Book Review: Why Can’t We Just Play? by Pam Lobley

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Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_why_cant_we_just_playWhy Can’t We Just Play? is a recount of author Lobley’s quest for an idealised 1950s summer for her family, where she could stay home and keep a half-eye on the kids as they roamed the neighbourhood with friends, and her husband could come home to a tidy house and a lovely meal. With refreshing honesty she details the wins and losses of her experiment.

When Lobley realised she was getting stressed by planning her kids’ summer: classes, camps and programmes galore, she pulled the plug. Couldn’t life be simpler? She worked from home, she reasoned, so how hard could it be? Out went the schedules; in went a long, lazy summer. Or so she thought.

Realising that working from home while child minding and trying to live up to 50s housewifely ideals was too much, Lobley cut back on the paid work, and spent more days at the local pool with her kids. Lego took over the lounge. And Lobley realised that while modern life might be overly busy and pressured, the 50s weren’t as picture perfect as they seemed either.

I enjoyed Lobley’s honesty about the challenges of her experiment, whether financial or family-based. Everyone actually needs a bit of time out from each other to make them appreciate each other (there’s a reason that old chestnut about absence makes the heart grow fonder sticks around) and your kids may well drive you nuts after spending weeks together. Cooking a fancy dinner in high heels gets painful. There will definitely be wear and tear on your lawn.

As a parent and a teacher this book resonated with me. So many kids have activities booked after school multiple days of the week. Are they getting enough time to just play? On the other hand, the maths often doesn’t work: working parents in NZ get 4 weeks of legislated annual leave per year, and schools are closed for instruction 12 weeks of the year … so holiday programmes and classes are often the only way, short of willing friends and family members, to provide childcare. It’s a conundrum, and I feel like Lobley was privileged to be able to experiment for her summer. It may not be possible for everyone to follow her lead, but Why Can’t We Just Play? may give readers pause for thought about the level of busy-ness they book for themselves and their children.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Why Can’t We Just Play?
by Pam Lobley
Published by Familius
ISBN 9781942934578

Book Review: A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, by Natasha Lester

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cv_a_kiss_from_mr_fitzgeraldI thoroughly enjoyed A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald.

Evie (Evelyn Lockhart) is quite the character. Born into the upper class, she is unwilling to become a lady of leisure, filling her days with needlecraft and entertaining guests. No, she is determined to make a mark, to do more with her life. And when a school friend is found by the river, in the advanced stages of labour, alone and afraid, Evie knows what she wants to do: become a doctor. Not a nurse, a doctor. It is something she must fight for, however, for female doctors are not taken seriously. To qualify, she must prove she is the best. And, to pursue her dream, she must set aside her childhood friend, Charlie, whom everyone expects her to marry.

Her studies take her to the glitz and glamour of Manhattan. Here she finds that a life of relative freedom – as in freedom from her relatives – can be hers. However, becoming a doctor is neither easy, nor cheap, leading her to seek employment as a showgirl at the infamous Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. It is a life, that if revealed, could cause scandal and destroy her fledgling romance with Upper East-side banker, Thomas Whitman. But Evie is game to any challenge, but will her dedication and determination pay off? Or is the world not ready for her yet?

Evelyn is a great character, a woman with a mind of her own, and the strength of will to follow it, in an era when women’s suffrage was newly recognised, and not always appreciated. The rest of the cast are equally memorable: her competitive sister Viola; her wilful and stubborn mother; Charlie, her childhood friend, now spurned and bitter; and, of course, Thomas. Overall, a highly enjoyable read, with more than a few surprises, I found it both satisfying and engaging.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald
by Natasha Lester
Reviewed by Hachette
9780733634635

Book Review: Being Chinese – A New Zealander’s Story, by Helene Wong

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cv_being_chineseAvailable at bookshops nationwide.

