Book Review: Home, edited by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_new_writingThere was a flood of excitement when this collection came out, and understandably so. It’s beautiful and thick with a classy list of contributors and a solid concept; personal essays from NZ writers on what home means to them. It’s also from a new publisher, Massy University Press. The theme is topical, and timeless; intensely personal, and universal – it’s everything we want a personal essay to be. Mostly this collection is all of those things, but occasionally it meanders off into upper-middle-class small talk slush.  The theme might be too personal for some writers. A few got caught up in describing their household furniture.

Some of the pieces are absolute literature, particularly those that ruminate on home, and something else. Ashleigh Young, in my new favourite Ashleigh Young essay – Matrices, writes about home and secrets, specifically those of other people. With the accuracy and honesty that characterise her writing, she writes of her childhood self, ‘The truth is, whenever I flagrantly invaded someone’s privacy, I felt that somehow I’d won. It was as if we were always playing a game but others kept forgetting we were playing it.’

Gina Cole’s Grandma instructs her on how to dive for turtles and they watch TV together, among many other things. She’s hard to quote without typing out the whole thing (I like this essay, the turtles are worth knowing about!) so I’ll stick with a very brilliant metaphor for Muldoon’s hair: ‘His left cheek is pulled into a rictus of a smile. He looks bald although there are thin strips of hair combed straight back from a neat receding hairline and running down the middle of his head and on each side of his ears… like tiny tentacles gripping on to an egg.’

Martin Edmond writes a biography of Mollie, a circus elephant now buried in Ohakune. Sarah Jane Barnett is marvellous on running as a way to find a home in your own body, a point past pain where you can be in solitude and peace with yourself.

I felt very at home with Helen Lehndorf, who writes with power and honesty about her son’s autism, and about love. ‘All the good fights I fought, I fought for him.’

In Bonnie Etherington’s essay, ‘Never Coming Home,’ a village elder in West Papua tells her father, ‘In the past we knew who the enemy was. It was Suharto, so we could fight him. But now, we know we are being destroyed, but we don’t know who by. How do you fight something when you don’t know what or who it is?’ and she continues, ‘Suharto’s fall was meant to solve many things. And people can move now without feeling his eyes on them. But the scars in Papua’s dirt grow and the trees keep falling, squeezing people from their gardens and their homes as they watch people from elsewhere in Indonesia move in on the ‘empty’ land.’

I have more favourites, but I don’t want to simply quote and praise things I liked, because as I said it often felt a lot like small talk. There are a lot of middle-aged, daddish sentences like, ‘In our family we all saw sport as a stimulating challenge, physically, mentally and technically. That’s why we liked it so much.’

I don’t want to single anyone out because it happens right across the board, including in some of my favourites. Halfway through the collection I started wondering what I would submit if commissioned to write a personal essay about home? My essay would be terribly self-indulgent and tedious. It would be about how glad I am that the Karori Countdown have widened their selection of teas, but how I still think that, actually, it would lovely to have a few more options. So, when I think about how bad things might have been, this collection is exceptionally good.

Not that Home is an uninteresting or irrelevant topic, far from it. But it’s a subject that can bring out the most dreary in anyone if they’re not careful.

Home is fun to read, relevant, compassionate and frequently sharp. It’s a big book, and not too expensive, so I’d recommend it to anyone on the condition that they make sure not to beat themselves up if they end up skipping the odd page, or even a few whole essays.

Reviewed by Annaleese Jochems

Home: New Writing
by Thom Conroy
Published by Massey University PRess
ISBN 9780994140753

Book Review: Foggydale Farm: Jam Sessions, by Lynda Hallinan

Available from booksellers nationwide.cv_foggydale_farm

One of my new year’s resolutions is to teach myself some new recipes. I don’t do much of the cooking at home – it’s my husband who makes all of our meals and also the chutney and lemon curd at Christmas. I’m the gardener though, and over the last few years I’ve planted a wild raspberry, strawberry, and rhubarb patch.

