Why 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
I 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
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
It 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
by Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivancic
Published by Scholastic NZ
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
Like 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
Joanne Harris is admirable in her versatility. From penning the deliciously bright Chocolat, Five Quarters of the Orange and Blackberry Pie, to the dark and gothic mystery of Sleep Pale Sister.
Of course, even her lighter tales have their darker moments, but it is her psychological mysteries that entice me the most. Different Class is one of these. Nestled in after the events of Gentlemen and Players, but before those of Blueeyedboy, it returns us to St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys and re-acquaints us with Roy Straitley and a few other characters that you may, or may not, recognise.
Different Class moves at a more leisurely pace than Gentlemen and Players, with Straitley placed as the white king, sharing the narrative duties with the black king, a character whose identity is, as expected, kept purposely anonymous. I did not find quite as many surprises in this as with the others, but that is not so much due to Harris’s writing, but more because when you expect the unexpected, you start looking outside the box for the answers. And there were still plenty of little twists to keep me intrigued. It felt almost as though I were trying to unravel an elaborate puzzle, seeking the deeper secret buried inside, and whilst it did not disappoint, I do feel that there were many hints and clues that I overlooked. I believe it would benefit from a repeated reading, maybe in close concert with the other two.
Roy Straitley is perhaps the most memorable of her cast of characters, with his acerbic wit and wry observations on the changing nature of education. He is very much an old schoolmaster, teacher of Latin and the classics, and feeling the push from the modern system. He still has his Brodie Boys, for which he shows unflinching loyalty, sometimes to his own disadvantage. His unnamed antagonist, whose story starts back in 1981, is darker, underlaid with creeping menace and makes for disconcerting reading.
Overall, this book was an enjoyable installment, despite the darker material: it does deal with homophobia and, although not graphically or intensely, child abuse. For a psychological novel, it is more a drama than a thriller, as the excitement does not really pick up the pace until fairly late in the book, with the earlier parts instead being replete with sinister undertones. A slow burn, rather than a quick fire. But definitely one worth a read.
Reviewed by Angela Oliver
by Joanne Harris
Published by Doubleday
This was my last session of the 2016 Auckland Writers Festival and it was a really lively note to end on. Paula Morris chaired a panel debate on diversity with Victor Rodger, Marlon James and Stephanie Johnson that addressed important issues with good humour, energy and intellectual rigour.
Rodger (right) is a Kiwi-Samoan playwright and screenwriter who has worked on Shortland Street, where he was always the only Pacific Islander in the writing room. He says nothing will change until there is diversity at the top levels of management. “Three of my least favourite words are level, playing, and field.” He agrees that NZ literature is too white: Pacific Island writers embrace poetry and film, but not novels so much. Rodger also sees problems with white writers creating Māori and Pacific Island characters, and in the ways these works are reviewed: “I see a lot of free passes being given across all art forms”. He told the story of a play he wrote that was criticised by a Pākehā reviewer for not having enough swearing in it: they hadn’t realised the swearing was all in Samoan.
James is a Jamaican novelist living in the US who recently won the Man Booker Prize. On the subject of writing ‘the other’ (although he has problems with that term), he says he encourages his creative writing students to do the work and try it: “90% of you are going to fail but do it anyway”. He said wryly that he’d recently given up appearing on diversity panels and is sick of talking about identity. He doesn’t like the word ‘diversity’ because it has no emotional weight. It’s like ‘tolerance’. We need to move beyond just having multiculturalism to loving it: “diversity is a sign you’re doing something right … diversity is an outcome we mistake for a goal”.
Morris brought up the problem NZ writers have of trying to get their work read overseas, and this led to an interesting discussion of whether to make the setting of one’s work as generic as possible, in order to attract an international audience. Rodger said “the more specific we make our writing, the more universal it is”.
Johnson (right) is a Pākehā writer and founding trustee of the Auckland Writers Festival. On the topic of reviewing, she said “the reviewing situation in New Zealand is diabolical and getting worse”, with reviewers being paid so little and space for book reviewing in mainstream media shrinking. I think there are signs of hope, though – I was reminded of Giovanni Tiso in the Column Inches session talking about how blogs are taking up the arts criticism slack (see the Booksellers NZ list of NZ book blogs). And in How To Review A Book, David Eggleton reminded us that Landfall and Landfall Review Online (which he edits) pay their writers, and invited everyone to send him their reviews.
The award for Best Audience Question has to go to a man who approached the mic at the end of the panel discussion and said, “I’m a gay disabled polyamorous white man – you may have to google that … why in 2016 is a panel on diversity so narrow in content?” Riotous applause. Morris acknowledged his excellent point, saying they could easily have had a diversity panel discussion every day of the festival focusing on different aspects.
