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Women & Money: Mastering the Struggle | Regional News

Women & Money: Mastering the Struggle

Written by: Janet Xuccoa

Cheshire Publishing Limited

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

Women & Money: Mastering the Struggle can be overly convoluted in parts and with each turn of phrase I’m reminded of reading university textbooks. Though dense and heavy, it is a solid and uncompromising take on all matters financial, the creation of wealth, and the considerations wealth-building requires. Xuccoa knows her subject matter extremely well and uses case studies to help educate. The successes and pitfalls experienced by other women help to personalise circumstances that are relatable.

There’s her simple recommendations and then there’s the complex, but a favourite quick win is her advice to use cash instead of EFTPOS. It’s all too easy to imagine dollars and cents exist in a seemingly endless flow of readily available finance at the sound of plastic being swiped mercilessly through a machine.

Though the title may suggest otherwise, Women & Money is not heavily accented with the woes of women, distinctly disadvantaged by default of their gender. I was able to appreciate where gender may make a difference because of this. Xuccoa’s chapter on Building Today for Tomorrow highlights two of the biggest fears women have: they won’t have enough money to take care of their immediate needs and they’ll be stony broke in their retirement. A sobering thought indeed.

Xuccoa recognises the part emotions play in guiding financial decisions and is encouraging when she speaks to gender differences in investing. Women, she says, are more security-oriented and likely to seek steady returns rather than exceptionally high ones. This leads to them making sound investment choices over time.

Women & Money is about adopting a ‘whole-life’ approach to money and wealth. Taking control and not leaving it to chance or another individual to determine your financial goals and ultimately your financial wellbeing. Whether it’s knowledge or steps to start your own business that you desire, Women & Money transverses it all. By recognising your own habits, educating yourself, and getting on top of cash flow management, anything is possible.

The Alarmist: Fifty Years Measuring Climate Change | Regional News

The Alarmist: Fifty Years Measuring Climate Change

Written by: Dave Lowe

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

In the early 1970s, no one really thought much about greenhouse gases or the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the planet’s atmosphere. Now we’re at a critical juncture where we can’t ignore it.

In his new book, Dave Lowe, author and Nobel Peace Prize winner, tells the story of how he and a small group of scientists spent years trying to answer the question of why the Earth’s climate was changing at such a staggering rate. It would be a journey that would take him halfway around the world and would consume almost his entire working life, but knowing what we know now, it was one definitely worth taking.

This is quite a tale, and Lowe does an impressive job telling it. A big reason for that is because he’s so honest, he never shies away from how it really is. The gist is, we got ourselves into this huge, dangerous mess, and now we have to take steps to fix it. Otherwise, things will get worse for us and the generations that follow.

While I have to admit to not being able to follow all of the science, I understood the scale of the issues facing us. Lowe explains everything in an easy-to-follow way that didn’t bog me down with complicated jargon or scientific terminology. 

I think he has what some people call the ‘common touch’ (an ability to get on with or appeal to ordinary people), which comes out in the way he writes. I appreciated that quality, and I think his style will really appeal to an audience that may not have considered reading up on climate change before, or wanted to but were just intimidated by the subject matter.

Global warming is one of (if not the) biggest threats facing our world today and will be as we keep moving into the 21st century. If you are serious about learning more, and only choose one book to buy, I highly recommend this one.

The Mermaid’s Purse | Regional News

The Mermaid’s Purse

Written by: Fleur Adcock

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

Fleur Adcock’s poetry left me simply wanting more. The Mermaid’s Purse is imbued with a sense of magical realism. As the reader winds their way through the twists and turns of Adcock’s mind we encounter her memories; meet old friends, attend shows, dinner parties, travel to distant lands while bats and birds fly overhead. The Mermaid’s Purse focuses on memory, tinged with a hint of nostalgia as death, and the predestiny of ageing, dance along the fringes of her poems.

Adcock’s poetry feels like a moment in time, as if she has pulled back the veil shrouding a distant remembrance, and captures the impression of a bygone moment. The Little Theatre Club and In the Cupboard address how a moment is in fact remembered. The latter uses items to evoke a story, the former directly inquires: “how will you remember, my young dears?” Adcock in this particular instance remembers the moment simply through a pair of apple-green tights. Her poems are transient, each one feels like a memory in and of itself.

Many of Adcock’s poems seem to be more about the feeling they evoke rather than the actual subject. Giza for example is not truly about her dress, rather about the memory the dress conjures. Similarly, Porridge tackles grief at the loss of our poet’s friend, using his Pyrex dish as a metonymy for his memory. Perhaps my favourite poem in The Mermaid’s Purse is House, which paints a home through memory, sunsets, kauri flooring, a pōhutukawa planted over the daughter’s umbilical cord, only to conclusively “melt” the house into mere money as the children sell it. Endings seem both a choice and inevitable.

This kind of worldbuilding is almost always reduced to an anticlimax in many of Adcock’s poems, making her collection transformative, circular, and self-aware. Perhaps this tactic is intended to mimic the burden of ageing, something Adcock seems to be reckoning with in her poetry as her words gracefully and rawly wrestle with the inevitable expiration date that is death.

This Has Been Absolutely Lovely | Regional News

This Has Been Absolutely Lovely

Written by: Jessica Dettmann

HarperCollins

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

Families are complicated and that is exactly what Jessica Dettmann exposes in her latest novel, This Has Been Absolutely Lovely. The story centres around a large extended family and their struggles surrounding the death of the grandfather. The family events and celebrations that follow are the perfect set-up for serious themes that include heartache, motherhood, unfulfilled dreams, and mental health. It’s not all doom and gloom, as Dettmann does an incredible job of pulling these serious themes together with some witty humour.

The protagonist, Annie, battles endlessly to balance her desire for music stardom with her never-ending duties as a mother. Despite not being a mother, I found the concept of turmoil between one’s pursuit of their dreams and the obligations that come with relationships extremely relatable. Dettmann writes in a poetic way that pulls you tightly into her characters’ psyches.

“She would close her eyes and step off the cliff. Her body hummed with the thrill of the decision. How it would affect her kids, she still didn’t know, but they’d survive. She felt the force of her mother’s unlived dreams behind her, and her daughters’ and her grandparents’ unrealised futures.”

Having said this – and apologies in advance – the characters were absolutely not that lovely for me. With the exception of one or two, I found most of them incredibly irritating and unlikeable. I believe this is what held me back from truly enjoying this book. Selfishness and self-centredness are repeated attributes and felt so turned up at times that they even came off a little unrealistic.

Overall, this book has achieved what it set out to: exposing the complexities and seriousness of family life in an easy-to-read and engaging way. Although I was not fully charmed by the plot, I am certain that this book will tickle many who love dramas and are looking for an easy book to finish and discuss later with friends.

Man Alone | Regional News

Man Alone

Written by: John Mulgan

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee 

Man Alone tells the story of the main protagonist Johnson who, in the aftermath of World War I, tries to make a new life for himself in New Zealand. We see him drifting from place to place, never staying put for too long and as he calls it, only living for the good times. Unfortunately, the good times soon come to an end, and it isn’t long before Johnson’s way of life is under threat. 

Before you even open the book, your mind is going to be flooded with images of the late, great Barry Crump and the clichéd picture of the southern mountain man: stoic, silent, and individualistic. Johnson exemplifies all of these qualities, minus Crump’s charm and old-fashioned good manners. While I definitely admire him as a character, I just couldn’t get behind him. 

Early on, Johnson is involved in a scuffle during a workers’ protest where he winds up assaulting a policeman, and while making his escape, he steals a hat and scarf from a sleeping vagrant. It is examples like these that made it hard to like him and kept me from seeing him as anything more than a one-dimensional character. Whether that was by design or not, we’ll never know, since Mulgan took his own life in 1945.

Still, I have to acknowledge that Johnson is a product of his time, living in a New Zealand far removed from the one you and I would recognise. Life was harder back then – no internet, no lattes, and if you wanted to fly, you had to have wings! (Domestic travel didn’t become common until the 1950s.)

Ironically, Man Alone’s biggest downfall isn’t in the book itself but its back cover. It essentially gives away the story’s major plot points and unforgivably spoils what could have been a shock ending. 

However, if you can overlook this, then Man Alone is a good example of the literature of its time (1939) and is definitely worth
a look.

Monsters in the Garden: An Anthology of Aotearoa | Regional News

Monsters in the Garden: An Anthology of Aotearoa

Edited by Elizabeth Knox & David Larsen

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

For someone who has always been diametrically opposed to science fiction, fantasy, and anything remotely masquerading as such, Monsters in the Garden, with its eclectic mix of short stories and excerpts, was an excellent way to dive right in.

I love that there are names I recognised of well-established New Zealand authors who I have read on occasion, the likes of Margaret Mahy and Witi Ihimaera included. Mahy’s Misrule in Diamond from her unpublished manuscript was everything I never knew I needed: fantasy, princes, court jesters, treacherous siblings, and what could have been a hint of romance that unfortunately may never be explored. I long for what is left of Mahy’s unpublished manuscript and the hidden possibilities within.

Maurice Gee, Keri Hulme, the list goes on. You will find previously unpublished authors sharing their wares here as well. I love the feel of these stories. Phillip Mann flips the lid on iconic characters in The Gospel According to Mickey Mouse, where Mickey Mouse turns dictator and Sherlock Holmes is not as we know him. Editors David Larsen and Elizabeth Knox seem to have no particular rhyme or rhythm to their selection. There’s the weird, the wonderful, and the unsettling in between, all vying for your attention. There’s knitted dolls, and worried sheep. The stories all seem miscellaneous, and perhaps this is what science fiction is all about – strange, weird, assorted, and a challenge to the impossible.

Emma Martin’s In the Forest with Ludmila, about two sisters raised by a disturbed mother and grandmother, felt disconcerting in its violence and unsettling.

I wouldn’t say I am now a convert to all things sci-fi but rather, I’m open to a world where speculative fiction not only lives but thrives; all the better with a uniquely Kiwi feel too. Knox accepts this anthology doesn’t represent all genres, writing “It’s an anthology among anthologies and a good place to start.” For the uninitiated like me, it has been just that.

Dancing with the Octopus | Regional News

Dancing with the Octopus

Written by: Debora Harding

Profile Books

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

In a quite extraordinary book about regained fragments of childhood memories, Debora Harding has composed a simply beautiful book about a horrific crime committed against her when she was 14 years old. Her salad days destroyed.

Told in diary form, Harding takes us on a trip of remembered events. This tool is a clever methodology of drawing the reader in. I won’t spoil the reason behind the title of the book other than to say it’s pivotal in Harding’s grasp of who, at the time of the crisis, became her rock.

As horrific as the crime was, and this aspect should never be understated, Harding suffers from self-inflicted victim persecution when told years later that the event never happened. It is Harding’s mother who planted the seeds of doubt in her daughter’s mind as regards the abduction and rape. This might come as a shock as the reader is drawn into a long dark tunnel of her mother’s deteriorating mental health battles. Her father, a man who seems never to lose his temper and has a unique approach to sorting out life’s problems, is quite the opposite. Though later in life he also is diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.

Eventually, this manifests itself in Harding’s mind as she battles melancholy, depression, seizures, and episodes of collapsing. Harding has to question herself, is she following in her mother’s footsteps with this debilitating anxiety?

Years later, a newly married Harding confronts her past. In piecing together the known facts, Harding and her husband Tom delve into old FBI records and eventually, she plucks up the courage to visit her abductor and rapist who is about to be released after serving a jail sentence of 25 years.

She looks at Charles Goodwin and practises what she is going to say to him. In facts she reveals, and I quote, “They say with severe crimes there’s no avoiding the aftermath. What they don’t say is how post-traumatic stress can become a disorder because of your childhood family, the one you’re trying to survive”. A wonderful cathartic book.

