Book Review: I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess, by Petra Kotrotsos and Christina Irini Arathimos

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Id_rather_be_a_fairy_princessLike many 6 year olds, Petra wants to be a fairy princess. Unfortunately, she becomes ill with the cancer neuroblastoma, and has to become a warrior princess to survive the disease.

Written when she was 7 and published at 20, I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess is Petra Kotrotsos’ own story of her battle with cancer. It shows her strength and determination to overcome her cancer with the support of her family and friends. Told with a mixture of innocent imagination and matter-of-factness, the story explains the diagnosis, the treatments and the reality of living with cancer.

The pictures in I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess are lovely, with a softness to them which belies the hard topic that the book deals with. They suit the word beautifully, by matching the hope of the text perfectly.

I’m not sure how to recommend this book. It would definitely be a good book for a family trying to explain cancer to a younger child, or even within a classroom setting if it were relevant. The tone of hope and determination is a useful one, and the descriptions of x-rays, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and the helpful and caring nurses would help to take some of the fear away that a child may have about themselves or someone they care about following a diagnosis. I don’t know about recommending it as a general book for bedtime reading or the like – I think it would depend on the child. As the adult who knows your child best, have a read through first, and see what you think.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

I’d Rather Be a Fairy Princess
by Petra Kotrotsos and Christina Irini
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994137944

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Book review: Lifting, by Damien Wilkins

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.cv_lifting.jpg

Lifting follows Amy, a store detective working at a famous historic department store in the last few weeks that it is open before closing for good.  The store is called ‘Cutty’s, but it is difficult not to replace that with ‘Kirkcaldie and Stains’ in your head.  The setting is so unabashedly Wellington, and as a person suddenly surprised to discover she has lived quarter of her life there, I enjoyed the very present Wellington setting.

Lifting is a character study of Amy, with a plot that moves you towards an ominously shadowed ending.  Amy is introduced as a busy working parent  balancing a baby, finances and work with her husband, a supportive but not robust mother and a new challenge  looming unemployment as the store is about to close.  Amy is a store detective, and is very good at her job  how did she get the skill set to do this?  Why is she being interviewed by the police?

Past and present are all mixed together as Lifting is told from Amy’s perspective  uncensored and with her whole life narrative available at any one time to inform the story.  I found Amy a very honest character, without the superficial heightened self-perspective given to many characters in books.  Amy is Amy, she makes no great discoveries about herself  but she is very interesting and approachable.  Definitely one of the best written characters I’ve read in quite a while.

The slow deconstruction of Cutty’s is mirrored with the deconstruction of Amy  so much time is given to her description, and thoughts.  While there is a sense of foreboding as the book draws to a close, the plot is not allowed to take over the exploration of Amy.  It was a very compelling read.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Lifting
by Damien Wilkins
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561025

Book Review: Vertical Living – The Architectural Centre and the Remaking of Wellington, by Julia Gatley and Paul Walker

Available now in bookstores nationwide. cv_vertical_living

The Architectural Centre is a group of (mainly) architects, established in 1946 to promote their vision for a modern city. Wellington in 1946 was not a modern city – but was ripe for redevelopment. Since that time they have worked to influence the development of Wellington in a particular direction. As well as architecture, their vision encompassed design, arts, craft, and industrial design, with the various strands fluctuating in their importance from time to time.

The Centre has undertaken many activities, from writing position papers, forming a manifesto (although that took 60 years to crystallise), promoting education, presentations, and debate, to hosting exhibitions and campaigning for political influence. They also published a magazine on design topics, and built a demonstration house. I’m no expert, but would categorise their approach as strictly “modernist”.

The membership of the Architectural Centre has fluctuated, but is around 200 members. They may only have built one “demonstration house”, but their mission was, and is, to teach and persuade the planners and builders, politicians and residents of Wellington, and their influence on the city has been profound.

manifestoThe modernist approach couples urban planning and architecture with visual arts, crafts, graphic design and even industrial design, and the Centre did not neglect these. And it isn’t always buildings: one line of the Centre’s Manifesto is “Fresh air is better than some buildings”. Open spaces, and of course Wellington’s hills and harbour, are all part of the picture.

Many activities came and went, but the focus has always been on planning. Planning to improve the urban environment, making it liveable as well as well-designed. They have had a profound influence on the development of Wellington city since their foundation – mostly in the CBD.

