Book Review: The Trials of Minnie Dean: A verse biography, by Karen Zelas

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_trials_of_minnie_deanKaren Zelas tells the story of Minnie Dean: the first and only woman to be hanged in New Zealand after she was found guilty of infanticide. However, Dean also seems to have been a compassionate character who loved and cared for unwanted children. It was the deaths and disappearances of some of these children that led to Dean’s death in 1895. In this biography, Zelas asks the question of how guilty Minnie Dean truly was.

In the poem ‘Where would they be without me?, Zelas writes Minnie Dean as a kind-hearted woman unlike the harsh reports that surrounded her. In this piece, Dean is someone who helps the mothers of unwanted children start again: ‘I sweep their mistakes like dust / beneath the rug so they / may dance upon it / in white linens’.

And indeed, where would those children and their mothers have been without Minnie Dean? By exploring Dean’s story, Zelas is also studying the story of many struggling women. In the poem The home for fallen women, Zelas further explores the difficult position that mothers with unwanted children held during this period. She describes how, after giving birth, ‘at last their shame takes human form / it’s whisked away… here the nightmare ends/begins.

So perhaps Minnie Dean was a saviour for helping to alleviate a burden on other women. In  the poemNothing in this world, Zelas describes a scene where Dean brings back a child on the train. But to her shock, Dean looks to the child to see that she has died on the journey. The verse becomes erratic and Dean thinks, ‘the child is dead / what shall I do?… dorothy edith / dead’.  I couldn’t help sympathising with Dean, so much that I felt a little pang in my heart reading her despair. However, Minnie Dean is also an obsessive character; her endless trips to find more children become progressively more hazy and frantic. Overall, Zelas recognises the importance of investigating Dean through both the good and the bad.

At the end of the biography, Zelas then brings out the story to a modern conversation. Breaking out of the immersion of Dean’s world did leave me feeling jarred, but this section was also important in its own right. When Zelas is asked to bring her own thoughts to the case of Minnie Dean, her background in psychiatry comes to the fore as she suggests a new perspective: ‘minnie dean was a confabulist / & a liar’. The two things Dean cared about the most were her reputation and her children. She lied when she felt threatened, but evidence shows that she could have been a caring mother as well.

The Trials of Minnie Dean is heartbreaking and compelling in many ways. At its core is Minnie Dean, a woman just trying to survive and perhaps doing it in the most compassionate way she can. But along with her are many others trying to survive: the fallen women. Whether guilty or not, Zelas asks us to step back and reconsider Dean as a complex character, as well as how Dean’s story would be seen from a modern perspective. Perhaps in another time, another system that worked to support rather than shame, Minnie Dean and all those fallen women would have turned out differently.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The Trials of Minnie Dean: a verse biography
by Karen Zelas
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129994

 

Advertisements

Book Review: Field Notes, by Mary Cresswell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_field_notes.jpgField Notes is such a wonderful poetry collection because Mary Cresswell explores a vast number of forms in one book. Just a few of these forms are sonnets, ballads, and word clouds. And each form explores a new playing field where the rules are different.

Cresswell wonderfully employs repetition in her poem ‘Trespassers W’. She warps the normal by distorting a familiar phrase: trespassers will be prosecuted. Instead, Cresswell tells us how ‘Trespassers will be empathised. We will know their destination before they do, and we will tell them which road to take’. Creswell continues playing with the phrase and as a result, trespassers are not only pasteurised, but also exacerbated and liberated. It’s a witty little piece that plays on rhythm and words, with the imagery sometimes verging on the bizarre. My favourite? ‘Trespassers will be disambiguated. They will be turned into tigers and run around the pancake trees until they melt into butter’.

Cresswell’s poems are also very conscious of the world that they have been written in. One of these poems is ‘Indexers in love’. Cresswell uses themes surrounding love as entries in an index. For example, there’s ‘hazards, 56, 75, 113’. Then there’s longer entries in the index such as ‘heart: broken, 56; in mouth, 24-2; murmur, 123; of darkness, 307.’ It’s a beautiful and clever poem that reveals the very many concepts that surround love through the simple format of an index.