How to Take off Your Clothes | Regional News

How to Take off Your Clothes

Written by: Hadassah Grace

Dead Bird Books

Reviewed by: Ollie Kavanagh Penno

“throw your words on the floor, you don’t need them
forget your real name
forget how old you are
your name is denatured, unfit to drink
your words are poison, unfit to eat
assume everyone is watching”.

In the afterword to her first book, How to Take off Your Clothes, Hadassah Grace writes, “I don’t really like a lot of poetry but here I am writing a book of it.” A contradiction characteristic of her debut poetry collection, Grace’s poems juxtapose a diverse range of her experiences. Darting from being raised by Christian folk-singing celebrities to working as a sex worker, these works illustrate that many things, in simultaneity, can be true for one person.

“I don’t do forever
why keep feeding a campfire when you’re not cold anymore
even emails with attachments make me nervous”.

Although contemporary poetry is synonymous with the autobiographical, the heights Grace’s introspection reaches in her poems separates them from anything I have ever read. The result? A peculiar and bold lucidity.

“we are ruined women, and we are here to ruin you

we’ve always been here
the witches you burned because you knew we were magic
swapping our vacuum cleaner for broomsticks
and cackling about castration under the light of the full moon
we’re the girls you said were begging for it, too horny to be forced”.

Grace’s poems remind me of the clarity that strikes while mulling over an argument; here are the words you wish you had thought and dared to say. No ums or aahs.

Bluffworld | Regional News

Bluffworld

Written by: Patrick Evans

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

His name is Thomas Flannery and he’s 42 years old. Or is he? As a master bluffer, perhaps even the most rudimentary facts about him may just be another bunch of bull. Reading Bluffworld means delving into a particularly clever book. Author Patrick Evans, who has taught New Zealand literature and creative writing, is in a class of his own.

Flannery has a PhD in bluff, moseying down the university halls spouting fluffed-up knowlege from goodness knows where. Certainly not the books he hasn’t read, the thesis he hasn’t written, or the references unknown that he regularly alludes to, quotes, and regales others with. Flannery starts his university life with garden-variety bluff or bull, quite unsure of where his bluff begins and ends himself.

Evans’ footnotes really make this book, even more so if you posses a university lens to view it through. I’m sure there are those readers who will recognise the sensibilities, language, and comedy only a university frame of reference can afford. Each footnote is an exposé of his own protagonist’s dire attempts at seeming erudite. Evans cuts through Flannery’s extended hyperbole, consistent bluffing, and ever-apparent bulls**t with dry and comedic wit. Each footnote is a clarification, commentary, or straightout nod to dismiss the withering bunkum you have just read and move on. Quickly.

The more brazen and audacious Flannery becomes, the more he relies on the inner workings of the university environment and the special variety of inhabitants that walk the halls there, seemingly lapping up the pontificating addictive bluff he espouses. Perhaps it just intertwines with their own.

Bluffworld is a robust read and particularly clever, yet one I had to perserve with. Thomas Flannery, or is it “foolery”, learns bluff can only get you so far.

Crediting a sage professor who encouraged him to the see the comedy of campus life, Evans has done a fabulous job of bringing this to life in Bluffworld. If you can see through the smoke and mirrors, even more so.

The Book of Angst | Regional News

The Book of Angst

Written by: Gwendoline Smith

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

From clinical psychologist, speaker, blogger, and best-selling author Gwendoline Smith comes The Book of Angst, written to help people recognise their anxieties and cope with them.

According to statistics, one in four New Zealanders will experience anxiety at some point in their lives.  A frightening thought when you consider it can lead to more dangerous conditions – both physical and mental. Irritability, palpitations, and restlessness can be all caused by anxiety, and without help, they could cause bigger problems down the road. It’s something that has to be tackled sooner rather than later, and Smith’s latest work is definitely a step in the right direction.

Like her previous books, The Book of Knowing and The Book of Overthinking, The Book of Angst is something that anyone can pick up and read without needing a degree in psychology to understand it. I especially liked her down-to-earth sense of humour, how she explained things without all the psychological jargon, and the illustrations that helped get her ideas across. A favourite of mine was the chapter on social anxiety – also known as the fear of judgment – and the idea that it’s actually linked to our instinctive need to be included. As someone who’s had this particular phobia, it’s one that I was interested in.  

As primates, the theory goes that as social animals, we all have an innate need to be liked, to be loved, and to feel included. Social anxiety comes from the fear of not being accepted or included by others. A person suffering from it may have been bullied or excluded from groups in the past, so they avoid groups or strangers to protect themselves, or as Smith puts it, to “avoid the anticipated pain of rejection, criticism, and exclusion.”

I cannot stress enough how important this book is. There really is no downside, and with everything that’s been going on with COVID-19 lately, this book is a literal must in anyone’s collection.

A Richer You: How to Make the Most of Your Money | Regional News

A Richer You: How to Make the Most of Your Money

Written by: Mary Holm

HarperCollins

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

Author and personal finance journalist Mary Holm brings 184 relatable reader stories to the fore in A Richer You, giving advice in response. It’s all the more relatable in a New Zealand context and Holm is a stalwart of the genre, having written about financial matters for many years. The scenarios that you will find tell of the successes and failures, reflections and plans of many a letter writer, laying bare their personal journeys with money including their intrinsic fears, hopes, and aspirations.

There’s a familiarity with many of the letters, and their authors often sound as if they are writing to a dear and trusted friend. It’s great to have this level of insight into the lives of others and be able to recognise yourself and your own circumstances in some of them. There’s single mums striving for home ownership, retirees sitting pretty after making wise financial decisions, separated couples navigating the ins and outs of relationship property. Separations, investing, home ownership, saving for retirement, it’s all here. I learned a lot about KiwiSaver as well. As for what I didn’t learn, I now have some idea of the knowledge I need to seek in the future. With every circumstance, Holm provides sound and practical advice. Her readers are engaging and there is humour to be found in their words too. Holm certainly takes it on the chin when people strongly disagree with her advice or have pressing opinions to express, like being told she is a financial expert, not an agricultural one.

When it comes to the subject of money, there is so much to talk about. It can be deeply personal, come with emotional baggage, create a life less ordinary, bring joy or sadness, or make life a struggle.

A Richer You is a great place to start if you really want to know how safe your bank is, who else out there is investing, and whether you can put your ‘trust’ in family trusts.

Devil’s Trumpet   | Regional News

Devil’s Trumpet  

Written by: Tracey Slaughter

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

From famed poet and author Tracey Slaughter comes Devil’s Trumpet, a triumphant collection of short stories that harmoniously mixes poetry and narrative writing to create something that I think is unique.

Each story is wonderfully imaginative, engaging the reader and keeping them hooked until the very end. Some will break your heart, others will intrigue you, but all of them command your attention.

Slaughter has done an amazing job here; I felt that each tale had a deeper meaning to it, and there were times when I found myself doubling back to find it. She has this ability to subvert your expectations completely and make you think about what she is trying to say rather than focus on the plot. These are not straightforward stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. I had no idea how they would conclude until the very last page.

Be warned though, her works are not going to be for everyone. She goes into some pretty dark places that can hit fairly close to home. From a wife’s cancer to cheating spouses and marriages falling apart, Devil’s Trumpet takes these stories and somehow finds a certain type of beauty lurking beneath them. 

For those unfamiliar with Slaughter’s work, her writing style can come off as a bit of a mystery. If I had to describe it in just one word, I would call it lyrical, but the truth is that ‘lyrical’ doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what’s on offer here.

Devil’s Trumpet leans heavily into the realms of poetry, so if you’re not a big fan of the form, I have a bad feeling you’ll lose interest before you really get started without giving Slaughter and the book a chance to work their magic on you. That would be a huge mistake in my opinion because, with a bit of perseverance, there really is a huge amount to enjoy here.

How to Live With Mammals | Regional News

How to Live With Mammals

Written by: Ash Davida Jane

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

A compelling and melancholic protest in the face of the climate crisis, Ash Davida Jane’s How to Live With Mammals is a must-read for our generation. Through extended metaphors, dramatic irony, and very intentional perspective, Jane clears the smoke, showing us our burning, yet still beautiful world.

Jane’s voice is tinged with urgency, anxiety, and fear, but her words also paint images of hope and inspiration. Where her poems confront the inevitable decay in the face of an unsustainable lifestyle, they also present a hopeful alternative. Each poem sets a scene in which the world blossoms in all its splendor and hope, only to decay into false dreams, destroyed by human greed and the empty promises of consumerist ideals.

Jane’s writings often pit opposites against one another. The abnormal and grotesque become normalised, as in the poem 2050 where a post-apocalyptic world soaked in air pollution and acid rain provides a home for playing children. In all the other animals are in their prime, Jane juxtaposes the natural against the artificial, placing animals within cities where they are dependent on human innovation, pondering the possibility that our human impact is so great we may not be able to reverse the damage we have done.

The collection recognises a disconnect between society’s God-complex and the delusion that notion is. pool party poignantly captures humanity’s unsustainability, sending humans into space in search of new homes just to destroy them and “[draw] up plans for a new planet without the design flaws of the last”. location, location turns Venus into suburbia, where we slowly watch our Earth fall apart and find “new ways to ruin our lives”.

How to Live With Mammals desperately asks us to recognise humanity’s dependency and vulnerability. It paints the beauty of our current world but with nostalgia, exposing humanity’s greed, denial, and delusion in an attempt to wake us before our world becomes the distant memory of Jane’s poems.

Reality, and Other Stories | Regional News

Reality, and Other Stories

Written by: John Lanchester

Faber & Faber

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

More The Twilight Zone than The Pit and the Pendulum, many of these eight short stories have been written for The New Yorker and collected here for the first time.

In a book that is designed to scare all who believe in the malevolence of social media, we are taken down paths of a haunted house (Signal) with a ghost that takes pleasure (or is it) in watching children absorbed by social media – be it the internet, PlayStation, or any gizmos that drive people who grew up with hula hoops, conkers, and hopscotch insane. You can hear these people inwardly scream, “In my day we all played outside!” But this is the now, a time when the hosts of a wedding at a posh mansion provide a special room for the children to indulge in their fantasies whilst the ceremony is going on.

In a society that finds itself increasingly unable to switch off the machine, these skeletal missives are the finger-pointing messages to be wary about what is real and what is not.

Most of the characters embedded between the lines are academics, scholars, professors – in short, those who you’d think would know better. They are better able to focus and analyse, yet still remain on the lower rungs when it comes to figuring out how to rage against the machine.

The same night that I read the story Coffin Liquor I was plagued by a horrendous dream in which myself and staff were working 24-hour shifts at a record store whilst surrounded by ‘suits’ babbling on in pseudo-speech about blamestorming, gig economy, clickbait, and offshoring. What the linguists call lexical innovation. This haunts the most dislikeable smarty-pants Professor Watkins
who is delivering a lecture in Romania. Using his translation earphones, he taps into audiobooks only to find that the storylines from both Charles Dickens and Richard Dawkins have been hacked (or were they?) to intrinsically sound the same. The point being made, once again, is about technology going AWOL. That is a fear untoward itself.

Eight tales of technophobia then.

Cook Eat Repeat | Regional News

Cook Eat Repeat

Written by: Nigella Lawson

Penguin Random House

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

I’m not quite sure where Cook, Eat, Repeat stops being a cookbook and starts being a novel; it’s like a melting pot of literary and culinary offerings.

A little bit of Lawson’s heart and soul seems to accompany her recipes. Inside you will find ingredients, recipes, and stories with her memories entwined. There’s the wistful fondness she feels for her spiced bulgur wheat with roast vegetables, as it was the last meal she cooked for friends before lockdown. There’s the soupy rice with celeriac and chestnuts, which Lawson says is a favourite in her home and I know why. It was rich, warm, and nutty. Satisfying pre-winter fare.

