Book Review: Under the Almond Tree, by Laura McVeigh

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_under_The_almond_tree.jpgLaura McVeigh’s debut novel, Under the Almond Tree, tells the story of a refugee family leaving Kabul, Afghanistan, to escape the Taliban in the 1990s. The narrator is Samar, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on the stories of others while she and her family struggle to continue theirs. From her parents’ stories of Taliban severity after the Soviet invasion, Samar contemplates the atrocities of militant regimes and their destructive ideologies.

The repercussions of the Taliban presence impinge individual freedom. Samar’s affected family is represented, therefore, as a microcosm of a fracturing, imploding society. Apart from inflicting pain and death, the surveillant Taliban regime also severs family ties by sowing seeds of distrust and hatred. Consequently, Samar’s mother (Madar/Azita) and father (Baba/Dil) face many challenges as they strive to protect Samar and her siblings Omar, Ara, Javad, Little Arsalan, and Sitara. The novel also explores the influence of cultural standards and norms on relationships, and conveys a yearning for the past freedoms of Afghan women in particular, such as education and personal liberty, before the Taliban came about.

To cope with the destruction of her homeland and family, Samar finds strength through her talent for storytelling, which equips her with a passion for instilling hope by creating new lives for her family and for herself. What she learns is that while the Taliban can oppress women by banning their education and imposing stringent rules on their manner of dress and daily affairs, they can never take away the intangible, the universal, and the ideals of hope, love and beauty. Such a world lies in the pages of her encyclopedia, grammar books, poetry anthology, travel guides, and her favourite Tolstoy novel, Anna Karenina.

Under the Almond Tree is an emotional, descriptive, and wistful story about the power of ideas and stories, depicted as a form of quiet resistance. Imbued with literary and historical references, this book would appeal to teenagers and young adults. I particularly recommend it to those who have read a thematically similar novel, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief: a story of resilience which takes place in the same century but in a different place and time.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

Under the Almond Tree
By Laura McVeigh
Published by Hachette NZ
ISBN 9781473640849

Book Review: War Blacks, by Matt Elliott

cv_war_blacksAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Rugby and war are often described as major influences in defining who we are as New Zealanders. This book is a new twist on an old theme.

To dismiss this book as ‘just another rugby book’ would be doing it a serious disservice. Everyone has a story to tell and Matt Elliott does this very capably for the over 90 men who both played for the All Blacks and, either before off after, served in World War 1. Although following the narrative of individual sporting and wartime careers becomes somewhat repetitive, there are certainly some intriguing stories. The remarkable account of Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) Henry Essau Avery is one such tale.

Liberally distributed within the player’s biographies are some superb snippets and anecdotes. Former M.P. John A Lee’s account of playing rugby (John was a soccer player), in an article for Chronicles of the NZEF in 1916 is a classic example: ‘A man needs to be a centipede to play rugby decently, and every leg shod with a pair of tens.’

As a rugby enthusiast I was a little disappointed that the All Blacks involved in World War 2 were not give similar treatment. Perhaps that story has been told elsewhere, but the likes of Fred Allen, Charlie Saxton and Bob Scott – to name but three – deserve to be remembered as War Blacks, such was their influence for decades after the war.

While this book may attract only the dedicated bunch, for the serious collector it is a must.

Reviewed by Robin Hughes

War Blacks
by Matt Elliott
Published by Harper Colllins NZ
ISBN  9781775540366

Book Review: Waybread & Flax, by Belinda Diepenheim

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_waybread_&_flaxSuspending disbelief is something that Belinda Diepenheim has achieved in this clever and intriguing collection, an extension of the manuscript that won her the Kathleen Grattan Award in 2013. Employing the perspectives of the plant world is an ambitious decision, but one that Belinda achieves beautifully.

Plant perception is not a new idea. Even Darwin himself, after investigating climbing plants with his son, concluded that plants, albeit without neurons, can “…receive impressions from the sense-organs…” Some of the scenarios in Waybread bring to mind the archetype of the blind prophet, such as the Bulgarian prophet, Baba Vanga and the idea of the silent observer to our chaos, who has vision, despite a lack of physical sight. Of course, this kind of outsider-looking-in narrative is great for exploring difficult subjects and giving the reader a taste of voyeurism without any added guilt. If offers us a fresh lens through which to see the world. All of this is tempered with a cheeky irreverence, such as the personification of horopito as a dangerous scarlet woman, the femme fatale of the plant world. ‘…hot through and through…”, Get too close, you might die…”

