Book Review: House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery, by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_house_of_dreams.jpgWhat a wonderful biography, of the girl known as ‘Maud’, who was the wonderful writer behind Anne of Green Gables. As well as many other novels, a couple of biographies, and countless poems and stories.

Sometimes you are so secure in your own world, you forget about our collective history as women. That once, women were expected to be no more educated than was required for the purposes of keeping a household in order. And that it was seen as perverse if a woman required any further education, let alone needed money to achieve this end. When relatives died, money was not left for the education or keeping of a female relative, but to the boys in the family.

Reading Maud’s story made me cry several times. Her mother died when she was only two, so the family moved to Cavendish, her mother’s parents’ grand house in Prince Edward Island, where she was raised by them as her father departed to make his fortunes elsewhere in the new country of Canada. Her grandmother showed very little emotion nor love, but cared for her in her own way. Her grandfather is rarely brought into the biography by Rosenberg, except to say ‘no’ when asked for money towards Maud’s education.

Rosenberg portrays Maud’s real love as her writing, and secondly, her friends. She had many deep and lasting friendships, both on Prince Edward Island and later, on the mainland. She was very tied to her home, and was immensely aware of the beauty of the world around her.

This biography puts forward the idea that Maud was manic depressive, and had seasonal affective disorder. Rosenberg uses past biographies, alongside letters and diaries to build this throughout the book, which is told in beautiful prose, balanced with a biographers’ eye for information worthy of inclusion. There were no parts of the book where I couldn’t see the purpose each paragraph played in telling the story of Maud. This is the mark of an excellent biography.

Maud was let down quite severely by many in her life, but never her Grandmother Lucy, for whom she was named (the L is Lucy). Grandmother gave her hard-saved cash from the household fund to help her achieve her two stints at University, as well as helping her to get a job to earn the rest of the cash.

Maud’s success in writing was self-made, and she was extremely driven. After being a teacher for a couple of years, then a journalist (thanks to a suitor getting her a job), she returned back to Cavendish to look after her ailing grandmother, and stop her being kicked out of her home by her uncle John. That is where Anne took seed in her mind, and there is a site nearby the original home, that is labelled as being Green Gables.

There are lovely line-drawings at the front of each chapter, summarising the topic of each chapter – the passions, the depressions and more of Maud as her life plays out. The illustrator is Julie Morstad, and they feel deliberately similar to the turn-of-the-century illustrations of Anne of Green Gables.

I finished this biography with many things to thank feminism and the study of psychiatric medicine for. The ability as a woman to work full time, and have children; the ability to get pills for ailments of the mind; the ability to live independently of a man should I so wish. Rosenberg has brought a truly fascinating story to life with her own writing gift. I’d recommend this to anybody who wants an insight into the life of a writer, and the life of a woman over the turn of the century.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery
by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Julie Morstad
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN 9780763660574

Book Review: Sports are Fantastic Fun, by Ole Könnecke

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_sports_are_fantastic_funMy sports-loving seven-year-old, who incidentally grew up with both of the other big books by Ole Könnecke that Gecko Press has translated, was over the moon when presented with this book.

Sports are Fantastic Fun begins with a short rejoinder reminding us exactly why sports exist, then launches into the fantastic fun of football.

The style of the text is quite to-the-point, generally beginning with a statement about how fun it all is, then exploring the broad rules of each sport and how one could win. For football, for example: ‘When a team scores a goal, everybody is happy. (Actually, only the team that scores is happy. The other team is annoyed.)’

The sports represented vary widely, though I would point out there are considerably more ‘male’ looking figures playing the sports than female figures (they are all animals). Possibly as a balance, whenever there is a pronoun used, it is usually describing a female. Everything from rhythmic gymnastics and athletics, to skiing and mountain climbing, horse riding of all types, dirt bike riding, golf and racquet sports, as well as fishing, boxing and rugby are shown.

One of the most interesting pages to me was that about ice hockey, mainly for this description: ‘Sad but true: sometimes ice hockey players fight. That’s one reason an ice hockey game has up to four officials to make sure the players follow the rules.’ On reading further, I realise these fights are sanctioned and indeed, part of the game. I guess it’s not too far removed from rugby at times!