Cook, Eat, Repeat is not a quit sugar, ditch the cheese, and lose the dessert type cookbook. Instead there’s a whole chapter dedicated to pleasures and in classic Nigella fashion a whole narrative on the joy she celebrates in food. It’s just pleasures, no guilty involved. Food like pasta with clams and bottarga is to be enjoyed. There’s something here for all palates. There’s the black pudding meatballs, which for all intents and purposes look delicious but not enough to ever consume. For the brave and unsqueamish, they may just be a culinary delight. Oxtail bourguignon makes an appearance too, though again not on my table.

There’s pairings like pappardelle with cavolo nero and ‘Nduja. Lawson eloquently describes it as a “gorgeous and wintry, rib-sticker of a dish just right to bolster and brighten, where skies are dark and the air is chill”. There’s a little bit of poetry here and even a vegan lemon polenta cake that will not disappoint.

Cook, Eat, Repeat is exactly what you would expect from an author invested in food and the joy that comes with it. It seems on occasion Lawson’s voice leaps from the page as she shares her thoughts, inspirations, and kitchen temptations – like eating flapjacks before they are cold, unabashedly without a care for them falling apart.

Tranquility and Ruin | Regional News

Tranquility and Ruin

Written by: Danyl McLauchlan

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

At some point, many of us are confronted with questions that seek to define the nature of our existence. Questions that ask – what is our consciousness? How do we find our purpose? What is purpose? In the novel Tranquility and Ruin, Danyl McLauchlan is on a quest to beat his long-term mental health problems. His journey takes him on a path of self-discovery where he explores the answers to life’s tough questions in a bid to relieve himself of his troubles. He writes first of his experience meditating in Buddhist monasteries and follows with his time at a retreat by the New Zealand branch of Effective Altruism.

Effective altruism is a movement that I had never heard of. Their objective is to challenge human morality and the outcome is endless interesting discussions. One such discussion involved the infamous question posed by the philosophical teacher Peter Singer, who asks, “if you could save a child that was drowning right in front of you, would you?” People’s first reaction is to be shocked and say “of course”, but as Singer points out, there are children dying all over the world, so why are we not trying to save them?

I have visited many of the kinds of places described in the book. You experience crazy things when you are in a meditative state and whilst many choose to decide that there are angels, spirits, or a higher self involved, I am (and it seems McLauchlan is too) far more cynical. I do not have enough word count to explain the crazy events that happen during these retreats, but things get pretty wild and it’s easy to lose perspective.

I love books about spirituality, but I am also a social science student who is obsessed with facts and research. McLauchlan’s journey is not simply a personal experience, but one supported with studies and evidence. This was one of those rare times I read a book that discusses topics and themes in a way that I do in my personal life. I loved it and have already recommended it to so many of my friends!

Wow | Regional News

Wow

Written by: Bill Manhire

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ollie Kavanagh Penno

“I wanted life to be useful
like a piece of furniture that accurately
describes itself. I had this thought, you see,
and I wanted to write it down.”

Writing a short book review can become a procedural exercise if you let it. First, introducing the author – their name, accomplishments, previous works. Then, reducing the work to its qualities that interest you most, pasting some quotes in there to say, “see what I mean?”

Bill Manhire poses a significant threat to this order of things. Impossible to summarise in 350 words, Wow is not merely an infantile exclamation, but an appropriate reaction to the words that follow.

“They fell in love between the end of footie season
and the start of shearing. Sheep gazed, bewildered.
The paddocks stretched up into the hills,
mostly scrub and a few old stands of bush.
‘Now listen here,’ he said, and that was it really.”

Among other things, these poems are about the native bird, God, and the peculiar acts that define a regular existence. Manhire’s love for repetition and rhyme persists, and his treatment of the ordinary in Wow lends itself to the surreal. The pull of Manhire’s verse is forceful, as is the ensuing feeling that you too might be living in one of his poems. Bill Manhire is to New Zealand poetry what John Prine is to Chicago folk music.

“I like the cloud at the top of Shingle Road,
the way it makes my feelings settle.
Sheep can still find grass there,
grazing among a thousand stones.
Each stone was once the shadow of a bird.”

See what I mean?

The Passenger: Brazil  | Regional News

The Passenger: Brazil

Europa Editions

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Brazil was a country that cropped up for me when I first started digging deeper into blues music. Part of my research was about slavery after coming across an article that mentioned, in part, that Brazil had imported some four million slaves – or 40 percent of all slaves from Africa compared to America’s 600,000. What struck me, apart from the sheer numbers, was that Brazil has never developed a comparable blues music style. This can also be said of other slave territories in the Caribbean such as Cuba or Haiti.

Quite different from the Lonely Planet books about countries, which tend to look for the positives, this series, which has Japan and Greece in its catalogues, covers the scope of the subject with hard-hitting journalism within the pages.

Of interest to all is the despotic tyrant Jair Bolsonaro, who rules the country with much of the same intolerance that former President Trump displayed. Racist, misogynist, anti-gay, anti-environmentalists, the list goes on. Perhaps his most offensive remark was made to a female MP whom he described as being 'too ugly to rape'.  

The Passenger series’ stance is about exploding myths. An example is the rise of the feminist rap movement funkeiras, the objectivity of which seems to be body slamming anybody shaming overweight women. Their videos are shamelessly sexually provocative. It’s a long way from the Ipanema beach sound of samba and bossa nova.

This is not pretty reading, yet it is essential to understanding deforestation, gang wars, prison, drugs, armed conflict, and the killing or removal of Indigenous tribes. Even the building of the so-called fabled city of Brasilia is an example of city planning gone wrong. I checked out Brasilia on YouTube and was amazed by the brutalist architecture, monstrous concrete piazzas, and lack of trees. The promise of work in Brasilia caused a migration of the poor, leading to more slums.

The Passenger: Brazil should be read by every politician and anyone who cares about the planet.

The Disinvent Movement  | Regional News

The Disinvent Movement

Written by: Susanna Gendall

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

The Disinvent Movement is a captivating novel following a disillusioned Kiwi woman anxiously navigating her way through life. Susanna Gendall explores a woman’s struggle with identity following the end of a violent relationship, the one thing she says she shares with her mother. This unique debut is segmented into 81 short stories, most only a couple of paragraphs long.

Each story follows the protagonist as she questions identity, societal norms, and expectations. It made perfect sense that the protagonist would start to question herself and her surroundings after surviving such a life-altering ordeal. Gendall writes: “Each morning I knew I was closer to leaving. This was not so much about walking out the door as it was about dismantling a whole system of belief.” Later she writes: “How had we all just gone along with this whole thing anyway? Why were we trying so hard to play by the rules?”

The book is riddled with deliberate, short sentences, crafted perfectly for my attention span. These stunted sentences made for easy reading and more importantly offered opportunities for the reader to pause and reflect on the writer’s meanings and intentions.

Initially, I was surprised when the protagonist painted the cars on her street as a form of climate activism. As I read on, I realised this was a fitting action from a woman grappling with how to execute her beliefs in a purposeful way. Life or relationships are not linear, and as we evolve, we naturally disconnect from certain people. Gendall describes this transience concisely when she writes: “Once I was out, I wanted to get in, and once I was in, I wanted out.”

The Dinsinvent Movement emphasises that life is not always a series of choices and we often face problems that call for strength and determination. Although I didn’t necessarily relate to all of the protagonist’s struggles, I am sure there will be women out there who will be comforted and inspired by her stories.

Mayflies | Regional News

Mayflies

Written by: Andrew O’Hagan

Faber and Faber

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

It’s interesting that this book starts in 1986, just four years after the release of the CD. Why is this important? Well, for some it was the start of the decline of music per se. This is nonsense of course – technology, as good as it is, never stifled creativity. The decline of vinyl over the next few years is crucial. Though never mentioned here, it was a pivotal moment when the album was described as having sides A and B. We no longer think in those terms, but for the author, O’Hagan, splitting the book into two halves means a wander down nostalgic paths before confronting the stark realities of growing up, changing music habits, losing friends, taking jobs that you never thought you would, and the inevitability of death.

Each generation thinks the protests he makes will impact the future. For these close-knit friends from Glasgow, the enemy is Thatcher, the decentralising of government, and the closing of the mines. More importantly to them, it’s the music of the times that keeps them going. The chance to get down to Manchester to see The Smiths, New Order, Happy Mondays, and The Stone Roses is not passed up. Needless to say, it’s a weekend lost in the fog of booze and drugs and fleeting memories of one-night stands and half-remembered acts.

Cut to the second half of the book. The year is 2017. Tully, best friend of the narrator Jimmy, also known as Noodles, declares he’s dying. The caveat is that Jimmy must help with an assisted dying pact which opens a Pandora’s box of ethical questions.

Openly opposed to this is Tully’s girlfriend, soon to be wife. But a pact is a pact.

As the months pass, the reflection between laughter and tears grows closer. It’s maudlin and funny in turns. Mayflies is about the baggage you take with you through life. We see Tully’s mask slip as he thinks back to the father he hated whilst seeing something of his father in himself. You will laugh, you will cry. An important book.

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops | Regional News

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops

Written by: Shaun Bythell

Profile Books

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

As a reader and bookshop-goer, you will most likely fall under one (or multiple) of Shaun Bythell’s many categories in his taxonomy. And it’s a fun game trying to place yourself into one of the many Genus and Species within Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.

Though extremely caustic, satirical, and undoubtedly wry, Bythell’s book is not for the easily offended bookshop visitor, as he certainly does not hesitate to expose every habit or attribute of even the most benign customer. Nevertheless Blythell somehow manages to endear both himself and his fraught characters to the reader. Perhaps because though detestable and despite some truly laughable behavior, each and every one (well most of them) still shares a love for books.

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops is very fun and frankly quite an easy read. It’s not difficult to pick the book up and after many fits of laughter and just as many internal cringes as you see yourself reflected in the pages, you’ll realise you’ve already reached the end of the book. I for one found myself wanting more. His classification system (though Blythell vocally regrets his decision) lends itself well to the flow, making each character clearly defined and distinct from the others. The prose is very witty, imbued with sarcasm and even a sense of pretention, yet you can’t help but empathise with Blythell as he recounts various anecdotes of his experience as a bookshop owner.

Though at times he loses himself in his own digressions, Blythell always seems to find his way back to the character, by which time you so enjoyed the journey getting there you don’t even mind the detour of biting commentary. “Loath as [he is] to quote the creator of Game of Thrones”, Blythell agrees that “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one”; and our sardonic author can’t help but love every booklover that enters his store.

With the Wind Behind Us | Regional News

With the Wind Behind Us

Written by: Matt Elliott

HarperCollins

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

For as long as anyone can remember, sailing has been synonymous with the New Zealand lifestyle. The fact that we have a city (Auckland) unofficially named after the sport is a testament to that. With the Wind Behind Us is a collection of small anecdotes that tell the story of our country’s love of the ocean and the strides we’ve made ever since getting that first taste for sailing in the early 19th century.

While I have to admit to never being much of a seadog or having sea legs in general, I really enjoyed reading about our boating culture and the stories behind New Zealand’s maritime history. There have been people in the past who’ve called yachting a so-called ‘rich man’s game’. Such a generalisation is a bit of an insult since our connection with the water and boating goes way deeper than that. It’s a rich tapestry that is something to be very proud of, even if you’re not into sailing.

It’s clear that writing this book has been a labour of love for Matt Elliott, and it shows with the amount of information and detail that he’s poured into it. His style’s extremely down to earth, and his stories – sometimes funny, sometimes informative – are always well put together.  One of my favourites would have to be the one titled Snow White and the Seven Sailors, where a group of seamen survives being shipwrecked at sea for several days before eventually being rescued. 

