Reviews - Regional News | Connecting Wellington


Tigers Can’t Change Their Stripes | Regional News

Tigers Can’t Change Their Stripes

Written by: Lee Stanton-Barnett, Leonid Wilson, Brooke McCloy, and Lewis Thompson

Directed by: Lee Stanton-Barnett, Leonid Wilson, Brooke McCloy, and Lewis Thompson

Gryphon Theatre, 1st Mar 2022

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

The Garden of Eden: beautiful, serene, bountiful, and perfect. Until the humans arrived. How could God’s ‘most perfect’ creation be so imperfect? Well according to two tigers Big Stripes (Lewis Thompson) and Sharp Claws (Leonid Wilson), the ‘hewmans’ aren’t perfect at all. In their mind all beasts, no matter the legs or fur, are all created equal; but Adam (Lee Stanton-Barnett) and Eve (Brooke McCloy) seem to disagree.

Written, directed, and performed by ‘You be good. I love you’, Tigers Can’t Change Their Stripes is a touching tale (or tail) about both the differences and similarities between human and beast, what defines a beast, and ultimately what defines a human. Providing a new take on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Tigers Can’t Change Their Stripes follows the rise, climax, and fall of Eden from paradise to what we inhabit now: Earth.

Specifically touching about the show is how similar the tigers and the humans behave. Though clearly different species, the tigers celebrate their differences to other animals but do not see themselves as superior. Adam and Eve however see themselves as special from their incipience. As Big Stripes wisely proposes: “Humans have a particular quality different from tigers; they want to be like God”. Eve and Adam both eat the apple in this rendition, but they do it to become special to God, to get closer to God.

Post-apple, the world changes: different species can no longer communicate, fear and hunger pervade the world, and life becomes all about survival. Humans and beasts seem to drift further apart, no longer living in harmony. Big Stripes ponders how despite our differences we share so many similarities and we all want the same things: a full belly and a place to live. Maybe our shared desires are what make us fight.

The tigers can’t understand why the humans feel such a strong need to be special. Perhaps only us humans can answer that.

Olga Dies Dreaming | Regional News

Olga Dies Dreaming

Written by: Xochitl Gonzalez

Fleet Publishing

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel Olga Dies Dreaming is not so much a look at the American Dream as it is an autopsy of it and the toll it can take on those chasing it.

The story focuses on Olga Acevedo and her brother Prieto, two siblings trying to navigate modern-day corporate America while finding their place in it. Years earlier, they were abandoned by their mother, Blanca, who ran off to become a revolutionary and save the world. Now she’s back, and her arrival shakes up what some might consider the siblings’ perfect lives.

I found the characters fascinating; they’re just wonderful to be around. Each one is so alive, and I was surprised by the depth of humanity that they all have. They have their triumphs and failures, and like all people, they make mistakes. This made them more relatable, and it was not long before I saw them as real human beings rather than characters on a page. 

I loved them all, but my favourite has to be Blanca. While she does not appear until much later on, she looms omnipresent over her children throughout the book. She is cold, cruel, and calculating to onlookers, but I loved her ambition and her tenacity to succeed whatever the cost (including being there for her kids). The prose is likewise a joy to read, and when I was finished I found myself wanting more, surely a great sign.

While it is true that nothing is perfect, I honestly could not find a single thing to critique about Olga Dies Dreaming. I suspect that many people will agree with me and love this book.

Put this on your list of must-haves. Gonzalez weaves a compelling story about the dangers of chasing that seemingly golden ideal: the American Dream. It is an exciting and thrilling read that I just could not put down. After this, Xochitl Gonzalez is an author I will be looking out for in the future.

The Heretic | Regional News

The Heretic

Written by: Liam McIlvanney


Reviewed by: Ruth Avery

What a cracking book! I really enjoyed The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney, who has written seven books and lives in New Zealand. McIlvanney is originally from Scotland and sets his books there. This one is set in Glasgow so there is some Scottish lingo to get to grips with. I lived in Edinburgh for two years so learned what this all meant:

Ned = hooligan/petty crim/lout/young boy
Didnae = didn’t, wasnae = wasn’t etc.
Deid = dead
Schemes = council housing
Hoor = sex worker
Weans = children
Hen = term of affection for a young woman/girl
Breeks = breeches

Warning: the C word is used a lot, as it would be. Google other expressions you don’t understand.

Set over 16 days in 1975, this story is the follow-up to The Quaker, with Detective Inspector Duncan McCormack leading the investigation. McCormack is gay, which is something that the local Police aren’t ready for so his partner lives separately to him and is referred to as his cousin. It was 1975 and boy times have changed. McCormack is also not a team player but in charge of the investigation, natch (= naturally). There are egos, bent coppers, dead coppers, racist and sexist coppers – it’s all go.

The prologue is distressing and the narrative unfolds from there with lots of different storylines and characters to keep on top of. The Heretic is gritty, believable, well-written, and kept me wanting more.

Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy III | Regional News

Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy III

Paper Road Press

Edited by Marie Hodgkinson

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

I was thoroughly impressed, entertained, and engaged by this collection. These authors are not only thought-provoking and self-reflective, but entertaining and wildly talented storytellers. Each piece is as intelligent and self-aware as it is poignant and cogitative. Both the fantasy and science fiction short stories push the boundaries of reality in order to create empathetic and compassionate literature that not only amuses but also forces the reader to evaluate their own choices, self, and reality.

Whether two pages or 10, direct or allegorical, each writing pushes the reader as part of a collective human race to think beyond ourselves and re-evaluate our position in the world at large, the world’s future, and our relation to other humans, other beings, and most urgently our relation to our planet. No matter the context each story is, in effect, both urgent and earnest in its appeal. The Waterfall by Renee Liang tackles politics, corruption, and bureaucracy during a near future environmental disaster where preserving political image through gaslighting is still prioritised over medical emergency. Both topical and demanding political accountability. Octavia Cade’s Otto Hahn Speaks to the Dead questions morality and the morality of violence versus self-violence during WWII. Florentina by Paul Veart comments on how clinically, animalistically, and uncompassionately humanity treats difference, while simultaneously reflecting on how this fear of difference forces often barbaric reactions to something like the AIDS epidemic or even our current COVID-19 pandemic. By painting pictures of post-apocalyptic futures, The Double-Cab Club by Tim Jones and The Turbine at the End of The World by James Rowland urge all of us to seriously acknowledge our imminent and impending environmental disaster.

Since reading this collection there are many stories that have crossed my mind daily but none as much as Casey Lucas’ For Want of Human Parts, which dissects, reconstructs, and assesses our own humanness and humaneness in the face of humanity itself.

The collection is pointed social commentary that forces us to look not only at ourselves as a society and human race, but also introspectively as individuals.

Beats of the Pa 'u | Regional News

Beats of the Pa 'u

Written by: Maria Samuela

Te Herenga Waka University Press

Reviewed by: Margaret Austin

Beats of the Pa‘u is a collection of stories that pulse with the experiences of a myriad of characters living through the 50s to modern day New Zealand.

First and second generation Cook Island New Zealanders faced particular challenges on coming here – and not only in their quest for work. In The Promotion, Kura, a long-lost son, journeys to New Zealand to start a new life with an estranged father. His poignant attempts to find employment are punctuated by a forced attendance at church, his first taste of a good ol’ NZ pie, awkward encounters with family members, and clandestine visits to pubs. Similar situations were faced by the formerly estranged father, and these experiences alternate with, and enrich, the narrative. They also provide a moving explanation of the story’s title.

Especially delightful is Love Rules for Island Boys, a wry poke at how to get and keep the love interest of a girl. “If she’s an island girl, find out who her brothers are,” is telling. As is the order in which to feed her the chicken you’ve cooked. “If she’s a white girl, find out who her father is,” signals a whole other ball game. The observations here are justifiably sharper, and act as salutary pointers for the astute reader.

The last story, eponymously titled Beats of the Pa‘u, centres on a mother’s concern for her daughter – a theme that incidentally pervades the whole collection. It opens with another pervading theme – religion – or at least churchgoing. We can picture Father O’Shea leading Raro Mass. Stand, sit, kneel, pray is the mantra here – contrasting sometimes amusingly, sometimes startlingly, with the behaviour of the congregation once freed from Father O’Shea’s strictures! Katerina and Luana are young women with typical urges and preoccupations – and these must be experienced in a cultural and social context different from their own.

Beats of the Pa‘u is a collection richly dipped in nostalgic reflection – served with a sprinkling of irony, warmed coconut cream, and taro.

Impossible | Regional News


Written by: Sarah Lotz


Reviewed by: Ruth Avery

Well that was fun! I loved the title: Impossible – this isn’t a love story, this is f***king impossible. If the F bomb is dropped in the title, I know I’m going to read something written by a like-minded human being. I loved this line: “I know I’m getting old because I’ve started appreciating plants. And not just the type you smoke.”

The first chapter is great with a case of mistaken identity in an email trail between a man and woman that grows into something else. I’ve been there, intercepted texts meant for someone else. A nice guy trying to buy his girl a Kirks voucher that he thought she didn’t want. I said I’ll have it. I miss Kirks… The internet does bring out the crazy in everyone, let’s face it. There are two main characters and the chapters are split evenly between his and her stories. Between those chapters are their exchanges of email banter that are fun to read and usually humorous.

Part three gets a bit weird and I get lost. But then I get it. Alternative universes and all that. The two main characters live in different countries and eras. Stick with it. There are weirdos who belong to a society, a nasty boarding house, mad drunk husbands, affairs, smelly dogs, and attempted suicides that feature throughout the storyline. The ending was kind of predictable but not a lot is predictable in this book.

The author, Sarah Lotz, has written 18 books, several under non de plumes. A Girl Walks into a Bar is another fab book title that I’d be keen to read. I enjoyed Impossible and might read more from Sarah Lotz. It is chick-lit but has something for everyone I reckon. I read it over the long weekend and it was a nice distraction from the reality of going to the Omicron red traffic light system. We all need good books to read during COVID and this one provides light relief and the ‘what if it was real?’ factor.