Moving on is an especially beautiful poem. The poem has four different parts, and I loved the final section, a small piece of prose poetry titled Borrowed light. In this ethereal and surreal piece, Cresswell turns the moon much more than just a circle of light in the dark sky. The moon is characterised as something closer to human. She is someone who ‘hoists herself over the hill heading for the sea’, who ‘flicks aside the stickiness of the stars’. When she finally finds her way to the sea, the moon is ‘grateful for the horizon at last’.

And when Cresswell moves to more traditional forms of rhyme and verse, Cresswell’s own delight in the form shines through. In the poem ‘Evoking the muse (2)’, Cresswell proves that she is a wordsmith who is very much aware of the external and internal rhythms that each word carries. This is shown through the second verse of this poem, which is an absolute delight:

He licks in shape the purple flame

of perfervid fabrication

and scrambles for fresh figments

on my tree of inspiration

The sheer variety of forms in Field Notes was wonderful to read, and I hope Cresswell keeps exploring the different rules that she can adhere to as well as the different rules she can break. Cresswell’s Field Notes prompts us all to be open to the various forms that poetry can take. Poetry is riveting because it is so varied and Cresswell’s collection is a brilliant reminder that there is no objective way that poetry “should” be written.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Field Notes
by Mary Cresswell
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780994137951

 

Book Review: The Discombobulated life of Summer Rain, by Julie Lamb

Available in bookshops nationwide.

The Discombobulated life of Summer Rain is shortlisted for the Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction, and the Best First Book Award in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

cv_the_discombobulated_life_of_summer_rain.jpgIt’s hard not to want to read a book which has “discombobulated” in its title, and thanks to Margaret Mahy it’s a word that many kids will be familiar with.

From the first paragraphs, I was hooked. Summer Rain is a feisty, funny character who has a particularly weird family. Her mother departed the family early in the piece, and with her dad not able to cope, Summer spends much of her school week with her grandfather, Pop – shrewd as a ferret and cunning as a weasel, but also a good mate to Summer, most of the time. His lifelong stinginess means he’s loaded, but you would not know this from the dilapidated farmhouse and the state of Dock’n’Thistle, his rundown farm.

Summer feels that she does not fit in well with her peers, is a bit embarrassed by her living conditions, and makes up for it by being a bit of a clown, which makes her popular with the boys, and viewed more cautiously by many of the girls.

The story is well-developed – a romance between Pop and a local serial marrier (I made that up, I can’t find the right word!) brings Summer tremendous angst and she works to bring this to an end.

How she does that would be a spoiler, but along the way the ideas of real friendship, family loyalty and individuality are well-explored. It’s a bit wacky – quite a bit, actually – but that adds to the charm. I did find my credibility a little bit stretched once or twice but I didn’t really find that mattered in the end.

Julie Lamb writes in an easy, flowing manner and there’s heaps of humour along with the magic. Oh, I did not mention magic before? Well, there is quite a lot, as it happens. But you’ll need to read this book to find out just what that magic does.

Highly recommended, likely to appeal to girls more than boys I think, and definitely worthy of its place in the Book Awards finalists.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Discombobulated life of Summer Rain
by Julie Lamb
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994123701

Book Review: The Little Cloud, by Beverley Burch and Elspeth Nicol

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_little_cloud.jpgWritten and illustrated in 1959 by two kindergarten teachers but not published until recently, this adorable book takes the reader on a trip around New Zealand with a little cloud who just wants to learn how to rain.

Tucked away in the corner of a large grey storm cloud, the little white cloud yearns to be alone. After a storm rages over Wellington for three days and two nights, the little cloud gets his wish.

He was fluffy.
He was white.
He was free.

Now the little cloud has to learn how to be a cloud, like coping with the wind, and noticing his colour changing as the sun goes down. When he wakes the next morning he knows it’s time to learn how to rain, but first the wind picks him up and takes him all over the country.

He ends up floating over Taupo where he notices the dried up grass around the lake and the empty water tanks. He is tired of playing and wants to learn how to rain, but he doesn’t know how. This makes the little cloud sad, and when tears start running down his fluffy cheeks he begins to rain – and rain and rain. When the land is no longer dry he becomes happy again and he stops raining and begins to play.