The illustrations, as always for Ole Könnecke, are an absolute delight and the highlight of the book. The athletics page is hilarious, with the elephant doing a shot put, the penguin doing the long-jump, the cow doing a balletic high jump, and the octopus throwing the javelin. Then there is the giraffe on the pole vault. The illustration of her getting distracted by a butterfly halfway up then falling flat on her back makes you wince and laugh at the same time. ‘This time, the giraffe approaches faster than before. This should work. Too late she notices that in the excitement she has forgotten her pole. That wasn’t good either.’

The illustrations are also innovative in where they have sports being performed – in the case of swimming, he shows frogs doing the breaststroke, the freestyle and butterfly in a goldfish bowl, complete with goldfish.

I’d recommend this book for sports lovers of all ages. It is a great primer for ideas of what sports might be played, and would work for kids aged 3 and up. As always, the pictures can be read without the words, by a younger child reading alone. Sports are indeed, fantastic fun, when written and illustrated by Ole Könnecke and published by Gecko Press.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Sports are Fantastic Fun!
by Ole Könnecke
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572014

 

 

Book Review: The Kitchen Science Cookbook, by Nanogirl Dr Michelle Dickinson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_kitchen_science_cookbook.jpgI was absolutely delighted to receive a copy of this beautifully designed book by Dr Michelle Dickinson. As soon as I tweeted about it though, I had a school librarian wondering if it was designed for kids – understandable, as it is Nanogirl herself on the cover, with no sign of kids.

The contents of the book itself though, are superb. There are 49 experiments, utilising science concepts from transpiration, to capillary action; thrust, to solar energy, to chemical reaction. Each experiment is laid out with a cute title, a list of equipment and ingredients, detailed instructions, then ‘the science behind’, then an explore further segment. There is a brief explanation of which principle it is proving at the top right corner, and at the bottom left there are icons giving you more information on what type of experiment you are undertaking.

The initial information is very thorough and provides a good grounding for what is to come, though the audience for this section a bit muddy – I think it is assumed that an adult will be involved for this part of the reading. That is fair!

I did a few of the experiments with my kids, and the Static Powered Dancing Ghost worked beautifully. One thing I felt was missing was – and perhaps this could be in a link to online – tricks for fixing experiments that haven’t quite worked. While there are leading questions about them on each segment, I would have liked to know what the most likely causes of failure were. My 7yo was put off the book entirely by the semi-failure of two experiments. (TBH with his current feeling towards failure, he’s probably not going to be a scientist!)

I would very much like to have seen a larger font size used throughout, and less emphasis on the big photos used throughout the book. It’s very beautiful, but the font size and light grey colour is not friendly for either kids who are only just learning to read well or parents with poor eyesight.

The photos are great though, with lots of kids from all types of cultural backgrounds having fun with experiments with their parents. I look forward to trying some more of these experiments as my kids get less afraid of failure.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Kitchen Science Cookbook
by Dr Michelle Dickinson
nanogirl labs
ISBN 978473425975

 

 

Book Review: I’m the Biggest, by Stephanie Blake

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_i'm_the_biggest.pngSimon is now so big he has his own self-named Netflix series! This little rabbit has taught our household how hilarious the words Poo Bum are, how brave you can be when wearing a cape, and how to negotiate swapsies with friends. He even went to school at around the same time as my youngest son.

So now it’s time for sibling rivalry. Simon has grown – but he hasn’t grown as much as Caspar (alias: Gaspard), and he’s not happy. The catch-phrase in this title is ‘No Way’. He accuses his mum of feeding Caspar more, then gets sent to his room for being cheeky, where he swears revenge.

They go to a park, where Simon is asked to keep an eye on his brother. He spots a big kid from his class trying to bully him, as he scores a goal in soccer.  Will he let it keep on happening? Or is he going to pretend like nothing is happening?

As a self-appointed connoisseur of Simon books, this one fell flat for me. First – modern parenting doesn’t look like this. I don’t send my kids to their room for saying ‘No Way’. If I did, they’d never be in the lounge (they say much worse, at times). And ‘No Way’ just doesn’t have the shoutability the previous catch-phrases have had.