At many times while reading this very human account of finding a place in the world and an authentic identity, I found myself thinking how universal this search is. At one point I was comparing Helene’s feelings on meeting relatives in China with those of an adoptee on meeting birth relatives, when Helene, herself, made the same comparison. The title of the book conveys Helene’s sense that she is and has always been a New Zealander, and this is emphasised throughout the narrative.

Born into a family where both parents immigrated from China, and whose determined purpose was to fit in and not make waves, Helene considered herself no different to her school friends and neighbours. It was a shock when she was targeted with racist abuse as a schoolgirl and she began to resent the attention her different appearance brought on her, whether it was meant kindly or otherwise. New Zealand’s history regarding the Chinese who came here as immigrants and workers, is abysmal. I was surprised to learn that discrimination at the highest levels of government still existed into the 1960s and beyond.

Born in New Zealand with a passport that stated she was a New Zealand citizen, Helene discovered that, for the purpose of trans-Tasman travel, she was not considered to be one at all. Selected to go to Australia to join an international group of youngsters at a Moral Re-Armament conference she, unlike her white and brown compatriots who had the right of unrestricted entry, had to obtain a passport and a visa from the Australian High Commission allowing entry on a two-week visa. Then on her return, she had to obtain a re-entry permit to come back into her own country. In her own words -” it confronted me with the truth that despite all my efforts at assimilation, I had not become invisible. I was still thought of as Chinese.”

Intelligent and self-aware, Helene examined her life as she lived it, continually asking herself how her desires and actions fitted with both her personality and her dual culture. She became an adviser to Robert Muldoon as a member of his think tank during his tenure as prime minister, tasked with the Social Affairs portfolio. Media attention focused on her gender, not her race. And while working with Māori, she found their open displays of emotion liberating. Her interest in theatre and experiences as an actor enabled her to see that differences in appearance were not always a handicap. Often the difference was not even noticed or commented on. Digging into family history, Helene found that older relatives had traveled similar journeys to her own. Discovering these relatives as real people rather than just photographs or memories of them as old and reclusive, enabled Helene to feel connected to them as part of her lineage.

Helene’s struggle to find her identity, both as a person and as one with a culturally different background, resonates on many levels with the path that all humans have to walk. This is a well written account of one person’s life and one that I enjoyed reading. At a time when discrimination is unfortunately becoming more strident here in New Zealand, it is a book that should be read by many more.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Being Chinese – A New Zealander’s Story
by Helene Wong
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492380

Book Review: Anzac Heroes, by Maria Gill

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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: A Dying Breed, by Peter Hanington

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cv_a_dying_breedAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

A Dying Breed is the first book by Peter Hanington; I hope it won’t be his last. His work on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme during the time of the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts has given the book a sense of realism. When his characters move through the landscape of Kabul you are there with them, watching your back and being ever alert for danger.

William Carver is an old-school BBC journalist who likes to keep what he knows to himself, much to the irritation of his employer. He’s filing few stories, and no one knows exactly what he’s up to.

When a local official is killed in a bombing at a tailor’s shop in Kabul, it doesn’t excite Carver much. Until he learns the official was opposed to a UK company being awarded a telecoms licence. Warned to leave the story alone, Carver does the opposite, roping in his translator, Karim Mumtaz, to help him dig deeper. He discovers that the bomb was the kind favoured by foreign forces and the official died from a gunshot to the head, not the bomb blast.

Back in the UK Carver’s immediate boss, Rob Mariscal, is told to rein him in and kill the story until the contract is awarded. Carver hates working with a producer and has already been responsible for one resignation, but Mariscal sends young producer Patrick Reid to Kabul, in the hope that he will find out exactly what Carver knows. So he can get on with his research, Carver sends Reid and Mumtaz on a job that had been set up just for him. When they get kidnapped and Mariscal arrives in Kabul, Carver mistakenly confides in him, which could put his colleagues’ lives in danger.