Not watching where he’s going sees him land on top of Mount Taranaki, where stays for a rest, smiling because at last he knew how to rain.

This book may have been written almost 60 years ago but the story is delightful and the illustrations are not showing any signs of age. It would be a great read-aloud book for younger children, and older children will enjoy the story and the thought of a cloud learning how to rain.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Little Cloud
by Beverley Burch and Elspeth Nicol
Published by Makaro Press (Submarine)
ISBN 9780994137920

Book Review: New Sea Land, by Tim Jones

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_new_sea_landYou can lick the salt off this poetry, half expect sand to spill from the centrefold. Tim Jones’ latest collection, New Sea Land, is part history, part rattling fortune-telling. It is a slap on the face by a wet fish, a digging up of heads-in-the-sand. Jones has spied a calamity from the shoreline, an oncoming deluge. History is repeating on us, and this time the tide is coming in full.

New Sea Land is salty, but it is not your run-of-the-mill nostalgic beach jaunt. The sea and land are dispassionate players in a human-instigated ecological meltdown. Jones’ sea ‘does not mean any harm’ and his ‘sea does not apologise’. The sea is a desultory child, nibbling at the edges of things, erasing ‘Beachfront property / … with the stroke of a pen’.

Jones’ work is didactic, but not earnest at the expense of a playful image or a great one-liner. He pokes tongue at the itch for beachfront investments, and the securing of LIM reports. In a great little anachronism, Jones has Noah’s (of the Ark) carpenter crew curse ‘zero hours contracts’ and swim away from the job. Then there’s an alternative history played out, wherein Captain Cook and Dracula take ‘tea and blood together’ in Kealakekua Bay. It is all fun-and-games, but the broader picture is sober and confronting.

The world is falling apart at its seams. This is a New Zealand where climate change is playing out. The sea floods Lambton Quay, rolls over childhood homes, and meets householders at their doorsteps. People are left with new geographies of which to make sense. Jones gives us a periscope to a time where myopic vision has crystallised into something tangible. It is only once the impact is ostensible that we realise we ‘backed the wrong horse’.

There’s a passing of the torch, from one generation to the next, but one gets the sense that the flame has gone out. Jones’ people are asleep or in denial. They leave a legacy of rash decisions, a lack of investment in a future beyond their own:

‘You slept until you lost the path,

and woke to find your children’s path
blocked by rocks you long ago set falling’

New Sea Land glances backward, as much as it forecasts. It reflects on history, memory that ‘renders everything askew’. Jones stresses the importance of cognition of times-gone-by, in the navigation of a future. His people, though, are ‘so eager to obliterate the past’ that they ‘wash away the stepping stones’. Condemned to repeat past error, through disavowal of history, we find ‘all our futures / are hostage to our actions’.

Jones’ poetry is a caution and a premonition. ‘Nature doesn’t stuff around’. The sea and the land couldn’t care less about where we’re heading. Jones writes so well, you might lose sight of the fact you’re getting cold water thrown at you. You can lick the salt off this poetry, by all means. But Tim Jones doesn’t give you halcyon coastlines or ice-lollies on the beach. This is poetry that knows what’s coming, and insists you ‘keep your life raft close at hand’.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

New Sea Land
by Tim Jones
Submarine (an imprint of Mākaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129963

Book Review: Lewisville, by Alexandra Tidswell

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lewisville.jpgOur stories are an important part of who we are. This is especially so in New Zealand, which really was the ends of the earth to our brave and intrepid forebears. Why would someone choose to travel in appalling conditions to a land of promise but little fact, far away from all their family, friends and culture?

Alexandra Tidswell has taken on the challenge presented by her own family to answer this question. As a seventh generation New Zealander, she had the initial stories, a 1960’s search and some 1980’s genealogical data as a starting point. From this, she has created a story which gripped me to the end.