The only real problem is that we’re not all born sailors, so I can definitely see With the Wind Behind Us not being everyone’s cup of tea. That’s an incredible shame since With the Wind Behind Us represents a slice of history that we should really try to learn more about. But for those of you willing to give it a go, Elliott’s book is an excellent place to start.

The Fire of Joy | Regional News

The Fire of Joy

Written by: Clive James

Picador

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Late last year I reviewed my first poetry book, Magnetic Field by Simon Armitage, and like the great cliché “you wait for one bus, then two come along”, another must-read poetry book arrives. The Fire of Joy is Clive James’ last book before passing away in 2019. It’s a wonderful tribute to a word scholar who prized language above anything else.

This final chapter celebrates the poets and poems that had guided him through life. It also comes with the instructions to speak these poems out loud, something I attempted. Twirling spectacles in one hand and the book at arm’s length I strode manfully up and down the living room, five paces up, turn, repeat.

Not unlike the idea of Alan Bennett’s Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin (2014), James introduces us to over 80 poems with the neat trick of dissecting each of them in his own unique way. It might have been prescient to see the forthcoming suicide of Sylvia Plath in Cut, James muses.

Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb is essentially about an earl and his countess. I’ve always felt it’s about death. The ossuary where the couple lie is adorned by a carving. James notices, in the poem, one hand from the earl has slipped from his gauntlet and holds tight the hand of his beloved. Suddenly, Larkin’s last line, “What will survive us is love” is at once prophetic as well as succinct.

James is not above caustic remarks. He notes that E. E. Cummings had nothing but scorn for capitalism but lived on a trust fund. Dorothy Parker’s One Perfect Rose displayed her famous wit before James informs us that Parker became a hopeless drunk. Likewise, Wallace Stevens was spoiled by bourgeois dependability. I’m sure James wanted them all starving in a garret somewhere.

The short pithy essays explain the structure, and the story behind such seminal works from so many poets is a welcome tool for beginners and scholars alike. Simply put, this is a book that should be in every school library and home.

Rat King Landlord | Regional News

Rat King Landlord

Written by: Murdoch Stephens

Lawrence & Gibson

Reviewed by: Ollie Kavanagh Penno

Until recently, we were the unfortunate harbourers of a rat in our shed – a detail our professional property manager failed to mention before we moved into the flat just one week earlier. Set in a Wellington not dissimilar to ours, Murdoch Stephens’ first novel is about a housing crisis. It is also about your landlord, your rat, and the rat that is your landlord.

The disposition of Murdoch Stephens’ unnamed narrator strikes a subtle balance; too concerned with classism to be self-effacing – a sad fact in itself – yet wholly uninteresting enough to allow the author’s satire to be the focal point of the book. Like many of us, the narrator feels like the kind of young man that listens to podcasts about Das Kapital without ever having read its opening paragraph.

“Landlords I can understand, bastards that they are. Bricks and mortar seem a safe investment. But people who manage houses professionally without owning them? How could I feel anything but disdain for professional enforcers of our new feudal class? Nah, bro, back into the sea with them.”

This novel is about class and gender as targets; it’s about how land ownership and the enforcement of property laws is responsible for substandard housing and the ensuing revolution; it’s about how an individual’s revolutionary ideals can be quelled by comfortability within the very strictures they detest.

“The mobs became organised and the city came to know itself as existing under a state of siege. Armed groups marauder through neighbourhoods painting different coloured crosses on different houses: renters, owner-occupiers or landlords. The first people caught painting over their designation had their kneecaps shattered with a blast of a shotgun. A splash of red paint indicated a landlord. Blue meant owner occupier. Yellow meant renter. And on top of it all, a lurid daub of black meant rat infested. Our house had one of these daubings.”

This is a marvellous debut, one that is simultaneously surreal and all too real.

A Private Cathedral | Regional News

A Private Cathedral

Written by: James Lee Burke

Simon & Schuster

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

It seems that I always finish a James Lee Burke book in bed in the wee small hours, unable to let that last chapter go unread. When finished, I feel grubby. Yes, grubby will do. But, at that time of the morning I’m not getting up for a shower. Alas, once again I’ve let Burke’s characters get under my skin. There is the dark alluvial soil of the Deep South under my fingernails, the New Orleans night means it’s too hot to sleep, yet the eyelids droop with fatigue, the mind races with the horrors of what men can do. I’m sure it’s not unlike what Burke’s hero Dave Robicheaux feels. This alcoholic sees the evil of what the men can do in his hometown of the Big Sleazy and, in the ever-present storms that lie just off the gulf are the manifestations and portents of what darkness is to come.

Robicheaux is a good, but deeply flawed man. His only sanctity is in the church, yet he has difficulty separating the devil from god, seeing man as having the right to choose between good and evil.

Robicheaux is a man one step behind the perps, the low lives that revel in child porn, prostitution, slave trafficking, drugs, and murder. He fights the demons that saw him lose two wives, one to the mob and another to cancer and his dependency on booze. And nobody writes better than Burke when it comes to the night shakes and
the nightmares of lying in a gutter and trying to fight a wave of righteous anger.

Then we have to contend with Clete Purcel, Dave’s best friend but also a man out of control. The fact that he puts four people in hospital in the first 60 pages gives you an idea of what tours of Vietnam can do to a man’s soul. As Burke describes Purcell, “He recognises virtue in others but does not see it in himself”.

Every Burke book is better than the rest. Trust me, I’ve read them all.

A Vase and a Vast Sea | Regional News

A Vase and a Vast Sea

Edited by Jenny Nimon

Escalator Press

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

A Vase and a Vast Sea is a selection of work from some of New Zealand’s most accomplished poets. They all bring something different to the table, a unique experience or perspective.

You can tell that this collection is a labour of love from everyone involved; every poem seems to focus on small personal, intimate moments that the writers are allowing us a glimpse into.

Good poetry is meant to make you stop and think about what the poets are trying to say, and A Vase and a Vast Sea does that without any pretension. There were more than a few times when I had to stop, go back, and re-read a part of the book to figure out 100 percent what the author was saying.

What separates this book from its competition is its prose; each poem has a strong narrative that allows people who might not be familiar with poetry the chance to understand and appreciate it more. Not everyone ‘gets’ poetry, and some of us need that narrative to get into the author’s perspective. I think it has something to do with the concept of left-brained versus right-brained people; the idea that a person has certain characteristics based on which side of the brain is more dominant. A right-brained person is more creative, emotional, and spontaneous, while those who are left-brained are more ordered and logical.

While I’m not sure how much stock to put into that theory, I would say I definitely fall into the latter, so really appreciated A Vase and a Vast Sea’s narrative. I would have been lost without it, and while I could have muddled through, it probably wouldn’t have made the same impact on me that it did.

While poetry’s not my go-to genre, A Vase and a Vast Sea made me sit up and take notice, thinking and re-thinking about what was in front of me.

Sex, With Animals | Regional News

Sex, With Animals

Written by: Laura Borrowdale

Dead Bird Books

Reviewed by: Ollie Kavanagh Penno

Laura Borrowdale is most well-known as the creator of Aotearotica, New Zealand’s preeminent erotic literary journal exploring sex, sexuality, and gender expression. Her latest work, Sex, With Animals, is an exceptional collection of prose coupled with original art by Michael Bergt, an artist who has had solo exhibitions in Santa Fe, New York, and San Francisco.

The title of this book has already caused a stir; a complaint claiming a breach of public decency was made to the Department of Internal Affairs and Borrowdale has not been allowed to advertise Sex, With Animals on Facebook. Aside from the fact that Sex, With Animals is a self-aware play on punctuation, it has an entirely different meaning than what those who have been offended by it have inferred.

The representation of sex is a common thread that links these stories, but so too is Borrowdale’s exploration of human beings as members of the animal kingdom through metaphor. So, while sex is certainly at the centre of these stories, that’s not what these
stories are about. They are about sexuality, exploring the mythological and our own personal histories. They deal with sensuality, humans, men. These stories are about the experience of inhabiting a female body.

“Julia is here because there was a moment when she was thinking of one lover, of the way his dark hair is blue under the skin when he shaves it away, of how he stands in a dancer’s pose, of how he holds her body as though it is both robust and breakable, while the lover she had just left contorted and twisted himself into something demonic on the sidewalk in front of her house. Julia never thought this would be possible for her. And yet, here she is.”

Borrowdale writes with a direct power. No matter their length, her sentences are sharp, her vocabulary and use of grammar both precise and nuanced. Borrowdale is one of the most exciting writers of prose in New Zealand today.

New Zealanders: The Field Guide  | Regional News

New Zealanders: The Field Guide

Written by: Tom Sainsbury

HarperCollins

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

Tom Sainsbury’s new book, New Zealanders: The Field Guide is inspired by people and their stereotypes. It’s a fitting theme for Sainsbury, who rose to fame through his character impersonations on social media. Although the book is coined as a ‘New Zealanders’ field guide, the characters described are typical of people found almost anywhere in the world. Disappointingly, there was nothing specifically Kiwi about many of the stereotypes, which include The Shy Girl and The Gamer.

Having said that, The Bad Conversationalist made me laugh out loud as it was the first observation I had made (sorry Kiwis!) when my husband and I moved over from the UK. Coming from a large, chatty family it was a real culture shock when I realised that whilst very friendly, Kiwis prefer to keep the chat to a minimum! Sainsbury describes this character type by recounting the painfully awkward road trip he endured with his friend’s brother. Following a succession of abrupt responses to his questions, Sainsbury finally asks, “what are your thoughts on Syria?” to which he responds, “who’s she?” Stories of The Know-It-All Dad and The Flat Mate were also firm favourites. Sainsbury has a genuine, easy manner of telling stories and I really enjoyed these moments. However, I wished there had been more focus on the funny anecdotes. Instead, there was a lot of unnecessary jargon, with phrases like “you feel me?” filling the pages. I was not sure if Sainsbury was trying to build a conversational tone or if he was simply out of content?

We are shaped as individual characters through a web of social and cultural factors.

Stereotypes can reveal so much about our lives and communities, and whilst Sainsbury attempts to mention this in the conclusion, it is too little too late. There is a sea of depth and hilarity that could have been explored. As a Brit who loves New Zealand, I was disappointed in the missed opportunities for some authentic but smart, Kiwi-inspired comedy.

Sprigs | Regional News

Sprigs

Written by: Brannavan Gnanalingam

Lawrence & Gibson

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

A content warning before we begin: Sprigs deals with heavy themes of sexual violence and rape. 

The novel tells the story of a group of students who attend St Luke’s, an all-boys high school in a wealthy suburb of Wellington. While at an end-of-year bash, things take a turn for the worse when they sexually assault another partygoer. What follows is a tale about recriminations, cover-ups, and a critical look at New Zealand’s lingering rape culture.

What makes Sprigs stand out from other books that cover this sort of material is the way it’s handled. While a lot of stories are told from the victim’s perspective, Sprigs focuses on the perpetrators, attempting to humanise them as not just monsters, but as young men who are left dealing with the emotional and social fallout of their disgusting crime.

It’s a unique take on quite a dark subject. The character development is solid, and everyone’s given a moment to shine. The author tries to show them for who they really are, giving readers the feeling that they’re very real people desperately trying to cope with the nightmare they’ve created. I felt that some of the students fell into the smarmy prep-school stereotype, a little too much for my liking, but overall they’re very convincing.

The only real problem was that it took too long to get into the main storyline; in fact, it isn’t until page 89 that the plot really begins unfolding. Until then it’s just rugby, rugby, rugby, which if you’re not that sporty may put you off. This is a real shame, since I felt that underneath it all, the book has a real message about the issue of sexual assault in New Zealand.

Sprigs deals with some pretty heavy issues and doesn’t attempt to shield you from the darker, nitty-gritty details. While it’s a good story, it’s not something that I’d say is for everyone.