My attempt at growing produce is nothing compared to gardening legend Lynda Hallinan’s Foggydale Farm. Set in the Hunua Ranges, south-east of Auckland, she lives there with her family and ‘four cats, two dogs, two kunekune pigs (Apple Sauce and Plum Chutney), eight free-range (evil garden vandalising) chooks, a small clutch of (wild-eyed) Limousin cattle and three dozen sheep.’ While I cannot relate to the scale of Hallinan’s holding, I do relate to her desire to value making ‘not only from the standpoint of economics, but for pure pleasure.’

Foggydale Farm: Jam Sessions certainly fits with the thrifty homegrown, homemade movement and its vintage aesthetic, but Hallinan is no new-comer (and really, neither is the movement). The recipes in this book have grown out of Hallinan’s rural childhood and a farming family who made jam. After making a glut of damson jam one summer, Hallinan decided to set herself the challenge of making a different flavour of jam each week. The ‘Jam Sessions’ were born, as was the book.

The book is a luscious combination of full-page photographs by Sally Tagg, watercolour illustrations by Lindsay Eller, and Hallinan’s easy-going and engaging writing. There is a section dedicated to each season and the produce that can be harvested and made into jams and jellies during that time of the year. Recipes include ‘Rose Petal Jelly,’ ‘Blueberry & Fresh Bay Curd,’ and ‘Pumpkin Honey’; the condiments section has ‘Smoky Bacon and Bourbon Jam’ as well as more classic herb and nut butters. This is more than a collection of recipes, though; about half the book is information about produce and techniques, woven throughout Hallinan’s anecdotes. Hallinan also includes a ‘Back to basics’ section for those new to jam and jelly making, which is where I’ll be starting.

Hallinan notes that jam is somewhat unfashionable at the moment because of its high sugar content, but points out that sugar is needed to make a proper jam with no compromise to colour and flavour. I tend to agree, and as she states ‘no one ever eats an entire jar of jam in one sitting … And, as with all things, when you’ve made it yourself, at least you know what you’re eating.’ While Hallinan states ‘jam making requires no fancy gear’ she then follows with a long list of essentials that include implements such as a ‘candy thermometer.’ There’s something exciting about the newness of the process, the discovery, and then – I hope – the mastery. It’s like a return to childhood.

Foggydale Farm: Jam Sessions is a beautifully produced and styled book. I feel as though making these jams will make my world a little more beautiful and definitely more delicious. The book takes the reader into Hallinan’s kitchen, and I can feel her love for family and produce. That said, she is careful to balance the romanticism with the hard work of making. Foggydale Farm: Jam Sessions is a practical, funny, and warm collection of recipes that celebrates the rural housewives who used home-made jam to feed their families during lean times, and Hallinan’s continuation of that tradition.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

Foggydale Farm: Jam Sessions
by Lynda Hallinan
Published by Foggydale Farm Press
ISBN  9780473336547

Ten years of curious, inspiring, wonderful books


I invited Sarah Jane Barnett to join me on the floor in the kids’ section of Unity Books just before Christmas to talk about Gecko Press and their amazing 10 years of publishing, with a half-cooked concept of coming up with the ultimate top 10 (or more) Gecko Press titles to recommend. Instead, we ended up having a bit of a fan-girl over some of our favourites, and talked a little about what sets Gecko Press books apart.

Sarah Forster: What do you think is your favourite Gecko Press book?cv_snake_and_lizard
Sarah Jane Barnett: I think my favourite for me is Duck, Death and the Tulip (Wolf Erbruch, 2008, translated from German, 9781877467172), because I find it so moving. But my favourite for Sam is Snake and Lizard (Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop, 2007, 9780958278737) What I like is that the stories are short, so we can read just one, or we can read many of them; and that there’s a lot of conflict in them that we can talk about, but they’re funny as well. I mean, what I like about all the Gecko Press books really is that the characters aren’t too sweet – they’re not smoothed out.
SF: Yeah, see, Reflections of a Solitary Hamster is a good example of that, because he is not a likeable guy, but you love him anyway. He’s really unpleasant to all his friends, and then they all come to his party anyway and give him really good presents. But you love it, and you can’t put your finger on why. That is one of my favourites.