That said, the rivalry between brothers certainly rang true, especially in the area of height. My youngest recently lost his 8th tooth, so they are now even in the number of teeth that have fallen out, to the chagrin of the elder brother! And they have the same size feet. And I could totally see the eldest seriously considering letting his brother be menaced, to get him back.

If you are a collector of Simon books, add it to the collection! But if you haven’t started on them yet, start with Poo Bum, and don’t forget A Deal’s A Deal. And if you want your kids to learn a bit about empathy, try 2017 title, I Can’t Sleep!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

I’m the Biggest
by Stephanie Blake
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776572021

 

NZF Writers & Readers: Ursula Dubosarsky – Through a Child’s Eyes

Tara Black reviews in pictures, while Sarah Forster reviews in words, Ursula Dubosarsky – Through a Child’s Eyes at NZ Festival Writers & Readers, on Sunday 11 March. 

NWF18 Ursula D

Chair Lydia Wevers noted at the beginning of the session that three months ago, she had never heard of guest Ursula Dubosarsky. She has since rectified this and become increasingly embarrassed not to have read her work previously, noting ‘Ursula is a brilliant, satisfying and haunting writer,’ also noting to her ‘Awards grow on you like mushrooms.’

Lydia began the session with a question about writing – what comes first for Ursula – character or a story. Ursula told us a few stories about how she writes, which as for many writers, is a summation of experiences she has had over her lifetime. In the case of First Book of Samuel, for instance, she’d first heard the name of Elkanah at a kibbutz, describing somebody who was very charismatic and damaging; much later she realised the name was biblical, so this character was born and brought the story with him.

She also told the origin of The Red Shoe, which was from a talkback radio show that saw a caller ring in to talk on the death of the wife of Vladimir Petrov, the caller noting she lived next door from them and the Australian Diplomatic service would give her and her sisters a ride to school each morning.

Ursula says ‘All you need is a hair and some blue solution – something has to stick.’ The intuition is the hair, and this refers to an experiment she did at school where they grew crystals on a hair.

Lydia noted that over her career, Ursula has become more preoccupied with historical realism – at some point there was a shift in focus. The Blue Cat, Ursula says, came out of an editorial her dad wrote during the war for his school magazine (this was a surprise in itself as her father, when asked about school, would state it was ‘brutal, sadistic and cruel.’) The book itself includes several historical documents, including this editorial, and focuses on a Jewish immigrant to Sydney and the friendship a young girl creates with him despite their language barrier.

In Ursula’s books, Lydia says, ‘children are not protected.’ The books are also frequently funny, with a particular strength being interactions between parents & children. This leads, for Ursula, into a discussion of her book Abyssinia. She notes first that when writing picture books, she can see her audience on the mat in front of her – it isn’t like this for novels, but she is always writing for children.

Abyssinia is about a child being left in a home where they seem to have a purpose which isn’t clear. The adults in the book say ‘for every child that is lost, a child must be found,’ then the lead character must go on a journey.  Ursula notes that this particular book is greeted by adults with a kind of fury, while children understand it more readily. It was written while she was working as a typist for Court cases, and was writing one hour every day prior to having her morning coffee and beginning her cases. She thinks perhaps her mind was in a dreamlike state – and the intuition for this book began at a dollhouse museum she had taken her daughter to.

Lydia wondered whether Ursula believed that any content in books ought to be restricted for children. She says, ‘You can write about anything for kids, it just depends how you write it.’ For instance, Golden Day as Lydia perceives it is possibly about rape and murder. But it isn’t explicit. The intuition for this book began during Ursula’s work as a Court typist, where she encountered an awful rape/murder case which involved a ‘good’ seeming person. ‘It is hard for children to recognise bad people and know what to do when they find one. It is hard for adults as well, sometimes.’

It isn’t only children that are confused much of the time in Ursula’s work – the adults aren’t having a good time either. Businesses and marriages fail, there are dramas just out of earshot of the children. It’s real life.

While I enjoyed hearing about these works, I found the session a little frustrating – there was a bit much explanation of books and what they were about, and I was amused at the most passive aggressive question I’ve ever heard being asked at the end. ‘In the programme it says you would talk about the difference in perception between an adult and a child. Can you talk to that please?’