Infinite Splendours | Regional News

Infinite Splendours

Written by: Sofie Laguna

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Petra Shotwell

I cannot decide if I hate the main character of Infinite Splendours, or if I simply hate the author’s talent in making me love him.

Sofie Laguna writes in the same way the protagonist, Lawrence, draws and paints: poetically and eloquently, as though magic happens every time a new word is formed or a new landscape painted.

This devastatingly beautiful story allows readers to grow with Lawrence, from the age of 10 all the way through until he is an old man, feeling his every thought and emotion as he loves, learns, and suffers. As a child with a bright future ahead of him, and every talent under the sun, Lawrence experiences an unimaginable trauma. Readers are confronted with every dark detail as Lawrence is groomed and raped by the uncle he once admired. From then, Lawrence changes, suffering an anxiety that prevents him from speaking, socialising, and even growing in the ways the other kids do.

Laguna’s words convey powerful themes through their symbolism, repetition, and artistry. She has a way of presenting her readers with a struggle that Lawrence himself faces regularly: being stuck between two extremes. Lawrence, rocking back and forth for comfort, often finds himself comparing dreams and reality, and trapped between his lost ‘boyhood’ and being a ‘man’. I, a reader, find myself questioning morality; good and love versus evil and hate. As Lawrence’s mother thought he was just like his uncle, as he grows, Lawrence’s scattered thoughts take him to dark and questionable places. I’m forced to think he might be just like his uncle after all. We learn to love Lawrence, wanting to comfort him, feeling heart-broken when he is hurt, but we are also aware of his troublesome and distressing desires; do they make him a bad person, or just a broken one?

The beauty of Infinite Splendours is in its nuance: its ability to have me feeling one way while also feeling the complete opposite. From the first page, Laguna’s exquisite words draw me in, and though distressed, I can’t stop reading.

The Magpie Society: One For Sorrow | Regional News

The Magpie Society: One For Sorrow

Written by: Zoe Sugg & Amy McCulloch

Penguin Random House

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

It was about the same time this year that I opined that despite popular opinion, the humble paperback wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Thankfully, The Magpie Society: One For Sorrow has proven that there’s still a place for them as a viable medium.

Zoe Sugg and Amy McCulloch’s latest book is a great first step into what I hope will become a popular new series. It sets up its premise nicely while introducing us to the array of different characters that populate this new world – including the school itself, Illumen Hall.

The story focuses on newcomer Audrey Wagner and long-time student Ivy Moore-Zhang as they team up to solve the mysterious death of Dolores Radcliffe, a popular and well-loved pupil who may or may not have been murdered.

It’s a very deep and satisfying story, and while I suspect it’s aimed more at the teenage demographic, it’s adult enough to warrant a closer look from older readers. At its core, The Magpie Society is a classic whodunnit, complete with enough twists and turns to keep even the most diehard murder mystery fan engaged until the very end. Characters are well fleshed out, but still have enough surprises up their sleeves to keep readers on their toes.

My only gripe, and it’s a small one, is that it seems to lean too much into J.K. Rowling’s territory. A student enrols in a new school that doubles as a creepy medieval castle, check. Gets sorted into one of several houses, check. The student ends up having strange adventures with friends they meet, check.

While the whole thing does sound a bit too ‘Harry Potterish’, at least in the beginning, it soon begins opening up and blossoming into its own thing. 

This was a surprise hit for me, and a pleasant, fun end to 2020. If you’re looking for the perfect gift for the bookworm in your life who loves their classic murder mysteries, this is the one.

A Del of a Life | Regional News

A Del of a Life

Written by: David Jason

Century

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

When you think about it, autobiographies are some of the best books around. They take a person’s entire life, their triumphs, failures, and cram it all into three to four hundred pages.

They’re such great learning tools, and I wholly recommend them for anyone wanting to learn from and connect with the person they’re reading about. It’s deeply reassuring to find out that people you idolise have made the same mistakes you have and that you’re not alone in the department of screwing up. What’s more important is finding out how they fixed those mistakes and moved on to greater success. They’re like blueprints or plans that give us that kick in the pants that we all need sometimes.

A Del of a Life is exactly that, a shot in the arm from someone who’s been there and done that and lived to tell his story. 

Born into poverty in England, David Jason recalls his first memories of German air raids taking place during the last few years of World War II. When he got older, he tried his hand as an electrician but slowly gravitated towards acting – first on stage before transitioning over to the small screen.

Sprinkled throughout A Del of a Life are little nuggets of advice, not just about acting, but about life in general. I was a major fan of Jason’s work growing up, as he always came off as down-to-earth and amiable. That personality bleeds out onto the page. Motivating and very funny, his story will inspire everyone who picks it up – not just hopeful actors, but anyone who’s ever dreamed of making it big.

Despite doing my best to find something to complain about, I honestly didn’t come across a single thing. Jason’s really outdone himself, and I can’t wait to read about the next chapter of his life (PS this is number five).

A Del of a Life is worthy of a place in anyone’s collection. Funny. Insightful. Inspiring.

This Is Not a Pipe | Regional News

This Is Not a Pipe

Written by: Tara Black

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ollie Kavanagh Penno

The metal pipe piercing through Beth’s arms is not a pipe. This is the first thing Tara Black wants you to know – it’s right there in the title. Each page of this graphic novel, though, depicts the pipe constraining Beth’s arms together. As a result, it becomes harder and harder to explain the pipe merely as a metaphor and instead forces the reader to entertain the idea that this pipe is in fact that: a pipe. But, just like René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, Black’s assertion is of course correct; Beth’s metal pipe can only ever be an image of one, it can only ever be a drawing. This is the central tension at the core of this text.

This Is Not a Pipe, Black’s first book, takes the form of a long-form autobiographical comic. Black’s narrator, however, is a fictional one. This work’s title, form, and subject matter create and explore the dynamic that exists between the real and the metaphoric. Is there really a pole there? Are these real experiences? What does real even mean?

Beth’s life is an experience of limitations; there isn’t much you can do freely with a pole joining your arms together. The one thing she can do freely, though, is draw. This pole and her drawings isolate Beth from her life somewhat. Beth is both observer and drawer of the events that happen in her life – an isolated fictional character recreating her fictional life through her drawings.

Kenneth is Beth’s sanctimonious, self-conscious, solipsistic, and sometimes sweet partner who is creating a religion grounded within the rules of narrative structure via blog posts. The irony here is that Ken sees himself as the protagonist of his relationship with the narrator through whom we are experiencing this story. Black’s comics consist of blank space and panels falling off the page.

Tara Black’s This Is Not a Pipe is a graphic novel that works to loosen the complex knot of narrative structure.

Take Your Space | Regional News

Take Your Space

Written by: Jo Cribb and Rachel Petero

OneTree House Ltd

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

What better way to sink into the New Year than to learn to take your space?

Take Your Space reads like a conversation with friends, and the collective narrative of unique experiences, advice, and observations of a cross-section of successful women are shared eloquently and fiercely. These are women who are all well versed in the ‘how-tos’ of taking their own space. It’s evident that their journeys have not been easy, linear, nor without sacrifice. All have involved some serious personal growth, self-awareness, and self-care.

Authors Jo Cribb and Rachel Petero encourage you to take your seat at the table, whatever that table may look like to you. Perhaps it is a seat at the head of the table, or maybe it is just being seen and heard in a room full of people. They encourage you to champion other women; to be the kind of woman that honours the desires and aspirations of other women. ‘Find your people’, they say – these are your tribe who can mentor, support, and embolden you to get to where you want to be.

Find your voice, learn that ‘no’ is a complete sentence, and own your own unique brand of confidence, not just to get a promotion or to negotiate a higher pay, but fundamentally to walk in your own space with your culture, your family, your past, and your present. I know personally that a licence to be yourself in the workplace is instrumental to happily getting out of bed each morning.

Take Your Space is a bold book and within, you will find the sentiments that I did. Do not accept the status quo in work and in life if the status quo leaves you wanting, stuck in a rut, or unfairly disadvantaged by power dynamics and discrimination. Make work work for you by deciding what you want and how work fits into all your other roles.

Literally take your space as a woman and as a person, implicitly, unreservedly, and without explanation.

Love America: On the Trail of Writers & Artists in New Mexico | Regional News

Love America: On the Trail of Writers & Artists in New Mexico

Written by: Jenny Robin Jones

Calico Publishing

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

Love America, written by Jenny Robin Jones, is a masterful blend of exploration, art, and cultural identity. Jones sets off travelling to New Mexico with a companion known only as the “O-M”, or “the old man.” The book centres around the memories of familiar writers and artists, such as D.H. Lawrence and Dorothy Brett, who made the same journey that inspired her trip.

Jones does an incredible job of describing the fascinating stories that are woven into the history of the local land and landmarks. Every anecdote is relevant and holds a power that helps to reinforce the significance and beauty of the route the companions take. Jones successfully inspires the reader to want to know more and make the journey first-hand. Seriously, if it were not for current travel restrictions, I would be on the next flight over to New Mexico!

The small gestures and often silent companionship between Jones and the O-M shaped a faint but touching emotional element. There is a deeply personal and genuine manner in the way Jones describes the exchanges between the two. These are likely real stories pulled out from within her cherished memories.

As someone who has travelled extensively, I related strongly to the many feelings expressed in the book associated with exploration. The initial motivation to step outside of your own culture is usually triggered by the desire to seek a depth that transcends the monotonous machinery of everyday life. With reference to Lawrence, Jones describes this longing for answers perfectly. “Desperate for somewhere in the world that cherished human dignity and psychic health, he put his faith in America, and in Native Americans in particular.” Jones then goes on to quote Lawrence himself. “I must see America. I believe one can feel hope there.” Overall, I related less to Jones but more so to the characters that came long before her.

To travel is to explore culture, identity, and humankind itself. Jones does a profound job of showcasing these meaningful connections and I could not have loved this book more!

Death in Daylesford | Regional News

Death in Daylesford

Written by: Kerry Greenwood

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

Set near the end of the roaring 20s, Death in Daylesford sees the return of Phryne Fisher (pronounced fry-nee) and her ever-faithful assistant Dot as they’re plunged into a new adventure involving murdered suitors and several missing women. Meanwhile, back in Melbourne, her family of adopted children, Jane, Ruth, and Tinker, attempt to solve a mystery of their own when one of their friends from school dies in suspicious circumstances.

I really have to tip my hat to author Kerry Greenwood. The way she’s able to weave such a seamless narrative is simply outstanding. I was never left scratching my head and wondering “who was that”, or “what’s happening now?”

Phryne Fisher has been Greenwood’s baby since she wrote her first book in the series (Cocaine Blues) in 1989, so it’s no surprise that Death in Daylesford is as good as it is.

From the beginning, the world she’s created drips with atmosphere and crackles to life.

Characters are more than just words on the page; they’re fully functioning individuals, and almost all of them have a part to play in the story. The standouts would have to be the stars of the show, Dot and Phryne herself. Both women couldn’t be more different in terms of outlook, social status, and religious views, but somehow Greenwood has juxtaposed these personalities and made them work. Phryne is portrayed as modern, open-minded, and fully embraces new experiences with her ‘come what may’ attitude. Dot, on the other hand, is far more conservative and behaves more in line with what’s expected from a woman in 1929.

The only problem I could find was that I didn’t like the story involving the dead schoolmate. It felt unnecessary and only served to take me away from the adventure that the two main characters were having. However, it didn’t stop me from enjoying the book.

If you’re into your old-fashioned murder mysteries, Death in Daylesford will be right up your alley.

The Law of Innocence | Regional News

The Law of Innocence

Written by: Michael Connelly

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Mickey Haller is the Lincoln Lawyer, so called because his office is in the back of a chauffeur-driven car rather than a brick and mortar building. He is also the subject of several books by one of the greatest crime writers today, Michael Connelly.

