Book Review: From the Ashes, by Deborah Challinor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_from_the_ashesThe newest historical saga from renowned New Zealand author Deborah Challinor, From the Ashes tells a tale set in the 1950s – and of three families caught in a simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating decade of change.

From the Ashes is a standalone novel, but it is also a sequel-of-sorts to Challinor’s 2006 novel Fire, which depicted the Dunbar and Jones disaster (based on the 1947 Ballantynes’ Department Store fire in Christchurch – a disaster which killed 41 people).

Reappearing in From the Ashes, Allie and Sonny Manaia are now living in the metropolis of Auckland. Only two years on from the Dunbar and Jones fire, Allie is working on the Elizabeth Arden counter at the fashionable Smith and Caughey’s Department Store. As she tries to navigate a workplace that constantly reminds her of her friends who perished, Allie is left to struggle with her vivid nightmares and day-long ‘battle exhaustion’ (what we would now consider to be post-traumatic stress disorder) without help. As well as suffering their own personal tragedy in the recent loss of their baby daughter, Allie and Sonny are forced to face daily societal criticism for their mixed-race marriage.

One of the characters expressing disapproval is Kathleen Lawson, a woman with the wealth to shop at Smith and Caughey’s. A regular customer of Allie’s, it becomes clear that Kathleen is desperately lonely and bored. Trapped in an unhappy marriage with equally unhappy children – no matter how much she tries to present her ideal of a ‘perfect family’ – Kathleen is also trapped within her old-fashioned societal ideals and obsession with class, which are both quickly becoming redundant.

Spanning multiple generations and a myriad of characters, From the Ashes is an ambitious novel. It glimpses into the life of Allie’s elderly nan Rose, her hard-working mother Colleen Roberts, and her two younger sisters, Donna, who is training as a nurse, and Pauline, who is feeling lost as she tries to figure out what she wants from life. Sonny also has a younger sister – vibrant Polly who is leading a life on the lucrative underside of Auckland’s social scene.

From the Ashes tells of an age of social intolerance – especially in the city of Auckland, where signs stating ‘No Dogs, No Māoris’ were common.

From the Hawkes’ Bay, Kura Apanui and her friend Wiki Irwin know first-hand the trouble of discrimination. Living in squalid rental houses, not only do the families have trouble finding work that will accept them, but their large families are forced into cramped conditions – so different to the wide spaces and pleasant houses of the country. Kura’s cousin Ana has also been forced to moved from Hawkes’ Bay, and has challenges of her own – not only does she have to look after her own children, but she also has to look after her father-in-law, Jack, who suffers from a debilitating form of dementia. Focussing on the personal cost that caring can take, Challinor’s novel also explores the inhumane conditions of some 1950s hospitals.

In a decade that was especially difficult for women, From the Ashes is told solely through their eyes. Highlighting the importance of family and friendship, the novel also explores the serious discriminations of the time; the stigma attached to working women and unmarried mothers; the prejudices that led to people falling through the cracks created by society; and the burgeoning age of consumerism. With Smith and Caughey’s Department Store at the heart of the novel, there is a clear gap between those characters choosing to buy refrigerators and telephones, and those characters who can barely afford to buy food.

An easy read, From the Ashes is impeccable in its historical detail. Never over-explaining, historian and celebrated author Deborah Challinor creates a believable replica of 1950s Auckland and the people who may have inhabited it. While there are possibly too many characters – as some appear and then seemingly are lost to the story – the compelling readability makes up for the novel’s seemingly disparate nature. A long read, From the Ashes is a good holiday novel for those who enjoy historical sagas depicting a vibrant period of change.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

From the Ashes
by Deborah Challinor
HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781460754122

Book Review: We Can Make a Life, by Chessie Henry

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_we_can_make_a_lifeChessie Henry’s We Can Make a Life is a powerful, affecting memoir. Spanning a family history of adventure, love, bravery and loss, Henry writes tenderly about her family’s journey through multiple traumatic experiences – including the Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes – and their unbending courage in the face of them.

We Can Make a Life leaves a lingering imprint. It demands to be felt; emotionally impactful, it invites the reader to empathise with and reflect on the shared experience of trauma. A freelance writer based in Wellington, author Chessie Henry is a Master of Creative Writing graduate of the IIML. A book ‘that’s been swimming around my head for the last couple of years’, We Can Make a Life is her debut work.

The book opens with an email from Christopher Henry, Chessie’s father, describing his burnout following years of non-stop work as a rural GP. Written one week before he received a Bravery Medal for his role in the Christchurch 2011 earthquake, the placing of this desperate email is deliberate. Not only a call for help from Chris, the letter is a warning against the overwork of our New Zealand medical (particularly rural) personnel.