Gatley and Walker have focussed on the 1940s to the 1990s, highlighting the enormous changes to Wellington in that time. I lived in Wellington in the 1950s and 60s, and along with most citizens believed that the only plan was to maximise profit by throwing up glass towers on any scrap of land. The authors do a great job of describing and reporting on the principles that underlay the enormous changes that Wellington − particularly the CBD and waterfront − went through, and why glass and steel towers came to be. This reader is disabused! (The one shown is a 1970 shot of the BNZ tower being erected, taken from Lambton Quay.) BNZ_building_vertical_living

The authors are both academic architects, and the book includes contributions from art historian Damian Skinner and Justine Clark, an independent architectural editor, writer and critic. The authors take a basically chronological approach, with discursions into design topics and broader issues. As well as the activities of the Centre, they chart the forces driving the development of the Wellington CBD during this period of rapid change.

The writing is crisp and clear, and accessible to those of us who are not architects or planners while still being unmistakably the work of academics. The physical book itself is a very well-produced hardback, on high-quality paper with many photographs. It looks great.

While not a mass-market volume, this work is important. And it fills a gap – Wellington has not been as prominent in the history of architecture as might be expected. Of course it will mainly be of interest to architects, designers and town planners, but current or former Wellingtonians will get something out of it as well.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Vertical Living: The Architectural Centre and the Remaking of Wellington
by Julia Gatley and Paul Walker
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408152

Book Review: The Wind City, by Summer Wigmore

Available in bookstores now.

Falling in love with Wellington is an occupationalCover_AW_The Wind City_01.indd hazard of living here – or even sometimes of just visiting, as novelist Summer Wigmore can attest.

The latest title from New Zealand speculative fiction publisher Steam Press is The Wind City, an urban fantasy (and arguably paranormal romance) debut novel that isn’t just set in Wellington, it seems to be built of Wellington, full of absolutely positively words. The action all takes place in the central city, a lot of it around Civic Square and the City to Sea bridge where, appropriately, you can find the sculpture of these words from Lauris Edmond:

It’s true you can’t live here by chance,
you have to do and be, not simply watch
or even describe. This is the city of action,
the world headquarters of the verb –

And, now, the world headquarters of the iwi atua, the gods and monsters of Maori mythology. In The Wind City, Wigmore imagines a Wellington filled with taniwha and patupaiarehe, spirits of land and sea and air – and of the bucket fountain on Cuba Mall: “colourful and clashy and loud, like you’d expect, with rainbow-painted nails and hair in bright streaks of red and blue and yellow. She looked almost human otherwise…” Just out of sight of humans, the spirits of the city have evolved as society has changed. It’s an engaging and very fruitful central idea.

bucket_fountain

What makes the Wellington-ness of The Wind City even more extraordinary is the fact that Wigmore wrote it never having lived in the capital. She says the idea for the book came to her when she was on a Wellington bus during a visit: “I wanted to explore the cracks and crevices of the city.” But it wasn’t until the establishment of Steam Press by Stephen Minchin in 2011 that she felt there might be a market for the book, and set about seriously writing. At the launch, Minchin recounted how he received the (unsolicited) manuscript one Friday, read it over the weekend, and agreed to publish it on the Monday – possibly one of the fastest slush pile acceptances on record.

Steam Press has done another excellent job on the production of this title. The cover art by Alice Brash is bang on, and the drawings throughout the book are evocative (and will be useful for those unfamiliar with the capital). The plot of The Wind City is centred around Tony (she might be a taniwha), who you love, and Saint (constantly describing himself as “lovably fearless”), who you want to slap. The whip-fast, hyper-aware banter of the dialogue will be familiar to fans of Joss Whedon, and there’s a hat tip to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in that Saint models himself on the character of Spike. But, although her influences are clear, Wigmore’s voice and style are both assured and very much of New Zealand.

While she obviously revels in writing the fun stuff – and parts of the book are what’s-making-you-laugh-like-that? funny – her plotting is deft and her handling of the characters’ emotional development is sensitive and believable. And her prose really shines, especially when she steps away from her protagonists’ voices. I loved the opening sentences: “Hinewai fell with the rain. The patterns of drips and drops falling formed the outline of a girl, sketched her skin in silver; she had long, long hair, down past her waist, white as mist. She was a smudge, then she was a shadow, and then she gathered her raindrop-self together and formed her old body again.”