Within a page or two, Haller is picked up by a police patrol car on the flimsy excuse of a missing licence plate. But when the cop asks to see what is in the boot, you just know Haller is being set up.

Cut to his arrest and incarceration for murder and we know we are in for the long haul of an innocent victim having to conduct his defence whilst in the holding cells. We’re led to believe that this will be a claustrophobic read and a drawn-out courtroom drama. And, to an extent it is. But then Haller has friends on the outside who do much of the legwork, and this is where Connelly’s writing shines.

It takes a clever writer like Connelly to discuss court proceedings or strategies without miring the reader in boring minutia. Connelly achieves this by turning the story into a game of chess. Even the art of jury selection comes under the scrupulous eye of a masterful storyteller. His behind-the-scenes team spends time observing the people most likely to be anti-Haller. These include someone with a Trump sticker on his bumper. In a sleight of hand, Trump’s appalling presidential record is woven in as well as the COVID-19 scare, which was just coming to the fore as the book was being written.

Being a first-person narrative though excludes other perspectives – what is the prosecution thinking, and who, if anyone, committed the crime in the first place? Given that Harry Bosch (half-brother to Haller) has been the central character in a couple of dozen Connelly books, Bosch seems underwritten here.

Still, at the end of the day, there are few better writers around who consistently produce stories as good as this.

I Thought We’d Be Famous | Regional News

I Thought We’d Be Famous

Written by: Dominic Hoey

Dead Bird Books

Reviewed by: Ollie Kavanagh Penno

“no piece of paper
to certify my dreams
I just kept turning up
until I learnt the words
cos I never wanted to confuse anyone
just make you feel the same as me
for a few minutes
a complicated party trick
like backflips
or beatboxing
something free
that makes you exist”.

I Thought We’d Be Famous is a halfway house for poems that rail against this country’s laissez-faire approach to life and land ownership. Now in its second printing with Dead Bird Books, Dominic Hoey lines this collection with a derision for the debts, the conventions, and the landlords that we all must endure.

The true brilliance of Hoey is his ability to fashion an amalgam of softness and contempt through his poetry. In all his works – this collection, his novel Iceland, his previous poetry book Party Tricks and Boring Secrets, his Instagram posts – exists an inimitable, gentle representation of our smallest moments and feelings.

I Thought We’d Be Famous is unpretentious and authentic precisely in the way that people who often use the word ‘authentic’ are not; each line of this book can be read as an abstraction yet, at the same time, is intrinsic to the whole and to the world – like a toe and the foot it has been severed from.

“you searched the gutter
for money to feed the landlord
and you thought
in America they dream of being president
in this country we long to own rental properties”.

Remote Sympathy | Regional News

Remote Sympathy

Written by: Catherine Chidgey

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

Set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany during World War II, Remote Sympathy is about three people trying to survive in a world that’s seemingly gone mad.

We first meet the happy couple of Dr Lenard Weber and his young wife Anne, who have a daughter, Lotte. Lenard’s a dreamer and invents the machine he dubs the ‘Sympathetic vitalizer’, something he hopes will someday change the world.

We’re then introduced to SS Sturmbannfuhrer (Major) Dietrich Hahn, the new administrator of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and his wife, Greta.

When tragedy strikes and Greta develops cancer, Dietrich, desperate to save her, has Weber transferred to Buchenwald as a political prisoner so that he can begin treating her with what later becomes known as his ‘miracle machine’.

Chidgey’s writing is top-notch stuff, and the characters are extraordinarily well written. None of them are truly what I’d label a classical hero or villain; instead, they’re what I’d like to call ‘realistically nuanced’. Each one occupies a grey area, not truly good nor evil. No one’s 100 percent innocent, but I think that’s the point Chidgey’s trying to make. Even the best of us can bend our moral compasses when it comes to protecting the people we love.

The only sticking point was when the perspective switched to the people of a nearby town and how they were able to justify a concentration camp essentially in their backyards. I understand what Chidgey was going for, but I wasn’t as emotionally invested in them as I was in the three main characters, and they only served to distract me from the book’s main story. For me, it came across as filler, and while I’m no expert, I really feel like the narrative could have benefited from their exclusion altogether.

However, it’s only a minor sticking point and shouldn’t prevent anyone from picking this up the next time they find themselves browsing for their next great read. Lest we forget.

Snow | Regional News

Snow

Written by: John Banville

Faber & Faber

Reviewed by: Rosea Capper-Starr

Snow is not an average murder mystery.

Though its opening chapters certainly present with all the classic trimmings of a crime thriller – a gory death scene to be picked apart by an intrepid young detective looking to make his mark – Snow seems to tilt slightly to veer away from traditional suspense and into a surreal world where nothing makes sense.

With a backdrop of rural Ireland, 1957, John Banville creates an eerie, unsettling scene. When a local Catholic priest is found dead under strange circumstances in the country manor of Ballyglass House, everyone seems to know something that they are unwilling to share with Inspector Strafford; a shared secret hidden behind innocent veneers of endearing cluelessness. Everyone is suspicious. Everyone seems to be playing a role, a caricature of a suspect.

The victim appears to be a popular, friendly man; a favourite among local Catholics and Protestants alike. Indeed, in Father Tom’s own words, “I’m a priest for Christ’s sake – how can this be happening to me?” Priests are simply not murdered: it’s unheard of. They are an untouchable class existing outside of regular social rankings. Banville’s gentle commentary on the political and religious climate of Ireland at the time seems initially to be a narrative device, brought up constantly but with little consequence.

Like a slow rollercoaster cart being dragged torturously up a slope, this story is a very slow burn. It finally peaks almost at the last chapter and teeters there as the fog of speculation finally clears and the ugly truth that has been simmering beneath the surface is revealed.

Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but the twist took me by surprise, and I feel like it shouldn’t have. Perhaps I was successfully distracted by the frustratingly circular conversations and sluggish investigation enacted by Inspector Strafford, who we follow as he stumbles through awkward interactions with a litany of evasive characters.

When the twist comes, it is sharp and painful. In retrospect, the truth was there all along, hinted at but unacknowledged, a dark secret but not a sin.

The Captain’s Run | Regional News

The Captain’s Run

Written by: Gregor Paul

HarperCollins

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

If I had to describe The Captain’s Run in just a few words, they’d have to be ‘heavy lies the head that wears the crown.’ 

Winning rugby matches might be a team effort, but it all starts with just one man: the captain. The man who’s charged with leading his men onto the field and inspiring them through his actions, whether on the field or off it. It’s often been said that the scrutiny he’s under is almost level to that of the prime minister regarding public opinion, profile, and accountability.

While the book might be called The Captain’s Run, it’s actually a bit of a misleading title since it delves into issues of leadership; specifically the different ways a captain can lead and how the dynamic of captain, coach, and the rest of the team has shifted to what it is today.

It touches on the importance of teamwork and how there’s never just one way to do something. 

We get to see New Zealand Rugby’s interesting evolution, starting in 1966 with Ian Kirkpatrick, when our national sport was still considered an amateur one, to arguably its greatest heights in the 21st century under the captaincy of Richie McCaw.

It’s a fascinating insight into what made each of the captains tick and how they approached their job. It describes the trepidation they felt about the role of captain and how they went about making it their own. They talk about their greatest triumphs and what they might have done differently had they been given a choice.

Gregor Paul, whose name you might recognise from his sports column in the New Zealand Herald, has done an amazing job of giving fans a look behind the curtain at a world that not everyone gets a chance to see firsthand.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more, not just about rugby, but about leadership and achieving goals that we set for ourselves in our daily lives.

The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir | Regional News

The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir

Written by: André Leon Talley

Ballantine Books

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

There’s a very telling episode late in this book when this 6’6 gay, black, French-speaking American is sent by his employer, Vogue magazine, to a health spa to lose weight. He never mentions a clinician or masseuse or any other staff.  To him, they are just little people. The snobbishness continues when Talley reveals it was Jackie Kennedy’s dress sense and decorum at the funeral of President Kennedy that made him realise the fashion industry is made for him.

It soon becomes evident that Talley is a snob of the worst kind. A quill dipped in poison ink drips on every page with the name dropping of fashion designers and models. Yet, it is his repudiation of those who accuse him of sleeping with everybody from Steve McQueen to Karl Lagerfeld that hurts the most. Talley takes pride in being gay, and the women around him love him for that, feeling safe from sexual predators.

After failing to lose weight, he takes to wearing caftans. Talley even finds time to give us the name of his caftan maker in a souk in Morocco. Yes, the name dropping continues.

Never a greasy spoon diner for Talley, it’s always Maxim’s or Chez Georges in Paris. With a sycophantic woman on his arm, they drool over food and fashion.

I was reminded of Armistead Maupin’s books, Tales of the City, throughout. Characters were always described as wearing Ralph Lauren shirts, Gucci loafers, or Gap jackets. Here, every dress is named and described. Fashionistas will be delighted with the in-crowd names: Loulou de la Falaise, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, and we are privy to Naomi Campbell carrying 10 mobile phones while Lee Radziwill washes her hair in egg yolks!

Talley’s vitriol is reserved for Anna Wintour, scion of Vogue for the last 30 years. Accordingly, Wintour is portrayed as cold, lacking empathy, and dismissive, but also brilliant.

By turn this book is catty, funny, tart, backstabbing, gushing, gossipy, cruel, bitter, self-pontificating, and immensely readable.

Escape Path Lighting | Regional News

Escape Path Lighting

Written by: John Newton

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

Escape Path Lighting is written by John Newton, author of numerous poetry collections. Newton emptied his entire bag of tricks into this latest piece of work, a novel with a challenging combination of poetic verse and satire. On reflection, having only just dipped my toe into the world of poetry, picking up this book was a rather obnoxious decision.

Set on Rock Oyster Island, Newton introduces you to a large group of eclectic characters. Luckily, Newton offers some respite and there is a character list at the start of the book. The personalities are key in this story of fugitive poets and talking parrots. I was sure I would love them all by the end. However, I did not feel there was a strong enough foundation set at the beginning. So, despite Newton’s fabulously creative imagination, the characters fell short of capturing my heart.

I started the book giggling when the character Arthur Bardruin washes up on the shore: “He hauls himself upright, a turkey-necked Venus, some two metres tall and stark bollocky nude!” The descriptions are vibrant and when the verses flowed it was fun to read. Verse formats set the tone, directing the reader to feel a certain perspective or purpose. However, I do not believe that the sentence breaks created the desired impact. The book is described on the cover as a “novel”, yet appears to lack the key components needed for an enjoyable, flowing story.

I really wanted to love Escape Path Lighting. At the end, in a bid to spark some kind of affection, I revisited a few of the pages that had caused me confusion. I discovered that I understood things better the second time round, but by then the damage was already done. This was my first poetic novel and I wonder if I should make it my last? Newton is clearly a gifted writer, but unfortunately missed the mark for me with this one.

Impossible: My Story | Regional News

Impossible: My Story

Written by: Stan Walker with Margie Thomson

HarperCollins

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

When I first picked up this book, I had no prior knowledge of Stan Walker. Based on the cover (I know right, rookie mistake), Walker’s appeal alluded me. What could a 20-something popstar offer me with his “impossible” life story? Fast forward to the moment I peer up at my husband mid-read, crying, “oh my god Stan Walker achieved the impossible!” Walker pours his heart into this saddening and at times deeply disturbing autobiography. At its core is an uncomfortably relatable paradox – that where there is great love there is often deep pain.

Walker grew up in a large Māori family with poverty, addiction, and abuse a firm part of his daily reality. There are few social issues untouched. The troubling moment when Walker describes his great sadness and longing to take his own life provides an emotionally compelling and personal element missing behind the horrifying statistics of male suicide in New Zealand. The vivid accounts of physical and sexual abuse suffered by Walker at the hands of family members are naturally disturbing and yield a feeling of anxiety that persists sorely throughout the book.