Jumping back to the ‘beginning’, Henry details her parent’s childhoods and schooling in England; Chris and Esther’s escapades as young adults; their serendipitous meeting through Esther’s brother Andrew – Chris’s best friend – and their adventurous (and, on occasion, terrifying) one-year honeymoon trekking across Africa. Henry describes her parent’s early life and marriage with a gentle warmth which dips but never delves into sentimentality. We get the sense that Chris and Esther are wanderers: people content to embrace every possible opportunity no matter where it may lead. When Esther was seven months pregnant with Chessie, the couple emigrated to Sumner, Christchurch.

Four younger brothers – Finn, Matt, Rufus, and Rocky – soon followed, and Henry depicts the fun (and challenges) of growing up within such a large family. When Chessie was nine, the family (with five children under ten) moved to Tokelau, where Chris worked as GP to the tiny island community. Facing multiple stressful – and dangerous – trials, the year in Tokelau was the first massive upheaval in the Henrys’ lives.

Following moves back to Sumner, then Kaikōura, and then the beautiful rural area of Clarence where Esther worked to create the perfect family home, the reader is completely emotionally invested in every member of this close-knit, warm and hilarious family. This makes the chapters on the 2011 Christchurch earthquake even more hard-hitting. The unedited interviews with Chris and Esther are both poignant and harrowing, depicting first-person accounts of the devastation the February 22 Christchurch earthquake, and the 14 November 2016 Kaikōura earthquake, caused. Chris’s honest account of the rescue mission at the collapsed CTV building is particularly difficult to read, but so important.

Henry’s personal story is the glue that connects the disparate chapters together. The memoir is partly a story of Henry writing the memoir; of conversations and interviews with family members and friends – be they in the car, over dinner, at the bar, or in a leaky Wellington flat. The memoir recalls important talismans in Henry’s life that hold significant personal importance – such as a broken seagull ornament – that are catalysts and anchors for unravelling memories. We Can Make a Life is the story of Henry working as a curator of her family history: sifting through the pieces that make the cut, choosing those which do not – and being open about this process and its difficulties. The result is a neatly ordered memoir: each chapter tells a segment of the family story.

A starkly current book, it opens the floor for multiple discussions. It highlights the issues facing the New Zealand medical scene: not only the inadequate funding of rural centres and personnel, but also the problems facing overworked staff in an understaffed system. The memoir highlights the present mental health crisis, particularly the insidious ‘black dog’ that haunts not only the Henry family, but people across New Zealand.

We Can Make a Life is a timely, evocative, empathetic and finely crafted memoir. Written in beautifully detailed prose (‘Even the hills seemed colourless, wet rocks that had slid out of the ocean like tired swimmers, their spines curling back towards the sea’), this memoir will provoke multiple conversations. My recommendation: go read it, and then send it on – mine is winging its way towards my parents as I write.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

We Can Make a Life
by Chessie Henry
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561940

Book Review: The Mapmakers’ Race, by Eirlys Hunter

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_mapmakers_RaceThe Santander siblings – Sal, Joe, Francie and little Humphrey – have twenty-eight days to reach the finish line of the Great Mapmakers’ Race. With their father missing and their mother stranded, they have no choice but to carry on alone. Their task: find a route for a railway line between Grand Prospect and New Coalhaven. If they win, they will receive a large prize that will allow them to fund a search party for their father. If they lose, they will never be a proper family again.

Launching the adventure with a thrilling train ride, the four children and their talking parrot, Carrot, speed past ‘tunnels and bridges, fields, farms and forests’ to arrive at Grand Prospect. With fourteen-year-old Sal guiding her younger siblings through the bustling town, they join the Mapmakers’ Race with the help of their new-found friend, a fifteen-year-old boy named Beckett.

Against the ever-ticking clock, the Santander team contend with dangerous river crossings, bears, a kidnapping, illness, loneliness, wet clothes, dark caves, family squabbles, cliff falls and terrible weather – not to mention a dwindling food supply. Racing against five teams of adults who refuse to play by the rules, the Santanders find out what it means to survive against all odds.

A fast-paced adventure story, The Mapmakers’ Race is propelled along by an urgent deadline. With regular reminders of how many days remain, each chapter pushes the tension to new heights as the children fight to survive. A gripping tale with beautifully drawn characters, children and adults alike will empathise with at least one of the four Santanders. There’s Sal, the mathematician of the family, the one using trigonometry and her trusty altimeter to ensure their route is safe for a railway. There’s the eleven-year-old twins: courageous Joe and silent Francie. Joe speaks for the both of them, but it is Francie who has the secret talent – she has a special power of ‘flight’ that enables her to look at the world from above, her beautiful maps reflecting her visions. Joe is the brave (and reckless) route finder, and four-year-old Humphrey provides the comic relief with his made-up words (‘Busticated’ he exclaims at one point) and strange observations.