cv_the_big_book_of_words_and_picturesSF: My boys are completely different readers. Dan will read everything just once, while you will read the same books for a week to Alex, and he’ll still want them every night. Both of them though, went through a long period of obsession with The Big Book of Words and Pictures (Ole Konnecke, 2011, 9781877467875)*
SJB: I think that’s a brilliant book.
SF: It was published at exactly the right time for me, Dan was one. It was perfect!
SJB: I think what I do like about those books, and a lot of the Gecko books, is that Sam will just sit down and read them by himself. And he’ll want me to read them as well, but the illustrations are so interesting. And they go from that really young age, through to things like Snake and Lizard, where you’ll start to read these short chapters, and you know but it’s got a few illustrations… Up to the chapter books.
Scv_the_travelling_restaurantF: A wonderful moment in domestic publishing by Gecko for me was when they published The Travelling Restaurant; I was blown away by the newness of it. Despite the fact it was a trope, it’s done again and again but, the newness of what Barbara had come up with and their ability to recognise it.
SJB: Yeah, they’ve got very good taste, haven’t they?
SF: I guess, like with Mrs. Mo’s Monster, they just picked it up and ran with it.
SJB: I do find these books bring up a lot of conversations.

SF: One book that Dan goes back to and back to, was this one: The Magical Life of Mr Renny. The reason he goes back to it is because he gets it. At the end there’s a joke. He sends a picture to his friend Rose, and Dan was immediately really proud of himself for ‘getting’ it. He’d have just over 3 at the time.
cv_frankySJB: Yeah, Leo Timmers is – we have Bang! and we’ve got Franky, and a lot of Bang! is just the same joke over and over again. And I like that in Franky, the young boy is so sure that robots live on another planet, and the boy’s right. It’s so affirming, for their world view.
SF: Redemption for kids and how they think.
SJB: Poo Bum and I like Spaghetti are like that as well, the kid gets to say ‘Poo Bum’. The fun of reading Poo Bum is saying it over and over again.
cv_the_magical_life_of_mr_rennySF: I also love the depth of Mr Renny, because he paints everything his heart desires, and it shows that everything your heart desires is never going to be enough. He gets to the point that he’s got the lot, then he has to paint the person who gave him the power, to get him back, to make himself a painter again. Because he can’t paint without it becoming real. A very clever little philosophical problem.
SJB: They are quite philosophical, aren’t they.
SJB: I think with Gecko, you just always know you’re going to get a good book. I think it’s because its such a small operation as well, the books are so carefully chosen.
SF: Jane had input, but Julia goes to the book fairs and things, and pays money for them – she has very good business nous, coupled with excellent taste.
SJB: You can really see all the love.

cv_toucan_canSF: When they brought out Toucan Can, by Juliette McIver & Sarah Davis – I like most of what Juliette & Sarah do, but this, for me was like Dr Seuss. I thought, wow – that is so good it’s stunning. I remember writing in a review “I cried a little when I first opened this book.” I think it is her best work, certainly to date – nothing has hit me as hard since. I think there’s something in that. Gecko only take really the cream. They have a very high standard, for what they want their stories to do.

One of the ones that I really liked – I think I reviewed it for you – was The Lazy Friend.cv_the_lazy_friend Yes, the sloth.
SF: A wordless one.
SJB: Having the wordless ones, it’s a real diversity of different types of books. The wordless one was brilliant for making up the different stories that you could make, and talking about the illustrations.
SJB: They do some puzzle books as well, don’t they. We had the dinosaur one of those (Dinosaurs Galore, by Masayuki Sebe), and Sam loved that.