I am looking forward to delving into Ursula’s work however, and I’ve already begun with a few books from the Unity Bookstore stall outside the session.

Reviewed in words by Sarah Forster

The Blue Cat
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760292294

Brindabella (out 28 March)
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760112042

NZF Writers & Readers: Blazing Stars – Hera Lindsay Bird and Patricia Lockwood

Tara Black drew this and Sarah Forster wrote out some of her notes. Image, as always, copyright Tara Black.

Patricia Lockwood is the author of 2017 memoir Priestdaddy, as well as two collections of poetry; while Hera Lindsay Bird  is a bestselling poetry author. They are both truly hilarious.

NWF18 Hera Lindsay Bird and Patricia Lockwood

Both women are masters of metaphor, and this forms the centre of part of their discussion. Hera names Mark Leidner and Chelsea Minnis as who she learned the art of dramatic metaphor from. She notes that ‘Tricia’s book was so good that you swear at each page, because you didn’t write it, and you finish off the book feeling less of a person.’ Patricia says, she loves Hera’s ‘permeability to modern culture.’

Each has had a poem go viral, and both loved the experience. They note later that they are both half-internet, with Patricia noting her early poetry experiences were formed by ‘Poetry Boards’ on the internet. Oddly, I remember these as somewhere I published my tragic teenage poetry when nobody understood me. LOL.

Another theme of the discussion was humour. Both are great humourists, and chair Charlotte Graham-McLay delved into this a little with them. Patricia was formed by Jack Andy’s Deep Thoughts, The Far Side – the modern internet humour starters as she saw them. Each agree humour is harder than it looks, but Hera notes that one of her favourite things about the internet is that you can throw a joke out there and guarantee a good percentage will get it, while 20% will be confused and take offense.

I’d highly recommend going to Patricia Lockwood’s session tomorrow. They touched lightly on themes in her memoir – as she begins the book, she sets up her family and gives her audience the understanding that they had to develop a carapace of humour to survive the strength of her dad’s personality.

I think it was Patricia who noted that linguistics in the internet age are exciting and funny. Certain punctuation is hilarious, and the ‘mum texts’ you see online are always funny – a fullstop can feel like a punch.

Patricia and Hera both struggled a little with needing now to be so close to their readers, but each of them has a different emailing audience. Hera attracts 55 year old men with Sigur Ros t-shirts, and 16-year-old girls; while Patricia usually attracts 22 year old boys that weigh 90lbs.

I’ve never laughed so much at a writer’s festival session, and rarely during a stand-up comedy session. You can catch both of them again tomorrow!

You can still catch Hera Lindsay Bird in action at Poetry International, 4.15pm, Sunday 11 March.

And Patricia Lockwood has her solo session Patricia Lockwood: Midwest Memoir at 1.15pm, Sunday 11 March.

 

NZF Writers & Readers – Nick Earls: High Five

This is a review of Nick Earls: High Five, which was a discussion between Nick Earls and Elizabeth Heritage at 5.45pm, Friday 9 March at the NZ Festival Wellington Writers & Readers Festival.

Nick_Earls_High_Five_WR18_c_Candid.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250We are here to discuss Nick’s five Wisdom Tree books, which I haven’t yet read – though I bought Gotham soon after the session.

When he submitted his last novel to his publisher Penguin Random House in 2013, he realised that the next 5 ideas that excited him most were 20,000 word stories, each about Australians visiting countries overseas. Of course, most publishers won’t touch them – they will collect short stories, but not novellas. So he had to design a bandwagon so he could get his novellas published. So he did, a PhD into whether novellas are the future of reading and an economically viable way to publish content: the answer, he has proven with his set of novellas, is yes. The novellas were set simultaneously as e-books, print editions and audio books. Nick appears not to do things by halves!

Elizabeth was a good chair, and the two had a rapport throughout the session. One of her first questions was about how he chose the places for his protagonists to go. Nick says, ‘I wanted to push them out of their comfort zone. Sometimes there were obvious choices, but sometimes I got to be quite creative.’