An adventure story with dashes of fantasy and a taste of steampunk, The Mapmakers’ Race is Eirlys Hunter’s seventh book for children. A London-born writer who now lives in Wellington, Hunter teaches children’s writing at the IIML at Victoria University. Complementing the beautiful prose are the stunning illustrations of Kirsten Slade, a Liverpool-born illustrator and comic artist who also lives in Wellington. Each chapter begins with a map illustration detailing the Santanders’ journey.

Unlike most modern-day children’s adventure stories, which tend to focus on internal conflict or traumatic events, Hunter’s novel harks back to children’s adventure books of the past. No adults feature in this story: instead, the children are solely responsible for their own survival. They make the decisions, and they alone suffer the consequences – but also the victories.

A heartwarming tale about the bonds between siblings and friends, The Mapmakers’ Race is a compelling read. When the reader is able to pull themselves away from the plot, they will also realise the delicate beauty of the prose – ‘The full moon hung so big and bright that he could barely make out any stars until he turned his back to the moon and looked towards the dark horizon where there were tens, then hundreds, then thousands of stars pulsing silently – chips of ice in an infinite, frozen world.’

A story full of laughter, thrills, storytelling and danger, The Mapmakers’ Race is destined to become a Kiwi classic.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

The Mapmakers’ Race
by Eirlys Hunter
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572038

Book Review: Rafferty Ferret: Ratbag, by Sherryl Jordan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_rafferty_ferret_ratbag.jpg‘Rafferty was starving. He was also homeless, motherless, fatherless, penniless, and (if he wasn’t very careful) on his way to being lifeless as well.’

So begins Rafferty Ferret: Ratbag, a rollicking tale of a courageous orphan boy. Homeless and hungry, Rafferty Ferret is desperately looking for a way to earn a living.

Set in medieval times, Rafferty has been living rough ever since his forced removal from the monastery he called home. The story begins with Rafferty in a pickle: he is stuck in a hazardous Leper Hole. Soon rescued by a kind baker and his (rather unkind) wife, Rafferty stumbles upon the unlikely occupation of bakery ‘rat catcher’. Before long, his rat-catching fame spreads throughout the village of Spickernell and his skills are in demand. Often meeting unsavoury characters involved in the business, Rafferty is pleasantly surprised to make friends with a young boy named Wyll. The rat-catching pair use their crafty natures to save themselves from the perils of homelessness.

Rafferty is a strong, clever and cunning protagonist who looks out for everyone (and every rat) around him. With few adults willing to help him, his adventures are brought about by his own determination to survive. Hearts will ache for Wyll, who, falling seriously ill, has only one hope – that Rafferty will be able to find him help in time.

Renowned award-winning New Zealand author and illustrator Sherryl Jordan has published extensively since the 1990s. Now published by independent children’s publisher OneTree House, her latest novel Rafferty Ferret: Ratbag will appeal to all children who love historical adventure – or simply a good story.

An effortless read, this book will quickly charm readers. A well-researched story which draws the reader into a medieval world of danger, illness, hunger and corruption, Jordan brings the setting and characters to life with vivid and lively prose.

Her beautiful writing reflects her artistic talent: ‘Thunder rolled and lightning sizzled across the moor making trees stand out stark and black in the lurid glare, and lighting the distant house with its streaming thatch and stone walls. When there was no lightning the darkness was complete, and there was only the fury of the wind and the tumultuous lashing of the rain.’

The seamlessly introduced historical language and delicate illustrations heighten the powerful emotional atmosphere of this adventure story.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Rafferty Ferret: Ratbag
by Sherryl Jordan
Published by OneTree House Ltd
ISBN 9780995106437

Book Review: The Mulberry Tree, By Allison Rushby

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_mulberry _tree.jpg‘Do naught wrong by the mulberry tree, or she’ll take your daughters . . . one, two, three.

In the dead of night, spirited away, never to see an eleventh birthday . . .’

Ten-year-old Immy has been forced to move halfway across the world – from her friend-filled, vibrant life in Sydney, Australia to the pin-drop quiet of a tiny village in Cambridgeshire, England. With only three girls in her class – none of whom will talk to her – Immy is alone and feeling lonely in this strange new place. The one upside is the beautiful medieval ‘doll’s house’ cottage her parents find to rent, but it too has a secret – a gigantic, black mulberry tree in the back garden which drenches the house in darkness.