A Dying Breed has a number of characters who play an integral part in the story – British Ambassador David Lever, private military contractor Richard Roydon, and a warlord known as the General. Everyone has something to hide and lives will be lost trying to suppress the truth. Will Carver be able to publish his story in time or will his efforts be in vain?

This book is fast-paced and extremely well-written. As a journalist myself, the characters in A Dying Breed are believable and the trials and pitfalls of chasing a major story only too familiar.

A note claiming the book was set in a shadowy le Carré-esque world worried me a little as I had never read any of le Carré’s books. Having finished A Dying Breed, I’m keen to remedy that. It just shows the difference having extensive knowledge of your subject matter makes to a novel – this book is hard to put down and leaves no questions unasked. Just like a good news story really.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

A Dying Breed
by Peter Hanington
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781473625426

Book Review: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith

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cv_the_last_painting_of_sarah_de_vosLike Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music, Dominic Smith’s latest novel reads like a true story. The layering of detail, the specific references to places, people and paintings, make it seem like a real-life account. As a work of fiction, it is completely believable. Like the Kirsty Gunn fans who go to Scotland in search of ‘The Grey House,’ believing it to be real, it is easy to imagine fans of this novel heading to the Rijksmuseum expecting to see a de Vos.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is pacy and complex, intertwining the hard, seventeeth century life of painter Sara de Vos and her family with two phases of a crime-cum-love story, featuring Marty de Groot and Ellie Shipley, in 1950s New York and early 21st century Sydney.

This complex novel is skilfully executed by Smith, and it never seems contrived or over-thought. Marty owns the only known painting by de Vos, and the link between the Netherlands and current day New York is plainly shown. A young Ellie secretly creates a second version of the painting that hangs over Marty’s’s bed, although she knows the risks, and sets in train a sequence of events that will only fully play out fifty years later. Smith’s chapters jump between the three times and three voices – Sara, Marty and Ellie – as the story is revealed.

Part of the integrity of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is that the world it shows us is not that uncommon. Who hasn’t seen or read a newspaper article about fine art forgery? A previously unknown painting by a famous artist is ‘discovered’ in an attic, or a museum, or some recently deceased elderly aunt’s bedroom. Experts argue, technicians analyse the paint, the frame, the nails, and even x-ray it, and curators sweat their reputations.
What lifts Smith’s novel beyond a forger’s tale is the way he boldly jumps back not only to Sara’s life as a female painter in seventeenth century Holland, but also to uber-cool fifties New York, as well as showing us behind the scenes of today’s art world.

Women who wanted to paint in Holland in the 1600s faced many barriers. A casual Google search quickly reveals several who faced down the establishment to join one of the St Luke’s guilds, and whose known output consists of few works or, in the case of Sara van Baalbergen (who joined a guild in 1631, the same year as the fictional Sara de Vos) none. These are exactly the kind of artists whose paintings it is easy to imagine hanging, unknown to the outside world, on the walls of a Dutch family in Amsterdam or New York. They are also the kind of artists forgers must be most tempted to exploit, with few or no benchmarks against which their work can be assessed.

As the book progresses the events in each chapter draw closer to each other, and it becomes a straight-up page turner. How things will turn out is not obvious, either for Ellie, Marty or Sara, until the very end.

There aren’t really any twists, and that’s how it should be. The story is complex enough, emotional enough and detailed enough to stand on its own two feet. Smith perhaps, on occasion, oversteps the mark when drawing together the different strands. It is not that these links are not credible, just unnecessary. But alongside the big, emotional, centuries-spanning tale, he can be forgiven a minor indulgence or two.

I thought I wouldn’t like The Last Painting of Sara de Vos because I’m not a big fan of showing the reader people and events outside the main character’s point of view. But Smith does a great job of making Sara and Marty fully complementary to Ellie, whose story it really is, and once I’d started I couldn’t put it down.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
by Dominic Smith
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 978 1 74343 995 1