Book Review: Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_sadness_is_a_white_bird.jpg‘Everything was salt and sweat, summertime and sharpened swords’ – what an opening sentence that is. Except that it’s not actually the opening sentence, as there’s a small paragraph before chapter one which begins: ‘Oh Laith. I don’t know shit about flowers.’ That’s a pretty good opening sentence too, and in fact resonates throughout the novel.

I could not put this book down. It’s absolutely beautiful; challenging, confronting, poignant, powerful, political. It’s by turns – and also at the same time – a love story, a love triangle, a coming-of-age-story, a completely open and honest take on the hornet’s nest that is the Israel-Palestine conflict, a searching for family roots and more.

It’s honest, tough, uncompromising in its truth, and deserves to be very very widely read.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a young Israeli-born, American-raised writer. Middlebury Magazine says this about his writing:
‘To be an artist in the year 2018 is to be continually grappling with questions of privilege, authority, and authenticity. In his novel, Mori gives voice to an Arab grandmother, an IDF commander, a West Bank Palestinian, and a gay teenager in Auschwitz. If the only story you have permission to tell is your own, he thinks, then the abiding premise of art is dead. Still, telling others’ stories means telling them with great care. Mori asked a diverse cast of friends to be early readers; they fact-checked everything from his Arabic transliterations to the number of seats in an Israeli armored personnel carrier. He’s proud that, even when former IDF soldiers disagree with his politics, they don’t fault his rowdy depiction of life in the barracks.’

As a Jewish writer who both loves Israel and is unafraid to fault it, Mori is accustomed to attracting criticism from all quarters. He’s not getting any criticism from this reviewer.

The protagonist, Jonathan, is nearly 18 and about to do his compulsory army service. (Moriel refused to his, and ended up in a military prison for 20 days). School is over, he and his friends (who will also go into the army) are spending summer mucking around, smoking, drinking a bit, smoking other substances a lot, and generally killing time. Then Jonathan meets (via his mother’s activist work) Nimreen and Laith, Palestinian twins. They form an instant and strong connection and spend every Friday together, talking, smoking, hanging out. They believe they can have it all, but that faith is shaken when Jonathan goes to the army.

I am not going to give anything else away. I think that Rothman-Zecher has written a really remarkable novel. If you are interested at all in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, you won’t find any quick answers here, but you will find a great deal of insight into the complexity of the situation, the reality of life in the region, and the power of fiction to build bridges.

I think this book would be a great one to put into senior school libraries, but it’s not a kids’ book. I think public libraries should stock it, and I think you should all just go and get it, and read it. You cannot fail to be moved.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Sadness is a white bird
by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Washington Square Press
ISBN 9781501176272

Book Review: River of Salt, by Dave Warner

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_river_of_salt.jpgI had never come across this Australian writer and I was pleasantly surprised. I learned that he is a musician (Bob Dylan’s favourite Aussie muso, apparently) and a ‘living treasure’. He’s also a pretty good writer!

Murder mysteries are often written to a formula, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,as you know what you are in for. While I haven’t read previous books by Warner, I am inclined to think that River of Salt is unusual in that it’s not in the least formulaic, and I cannot imagine the main character, hitman Blake Saunders, easily transferring to other situations.

This well-written and exciting mystery is set during the 1960s in a small Australian coastal town, where Blake Saunders has ended up after leaving Philadelphia and his Mob connections.

He sets up a bar/music venue in this small place, and soon learns that the local cop is a bit like a sheriff – knows all, manages most of it in his own way, is a bit dodgy himself.

Because this is a murder mystery, there’s a body early on, with a connection to Blake’s venue. He sets out to protect his patch by finding the killer. There are twists and turns, and a couple of things which stretch credibility, but that’s all part of the game.

The characters are well-drawn, and the 60s setting is also well done. I can’t tell you much more without giving away spoilers, but there’s a lot going on, and I found it an enjoyable read. In a bit of a change from many American murder-mystery writers, Dave Warner writes in proper sentences, which are well-constructed. It’s quite a lot more complex than, say, a Robert B Parker novel, and I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy a well-told, exciting story.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

River of Salt  
by Dave Warner
Published by Fremantle Press
ISBN 9781925591569

Book Review: Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Travel Tips

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

lonely_planets_best_ever_travel_tipsFor such a small volume, there’s an abundance of useful information packed in here!

Whatever your particular question about travelling well, safely, economically and with minimal fuss, you’ll most likely find the answers in this pocket sized travel companion. From how to survive a small-group tour, to which plug is for which country, to considering ‘old-school’ technology to help you through small crises – there are a lot of ‘oh, of course, why didn’t I think of that before?’ moments.