cv_just_one_moreSF: Here’s one I really like – Sheep in Boots. It’s a different take on a sheep and a wolf tale. And I adore Just One More, its a really quirky combination of very short stories, illustrated by Gavin Bishop.
SJB: I got a book by Gavin recently, Bruiser. It really only worked at one level. That’s what I like about the Gecko books, is they work at lots of different levels. They’re funny, and they have ways to talk about difficult emotions. Poo Bum and I want Spaghetti are like that.
SF: Actually, A Deals A Deal, have you got that – from the same series. That ones actually very clever, because they’re trying to do a deal on these cars, he swaps him three cars for his one. The car falls apart because it’s plastic, so he puts it together with boogies and says its treasure inside it so the friend takes it back. That was one of Dan’s favourites for awhile.
SJB: And you get to talk about problems kids encounter every day. I find they are very fun to read, really beautifully produced (even just having this half-flap) and the paper stock just makes it so nice to hold.
SJB: And because they are mostly translated, we are getting these cherry-picked books from all these slightly different cultural takes on the world, which I enjoy. It means that Sam’s not just getting one world view.
cv_the_cakeSJB: In The Cake, they’re all kind of slightly mean to each other, its another book in which they’re not really these sweet characters. In some other children’s books, the characters have conflicts or they’re not very kind to each other, but I don’t believe it. In The Cake, you do believe that they are actually mean.


Mean characters, meaningful discussion points and illustrations that tell the story by themselves: all things that you will find in Gecko Press books. Thank you Julia, for starting such a fine little company 10 years ago, and for having the good business sense and excellent taste to grow it to where it is today. May the next ten years be even kinder to you.

Sarah Forster & Sarah Jane Barnett are fans of Gecko Press. One Sarah has a 5 & a 3 year old boy, the other has a 4 year old boy; they all love Gecko Press books, even if they don’t know it quite that specifically yet.

*After this interview, I took Who’s Hiding, by Satoru Onishi home for Alex, thinking it would be a likely hit. One month later, he has memorised it and enjoys asking us who’s hiding and who’s sad. Every Night.

(I will add a list of details for each of the books mentioned here, in the next day or two)

Book Review: Ocean and Stone, by Dinah Hawken

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_Ocean_and_Stone‘Our world floats like a pebble in the universe. / Have we become, as predicted,
unconceivably lonely?’

Dinah Hawken is one of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed and well-known poets, and Ocean and Stone is her seventh collection of poetry. She’s often cited as a nature poet, although Hawken took some time to see herself as such. In one interview, she states: ‘I’m amused when I look back to the launch of my third book, where Greg O’Brien described me as a “nature poet.” I was amazed – I hadn’t thought of it, but realised it was true. I should have known since the book was called Water, Leaves, Stones!

Hawken’s last collection The Leaf Ride (VUP, 2011) was one of the most affecting collections published that year, so I was glad to return to her sharp observational and meditative style in Ocean and Stone. Hawken shines most brightly when writing sequence poems as they allow her simple language to build in force. And forceful they are – few writers have the skill to return to the land and the sea with such originality and genuine knowing as Hawken: ‘The land is like a knife, out / of it’s sheath and glinting in the sun.’

Structurally, the collection falls into three parts. The book opens with the speaker as a grandmother, and the poems beautifully explore our differing perceptions of the world. In ‘The lake, the bloke and the bike’ the speaker talks to a group of men about the unwelcome noise they’re making on the lake. The poem states, ‘We all have our own interests, / he said. I agreed.’ The sequence of poems ‘The small boy’ recounts activities between the speaker and her grandson, Nate. Together they make the world through play, Nate with his dough and trains, and the poet with her language. Eventually play and language combine: ‘“Push,” he said and the word and action / clicked together.’ Both Nate and the reader see how to place language, and how language in turn places us.

These poems are followed by two sequences: ‘The young woman, Inanna’ and ‘The uprising.’ The first retells the story of the female Mesopotamian deity Inanna (Hawken used information from clay tablets to write this poem). Inanna’s story of female power – ‘She leaned back against the apple tree / and her vulva was wondrous to behold’ – sits strangely and evocatively beside the poems about the kindly grandparent. The two women are both creating their world, and when read with ‘The uprising,’ a masterful and unapologetic political poem about rising sea levels and human carelessness, the idea that our actions and voices are important comes forth.