I highly recommend The Wind City as a great summer read for older kids and young-to-young-ish adults alike. The prose sparkles and the plot bounces along like an umbrella stolen by the wind. And all that love just draws you in: love for the city, and love for what might be hidden in its nooks and crannies, its mists and rainbows. This is a confident, vivacious first novel. Wigmore is one to watch.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

The Wind City
by Summer Wigmore
Published by Steam Press
ISBN 9780992257866

Book review: Red Rocks by Rachael King

cv_red_rocksThis book is in bookshops now and is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

It takes quite a lot of trust and faith in your reader to mix a thoroughly ancient legend, in this case about mythical selkies, with a modern of coming of age story. Half of the main characters in this book by Rachael King are in fact seals; seals that, in keeping with Scottish legend, turn into beautiful young women when they cast their skins aside to walk on land. The mythical selkies. The other characters are one half of a modern day separated family trying to get on with life as best they can. It also takes a good storyteller to pull it off.

Surprisingly perhaps, I found myself suspending disbelief; and I became entranced by this book and its characters. And it happened so subtly that I didn’t even notice. The main character Jake is a little lost – his parents are divorced, his mother remarried with a new baby. He visits his father who is living a nomadic writer’s existence on the Wellington coast. But the school holidays are never much fun without friends, so the adventurous Jake takes off to explore the rocks of the Wellington coastline. He makes friends with another equally lonely young girl and an old man and attracts the interest of some local bullies. But it is when he finds an abandoned seal skin which he hauls home that the trouble really begins. The taking of the skin is the key turning point in this book as it unravels the story and importantly prevents its rightful owner from going to back to the sea.

Hindsight is a great thing. And of course, I can tell you now that I knew all along which characters were human and which were seals, but what’s clever is the way this realisation subtly unfolds. There is not a moment of mass revelation, you just suddenly begin to understand who the characters are and how they inter-relate and it feels natural. I guess that’s why it easy to believe in all of the characters in this book; they just work.

Interestingly, I just handed the book to my eleven year old saying it was great and I think you will like it. He read the back (which mentions seal skins but nothing about selkies) and he asked “What’s up with selkies? This is the third book this year that’s had slekies in it.”

Really? I had no idea. Apparently, his teacher has been reading these books to them in class.

“What time period have they been set in?” I asked.
“Ancient of course” was his reply. “And all in Scotland.”
“What about one set in Wellington in modern times. Could that work?”
“Hmm, maybe.”

But there is no maybe about it. This book works and it’s a gripping page-turning tale.

The book should appeal to any reader (young or old) who is able to suspend reality briefly, but after all isn’t that what reading is all about?

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

Red Rocks
by Rachael King
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869799144 (paperback)
ISBN 9781869799151 (e-book)

Book review: We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998

work-with-youThis book is in bookshops now.

A cursory glance through We Will Work With You suggests it might be a somewhat light-hearted accompaniment to last year’s exhibition of the Wellington Media Collective’s (WMC’s) work at the Adam Art Gallery. But the colourful poster plates with their catchy slogans and designs belie the activism at work. Indeed, this title works in the same way as the WMC’s best campaigns, capturing readers’ attention with expert aesthetics, and then demanding an engagement with far more serious and complex socio-political concerns.

We Will Work With You is about the two decades in which the non-profit WMC operated, providing media, design, marketing and advertising support to a myriad of local organisations and causes. The WMC were careful about the way their working relationships were defined, and to ensure that projects operated collaboratively with mutual opportunities for learning, rather than the client service model adopted by many groups today. Their mission statement? We will work with you, not for you.

Eclectically arranged, We Will Work With You comprises two plate sections of the WMC’s posters, separated and book-ended with essays about the WMC’s social, design and activist history.

Polly Cantlon’s essay Design Democracy is particularly fascinating for anyone interested in the use of design as a means of political dissent, and she ends it with the most pertinent question posed in the book, ‘don’t we need another Wellington Media Collective today?’

The present moment is as turbulent a time for New Zealand as the revolutions of the last 40 years, and it’s worth considering the value of such a group to keep pace with the changing technologies and economic factors affecting all parts of society. And yet, with mass access to computers and social media, today’s political activists are arguably more engaged than ever, as the Arab Spring and worldwide occupation movement have attested to. Perhaps, with the reinvigoration of grassroots community organisations, we are moving closer to a shared learning environment once more.

Three short essays at the back of the book are easy to miss in this treasure trove, but worthwhile digging out to understand the WMC’s work in an international context, alongside other political histories such as Cuba’s which have played out through poster design. The inclusion of more first-person accounts might have brought the bold history of the WMC to even greater life, but it’s nonetheless an engrossing and visually appealing read, certain to intrigue anyone with an interest in design or New Zealand history.

Reviewed by Caitlin Sinclair

We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998
Edited by Mark Derby, Jennifer Rouse and Ian Wedde
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN: 9780864738837