week. She introduced Cornelia Funke, Ted Dawe, Sally Gardner as award-winning writers that “write the sort of books that you put down and think about for hours afterwards.” I could not agree more.

The first pitched question was about the very concept of writing for children and YA. Each of the authors came from uniquely intelligent perspectives, they all allowed each other to hold opinions and were respectful of these.

Funke doesn’t agree with the concept of YA – she loves to write for children, the stories will be heard where they may. Ted Dawe has been put into a YA box because of the type of novels he writes, and he is at peace with this. Meanwhile, Sally Gardner said it best: “The Y is Why? And the A is the attempted answer. Many adult novels only answer. And I’d rather read books with the Y? Wouldn’t you?”

As this panel included Ted Dawe, there was a discussion about the banning of Into the River. Though I am familiar with the stoush, I was interested in Ted’s perspective:

“There were two interesting things that came out: One was the role of librarians as guardian angels, the second was how staunchly the judging panel believed in their decision. They were told by the sponsor, to go back and rethink their decision. They said ‘this was the book that deserved the prize.’” But it was Auckland libraries that led the call for review, which despite seeing the book banned temporarily, was ultimately successful in getting the restriction removed.

The other writers hadn’t had their books banned, but they agreed that publishers have a tendency to require a certain amount of censorship. Gardner had to place Maggot Moon with a different publisher because her usual one told her to bury it. It has a teacher brutality scene that ends in the death of a student, and a boys-kissing scene. She did allow the kissing to be removed for the United Arab Emirates, reluctantly. Maggot Moon won both the Carnegie Medal and the Costa. But Gardner’s favourite prize was the French prize for imagination.

Funke moved the conversation on to publishers and how things can change once you are a bestselling author. “If you are a best-selling author, you are put in the box marked ‘money.’” While a reader may draw the conclusion that that would lead to more freedom, but actually at that point you are assumed to only write things that sell, in trends. Sally Gardner agreed, calling it the “Versace effect”. The minute you write to a trend though, she says, you stop following your heart. Publishers also, added Funke, seem to dream that you are always writing for a movie deal. “They try to put books in tidy boxes.”

The discussion turned then to morality in books, with Ted Dawe asserting “I didn’t realise it to start with, but I am a social awareness writer.” He sees Into the River as being about the consequences of bad decision-making, not morality per se. Gardner finds it horrendous that parents will jump on books that have the F-word in them, yet not realise what their TV being on is doing to their children. She said of novelists, “We are the guardians.” Funke pointed out that perhaps the reason that people have picked up the theme of bullying because they are themselves guilty of this behaviour – not something Dawe had considered.

The discussion turned on to the power of books, with Mandy saying “The fantastic thing about the book ban was that nobody argued that books weren’t these powerful things.” Gardner added, “The power of words is just fantastic. The power words have to get you to dream and define your situation.” Dawe added that this was why he started writing for boys and why he became an evangelist for boys reading novels, “Otherwise they are trapped like birds in a cage.”

I will be honest, I was blown away by the things these authors were saying, the power behind their words. I have always read fantasy, as escapism – not guiltily, but with an awareness that perhaps it wasn’t the best way to enrich my mind. Funke gave me the perfect reason, as did Hager: “Sometimes you see better through the other side of the mirror.”

Hager moved on to concerns about children today. The biggest concern for Gardner is social media bullying. “I am alarmed that young children are allowed these tools. The potential for torture is too real.” She says, “We live life looking into a machine. What happens when they go blank? What happens when all the pictures are gone?”

Funke doesn’t dislike social media, as it has connected her with fans in Japan, in Norway, in Argentina – and all of these fans start talking together. Note to readers of Funke – if you send her a tweet, she will respond to it. She only has book people following her, so she sees it as a “community of nerds.” Her biggest concern isn’t that children don’t read – she worries that they don’t live. Schoool eats up their whole lives. She would finish school at 1pm, and send the kids to work on the environment – a real concern. But, Funke says, “Society can’t get much worse, I’m optimistic about the future.”

I will relate one more story from this session, because I teared up. Cornelia Funke has a lot of fanmail – she has had some from abused children, from soldiers, from those that were dying. They say to her “You gave me shelter with your words.” Now this is true power. She added, “We can change things, even if we just give comfort. Sometimes we don’t have to do more.”

I will give the final word to Cornelia Funke: “How did I get to have this job? It’s fantastic!”

You will have a chance to see the tremendous Cornelia Funke at The Embassy for Cornelia Funke: Reckless, Fearless, Heartless tomorrow at 2pm. Sally Gardner is also at the Embassy at 11am for Sally Gardner: Maggot Moon.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Kids are All Right
The Embassy, 2pm, Saturday 12 March
NZ Festival Writers Week

Books:
Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner
Hot Key Books
ISBN 9781471400445

Book Review: The Girls, by Lisa Jewell

Available nationwide from 2 July.cv_the_girls

A closed London suburban community, centred around a developed common garden is the least place to expect anything out of the ordinary. Some families are of three generations of residency around its border. Children use the garden and its planned areas for play and exploration. All seems peaceful.