It will be very helpful, I think, for less experienced, and also solo, travellers.

There are suggestions for eco-travelling (up to a point, of course) and how to give back to local communities through supporting local initiatives while you are visiting. This includes eating local! It’s one of the simplest ways both to support and learn about the place you are in.

Hate the cramped feeling you get on long flights? There is a list of exercises you can do pretty well anywhere to help with that.

Love your food, but have an allergy or intolerance to particular things? Take diet cards (if you are coeliac, for example) and snacks for emergencies. It’s worth it.

Always take more clothes than you need? Remember there are shops where you are going – this is not a Lonely Planet tip, but my own advice – and if you spend a bit of time planning to take things which mix and match, your problems are halved.

Got scammed on your last trip? Relax, it happens to everyone but you do need to be alert, and there are tips for what to watch out for. The mantra ‘If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true’ definitely holds when travelling.

Highly recommended, and only one proofreading error that I picked up – one of the headings is STAY SAVE AND HEALTHY – doesn’t work, however you parse it!

But regardless of how often, or where, you travel, I think you’ll find this a very handy little book.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Lonely Planet’s Best Ever Travel Tips
Published by Lonely Planet Global
9781787017641

Book Review: Girls’ High, by Barbara Anderson

cv_girls_highAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This is a republication in the excellent VUP classics series.

I always thought I had read this book, and probably I have. However it came as if new, which was an unexpected pleasure.

The staff of Girls’ High are the main characters, although there are appearances by family members and the occasional pupil. Mostly those from last year’s 4F….

Having worked in a school – although not a girls’ one – I found this book hilariously funny.  Barbara Anderson must have set up a bug in some school staffroom, because it all rings hideously and cringe-makingly true of staff meetings in any school. The undercurrents, the inattention, the minds on almost anything except the matter being discussed – all there in glorious technicolour!

The power-plays, the cliques and relationships, the tensions, the stereotypical teachers are well drawn and infuriatingly accurate. You can, if you are a teacher, surely swap most of this cast of characters for those in your own staff room. Try it!

Nick Hornby said of it, when it was first published:

Even before its first page, Girls High promises freshness and originality: its contents page is simply irresistible. ‘Jenni Murphy thinks about her sexuality’; ‘Sooze thinks about Bryce’s job in the morgue’; ‘Thea Sinclair thinks about the Aerial Survey in 1978’; ‘Miss Franklin remembers the smell of pepper.’One immediately turns to the back of the book, to find a photograph of the woman who thinks about Jenni Murphy thinking about her sexuality.

Chapter headings are these days something of a rarity, but it’s wonderful just to read them, as Hornby did, and begin to wonder, before you begin to read.

It’s more a collection of short pieces than a full-blown novel, I think, but regardless it works well. Towards the end when the annual Leavers’ Play is being planned, the dialogue (always good) goes up a couple of notches and the press-ganging of reluctant staff into full support of the project is again redolent of staffrooms everywhere.

The main characters – Carmen, Sooze, Margot – are credible – but then all the characters are credible, even if stereotypically recognisable. But I don’t mean that in a negative way – it merely adds to the humour, which is clever and sharp.

This book is still a delight and if you have not read Barbara Anderson’s work, I am sure this will encourage you to read further. Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Girls High
by Barbara Anderson
Published by VUP Classics
ISBN 9781776562107

Book Review: End of the Golden Weather, by Bruce Mason

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_end-of_the_golden_weather.jpgThis is one of the books re-released as VUP classics.

Like most readers, at least most of my vintage, this is a very familiar work. I have read it, seen it many times, but I had never read the interview which forms the preface to this edition.

It’s absolutely fascinating, and threw up all kinds of reminders. I saw the NZ Players, when they were doing school tours in the early 1960s. I remember the name Bute Hewes as a producer of television. But what stands out from this interview text is the amazing ability of Bruce Mason, not only as a writer but as a performer. More than 500 solo performances of this work is a staggering achievement. Add to that no props at all, and you can only be stunned at the determination and the audacity (Mason says that Emlyn Williams, when asked for advice, appeared stupefied at Mason’s audacity in thinking he could pull this off at all!) that drove Mason. He wanted us to see this work, and if no-one else would perform it (which sadly was the case) then he must needs do it himself. 40 characters, one actor.

Thank heaven, is all I can say to that.

There’s a reported conversation between Mason and a theatre-goer ( a reluctant one!) who enjoyed the show despite himself, and mentions a red light. Mason says there was no red light. I empathise with the theatregoer, as when I saw the Goons movie, I could swear Harry Secombe was wearing a ‘flowered cretonne frock’ in his bit about the queen. Of course he wasn’t; it was radio, after all, translated to the stage. But that’s the power of theatre, and of the actor.

