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Reviews

More From the Levee | Regional News

More From the Levee

Chris Smither

Southbound

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Smither might not be a bluesman, but he does approach his songs with a southern Delta, languid, laidback storytelling style that reminds me of Mississippi John Hurt.

On the surface, this would look like an apple-crate bunch of songs leftover from his 2014 album Still on the Levee. As it was, there were 24 songs on that album so my approach to listening here was purely softly, softly, not wanting to be disappointed.

Well, apart from a couple of tracks that could have been missed out – like the badly mixed Drive you Home where the drummer seems to have been recorded inside a biscuit tin, and I Am the Ride, which like the last take of the night is just plain tired – the rest is an absolute blinder.

Smither’s voice is a curious blend of Grandpa-on-the-porch and the bittersweetness of a weary road traveller. The wry humour of Let it Go is pure John Prine. Having his car stolen he pretends he doesn’t care, then spends the rest of the song missing his “three thousand pounds of wheels and sounds”. He beats himself up for not paying the $16.50 to use a car park, then looks at the empty space in the street and beats himself up some more. He imagines “some little bum with a button in his tongue” looking at the picture of his girlfriend he left on the dashboard.

In Father’s Day, Smither’s role is one of a man reminiscing and getting older, with quiet thoughts such as “‘There’ is what we call it when we won’t recall just what we’re headed for”. Few do it better.

Looking at the various instruments you’ll find plenty of humour. These include whisky agogo bells, feet, random events, and ambience. I wonder if they are for sale?

Some folk never seem to move on from the Gordon Lightfoot or Tom Rushes of the world. Just one play of Lonely Time will convince even the most hardened of listeners to spend some time with this genius.

Gareth Farr | Edward Elgar: Cello Concertos | Regional News

Gareth Farr | Edward Elgar: Cello Concertos

Sébastien Hurtaud and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Rubicon

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

It’s a clever idea to juxtapose Elgar’s Cello Concerto alongside this new work by composer Gareth Farr, for now, we can compare pieces written a century apart but both framed by the horrors of World War I.

Knowing the Elgar Cello Concerto well made me turn to Farr’s interpretation first, and I confess to having a book of war poems at hand as a guide. Owen, Sassoon, and Graves all wrote works that reflected not only the horror of war but also the peace when artillery stopped for the day. No birds sang in that leaden silence. Farr’s inspiration for the work came from knowing that three of his uncles had died in the Great War. Then there is substantial evidence that Elgar’s Cello Concerto was inspired by the loss of Elgar’s first love Helen Weaver’s son in WWI.

Farr has captured this aspect superbly. This was a time when German composers were given short shrift by the BBC and concert halls. In its place rose a British patriotic style of music incorporating the folk art movement of William Morris.

Known as the English Nationalist School or the English Pastoral School, it’s a theme that I hear throughout, even though Elgar was not of that discipline. Still, the scholarship argument remains for this reviewer.

Farr’s work is called Chemin des Dames (Pathway of the Women), a romantic notion of a road between two palaces that was also the site of a horrific battle during the war. That one can write music that turns very subtly from an idyllic impression of verdant fields and farm workers toiling under the noon sun (and it’s about here I think of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto in A Minor), to that of a vision of carnage and suffering is remarkable to this listener.

In the hands of French cellist Sébastien Hurtaud and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Benjamin Northey, the work is rendered noteworthy. One hopes that other cellists will add this piece to their repertoire.

Kaleidoscope | Regional News

Kaleidoscope

Julie Bevan

Bandcamp

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Brazilian music has always been about constant change, saudade (yearning songs), música popular brasileira (Brazilian popular music, or MPB for short), and lambada, yet it is the school of bossa nova and samba that we return to time and time again. It is the music we think about in summer most often. No wonder it’s still an essential part of many artists’ repertoire.

As is my mode of reviewing, I try to listen to a record without reading the liner notes first. I don’t want to be distracted by false promises. But, halfway through the first track, I reached for an overview as to Julie Bevan’s history. Wellington born Bevan studied at The New Zealand School of Music – Te Kōkī, founded the Brazilian music group Zamba Flam, and is a founding member of Wellington’s Batucada. Wellingtonians are super proud of this group. They make you sit up, then get up and shake your booty regardless of age.

Kaleidoscope (my favourite with guitar and accordion in the style of Astor Piazzolla) is an outstanding track. The album is absolutely steeped in the sounds of Brazil. The delicate Spanish guitar nylon string plucking mixed with bass, drums, trumpet, sax, and accordion all fused seamlessly together gives us a sound redolent of João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and Luiz Bonfa. But it’s more than a homage. There are some serious compositions on display here. None more so than the electrifying picking by Marcelo Nami and Bevan on Stone Eaters or the non-Brazilian track Show Us Your Bole-R-Us, which incorporates some fiery flamenco. The very next track Dervish and the muted trumpet of Altair Martins made me think of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. It’s a catch-me-if-you-can kind of a track between guitar and trumpet before expanding into a drum solo. Technically it’s the most satisfying on the disc. It comes as no surprise that all the music was composed and arranged by Julie Bevan.

For sheer listening pleasure, Danca Dos Gnomos, a seemingly improvised jazz track, works best. This wonderful disc will knock your socks off. Oh, to see this album released in Brazil.

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.