Until a disturbing incident reveals their dubious background and events from the past are dragged into the here and now.

The most recently arrived residents – Grace and her daughters Grace and Pip – have brought with them their own story and trauma. As the two girls are gradually accepted by the Garden’s children, their mother is drawn into socialising with other parents. Over months we become more and more uneasy about the manner of each resident’s stories.

We follow Clare’s experiences among the community as she learns more about them and their past interaction: a man with a reputation, an elderly woman who has observed it all, a child neglected by her mother, the family whose three daughters are home-schooled, a young boy who cares for his adult brother’s welfare. Both Clare and Adele (the home-schooling mother) are drawn into following the trail of the children’s play, and in doing so learn of events more and more disturbing.

At first, in spite of the crime occurring in the first chapter, the domesticity of each family seemed of little interest. But as the back story worked its way through the lead up to the crime, I was drawn into the same feelings of worry felt by any protective mother, as Clare discovers more and more detail about her neighbours and their children. On reading through to the end, I have to adjudge the writer’s ability to entangle a reader in the mesh of the community as being superbly deceptive and enthralling. I am glad I had the opportunity to read Lisa Jewell’s thirteenth novel – and have a lot of catch up reading to do now.

Reviewed by Lynn McAnulty-Street

The Girls
Lisa Jewell
Published by Century, for Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9781780893594

Book Review: The Writer’s Festival, by Stephanie Johnson

cv_the_writers_FestivalIn this, a loose follow-up to her previous novel, The Writing Class, Stephanie Johnson turns her attention to the highlight of many readers and writers calendars: The Writer’s Festival.

Despite the fact that she was one of the founders of the Auckland Writer’s Festival with Peter Wells in the late 90’s and has had years of insider knowledge both behind the scenes and out front as a guest, she steadfastly maintains that this is a work of fiction.

Such a pity, because one could have lots of fun speculating exactly who she could be alluding to with these tales of sordid bitching, backstabbing and petty jealousy. It’s all there: publicists traipsing after visiting authors on their best and worst behaviour; an economic crisis threatened by China should a dissident writer speak; secret identities exposed and the age old question of just how small an industry IS it in NZ? Just another year at the fictitious Oceania Writer’s Festival.

With new characters rubbing shoulders with those from The Writing Class, The Writer’s Festival is a fun read; one that made me go back and re-read The Writing Class because I wanted to, not because I needed to.

Like all good humour though, there is more than a kernel of truth to it and you can’t help but feel a little bit sad for the characters, all of them desperately clinging onto something, that in the grand scheme of things, might not be much at all. And from an author with so much experience in the industry, you can’t help but wonder if that’s what she’s really trying to say.

4 Stars

Reviewed by Sarah McMullan

The Writer’s Festival
by Stephanie Johnson
Penguin Random House
ISBN 9781775537984

Book Review: Chappy, by Patricia Grace

cv_chappyAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

“Who’s he’s mountain?” asks an old Maori elder in Patricia Grace’s new novel. He’s asking these questions about Chappy, a mysterious stowaway, apparently from Japan, who has landed in 1930s New Zealand and been taken in by the Maori seaman who found him. “Who’s he’s river?” old Uncle Jimmy asks. “Who’s he’s ancestors? Who’s he’s name? Who he is?” It is these questions that drive this novel, as, eighty years later, Chappy’s grandson, lost and troubled Daniel, travels back to New Zealand from Europe in search of the mysterious grandfather he never knew and, indirectly, in search of his own roots.

Chappy is skilfully and effortlessly woven together by Grace. Though Daniel’s voice occasionally pops up, the majority of the novel is an interlacing of narratives from Aki, the Maori seaman who took Chappy in, and Daniel’s great uncle, and Oriwia, Daniels’ no-nonsense, practical, sometimes bolshy grandmother, and Chappy’s wife. Alongside this narrative interweaving stands a cultural interweaving too. Different languages—Maori and English, predominantly—slip and slide alongside each other, and, though Chappy is undoubtedly a New Zealand novel, like its characters, it wanders the Pacific, with significant sections set in Hawaii and Japan. As Oriwia tells Daniel, “You can be anywhere in the world, but you have a tūrangawaewae that cannot be denied you.”

I enjoyed the expatriate or wandering flavour inherent in this novel; overseas travel has always been a part of New Zealand experience, from the twenty-first-century OE to the twelfth-century voyages from Hawaiki, and yet previous great Kiwi novels haven’t , in my opinion, often included that journeying spirit. Grace however manages to express this international aspect without sacrificing this feeling of Aotearoa as tūrangawaewae—its characters’, and our, place to stand.