A Game Of Two Halves | Regional News

A Game Of Two Halves

Victoria University Press

Edited by Fergus Barrowman

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

Co-founded and published by Fergus Barrowman, Sport magazine ran from 1988 to 2019. It was a literary magazine that included a mix of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays, and much more.

While it may not be around anymore, A Game of Two Halves was put together as a celebration of the best it had to offer – a highlight reel, if you will. Like the back of the book says, it looks back on 15 issues and presents us with some of its best work, starting in 2005 through to 2019.

If you are a writing buff, you will recognise some of the names in this book. For me, one of the standouts was the poet and short story writer Bill Manhire. While I’m not always a fan of the poetic verse, his words almost always had me smiling and, in a lot of cases re-reading them to make sure I understood the ideas he was trying to convey. Starting with The Eye of the Blackbird and The School Bus.

In many ways, this title has a lot in common with the latest book I reviewed, a short story collection called Middle Distance. You might remember that I said some readers might be put off by finding stories they didn’t like before finding ones they did. But in the case of A Game of Two Halves, that shouldn’t be a problem, especially with the content of 100 writers here. It’s almost ironic that the sheer volume available could be seen as a negative.

Its size might put off younger readers or those just getting into reading, but each story is reasonably easy to read, so once they start, it should be easy enough to keep going until the end.

This is the perfect addition to anyone’s library, and Fergus Barrowman should be proud to have this as a legacy to Sport magazine. It shows us just how much literary talent has been on display in this country.

Before You Knew My Name | Regional News

Before You Knew My Name

Written by: Jacqueline Bublitz

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

Before You Knew My Name is a one-sitting read – as I turned the pages, time became irrelevant and it was hard to disengage from the voice of murdered teen Alice Lee who slowly and magnificently draws you in. Author Jacqueline Bublitz has created something unusual and intriguing, and it’s hard to not picture a fresh-faced Alice escaping to a new life in New York City as her retrospective words capture you. Alongside Alice is the parallel story of Ruby – a girl just like Alice, destined to escape life’s similar disappointments, only she’s older and still alive.

“In the beginning, I disappeared on purpose. Extricated myself from a life I didn’t want, just like Ruby did. But unlike Ruby, I didn’t tell anyone where I went.”

As the story unfolds I found myself inextricably aware of Alice standing strong and pragmatic in death, as the person she always was, but never knew it. The power she had once given to men, who had no right to it, propelling her forward. For a while, Alice is happy. She meets a kindly old man, Noah, who restores her faith in men.

Through Alice’s untimely death, hers and Ruby’s lives intertwine. There’s Alice’s murder and the devastation it brings, and there’s the deep connection Ruby feels to the body she has just discovered.

It’s as if you can feel what Alice feels and reminisce with her about her stolen youth and innocence. But there’s never a sense she is bitter or overly longing for what was.

Before You Knew My Name is a novel that keeps you questioning till the end. It made me think of all the young people who have left in search of a new adventure, or left to escape an unwanted life in search of a new one; and all the lives taken that were sadly not a work of fiction.

It’s the heartbreaking story of a girl whose life once seemingly irrelevant, post tragedy, becomes extraordinary.

The Surgeon’s Brain | Regional News

The Surgeon’s Brain

Written by: Oscar Upperton

Te Herenga Waka University Press

Reviewed by: Margaret Austin

“Mama won’t look at me in my new clothes,” observes Oscar Upperton, writing in his assumed persona of Dr James Barry, the subject of The Surgeon’s Brain. “Tubes of cloth around my legs, tight, and a tight coat across my chest.” Thus attired, a transgender man living in the Victorian era ventures upon his career as a military surgeon.

The term transgender was non-existent at the time – did that make our man’s life any easier? “My landlady asks if I’ll give her trouble and I say I will not.” And later, in the same poem, “I observe my landlady’s gait and track the progression of her rheumatism”.

Such a juxtaposition of the behavioural and the anatomical typifies many of the poems in this collection, describing as they do imagined incidents, situations, and encounters in a life startling in its conception and courageous in its carrying out. “The rules are different now. I travel unchaperoned; I enter public houses; I attend a university.”

Barry’s work as a surgeon puts him in touch with female patients – repressed, underestimated, confined in airless rooms – a salutary reminder of Victorian times and values. Later, travelling beyond England’s shores, he encounters pressures from many quarters – not the least medical – in his attempts to heal, as well as promote public health reform.

One of the most striking poems amongst many is the eponymous The Surgeon’s Brain. “A man’s brain is, to some, the man himself. Forget this soul nonsense. He has cut into a thousand bodies and never seen a soul.” This quote prefaces a poetic meditation on the nature of the brain – sometimes grisly, determinedly objective, always sternly practical.

Dr Barry’s outward travels encompassed lands as far as the Windward and Leeward Islands, but they are surpassed by his inward travels, the true extent of which we shall never know. He requested burial without any post-mortem examination; such secrecy was surely justified.

We can only speculate and admire – something Upperton achieves with rare artistry.