The central part of the collection is the thirty page sequence, ‘page : stone : leaf.’ The sequence was created in collaboration with stone sculptor John Edgar, and his drawings work well with Hawken’s poems. Edgar’s drawings use words from an old Irish alphabet, and they remind me of cave drawings or stone rubbings. There’s something essential about their roughness, and the way the sit alongside Hawken’s poetic investigation of the materials. Together, the poems and drawings create a dream-like sequence that’s hard to define: it evokes some deeper, subconscious connection between humans and the earth.

The last third of the book feels more haphazard in it’s themes, and I wonder if it needed to be a few poems shorter. It encompasses the retelling of the Sumerian flood myth, poems about connection, and a sequence of poems about a friend with dementia. It also contains the most beautiful poem of the collection, ‘Tidal,’ which is a six part sequence about aging and acceptance:

They cannot always stay.
You cannot predict the clot, or bleed,
in the branching circle

of your circulation, the accretion
that blocks the way. Yet something
carries on in the ocean:

a memory, a carry, a swell
encircling the ones you leave and love,
rotation after rotation.

The experience of reading Hawken is to be lulled and then shocked awake, to see the land and the sea with such freshness you taste salt, and to feel her poems rise in your body. Even though she’s a ‘nature writer’ and these poems often have environmental themes, they are never overwritten or polemic; the politics arise naturally from the speaker’s concerns, and her concerns are many.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

Ocean and Stone
by Dinah Hawken
Published by Victoria University Press, 2015
ISBN 9781776560448

Book Review: See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious, by Greg O’Brien

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

You are a camera. Your eye is a lens. You open your eyes and images register inside you. Some images remain there a long time. Some might even stay with you for the rest of your life.’

cv_see_what_i_can_seeIf See What I Can See can be considered a guidebook to New Zealand photography, then Gregory O’Brien is our knowledgeable tour guide. He takes us through the many photographs in the book and teaches us how to see them. As well as being a painter, literary critic, and art curator, O’Brien has written many books of poetry, fiction, and essays. This is not his first book about art aimed at the ‘young and curious’; he has also written Welcome to the South Seas (2004) and Back and Beyond (2008). Both of those books won the Non-Fiction Prize at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young People. There is arguably no better arts writer in New Zealand, and in See What I Can See, O’Brien draws on his long term experience to showcase an extraordinary range of images made by New Zealand photo-artists.

See What I Can See may be pitched as being for younger people (I would say ages 9 – 15), but this book would make an excellent introduction for anyone interested in the subject. O’Brien’s approach is funny, anecdotal, and intimate: he’s a story-teller and we are drawn to the images by his stories. The history of photography features lightly in the book, and includes the construction of cameras such as Darren Glass’s ingenious Frisbee camera and the rise of the selfie. What is particularly special about O’Brien’s approach is the way he not only shows us how photography captures what is there, but how it captures what the photo-artist feels. So while photography can be historical, abstract, beautiful, mysterious, and documentary, it is also a individual’s perception of the world.

Such beautifully produced non-fiction books are a specialty for Auckland University Press. It is obvious that care has been take to reproduce images from many of New Zealand’s great photo-artists: Laurence Aberhart, Peter Peryer, Marti Friedlander, Ans Westra, and Brian Brake. The text states, ‘Great photographs can often take us to places where words can’t follow them,’ and it is an idea played out in the sections on hands and faces, and also the surreal studio dreamscapes. In the acknowledgements O’Brien states, ‘I have been lucky, over the years, to spend time with some great photographers. More than anything else, what I’ve learned from them is a state of attentiveness, of looking closely and working intuitively.’ The same praise can be given to O’Brien: he asks us to be attentive and to look closely, and through that attentiveness to see his idea of beauty.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious
by Gregory O’Brien
Published by Auckland University Press, RRP: $34.99
ISBN 9781869408435

Book Review: WORK, by Sarah Jane Barnett

cv_workAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

As a fan of Sarah Jane Barnett’s debut collection, A Man Runs Into A Woman, I was excited to read her newest book of poetry, WORK. Like her debut, this collection tells the story of a variety of characters with their own shifting relationships and lives, from the life of an Ethiopian immigrant to that of a polyamorous couple.