Martha Grimm escapes to New Zealand with her daughter Mary Ann from Warwickshire in 1814. She left behind parents, other children and a husband, who had been transported to Australia. She leaves to follow her dream of escaping poverty and make a new life. While the novel is based on true events, the setting and characters are beautifully rounded and add real depth to the story. This is not a poetic foray into the beauties of the New Zealand landscape. At no time was I bogged down in treacle description. Rather, the storyline is strong and urgent. Martha has a determined and ambitious plan which she works hard to bring about. The tension in the story arises with the tale of her husband, as he too tries to escape the poverty and injustice of convict life in Australia. As his wife has remarried and become something of a society lady in Wellington, will her past catch up with her?

Tidswell has treated each part of the story with a genuine honesty and sympathy for the characters and their response to events. While we could view Martha as a selfish woman who cares little for her children left in the workhouse, we are drawn into the dream of a better future. The possibility that she might claim her children when she has succeeded, is always there. However, the stories of the children are also handled masterfully as they make their own way without the care of their parents. We cannot help but share the dream of Martha.

Likewise, the role played by the indigenous people, both in Australia and New Zealand, in supporting the naïve and unprepared immigrants in this new environment, is handled well. It is not overplayed but the information is there as part of the overall view.

Wellington residents will enjoy the description of early Wellington streets and suburbs as the settlement grows and the early homes are replaced by more substantial residences.
I see Lewisville as a coming-of-age book. The family story in integral but it is a really gripping story with real characters and identifiable places. This is a valuable contribution to the backstory of our country. It is well-told, excellently edited and researched and very readable. A great way for me to start my holidays.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Lewisville
By Alexandra Tidswell
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994137906

Book Review: An echo where you lie, by Polina Kouzminova

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_an_echo_where_you_liePolina Kouzminova captures a longing that tugs at the heart in her poetry collection, An echo where you lie. Amongst the tumultuous images of nature—snow, rushing water, glaciers—Kouzminova finds her emotions reflected in all aspects of the world around her.

Kouzminova was born in Siberia and from the age of ten, she was raised in New Zealand. The influence of these two cultures combined shows in her own poetry, where she reflects on all that she has left behind. Distance in both space and time is what defines the collection. Often, Kouzminova finds herself pausing in anticipation for this distance to close, for kilometres to be travelled, for hours to be finished. In the poem Chemistry, she waits silently, for “he will come, bringing / a thousand years’ absence home”. A quiet and unsettling atmosphere blankets the poem, a feeling of hushed and nervous expectation.

The poem Franz Josef Glacier is a soft and delicate piece about departure, and it’s my favourite poem in the collection. There are the familiar motifs come with this kind of scene: the act of letting go, a plane, a distance that only grows and grows. Kouzminova brings something special to these conventional images. She describes continents that “would lay themselves out / on the palm of my hand” and the dazed feeling of waking up and then having to again remember what’s been left behind. Especially heart-wrenching are these simple lines: “Now your softness will be touched / by somebody else; I do not exclude this.” The poem not only captures longing, but also a sense of bittersweet resignation, of having to let go of a warmth that could never quite be all hers.

However, leaving is not all bad. In the poem At the airport, Kouzminova describes the promise that comes with reaching her destination. She affectionately paints an image of her mother cooking in the evening, and thinks of the rest and warmth that she can finally have. Kouzminova captures the scene in one clear and crisp sentence: “These are the reasons to leave late nights / and fly back home”.

The poem If we aren’t careful is like a minimalist love poem, a poem that doesn’t demand much of its lover. Instead, it asks for the simple things: “Promise me / you will always be someone / from afar”. Distance seems to define Kouzminova’s life, and she is left to find echoes of other people in her memories. Even if she can’t see them in the flesh, her memories continue to reflect and bring them to life.

An echo where you lie is simply a stunning collection of work, and I love the way Kouzminova threads images together into crisp scenes. This is only Kouzminova’s debut collection, and I definitely want to read more of her poetry. She perfectly captures the strangeness that comes with moving, of having pieces of home scattered in different places and never quite feeling full. The stories she pulls together aren’t fantastical but everyday. The magic is in how she renders these familiar actions: leaving, arriving, forgetting, remembering. This is what holds up her words and what makes her work so bittersweet yet beautiful.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

An echo where you lie
by Polina Kouzminova
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129949