So, reading the whole ‘voyage into childhood’ that makes up this work is an absolute delight. I am over and over again in awe of Mason’s creative and linguistic abilities.

The end of the golden weather, the end of childhood innocence and the kicking-in of the harsh realities of life are timeless.

If you never have seen or read this ( and there will be many readers who have not) do yourself a favour. Buy, borrow, beg or steal it and immerse yourself in a true and magnificent New Zealand classic.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

End of the Golden Weather  

by Bruce Mason
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864732729

Book Review: And the Ocean was our Sky, by Patrick Ness

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_and_the_ocean_was_our_sky.jpgThis beautifully produced book is matched by the beautiful writing, and a concept that absolutely turns Moby Dick upside down. The allegorical nature of the story gives a great messages about tolerance, understanding, the nature of power and much more besides.

Bathsheba is a young whale who is one of three apprenticed to Captain Alexandra. They are hunting Toby Wick – but just what, or who, is Toby Wick? A ship, a whaler, a devil? you’ll have to read it to find out.

However, Patrick Ness has done it again – by which I mean he has created a story which instantly engages the reader: ‘call me Bathsheba. It is not my name, but the name I use for this story. A name, I hoped, that would be free of prophecy, free of the burden of a future placed upon it, free of any destiny that would tear it from my hands and destroy worlds. You think I overstate. You are wrong.’

Quite hard to stop reading after an opening paragraph like that. You’d think it would be hard to write a story from a whale’s perspective, but not to this author apparently. It’s a powerful narrative, occasionally violent – well, it is about whales and whaling! – and frequently extremely moving.

The stunning illustrations by Rovina Cai are a brilliant addition to the book, and visceral in their power. They are mostly black and white, which makes the red of blood leap off the page.

In any hierarchical group, human or animal, there are weaker and stronger characters, and challenging and difficult relationships when power is in play. Ness manages this extremely well, making the whales entirely credible as characters. The interplay of conversation and emotions between the captured sailor and Bathsheba is clever; the power of Captain Alexandra is well-conceived and well-described, and the whole book carries you along – the questions of morality which, to me, under-pin the whole story, are poignantly written, particularly at the closing of the story.

I think this would work well as a read-aloud to older kids, but I also think there’s much for the able reader of any age in this excellent book.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

And the ocean was our sky
by Patrick Ness
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9780062877444

Book Review: Memory Pieces, by Maurice Gee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Memory Pieces cover.jpgMemory Pieces is made up of three separate pieces of memoir – the first, Double Unit, is the story of Maurice Gee’s parents, the second, Blind Road, is about Maurice’s own life until he became a writer at the age of 18, and the third part, Running on the Stairs, is the story of Margareta Garden, prior to meeting her future husband Maurice Gee.

On the face of it, this is just another memoir. However in the hands of a writer as talented as Maurice Gee, (and also of his mother Lyndahl Chapple), you become completely involved in the life and times of these people, in a way that simply draws you in to continue reading.

The Chapple family were quite possibly a little unusual in that James (Our Father in Lyndahl’s story) shifted most of his large family to the United States for a time, as he was a pacifist who would likely have landed up in jail in New Zealand. That’s a pretty brave move for anyone, but seems particularly so for the time (just prior to World War 1). Lyndahl’s story is a delightful picture of a childhood in the early part of the 20th century, and I just wish she had not stopped so abruptly. The reasons for her not continuing a potential career as a writer become clear in Maurice’s part of the story.

Maurice’s story also captures time and place brilliantly. It made me think– as I frequently do – that we need to get our family stories told before those who can provide much-needed facts and anecdotes are unable to do so.

Told in Double Unit, Lyndahl and Len are an interesting couple with not a great deal in common: Len a practical and pragmatic builder, a hard worker, providing for his family, keen on racing, while Lyndahl’s interests were not quite on the same page. Len did build her a writing desk, though!

As with most families, all was not smooth sailing and as a parent, Lyndahl had some dark times, which took their toll on the family. Again, you realise that these things are far more common than we imagine, and there are few families untouched by trauma or difficulties of one kind or another.

Margareta’s story, told by Maurice in Running on the Stairs, brings a young Swedish girl to NZ with her mother to reunite with their husband and father, Oscar Garden, a renowned pilot. Again, trauma and difficulty are apparent, and the marriage does not last. Margareta comes across as a strong, determined young woman, adapting with apparent ease to constantly changing circumstances.

There’s a great deal in this book to reflect on, and in which to find similarities of upbringing, belief and experience. I found it a fascinating read – it’s sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes drily humorous and often extremely touching.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Memory Pieces
by Maurice Gee
VUP 2018
ISBN 9781776562077