But it’s not all fun and games. Using the narrative device throughout the book enables Belinda to explore observations on colonisation, war and other difficult aspects of history, such as epidemics, through the eyes of the alien (the plant). The other benefit of using this device is that we also get to delve into the rich poetic soil of the botanical world, accompanied by gorgeous full colour plates of botanical illustrations. The title characters, waybread and flax are indicative of some of the subject matter – Waybread being the European import and flax, the symbol of New Zealand indigenous culture. The book is also divided into sections relating to ancient herbal cures. Cook and his imports and also Maori traditional medicines. It is no mistake that Belinda has chosen to focus on the healing and medicinal aspects of plants. The inference here is that, despite the brutality and trauma of our history, both colonisers and indigenous have an incredible potential for healing and co-habitation.

One thing you notice when making your way through the poems is that rain makes a regular appearance in nearly every poem. What could be more symbolic of healing the land? Again, it is woven throughout so as to seem inconsequential, but shows the deft hand of the poet in weaving it through the work. By the last poem, Solanum Laciniatum, Poroporo, we are left with the idea that just like that healing water that ebbs and seeps through “roots, stomata and shoots…”, we too are just passing through. Belinda comments that the next generation will still have:
…their hearts set on land of their own
a mass of dreams that has nothing
to do with reality.

Ultimately, the book ends on the note that it is enough to stand beside, to recognise our lack of ownership and the fleeting nature of our existence.

I stand beside, the tree ferns in the gully below,
the fickle piwakawaka flying
between bush lawyer and supplejack,
were never mine and I must pass
on from this place.
I will reply it was enough.

Reviewed by  Anna Forsyth

Waybread & Flax
by Belinda Diepenheim
Published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa

Book Review: Anzac Heroes, by Maria Gill


Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_anzac_heroesIt is books like this one that will keep the spirit of the Anzacs alive for the generations to come.

30 Anzacs who served during WW1 and WW2 are featured, their stories told and illustrated in a manner that brings them alive before the readers eyes. The stories told are accompanied by detailed maps, timelines and photographs that all enhance the reader’s experience and help to show exactly where something took place.

The heroes’ stories are told in a very relatable manner, ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the most extraordinary places and in a timeframe that simply doesn’t leave time to ponder ones actions. Each branch of the services is represented, male and female.

If there is a particular standout in this book, it is the layout and illustrations, they are so well done and a lot of thought has gone into it. The book flows well from page to page, making it very easy for any young person using the book for a classroom inquiry to find exactly what they need.

This is the type of book that lends itself to being picked up and read from cover to cover, equally as an inquiry resource. Finding the information you need is quite easy, it’s all there waiting.

This book should be available in every children’s section of the library and every school library both here and in Australia, it is a very valuable slice of our history.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Anzac Heroes
by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivancic
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN  9781775433637

Book Review: Best Mates, written by Philippa Werry, illustrated by Bob Kerr

Philippa Werry is a children’s writer and author of Anzac Day: The New Zealand Story, which is a finalist in the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Bob Kerr is a painter and illustrator living and working in Wellington.

Best Mates is a story of comradeship and endurance in the face of adversity.cv_best_mates

Three young boys, Harry, Jo and the narrator are best mates. They all lived on the same street and all went to the same school, playing and growing up together. They joined the New Zealand Army at the same time to fight for their country. They were being sent to Gallipoli. They saw it as a “big adventure.”

They sail by ship from New Zealand to the other side of the world. They then sail in the early morning out of Lemnos Harbour and then on to Anzac Cove in Gallipoli, where they are met with gunfire as soon as they landed on the beaches, with many being wounded or dead. They dug trenches to defend the peninsula from the Turks but conditions were very primitive and as a result, Joe got sick. He was then removed by stretcher to a hospital ship. Harry is then hit by enemy fire and ends up being wounded, but died a short time later of his injuries. He is buried by his comrades on the hill overlooking the sea.

Many years later the three friends are reunited, when the two surviving men fly from New Zealand to lay poppies on Harry’s grave in Gallipoli.

It is fantastic to see the numbers of young people attending parades increasing. It is heartening to know that the story of ANZAC has been preserved for the younger generation, to read and learn.

Bob Kerr the illustrator has done a wonderful job. The illustrations are simply drawn, but show the ugliness of war; the carnage, the reality, the grief and comradeship.

To all young people who read this book, think about what war really means, how families are broken forever by their young men never returning home.