A memory or experience, no matter how traumatic, is usually followed by mature and compassionate insight. These insights create profound moments as Walker finds peace for himself as the innocent abused child, his current recovering self, and even his abusers, for whom he has forgiveness. There is finally a beacon of light when Walker’s entire world, along with his family’s, changes through his willingness to accept his faith. Whilst I cannot relate to his religious awakening, I certainly can relate to pivotal moments that have changed the way I think and have helped positively shape my life.

Unlike most celebrity autobiographies, Walker does not strive for the hero narrative. The raw, spine-tingling honesty has purpose – to inspire change. Walker is proud of his heritage and uses his life story to powerfully express to other families that generational trauma can indeed end.

Honeybee | Regional News

Honeybee

Written by: Craig Silvey

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Petra Shotwell

Heart-warming, jaw-dropping, and utterly breathtaking, Craig Silvey’s Honeybee is an emotional rollercoaster.

This coming-of-age, coming-of-gender story follows Sam on their journey to safety, security, and self-acceptance. The novel, without hesitation, commences with Sam clinging to the edge of an overpass preparing to end their life. When they’re saved by Vic, an elderly man in the same position on the railing, the two form an immediate connection. Throughout the novel, and with the help of drag queens, new friends, and chosen family, we learn alongside them what led Sam and Vic to the bridge that night.

From the subtle, yet chilling Harry Potter references (Sam’s aunt only spoke to them to be mean about their mum or to tell them they needed a haircut), to the extravagant, yet unrealistic drag show experience, Silvey creates a world in which readers are immediately encapsulated. Silvey’s rhetoric powerfully and uncomfortably conveys Sam’s depressive numbness while creating an incredibly cathartic reading experience. As the story moves between past and present, Sam suffers emotional loss, physical pain, and inexplicable joy, until finally the numbness subsides and they’re ready to face the things that hurt them.

I cannot help but love this book and its profound delicacy, but neither can I help feeling the doubt that follows. Honeybee tells a deeply intimate story about gender identity, which leads me to question the morality of this story being told by a cisgender author. In a society where the stories of transgender and gender-diverse individuals are still so scarce, I’m inclined to feel that those stories should be told by those who experience them first-hand. Furthermore, I can’t help but question Silvey’s motives in his decision not to explicitly establish new pronouns or use the term ‘transgender’ once. While Silvey writes beautifully and primarily handles the tender themes with care, I’m overwhelmed with the discomfort of questioning the righteousness of his perspective.

Overall, Honeybee is a compelling novel which consumes the reader from the very first page, and conveys powerful messages of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Baghdad or Bust | Regional News

Baghdad or Bust

Written by: Kevin Clark

Waxeye Press

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Disclaimer: I’ve known Kevin Clark for about 40 years. I’ve served him in my record stores, been to his concerts, reviewed his albums, and I thought I knew pretty much everything about him. But, this book about his travels to Baghdad floored me.

So, in the words of the rock band Steppenwolf, “Get your motor runnin’ / Head out on the highway”, except imagine it’s 1964 and Clark is on a 1958 British motorbike with a sidecar storage box and fellow traveller Jurgen Erni. The aim, to leave South Africa where Clark was born and take an informal OE soaking up the architectural sites, as both men had just obtained their architectural degrees.

There is a sense of naive chutzpah that I loved. The thought of “Oh, let’s get up and go” will appeal to many. This is a boy’s own adventure venture and I won’t tell you what happened to the bike.

Once one gets over the tedious border crossings with the fractious passport checks, it’s gratifying that Clark recognises the generosity of the people along the way, many of whom offer free meals, accommodation, and help with the numerous problems with the bike. Clark juxtaposes the memories of 1964 with what has gone on over the years, countries that are even more out of bounds today with war, religion (more than once Clark asks the question of religion and the tyrants who enforce the rules), animosity, distrust, and the wanton destruction of architectural sites. To the intrepid traveller’s dismay, many of the sites are now just rubble. Yet even abandoned cities have their charms.

Among a wealth of data are some beautiful descriptions of places such as a gate in a Byzantine wall in Istanbul, the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the Al-Hamidiyah Souq market in Damascus, and Beehive houses in Northern Syria, a simple structure making a comeback to house displaced persons. In between, it’s camel rides, a belly dancing joint, kebabs, and sleeping in ditches.

The book is the perfect size to thumb through with great visuals, maps, and running commentary for all armchair travellers. An early Christmas present, perhaps?

Think Like a Monk | Regional News

Think Like a Monk

Written by: Jay Shetty

HarperCollins

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

Think Like a Monk is so much more than the title suggests. Author Jay Shetty’s words feel authentic and spoken by someone who is walking the talk. He’s lived the regular nine-to-five lifestyle and found it wanting. Think Like a Monk made me sit up and pause, reflect and reimagine life; so much so, I had to read this book chapter by chapter with ample breaks in between, days even, to wholeheartedly digest and ruminate on all the profound things he was saying.

Shetty regales us with tales of becoming a monk, a process where he became gracefully and mindfully aware of anything and everything in his life and the lives of others. I never once felt like this was a clichéd, fanciful, or indulgent plunge into self-help book territory.

He talks of existing in career quadrants where ideally passion and skill collide; the other quadrants are a mixture of when the two don’t collide. I am suddenly acutely aware I have one foot firmly planted in one career quadrant while holding on for dear life to another. Shetty makes you feel as if anyone can live a life less ordinary, simply by being you and tapping into infinite wisdom in a purposeful and achievable way.

“Monks understand that routine frees your mind but the biggest threat to freedom is monotony,” says Shetty. He encourages you to change your lens, to find new things in old routines.

“Plant trees under whose shade you do not plan to sit” – live your life with intent and service.
Shetty concludes his final chapter with a hope that his book will have inspired and perhaps encouraged a fresh start. He has certainly done that.

Think Like a Monk challenged all I thought I knew about the life and purpose of a monk. I had only ever seen what I wanted to see – the robes, the shaven heads, the seemingly purposeless chants, and the celibate solitary lifestyle. Changing your lens to think more like a monk is just the start.

This Farming Life: Five Generations on a New Zealand Farm  | Regional News

This Farming Life: Five Generations on a New Zealand Farm

Written by: Tim Saunders

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

This Farming Life speaks the warm truth about family, connection, and heritage on a New Zealand farm. Tim Saunders begins by describing his early years where he resisted farm life, preferring instead to pursue adventures throughout NZ and abroad. His explorations fail to keep him away as he returns home, finally accepting his commitment to the land.

Whilst the work described on the farm is tough and relentless, Saunders’ words feel effortless. The stories of Saunders’ mother and father are beautiful. I felt like I could see Saunders smiling as he relives his fondest memories. More importantly (as someone obsessed with comedy), the book is bound together by humour. As I progressed through the chapters, I realised that Saunders’ manner of describing events is likely a product of his charming and quirky father. A slight shift in font and you are suddenly transported to a childhood memory; one being a hilarious account of Saunders at his first sheep auction. I cracked up loudly – lucky I was reading at home!

Interestingly, the book addresses well-known farming issues, and the chapters are lightly laced with politics. Many of these situations leave you frustrated and are necessary for an authentic understanding of agriculture. Somehow, Saunders avoids a deep dive into his feelings, which I believe could have further enhanced the emotive dimensions of the book. There are deliberate mentions of climate change throughout that are accompanied with his desire, along with his vegetarian wife’s desire, to do what is best for the planet. Despite these ‘soft’ offerings, he does not skirt the gory realities of farm life.

The chapters are divided conveniently into seasons. As someone who picked up the book knowing zero about farming, it made the read even more educational. You do not need to be a farming nut to enjoy this book. This Farming Life is an honest, loving, and easy read that will leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy by the end!

Scorpions in Stilettos | Regional News

Scorpions in Stilettos

Written by: Hinemura Ellison & Ted Hughes

Bach Doctor Press

Reviewed by: Anne Taylor

This is the third book in a trilogy by Waikanae-based publishing duo Darin Dance and Virginia Innes-Jones, writing here under pseudonyms. It follows Clara James, an impulsive go-getter piecing together how past traumatic events have derailed her life and escaping corporate life in Wellington – a life she’s just exploded by having an affair with a married judge.

I was looking forward to some light relief at this point in the year but my read got off to a bad start with a missing comma in the dedication – the serious kind that messes with meaning. Unfortunately, glaring typos and grammar glitches are frequent, and this was a major barrier for me. The dialogue is at times stilted as it tells the reader key information. I only have a sketchy mental picture of Clara and none of her friends (strange in the romance genre?), but I know she carries a “hobo bag” because the authors told me multiple times. Clara’s mother and boss are simplistic villains, paper cut outs for Clara to sling off at. There were some funny moments but probably not in the way the authors hoped, as with the poems lifted straight out of Clara’s journal or when she hears the news of the possibly fatal (for her friends) earthquake, then a few pages later is shooting the breeze over bubbles with a dishy flight attendant. At one point it looks as if Clara is going to bust open a shady property deal and/or solve a murder, but these subplots trail off into oblivion.

On the positive side, the Wellington setting, complete with Astoria Café, Ministry offices, and train commutes to the coast is refreshing, and Clara’s challenges are relatable and passionately portrayed. On balance, the raw, ‘heart-on-sleeve’ style is one of the strengths. Like its main character, this book has pace and chutzpah, and the authors have storytelling talent, zipping us from Wellington to Kathmandu and Sweden, but the standards of crafting I’d hope to find in any genre, including romance, are not there.

The Girl From Revolution Road | Regional News

The Girl From Revolution Road

Written by: Ghazaleh Golbakhsh

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

Every artist needs their muse, that certain something that helps them ignite their passions. For Ghazaleh Golbakhsh, hers came from the hardships she faced as an Iranian-born immigrant trying to grow up as a New Zealander.

Her latest work, The Girl From Revolution Road, is a series of essays about her journey from Iran to New Zealand in 1987 and the personal odyssey she had to take to find her place in a country that didn’t always seem to know what to make of her.

Like a lot of immigrant children, she found herself torn between two very different worlds. She desperately wanted to fit into her adoptive homeland, yet I felt as if she didn’t know how to go about it.

Eventually, she realised that she had to find a way to integrate both her Iranian and Kiwi self into a duel identity rather than assimilate and risk losing them both.

Through her unique perspective, we see a darker side of New Zealand, proof that despite the incredible strides we’ve made as a nation in our race relations, we’re still not perfect, and we have a long way to go before we are.

She also takes aim at Hollywood and deconstructs some of the damaging stereotypes surrounding Middle Eastern cultures and its people.

In doing so, she breaks down perhaps the worst one of all, which is the classic ‘us against them’ argument where you’re told to either completely assimilate or you’re out.

Her writing style’s personable, honest, and there were times that I felt that I was reading through someone’s private journal rather than a book or a novel. I found it utterly engrossing and made the time to finish it in one sitting.

Despite only being 240 pages long, it packs a serious punch, and it’s worth looking into the next time you want to scratch that book itch.

Three Poets – Marion Rego, Alex Jeune and Margaret Jeune | Regional News

Three Poets – Marion Rego, Alex Jeune and Margaret Jeune

A HeadworX Anthology

HeadworX Publishers

Reviewed by: Anne Taylor

There are many writers groups located in rural towns and regions throughout New Zealand, and they are often the catalyst for aspiring writers to develop their work. Support and encouragement generally flows freely and people gain the confidence to take their work to the next level. A pitfall can be that work is rushed into the world that might benefit from further crafting.

The poets here met via the Horowhenua Writers Group and have been published in that group’s anthologies. Marion Rego is an established children’s writer and has performed at poetry readings where I imagine her wry, relateable observations about life as an older person, from banalities at the supermarket to gripes about her insurance company, would resonate with audiences. Her reflections sometimes go deeper, as when she seeringly captures the emotional pain of ageing in I Love You: “Sometimes I feel / that nobody needs me now / Nobody loves me best or puts me first...” But her focus stays mainly on the surface of everyday events.

In contrast, Alex Jeune leaps readily from the mundane to the metaphysical, as in Petone, where a red pōhutukawa becomes a springboard for thoughts on eternity. Rhyme and other stylised language is harnessed as he wrestles with the uncertainty, mutability, and setbacks of life. 70 The Terrace opens with “Blue sky, mining / On an hourly wage”, capturing the quiet hell shared by office workers the world over. Credulity and Untitled speak of thwarted desire in a concise and heartfelt way.

Much of Margaret Jeune’s work is about orientating herself within the stream of previous generations and the sensory bombardment of social media and the news cycle. Writing is a way to do this and she offers several poems about language and this process (My Poem, Editing Lives, Street Speak). A number of poems capture the far from picture-perfect experience of New Zealand summers and Christmas Time 2019 now reads like a document from a distant past: “Cruise ships disgorge passengers onto Wellington streets”. HeadworX is to be commended for championing emerging NZ writers since 1998.

Mallory, Mallory: The Revenge of the Tooth Fairy | Regional News

Mallory, Mallory: The Revenge of the Tooth Fairy

Written by: James Norcliffe

Penguin Random House New Zealand

Illustrated by Emily Walker

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

Take one selfish little girl aka Mallory, one meek and mild accomplice aka Arthur, and a cunning plot to kidnap the ever-elusive Tooth Fairy for ransom and you have a recipe for a tooth-defying tale.

The Revenge of the Tooth Fairy begins with a half-hatched plan to trap the Tooth Fairy in a makeshift budgie cage and turns into a delightful fantasy adventure where the best-laid plans become more and more complicated.

It’s hard to find Mallory endearing as she goes about trying to extort money from the Tooth Fairy in the most extreme and horrid ways. But a little bit of magic goes a long way in making her more dastardly villain than unlikable wretch.

The dry musings of a sly ‘shape-shifting’ mouse lead Mallory and Arthur to the realm of fantasy land Oralia; a place where teeth reign in all their glory, good and bad. Here Mallory becomes the incarcerated as she gets a taste of her own medicine and the indignities she has thrust upon the Tooth Fairy.

Author James Norcliffe’s knack for making teeth scary, humanlike, and hilarious is ripe for engaging young children and Emily Walker’s illustrations bring them to life ever so well. My seven-year-old got more than he bargained for here and despite protests of swapping this book for the umpteenth Marvel comic, he was soon inextricably engrossed in a fantasy world. One where canines, molars, and incisors govern, hex checkers keep order and balance the books, and the threat of the ‘penidentiary’, where Major Rat holds court, is never far away.

Reading The Revenge of the Tooth Fairy, I couldn’t help but hope that self-centred and scheming Mallory would turn a corner and display some remorse, but alas, one so calculated was never going to change her ways. Similarly I hoped that young Arthur would step up and out from under Mallory’s shadow and find his voice along the way. Does he come into his own? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

In the Time of the Manaroans | Regional News

In the Time of the Manaroans

Written by: Miro Bilbrough

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ollie Kavanagh Penno

You don’t love me, do you?

My mother’s refusal to answer burned, guttering like a small house-fire that spread inside me. And spread it did. For much of my adult life this question, and all that it contained, would become a contaminant that I worked around as best I could.”

Sydney-based writer and filmmaker Miro Bilbrough’s In the Time of the Manaroans is a memoir about her time as a teenager living in a commune in Manaroa in the 1970s.

Penning a memoir is an act of self-creation. Usually, autobiographical works of this nature fixate on a particular event or set of events in the author’s life, grounding the narrative in the role and feelings of the storyteller-protagonist figure. In Bilbrough’s In the Time of the Manaroans, though, the author manages to construct herself through careful portraiture of surrounding characters.

Bilbrough’s writing is both aesthetically and narratologically sharp; her story is pieced together tangentially, subtly familiarising readers with its inhabitants in a way that creates the distinct impression that our relationships with these characters somehow precede this book.

“In this stultification my facility with words is an aggravation. Margaret accuses me of being pretentious, of deliberately going after the biggest words around. It is true–I do […] Years later, my mother will write a poem in which she credits my word facility with the fact that she got stuck in a lavatory with Roget’s Thesaurus when she was pregnant. This family tale pleases us both. Lavatory is a word gleaned from my grandmother. Class affectation or just a word with more aural charisma than toilet? Both, I think.”

In the Time of the Manaroans stands not merely as a chronicle, revisiting the experience of growing up in a small hippie community living an alternative life at the edge of the Marlborough Sounds; it is an article of self-determination, evidence of a love-starved teenager carefully observing, listening, and ultimately asserting herself against the characters through which she is created.

Egg & Spoon | Regional News

Egg & Spoon

Written by: Alexandra Tylee

Gecko Press 

Illustrated by Giselle Clarkson

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

Egg & Spoon is a beautifully illustrated cookbook that has a similar effect on children as a colourful storybook read to them at night. Both involve an investment of quality time. And quality time my seven-year-old helper and I had indulging in its splendid recipes.

Joyous illustrations from Giselle Clarkson really bring this book to life. What child could resist a delightful-looking alligator eating avocado and corn tacos, or a delectable layered cake with a random banana sprouting from the top? Mine certainly couldn’t.

Alexandra Tylee offers handy tips throughout that will make sense to young minds; simple and practical tips like when to use an electric beater. The irresistible idea of the breakfast iceblock was to be our first recipe to try, but indeed turned out to be too good to be true when our cupboards would not yield the necessary ingredients. Instead we threw tradition to the wind and made French toast for dessert.

Egg & Spoon unleashed my seven-year-old’s inner food critic. I now know Marmite would not be an acceptable accompaniment to noodles as one recipe suggests. Not surprisingly though, Nutella certainly would, and Tylee agrees.

From beginning to end there are useful lessons to be learned and I found myself asking my son the same question that my mother always asked me after we had made a discernible mess in the kitchen. What do good cooks do? Good cooks clean up after themselves!

Egg & Spoon is an uncomplicated introduction to cooking, simple yet sophisticated enough to appeal to young and old. I’m heartened to see Tylee’s comments, like the suggestion of using free range eggs and the truthful reasons why, too.

Egg & Spoon is not only a gloriously illustrated book that speaks to the hearts and tummies of young children and those first learning to cook. It is in itself a recipe for spending time together, creating shared memories, teaching the art of cooking, and cultivating a love of food that will hopefully last a lifetime.

The Savage Coloniser Book | Regional News

The Savage Coloniser Book

Written by: Tusiata Avia

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

From the colonisation of our country to the Black Lives Matter movement, Tusiata Avia’s new title, The Savage Coloniser Book, seems to take a chainsaw to some of those issues and sheds light on the brutal reality of what humanity is sometimes capable of.

Avia’s poetry is razor-sharp; it cuts deep, getting straight to the heart of whatever topic she’s chosen to tackle. Nothing’s off-limits or taboo; everything from Jacinda Ardern to the White Power movement in New Zealand gets put under her proverbial microscope and dissected.

At first, her writing struck me as a little dark, but as I kept reading, it dawned on me that it was less poetic prose and more of a running commentary on how she sees the world from her own unique perspective.

Avia’s a talented writer, and those talents are on full display here. Her poetry has several layers to it, and there were times that I found myself having to read and re-read some of the book’s passages so that I could fully comprehend everything she was trying to convey.

Rather than being based solely on emotion or any inner turmoil that a lot of poetry comes from, The Savage Coloniser takes its cues from genuine societal issues. 

Even though Avia’s work clearly comes from the heart, it also deals with real-world problems that many people can relate to. I think it’s something that will appeal to readers who aren’t normally attracted to this type of writing. As one of those people, that’s something that I can attest to, and while I admit that poetry’s not my usual go-to genre, I still loved how she’s able to write about such heavy topics while entertaining at the same time.

For anyone who’s a fan of poetry or of Tusiata Avia, this will be another gem to add to their collection, and even if you’re not, I’d still recommend giving it a whirl.

The Silent Wife | Regional News

The Silent Wife

Written by: Karin Slaughter

HarperCollins

Reviewed by: Rosea Capper-Starr

Both gruesome and thrilling, Karin Slaughter’s latest crime novel The Silent Wife takes place over two sets of investigations, eight years apart.

Setting the scene in small-town Georgia, USA, a college student is attacked. A seemingly solitary incident at first, local police soon find themselves outmanoeuvred as they struggle to get ahead of a fast-moving predator unlike anything seen before in their county. Readers watch events unfold both in real time, and through the lens of Georgia Bureau detectives, urged to reopen the case eight years later as fresh evidence comes to light.

My praise for this novel comes with a caution; this may be the first book I have read that I consider worthy of a content warning. Depictions of the violent sexual crimes committed by the killer were graphic, and at times felt gratuitous. Upon finishing the story I read the author’s note, wherein Slaughter acknowledges and addresses her deliberate approach. In her own words, Slaughter says “I decided to write frankly about violence against women. I felt it was important to openly describe what that violence actually looks like, and to explore the long-lasting effects of trauma in as realistic a way as possible.”

I realised the writing was confronting because I was used to reading and hearing about crimes through a soft veil of euphemisms and ‘decency’. With this new perspective, I came to appreciate Slaughter’s decidedly unadorned storytelling.

Slaughter writes succinctly, crafting complex, flawed, and believably human lead characters in a clear and unromantic way. There is just enough personal detail and backstory to the characters to complement the key storyline without lurid expositions. My impression is that this book would appeal to a wide audience. Slaughter has a keen sense of pacing and balance of suspense versus payoff.

The Silent Wife stands alone successfully; I did not suspect during reading that I was missing any details or context, despite this novel being the latest in a series involving repeat characters. While this is my first foray into Karin Slaughter’s writing, I can say with certainty that I am a new fan, and I look forward to discovering more of her work.

Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems | Regional News

Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems

Written by: Simon Armitage

Faber & Faber

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

My bookshelves sag with the weight of Neruda, Milligan, McGough, Betjeman, Rexroth, and Larkin but I have never reviewed a poetry book. Until now.

Not for me the dry analytic dissection of enjambment, onomatopoeia, or iambic pentameter, whatever they may be.

Poetry is probably the most private of reading. I came across Armitage not via his poetry but via his wildly crafted, dry-humoured book All Points North about his time in Manchester with social services. Armitage was born in Yorkshire, but I forgive him for that.

Now, Poet Laureate Armitage has published another book of country poems that evoke farmyards, birds on the wire, sleet on the face when crossing Mam Tor (Mother Hill in Derbyshire), and the smell of hollyhocks on the wind. They are so resplendent with imagery that I recall weekend rambles in Derbyshire as a 14-year-old with such clarity and dislike being woken from my reverie. I learned the names of the birds on the wing – starlings, robins, blue tits, and magpies, and now, so far from the motherland, I retreat into Armitage’s images so the memories will never fade.

Evening is one example. “One day you’ll learn the names of the trees. You fork left under the ridge, pick up the bridleway between two streams. Here is Wool Clough. Here is Royal Edge”.

And, in October, “All day trimming branches and leaves, the homeowner sweeping the summer into a green heap; all evening minding the flames, inhaling the incense of smouldering laurel and pine”.

In the chapter titled Bringing it all Back Home, the author’s humour comes to the fore when he discovers that there is a Simon Armitage Trail in his village. Buying a false wig and beard, he joins the guided tour only to find, disappointingly, that it’s only two elderly ladies and three day-trippers. Keen to catch the ferret juggling at midday in Malham Cove, one of the day-trippers asks, “how long does this take?” as they don’t want to miss the bus. Argh! Fame, such a fickle mistress.