Many of Nick’s stories have an element of fictionalised reality in them – something Elizabeth came back to with him later in the session. He told us the story of his mysteriously lost ‘great great uncle’ who came to Australia from Ireland in the 1890s. It was a story of bad mental health and misconception caused by psychosis: and the more he researched, the more he realised he wasn’t the only one with this type of story. This formed the central story of Juneau, which was about a father & son seeking a long-lost relative who disappeared during the gold-mining era in the 1890s.

On the topic on another of the novellas, Vancouver, he talked about modern research. The book opens with the character flying from Calgary to Vancouver to meet a long-lost friend who had to be in a university for the plot to work. He found a place that was right for this, then to set his scene accurately, he used Google street view and virtually drove the streets three days in a row.

‘I have taken moments or ideas and watched things come together as they didn’t in the real world. Then I make the most of it.’

This came through in Gotham as well, which is based in New York. He spoke of having to choose his protagonist without appropriation of other lives – this is about an 19-year-old African-American rapper from Brooklyn, which he knew he couldn’t write as. But a 40-year-old rock journo: yes. In this story he wove a family, a four-year-old with the freshness of view of the young, seeing things and realising they are real – a four-year-old who needs to be a superhero for some reason.

‘You bang two narratives together and a narrative happens.’

Nick can relate to being an outsider, which each of his novellas deal with. He emigrated to Brisbane from Ireland, when he was 8. He spent a lot of time in the library – until he could work out a way to speak in an Australian accent. Having been an outsider gives him an excellent perspective of learning from observation. Relating to other cultural voices ‘This makes you to consider whether it is really your place to do that .’

Another interesting point Nick made was that life doesn’t always place you where the action is, but the actions still have consequences – ‘fiction isn’t like the news’. Some things are better observed by the character.

We moved on here to his fifth novella, NoHo. In this, the teller of this story is the brother of the person who wants to be a child star so badly that she made her family upend their lives to get her there. ‘I chose him because I wanted a naive and less judgemental pair of eyes. He is an observer. And he has his own life too.’

Elizabeth noted the intertwined short fiction collection is one of her least favourite forms, but these novellas gave her the buzz of recognition of seeing relationships, without being totally intertwined. Nick seemed happy with this – he wants to make people feel clever.

We then moved into a phase of the discussion that I did my best to keep up with. The question was how he managed three different types of publishing at once.

Nick has done his PhD on just this: to begin with, he looked into how people are reading.

I didn’t realise that the first commercial ebook was Steven King’s novella Riding the Bullet, distributed as a PDF on a computer. There has been a lot of change, beginning in 2007, when the Kindle emerged and ebooks surged – ebooks increased 1270% over three years to 2010. ‘The publishing industry panicked, then focussed so hard on ebooks that they don’t notice the rise of audiobooks.’

Nick noted that the early adopters of ebooks were people who read a whole lot, and they were avid readers of romance, crime and fantasy, meaning the Kindle store was dominated by these genres.

Looking into the change in reading habits, he thought there’s a pitch to made here. The thing with reading novels on ebook – you forget who everybody is by the end of the book. A novella is easy to devote your attention to. It gives you something the short story can’t – you read it in an evening. It’s a better fit with our lives.

At the time Nick wanted to approach audio books too, Audible had worked out they had a revolution on their hands: podcasting was getting longer, and novella sized material was what they were looking for. At the time Nick was pitching to them, they were working on channels in the US. So he figured he’d try something else and said to them ‘why don’t we cast it like an Aussie drama series’ – they said yes, and the marketing for the series used the voices of these actors as a hook.

Nick noted that far from cannibalising his paper book sales, the audio and e-books pushed it – there more synergy than we think across the markets, thanks to reader / listener recommendation pushing the novella through into other formats.

Nick’s had three test for the connections between his novellas: 1. Does it make the work better? 2. Does it not make the work worse? 3. Does it avoid being cheesy?

He is excited about this work and the scope of it into the future. The 20,000 word novel is the largest thing you can hold in your head in one go. He says, ‘I like being able to deal with that intricacy while still having that string in my head.’

I am a brand new fan of Nick Earls’ work and look forward to exploring more of it in the future.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Booksellers NZ.