It’s significant then that both Daniel and his grandfather Chappy enter the novel rootless, without a place to truly call home. Chappy stows away on a ship and, though he comes to consider Aotearoa as home, this home eventually turns on him, as might unfortunately be expected in 1940s New Zealand when dealing with a Japanese immigrant. It was fascinating and sobering to read the sections describing Pearl Harbour and the hardships German and Japanese-born Kiwis endured during that time. Chappy also spends time living in Japan and in Hawaii, torn from his wife back home, and still living a life that seems somehow incomplete or impermanent; several times he’s compared to a ghost. In fact, Chappy remains a mystery—though we learn more about him, he remains oblique and unreachable. Daniel, however, is luckier. His quest to discover his grandfather leads him in turn to understand his own roots.

“Who’s he’s mountain?” Uncle Jimmy asked of Chappy, and though Chappy’s answer to that remains unknown, it’s clear that Daniel’s search has brought him closer to understanding who his own mountain, river and ancestors are. This immaculately written New Zealand novel thus tells a universal story—the search to find your self—and is utterly absorbing and beautiful. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Chappy
by Patricia Grace
Penguin Random House New Zealand
ISBN 9780143572398

Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper

cv_etta_and_otto_and_russell_and_james

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Dust, water, fish, deer. In the open arms of the wild earth, the elements and God’s creatures move together in a rural dance. Gophers are sacrificed so the land can better support. A daughter will always ‘know where to punch a calf to kill it, if it needs it. And hard enough.’ Prairie Canada seems the same but so very different to the rural experience everywhere else. The same: life and death are but a waltz apart. Different: there is dust, geographic specificity and the Canadian voice – ‘Doesn’t look like Russell’s back yet, hey?’

Although the uniquely Canadian aspects appeal, it is the universal that really draws us in to Hooper’s story. Etta and Otto are both at the curtain-call end of their lives – their life – together. More than 60 years of prairie living have passed in what one assumes is contented and compatible companionship. Except Russell lives next door, and Russell has also been a part of their lives for more than that 60 years of prairie living. The subtlety of their shared story resonates beyond the pages. The tale of Etta and Otto and Russell is centred by two locations; where they meet and when they part. The setting is importantly both of these things – time and place. The reader moves between historical wartime and present day as crucial decisions made almost by accident are relayed and related. ‘Russell waltzed instead of walked’ because of an accident on Otto’s family farm – even here at the start, Otto and Russell’s stories are intertwined.

As is Etta’s. Young Etta is a teacher. She has suffered the loss of her dear sister Alma and turns to teachers’ college, perhaps to stay near to her vulnerable parents. Otto is one of 15 Vogel children, attending the school at which Etta is teaching. When Otto signs up for active duty during wartime, Etta becomes his pen pal. Slowly and with absolute grace, these letters lead to love. Russell, because he ‘waltzes’, is left behind. Such is to be the story of his life.

Letters are present in older age, too. Otto writes to Etta, knowing they may not get to her. He signs these ‘Here, Otto’; a reminder of place and belonging. She has left; ‘I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there’, she writes. But she is ‘Yours (always), Etta.’ Her memory is failing – dementia? Alzheimers? Perhaps just aging, so she carries a piece of paper that reminds her of self, family and others. There is a satisfying symmetry of action here; at the beginning of their story, he leaves her, and at the end, it is Etta’s turn for adventure. Otto remains and channels his grief through cooking Etta’s recipes, and creating papier-mâché creatures that bring him state-wide fame.

Fish are an important trope throughout. Not only because they live in the water Etta is yearning, but also because they provide a tenuous link to her lost sister. ‘They can come back alive when they touch your skin,’ says Alma of fish skulls. Etta wonders if ‘being against the skin of her fingers’ is enough to ‘wake them up, to make them talk.’ Later, as she consumes fish to survive, they whisper Il faut manger – it is necessary to eat. Sacrifice is necessary. ‘One small fish skull’ is one of very few precious belongings that Etta takes on her journey – a reminder that grief may settle but never really leaves.

Russell’s grief is the most heartbreaking. He loves Etta timelessly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was wonderful?’ he asks of Otto after his first day at school with his new teacher, a young Etta. She falls into his arms but once, when Otto is at war and all seems lost, except dancing. And so they do. As an old man, he is their neighbour, and yet can never share what Otto and Etta have. When Etta leaves to walk 2000 kilometres to the sea, he is frustrated and chases her. Otto wisely realises ‘it’s not what she wants, Russell,’ conveying an intuitive understanding that only one who shares intimacy with a person over decades can.

The magic realist elements in this text are harmoniously woven throughout the story. James is a coyote companion gifted words, although it would seem named, in another nod to the power of grief and memory, after Alma’s stillborn son. He is perhaps there to be looked after, as well as look after, Etta on her journey – a surrogate son or nephew. For Etta and Otto never have children, and little is said about this throughout.

The many evocations of grief and memory sting the reader, too. I felt for Russell, who spends his life pining after what he doesn’t have. He, Etta and Otto are at the end of their lives, and so there is a natural inclination to feel a certain sadness when reading. The book evokes a wistful and nostalgic air reminiscent of good poetry or music, and left me thinking for a long time about the exquisite pain and the exquisite beauty that is to be found in the irretractable rhythm of our lives as we simply and plainly just go about living them.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
by Emma Hooper
Published by Fig Tree
ISBN 9780241185865