Age range 5 – 12 years.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Best Mates
Written by Philippa Werry, illustrated by Bob Kerr
Published by New Holland
ISBN 9781869664114  

Book Review: Anzac: Photographs, by Laurence Aberhart


ANZAC: Photographs by Laurence Aberhart has been published to coincide with a major touring exhibition by Dunedin Public Art Gallery, and with the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Aberhart is one of New Zealand’s most recognised and admired photographers, and his photographs have been exhibited in New Zealand and internationally including major solo exhibitions in Amsterdam, Melbourne, Wellington, and Dunedin.

Photographing almost solely in black and white, and using traditional darkroom processing, Aberhart uses his technical expertise to create images with a strong sense of stillness and light. Many of his series document the effects of time and urbanisation on the buildings and culture of small town New Zealand, but he has also created work about Antarctica, museology, and the Southern USA. As Aberhart stated, ‘I’m trying to make, in as gentle a way as possible, people in our society look at stuff in the social landscape.’

Aberhart has been photographing ANZAC war memorials throughout his career. The seventy photographs that appear in ANZAC were taken between 1980 and 2013, and document memorials in both New Zealand and Australia that were built to honour those who were killed in the Great War of 1914–1918.

The full page photographs are grouped into sections, based on the inscriptions that appear on the memorials: The Great War, Lest We Forget, Roll of Honour, ANZAC, The Glorious Dead, Their Name Liveth, and In Memory. In the introduction, historian Jock Phillips explains that the memorials were some of the first in New Zealand. Their erection created a sense of national pride and a grounding of public spaces, but were also expressions of private grief and experience. The memorials, usually a lone soldier standing on top of an obelisk, served as a place where families could grieve for loved ones buried on the other side of the world.


Laurence Aberhart at the launch of his Anzac collection, Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Aberhart’s startling and beautiful photographs show how a “slow loss of community consciousness” have changed these memorials. Over the last 100 years they have became forgotten objects, often lost in the process of urban change. Some memorials are squashed in the middle of a main street roundabout, whereas others become the fronts for schools or public toilets. As Phillips states, the soldiers “stare aimlessly into the distance, ignored, slightly sad, timeless, peculiarly inactive … the overwhelming sense is of figures who have been forgotten.” Apart from the odd passer-by, there are no people in these photographs. Trees grow up around the memorials and shadows fall across the men’s faces. One photograph is taken from the back of the memorial so we see the soldier’s view: the empty countryside spreads out before him.

There is nothing quite like an original silver gelatin print. Seen in person, Aberhart’s photographs have a quiet intensity. They are like rectangles of light on the gallery wall. The reproductions in ANZAC have managed to capture the depth and subtleties of the silvery greys. Most of us live in a town with an ANZAC memorial. They are ubiquitous and hidden, part of our daily lives and national identity. The effect of page after page of memorials is that of reminder through repetition. Aberhart allows us to see them once again.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

ANZAC: Photographs
by Laurence Aberhart
Introduction by Jock Phillips.
Published by Victoria University Press & Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2014
108 pp. Hardback with dustjacket.
ISBN 9780864739339

Book Review: The Anzac Puppy, by Peter Millett and Trish Bowles

This delightful picture book will engagcv_the_anzac_puppye children and adults alike; beautifully illustrated and with just the right amount of detail for a younger audience, it is a timely publication as the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I approaches.

Based on true events, The Anzac Puppy tells the story of a New Zealand soldier, Sam, and Freda, the puppy he takes with him to the Western Front. Both Sam and Freda endure the hardships of trench life over a long period of time, and grow into adulthood together. The story has a lovely ending that brings things full circle.

As I’m a teacher, I asked my class of new entrants to help me review the book. They enjoyed it very much, thought the pictures were beautiful, they appreciated the ending, and they liked that Freda was a brave dog who helped Sam to be brave too.

Wondering if slightly older children would gain more from the book, I read it to the class of 6-and-a-half-year-olds next door. They were much more interested in the depiction of war than the younger children, and were keen to start conversations about the war, why it happened, and their own family experiences of WW1. Some of the boys were less appreciative of the ending (one went so far as to pronounce “bleuch” very loudly!), but again, the children were impressed by the bravery of Freda, and they were fascinated by the true origins of the story.

The Anzac Puppy stands on its own as a lovely picture book to share with children aged 5 to 10, as themes of courage and bravery always appeal. It also serves as an excellent starting point for conversations about the many commemorations that will take place in New Zealand and overseas to mark the significant anniversaries of WW1, and helps to convey a little of the sense of horror that our servicemen and women must have endured in the trenches. Recommended – on both counts!

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Anzac Puppy
by Peter Millett and Trish Bowles
Published by Scholastic NZ
ISBN 9781775430971