According to village legend, the mulberry tree is murderous: two girls, Bridget in the 1700s and Elizabeth in 1945, disappeared from the same house on the eve of their eleventh birthday, with a bulging knot appearing in the mulberry tree the day after their disappearance. Every person in the village believes the mulberry tree took the girls – so much so that they cross the road to avoid walking past the tree, they refuse to talk to Immy or her parents when they decide to rent the house, and children who sing the rhyme do naught wrong by the mulberry tree are roundly told off out of superstitious fear.

Immy doesn’t believe in the rumours: she was raised by two doctors who believe in scientific truth above all. One day, however, she hears a strange song in her head . . .
With mounting pressure to unravel the mystery of the mulberry tree before her eleventh birthday, The Mulberry Tree is a spooky tale which will appeal to those aged eight upwards. A modern fable by prolific Australian author Allison Rushby, The Mulberry Tree interlaces broad topics such as the difficulties of starting somewhere new, the dangers of black-and-white thinking, and how to help someone you love who is suffering from a mental illness.

With beautifully drawn characters, The Mulberry Tree is infused with heightened tension. A strong, stubborn and compassionate protagonist, Immy takes charge of solving the mulberry mystery – as well as saving injured hedgehogs. As she rides the anxiety and angst that come with change and growing up, her innate empathy for others allows her to not only befriend kids in her class, but the lonely tree in her garden.

A tale about forgiveness, the moral of The Mulberry Tree is bluntly spelled out rather than gently entwined. If the ending is slightly too convenient, Rushby has still successfully managed to balance the telling of a compelling but not-too-creepy tale, which will ensure both upper primary and lower secondary school readers will love this page-turning mystery.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

The Mulberry Tree
by Allison Rushby
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781760650292

Book Review: Rotoroa, by Amy Head

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_rotoroa.jpgChristchurch author Amy Head’s first novel Rotoroa is a masterclass in the minutely beautiful.

Following characters seeking ‘fresh starts’, Rotoroa weaves together three disparate narratives: naïve young Lorna, who, at 15, finds herself pregnant and turning to religion for comfort; Jim, an alcoholic husband and father who is sent to Rotoroa after failing to keep his drinking in check; and Katherine Morton, known more famously as the novelist and journalist Elsie K. Morton, who is contracted to write about the work of the Salvation Army on Rotoroa Island, the rehabilitation island for alcoholic men. Ensnared within the societal and religious binds that guide 1950s society, Lorna, Jim and Katherine each embark on an emotional (and sometimes physical) journey to define new lives for themselves while struggling within their typecast roles as daughter, alcoholic and ‘Lady Writer’.

Although it is explicitly a story about men, Rotoroa is implicitly a story about the steadfast women working behind the scenes – women who, were it not for pioneering journalists like Katherine Morton – may have been lost to the depths of history.

Spanning the years 1955–1959, the ease with which the social and historical realism bleed into the fictional narrative is a testament to the wealth of research that Head undertook in its writing. The non-fiction details are imparted through the narrative with a subtle and striking intelligence that is compelling in its pervasive emotional power.

The micro-level beauty of the prose is in its discreet attention to detail. In a Mansfield-esque manner, Head is master of the understated emotional epiphany. Interlacing not only three distinct narratives but also a non-linear time structure, each individual chapter reads like a self-contained short story. With sharp and often poignant beginning and end sentences, each chapter builds to the point of a subtle emotional revelation – so subtle, that every sentence demands to be read. Jim’s short, staccato-like chapters (which reach a pinnacle in a beautiful chapter where he goes fishing ‘at the sharp edge of the reef’) are balanced by Katherine’s longer mellow interludes as we journey with her on her final travel lecture throughout the USA and back home again – viewing 1950s New Zealand society from both the outside and in. Lorna’s story flows between and connects the two, at once enthralling and devastating in its unflinching emotional honesty.

Not to be confused with the geothermal city or lake of a similar name, Rotoroa Island lies to the east of Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Opening with the statement ‘[w]here you lived was important’, the people and place of Rotoroa are intrinsically linked. ‘Both idyll and institution, from its clay-baked cliffs to the whitewashed stones’, the island of Rotoroa develops into a tempestuous yet striking character in its own right. Its isolation is reflected by the internal isolation of Lorna, Jim and Katherine, and we view the island variously with each switch of viewpoint – it is both ‘a nobody-cares island’ and a ‘sanctuary from earthly troubles’.

With a pressure that builds not to startle but to illuminate, Rotoroa crescendos to a depth of emotion rather than to a climactic height. It conceals more than it reveals, leaving the reader to unravel the unsaid, but the rewards are huge – the raw emotional power of Rotoroa lingers long after the novel is over. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Rotoroa
by Amy Head
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561919