After the session ended I felt a little lost. It was my fifth Auckland Writers Festival session in a row that day, and now all of a sudden it was over. I hung about a bit and chatted to some booksellers and festival staff. Sales of both tickets and books had been really strong (hooray!). Everyone looked tired and happy. People had met their heroes, stumbled across works of genius, heard extraordinary ideas spoken and sung to them. Questions has been asked and answered, persuasive conversations had changed the shape of people’s minds. We had stood in queues and smiled at each other.
So, thank you. Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to make the festival happen (and kia ora to Rachel who runs the AWF Twitter!). Thank you to all the writers and artists and speakers. Thank you to my fellow reviewers, in particular my editor Sarah Forster. Thank you to David Eggleton for his How To Review A Book session, which helped me think about my own reviewing in a more nuanced way. And a special thank you to David Larsen, who attended more AWF sessions than I thought it was possible for one human to handle. (“You don’t need a break! Come on, stay for Paul Muldoon!”) It was a pleasure to sit with him in the middle of the front row, and an honour to have all those conversations between sessions on what had just happened and what we thought about it. Steve Braunias called Larsen’s column on day one of AWF , Drunk on Information, the greatest writers festival blog he’d ever read. I think there might just be a bit of hope for professional arts criticism in Aotearoa after all.
I had never heard of Emma Sky before I saw her name in the festival programme, and this was a mistake, because it turns out this self-deprecating English woman has been quietly influencing 21st-century world history. She was the Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk, Iraq, for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, and served as the political advisor to U.S. General Ray Odierno from 2007 to 2010. She’s met Obama, argued with Joe Biden, and tried to keep the US military in Iraq honest.
I haven’t read her memoir The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, and in fact haven’t even touched it, because the hundreds of copies the booksellers had in stock sold out in a flash. Simon Wilson had read it carefully, though, and his interviewing was excellent.
Sky was strongly influenced by her time on a kibbutz as a young woman, and wanted to help make peace in the world. When the war in Iraq broke out – with which she strongly disagreed – she wanted to help. She answered a call for volunteers from the British government and went to Iraq “to apologise”.
“I’m Emma from England and I’m here to volunteer.” When she arrived in Iraq there was no one to meet her and she was shifted from pillar to post before ending up in Kirkuk. “I assumed the British government knew what they were doing but had just neglected to tell me.” Sky was equally wry about the violence all around her: “Insurgents tried to assassinate me in my first week … it usually takes longer for people to try to kill me.” She met the US army when she went to ask them for accommodation: “It’s all rather awkward and embarrassing but my house has been blown up”. She told another funny story about her employer back in Britain asking when she’d return: “I’m very sorry but I can’t come back to work in Manchester because I’m running a province [of Iraq]”. They told her to stop exaggerating.
As well as filling me with a desire to learn more about Iraq, Sky also made me miss England (I am an English Kiwi). I was reminded of Kate Fox’s Watching the English (one of the truest books I’ve ever read), in which she argues that the distinguishing characteristic of English humour is not is dryness but its omnipresence. There was humour underlying nearly everything Sky said, and when Wilson asked her to speak of the horror of living in a war zone, she became uncomfortable. She did try to articulate it, though, telling us that at one point Iraqis stopped eating fish because the flavour had changed, because the fish were feeding on all the corpses in the river.
Based on the success of her work in Iraq, US General Odierno invited Sky to be his political advisor. Her job was to follow him around and tell him when he was screwing up: “It was fantastic!” They were two very different people but obviously developed an enormous respect for one another. One senior US official Sky has far less respect for, however, is Joe Biden. She blames him for screwing up Iraq’s chance to create itself a robust democracy by focusing instead on his own political gains.
Wilson asked Sky about the sexism she had experienced. She seemed reluctant to talk about it too much; maybe – as Mallory Ortberg said at Writers Week in Wellington earlier this year – she’s sick of the ‘you’re a woman, that must be so hard’ kind of question. In any case, if bombs and gunfire couldn’t slow her down, mere sexism never stood a chance. She made a couple of intriguing allusions to her upbringing in a boys’ school, which she likened to a Lord of the Flies experience. Men, she said, “are much better when they’re adults than when they’re boys”. Feels like there might be another book right there.
The hour we had with Sky flew by, and we could easily have done with a whole other hour for audience questions. I would have liked to have heard her thoughts on voluntourism and the white saviour complex, for example. She says her students at Yale, where she now teaches and writes, tell her to get back out into the world. I’m sure that, for Sky, there are many more history-changing years ahead.
Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky