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The Stasi Poetry Circle | Regional News

The Stasi Poetry Circle

Written by: Philip Oltermann

Faber & Faber

Reviewed by: Margaret Austin

No, the title of this book is not a joke! But can you think of a greater incongruity than that between members of the Stasi – East Germany’s secret police of the 1980s – and an interest in lyric poetry? Or does that question expose my ignorance of the cultural climate of the times and the German fanatical attachment to all such things?

To say that this book was a revelation – albeit an uncomfortable one – is an understatement. Author Philip Oltermann spent five years rifling through Stasi files, digging up lost volumes of poetry, and tracking down surviving members of this Red poet’s society to uncover the little-known story of the famously ruthless intelligence agency’s obsession with literature.

Why had the Stasi set up such a thing as “the working circle of writing Chekists”? Oltermann’s interviewees provide a range of answers, all of which make for fascinating reading. The group’s leader, “the thin man with the thick glasses”, was Uwe Berger, a man of reputedly “monkish asceticism” who had somehow avoided becoming a political tool, and instead used his role as poetry tutor to carry out a “personal mission as a living link to Germany’s darkest hour”.

One of the poems that made it into the Red booklet was called Come. It consisted of an appeal for honesty and comradeship, yet contained the lines “Come…but not just to complain / because then / You had better not come at all”.

Germany’s descent into a paranoid culture war is well charted. Were writers indeed embedding subversive ideas in their work? Annegret Gollin, a young woman who could be described as non-conformist, was ultimately arrested, and her poems seized. During interrogation, she was asked to explain and interpret her own poems!

Oltermann has employed literary terms as chapter headings. Some, such as sonnet, metaphor, and persona would be familiar to readers. Less familiar though would be consonance, bathos, and dissonance. Each title introduces content bearing on the author’s remarkable account.

Weaponising poetry – who would have thought it? Only the Stasi surely – or am I being naïve?

Brave the Storm: Skydragon 4 | Regional News

Brave the Storm: Skydragon 4

Written by: Anh Do

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

It probably would have been good to read the first three of Anh Do’s Skydragon series instead of diving headfirst into book four. Nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised despite having to play catchup on the premise.

First we meet Amber, so used to her innate ability to turn into a skydragon that after a concussion she is left worried her powers, which once saw her connect with insects and turn into a skydragon at the first sign of imminent danger, may never return.

Anh Do has a great ability to create adventures that are easy to read and not too daunting for the child listening or the parent reading, with chapters that are not too long yet entertaining nevertheless. With a healthy dose of cartoon-like images by illustrator James Hart, characters are brought to life in the ultimate adventure.

My son was not initially keen to read Brave the Storm: Skydragon 4. It was in his mind, presumably decided by first glance, a “girl’s book”. When I heard this I tried to discern whether it was the colourful cover, the female heroine on said cover, or something that seemed to scream there are girls lurking on the inside. It was, he admitted, the cover and its female protagonist Amber. Not to worry, we moved past this ideation pretty quickly with a “really, there’s no such thing as a girl’s or boy’s book”. Rather, in this book, there’s a promise of adventure, a quest to regain lost powers, and to boot, a strong female lead on a journey of self-discovery. Will she escape the clutches of nemesis Agent Ferris, despite not having her usual powers?

In Brave the Storm, adventure takes Amber and neighbour Irene deep into the jungle of Sennam where brief encounters as tourists quickly dissipate after they become embroiled in jungle warfare in a death-defying bid to help an ancient tribe. Spoiler, the end will certainly have you excited for book five.

The Social Lives of Animals | Regional News

The Social Lives of Animals

Written by: Ashley Ward

Profile Books Ltd

Reviewed by: Margaret Austin

“Sociability”, states author Ashley Ward, is “the ability to live and work alongside one another in groups, to co-operate”. Sociability forms the bedrock of our human existence and success, and in this remarkable tome he sets out to demonstrate such a thesis.

Ward wastes little time lamenting the march of technology and its destructive effect upon our lives. Instead, we get fascinating examples of communication and co-operation from the technology-free world of insects and animals.

Most of us would probably think at once of bees and cite their industrious nectar collecting and their egg-laying queen. You think you know all about bees? Buzz off! The chapter titled Honey, I fed the kids offers a hive of information: a bee in its lifetime produces only a fraction of a teaspoon of honey, the queen, laying thousands of eggs a day, works herself to death for the good of her colony, and bees employ a fearless kamikaze to defend their nests.

Ants and termites belong to the same category of super organisms and are equally fascinating – and cooperative.

Moving to a watery element, Ward’s expedition to the Azores to study the social behaviour of whales and dolphins nets some extraordinary observations. From his vantage point, safe in a vessel, he finds himself in the middle of a mammalian family frolic, smaller whales circling a huge matriarch. A small one would swim into the matriarch’s oar-like lower jaw and rest there, apparently receiving a very gentle nibble from Mum, before being released. Sociable? Not everyone’s idea of a whale of a time!

“Primates are the new kids on the animal block, having appeared around sixty five million years ago”, Ward reminds us. As you might expect, his chapter on our nearest relatives (there’s a huge overlap in our DNA) contains hilarious tales of monkey business in all its guises. One of my favourites was reading that vervet monkeys enjoy alcohol and get drunk! Who are we humans to point fingers? It’s all in the interests of sociability of course!

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief | Regional News

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief

Written by: A.F. Steadman

Simon & Schuster

Reviewed by: Cade Manava (10)

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is a book about a boy named Skandar who loves to watch unicorns race and goes on a quest to try and find the right unicorn to match his spirit. He gets swept up in a lie when he tells his sister Kenna that he is training to be a unicorn rider, something only the best of the best get to do. Kenna then tells his whole school so he has no choice but to set out to make his little white lie a reality. On his travels he sees different unicorns. His favourite is New-Age Frost, whose rider Aspen McGrath had qualified for the Chaos Cup, the ultimate race every unicorn and rider dreams to participate in. The main characters are Skandar, his sister Kenna, and his dad. 

My favourite part of the book was the beginning because it was interesting to read about Skandar’s background and where he’s from. I also liked the end because there was much more action when the book started to wrap up. Even though at first I wasn’t that keen on reading about unicorns… mostly because it makes me think of pink and rainbows (which isn’t my usual thing), there was so much action and excitement that it changed my view on how I feel about all things unicorn.

There wasn’t much that I didn’t like apart from a few boring bits at the start. The only thing that didn’t interest me as much was that the book was about unicorns… which isn’t something that would usually catch my interest, but otherwise there wasn’t really anything that I didn’t enjoy.

Overall I enjoyed Skandar and the Unicorn Thief. It’s great to read before bed. For boys I think the age should be nine to 14 and for girls I reckon from eight to 15 would be a good age range, only because the majority of girls seem to be more interested in unicorns. Out of five stars I give it a 4.5.

Elvis | Regional News



159 mins

(3 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Harry Bartle

After seeing the dramatic lives of Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and Aretha Franklin brought to life on the big screen, it’s only fitting that the king of rock ‘n’ roll has been given his turn to shine again in Elvis. The result is a bold and dramatic musical epic that gets some things very right and others a bit wrong.

From his rise to fame to his unprecedented superstardom, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) maintains a complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), for over two decades. Through love, loss, fame, fortune, and of course, music, the singer and some of his peers begin to question if he is truly in charge of his own destiny.

Butler’s performance steals the show. The 30-year-old stated that he felt a responsibility to Elvis and his family to live up to the icon through his portrayal. From speaking in his notable deep voice and performing his famous dance moves onstage to even singing like him, Butler nailed every single element. Hanks supported the young actor well in a rare role as the antagonist, while the casting and performances across the board were excellent.

Elvis has a unique style thanks to director Baz Luhrmann. It is told from the Colonel’s perspective even though he is clearly the villain, an element I enjoyed. However, at times it is an overload on the senses due to quick edits, comic book-style visuals, and odd mixtures of Elvis classics with modern-day pop hits. It is also a shame that not a single Elvis song is sung in full.

Even at almost three hours long, parts of Elvis’ iconic life are rushed through, but the film also never loses your attention. The ending is both sombre and powerful thanks to how Luhrmann and his writers chose to abruptly wrap up the story. It is a tragedy that the world lost Elvis at just 42, and this tragedy and the reasons are dramatically emphasised.

Elvis won’t really tell you anything new about the star, but overall, it is a captivating, exciting, and haunting feature that showcases much of Elvis’ trailblazing journey.

Ngā Rorirori | Regional News

Ngā Rorirori

Written by: Hone Kouka

Directed by: Hone Kouka

Circa Theatre, 25th Jun 2022

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

“I want to make something that I’ve never seen before in Aotearoa.” These are the words of celebrated playwright Hone Kouka (Bless the Child) who describes Ngā Rorirori as a culmination of three artforms that intrigue him: dance, farce, and theatre. I couldn’t put it better myself: Ngā Rorirori is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I doubt I will ever see anything like it again.

Pillow (Regan Taylor) and Manuela (Mycah Keall) Rorirori stand to come into some moolah from their marae, which could become a cash cow if they impress the Chief Executive of the Department of ‘Whenua, Whakapapa and Whatever’ Ripeka Goldsmithworthy (Hahna Nichols). Newly heartbroken filmmaker Stacey Li Paul (Nomuna Amarbat) documents Pillow’s life while he tries to dazzle Manuela’s partner Rere Ahuahu (Sefa Tunupopo) instead in a classic case of mistaken identity with hilarious consequences.

I could tell you that you’re in for a surprise when Ngā Rorirori segues from dance to theatre, but I don’t think that would cover it. We open with contemporary choreography (Braedyn Togi) that aches and thrusts to measured, precise beats (compositions and karanga by Sheree Waitoa, compositions by Maarire Brunning Kouka and Reon Bell, who infuse a hip-hop and R&B flavour into the sound design). And then we’re bowled over by an unrestrained tornado of colour, sound effects, physical theatre, and clowning in scenes where actors lip sync to dialogue performed by a separate vocal cast.  Only the characters of Pillow and Stacey share the same actor both onstage and off it.

The dubbing is super jarring at first but ultimately serves to heighten the dialogue so it can thrive in the magical, elevated realm of Ngā Rorirori. Cohesion is achieved here because if naturalism was integrated at any point, it would stand in too stark a contrast with… well, everything else! One can’t really interact with a surtitle machine come to life and act normal about it now, can they?

Elements of cinema come into play with said surtitles, which incorporate te reo translations (Hōhepa Waitoa) to great effect. Aspects of French farce and melodrama, Italian commedia dell'arte, Broadway musicals, children’s TV shows, and more influences than I can count are woven into a work where te ao Māori beats fast, hard, and loud at the centre.

All the while, actors throw mammoth energy into delivering and honouring Ngā Rorirori. How big, how bizarre, how beautiful.

Matariki | Regional News


Written and illustrated by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

My nine-year-old enjoyed Matariki, a children’s book written to celebrate and explore Matariki. “It reminds you of the Māori ways of the world; about protecting nature and the earth,” he says.

Authors Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson, two cousins from Ōtepoti, Dunedin, delve into the meaning of Matariki. They ask, how can we celebrate Matariki? Let’s look to the stars. With rich bilingual text, we learn about each of the stars that form the Matariki star cluster.

With its earthy and uniquely Kiwi illustrations, Matariki offered an opportunity for my son and I to learn more about everything we didn’t know, which I discovered was a lot! Were there seven stars or nine? In the book there are nine but a little a visit to Te Papa’s website explained that it could be both. Different iwi share different kōrero regarding Matariki, they say. Next we visited Te Ara, The Encyclopeadia of New Zealand, which says iwi across New Zealand understand and celebrate Matariki in different ways and at different times. Te Aka Māori Dictionary came to our rescue a few times to help us pronounce words such as hiwaiterangi and waipunarangi correctly.

When my son and I were halfway through reading Matariki, he randomly asked me if I knew about Kupe and his stone and he proceeded to tell me what he knew when I told him that I didn’t. I thought this was really cool – it really hit home how we are all on a learning journey together and not only can we learn from each other, but the simple act of reading can educate, create connections, and encourage us to seek out more information to become more informed and more aware.

Matariki is a lovely simple book that encourages us to look deeper, stay connected, and celebrate Matariki by remembering our past, caring for our environment, and connecting with our people.

You’ll be the Death of Me | Regional News

You’ll be the Death of Me

Written by: Karen M. McManus

Penguin Random House

Reviewed by: Saashika (15)

You’ll be the Death of Me was honestly one of the most intriguing books I’ve ever read. The story follows a group of ex-friends, who are brought together once more by a horrible scene they witnessed together, and in which they look terribly guilty…

One thing I liked about this book is the plot twists and how cleverly crafted they are. Karen M. McManus is well renowned for her mystery novels, so I entered this book wondering if she would manage to uphold the high standard she has already set. And my goodness she did. I adored the fact that the plot twists weren’t just thrown in there for the sake of it, but actually made you smack your head and wonder why you didn’t realise before. All throughout, McManus teases us with little bits of information that reveal a new way the story can go, or another possible suspect. These bits connect beautifully at the end, and that is one of the things I love most about this book.

Another thing is the fact that there are many, many characters but it is never difficult to recall who they are. I have noticed that in other books where there are several different characters, sometimes they all seem to blend in together. But it is never hard to tell who is who in this book. The characters are all wonderfully diverse and distinct from one another. 

Another thing is that McManus beautifully portrays the fact that these kids are children put into a very adult situation. The characters don’t suddenly become adult-like detectives but still retain the fact that they are, in fact, children chucked into a murder situation and are struggling to find their footing. They handle teenager crushes whilst hunting a suspect down, and navigate petty grudges whilst figuring out how to prove themselves innocent of a crime they didn’t commit.

All in all, You’ll be the Death of Me is an amazing read if you are looking for that book to keep you turning the page, to keep you on your toes. It’s amazingly written, with great characters and an even better storyline.

The Bookseller at the End of the World  | Regional News

The Bookseller at the End of the World

Written by: Ruth Shaw

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Ruth Avery

The Bookseller at the End of the World is such an evocative title, I had to read it after I read articles about the author Ruth Shaw. What a wonderful book! It had everything – great characters both animal and human, interesting travel adventures, heartbreak (several times over), but mostly joy.

Ruth has lived more in one year than some people do in their whole lives. She leaves men behind and has a restless soul due to various things that happened in her past. Ruth learns how to sail and spends time living on boats. She adopts pets along the way too and even nurses a baby bird back to health who she aptly names Katherine Mansfield (Katie for short). Katie is quite a feature in the shop. Her work stories in King’s Cross in the 1980s are eye-opening. Never a dull day in Ruth’s life. Her open manner means she can talk to sex workers and gain their respect without telling them how to live their lives. She gets a hug from a staunch regular and even she was surprised.

Ruth’s life story is interspersed with excerpts from her bookshop encounters. I loved it. It made me cry and laugh. The opening chapter, Two Wee Bookshops, is fantastic. I was hooked. The interaction with the American woman who asks if the shop is open and sells books is priceless. But even better is the gentle way she encourages young children to read and the story about young Toby made me weep. I want to read it again but will have to wait a while to get over it. I would love to visit my namesake Ruth and see her wonderful empire and meet Lance, who quite rightly gets his own chapter The Adventures of Lance.

Ruth Shaw has certainly made her mark on this world and has helped countless people. This book is lovingly and thoughtfully crafted, and beautifully descriptive. A joy to read. Five stars.