There is a striking simplicity about Barnett’s writing, especially in the way she daringly describes the unconventional. Each poem is a snapshot of a certain life, but Barnett does not pass judgement on these lives; she simply presents them for what they are and lets readers grapple with the truth themselves. Although it can be hard at first to relate to circumstances that seem so different, there is a natural quality to these characters’ thoughts and worries that left me feeling empathetic. The longer poems did feel more fulfilling for this reason, since they felt more developed. However, the sheer variation of lives explored also made every experience valid.

Several of these poems almost felt like fantasy in the way they were presented. In one poem, a woman hunts down a bear; at the same time, she recalls the legend of a girl who decided to marry the very same kind of animal she is trying to kill. Despite this wide imaginative scope, these poems are still familiar in the way they are ultimately grounded in the real. The woman also recalls a break-up, thinks of a lost conversation and recalls other scenes in her past. It is this bridging of the gap between the real and the unreal that softens the placement of such fantasy amongst the genuine quality of these lives.

I also enjoyed the range of forms Barnett used to tell these stories, and the way she included fragmented poetry along with sections that bordered on prose. Pieces of fragmented writing allowed an internal look into the sometimes-frantic thought processes of Barnett’s characters. In ‘Running With My Father’, the narrator turns to the rhythm of her run to help her find the appropriate words. The breathlessness of the exercise leaves her language jarred, stating, “long exhale rhyme working into the cords of the body disorder”. These various formats and perspectives brought out a more solid representation of what these characters looked like to others and also, importantly, to themselves.

For me, the title WORK encompasses the way in which these characters attempt to overcome adversity. Work is an inevitable and enduring facet of life, and although this idea of work is not physically manifested in Barnett’s poetry through office tables and manual labour, it is expressed through these characters’ own struggles. In this way, they are navigators of work, trying to align it with their own desires. The silver linings that these characters find despite their struggles, all presented through Barnett’s beautiful language, makes Work a moving portrayal of humanity. Although different, these lives find a common ground in the hope of second chances, and the knowledge that it’s not the end, not quite yet.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

by Sarah Jane Barnett
Published by Hue & Cry Press
ISBN: 9780473333331

Book Review: I want spaghetti! by Stephanie Blake

Available in bookshops nationwide – and worldwidecv_i_want_spaghetti

Author and illustrator Stephanie Blake was born in 1968 in the US, but lives in Paris, France. She has created dozens of French children’s books including Poo Bum, Stupid Baby, A Deal’s a Deal and I Don’t Want to Go to School. Lucky for us, Gecko Press have translated these books into English.

The problem with writing a children’s book as successful as Poo Bum is trying to follow it with something as funny. Even Simon Pegg tweeted about how much he liked Poo Bum, and let’s face it, there’s no higher praise. In this instalment, the cheeky little rabbit called Simon has a spaghetti addiction! The book does not disappoint. With simple and colourful illustrations, Blake tells a story of gentle persuasion. Simon the little rabbit is determined to only eat one thing … spaghetti! His parents, though, have other ideas.

Simon the rabbit could often be a stand-in for my own child, and I think many parents will feel this when reading Blake’s funny and sweet book. In I want spaghetti! Simon is coy, cheeky, and plain demanding: ‘His mother said, “Come and eat your toast, my little rabbit,” he replied, “Yuck! It’s horrible. I won’t eat it!”’ As the mother of a child who demanded ginger kisses for breakfast this morning, I identify with mother rabbit standing patiently in her son’s bedroom, a heart stitched onto her long pink dressing gown.

What’s wonderful about these books is they help both parents and children to talk about difficult behaviour. They’re funny, and acting out the dialogue is funny: ‘Slam! Crash! Bang! “ALL I WANT IS SPAGHETTI”’, rages Simon. Helping a child laugh about their own fussy eating and fickleness helps address the big emotions that come with these situations. I also think the books help parents laugh about these things too, which can be hard to do when your child is lying on the floor, eyes squeezed shut, and calling for ginger kisses. I can’t wait to see what Simon (and his parents) do next.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

I want spaghetti!
by Stephanie Blake
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781927271926