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The Mirror Book | Regional News

The Mirror Book

Written by: Charlotte Grimshaw

Penguin Random House NZ

Reviewed by: Ruth Avery

I wanted to enjoy The Mirror Book more than I did but given the subject matter, perhaps I was being ambitious? Charlotte Grimshaw finally writes the story of her turbulent childhood and the impact it has on her adult years. Grimshaw is the daughter of famous New Zealand author CK Stead (Karl) and Kay, mother, housewife, and Karl’s first reader. Telling journalists for years of her “lovely childhood, house full of books”, Grimshaw decides to tell her truth. And where does that get her? She says further on in the memoir, “I hadn’t realised the way to save your life is to tell the story that’s true.”

Grimshaw uses stunningly descriptive language: “The elaborate warbling and chuckling of tūī, the cicadas whose sawing grew louder as summer went on, rising to such a pitch in the hot afternoons that my mind transformed the buzz into a visible force in the air, a shimmering wall of sound.” And “native pigeons, creaked by on slow wings, and kingfishers were a quick flash of blue against the green.”

I found Grimshaw repetitive, mentioning Karl’s character at least three times – charming, intellectually fearless, witty, and controlling. She did the same with her mother Kay, which makes me wonder, is she just reaffirming how she felt about them? But she did have some insight: “The insult Kay hurled at me most often was you’re just like him. Like Karl, she meant. I can’t specifically remember the insults I threw at her, but I know they would have been terrible.”

Despite her ill-disciplined childhood, minor criminal activity ending in court cases, and the death of a close male friend when she was at a difficult age, Grimshaw turned her life around, gaining a law degree and becoming a successful writer. I’d like to read some of Grimshaw’s other novels so I can enjoy the subject matter and her talent more. Given both her parents are alive at the time of writing this review, it’ll be a fun family Christmas.

Where We Swim | Regional News

Where We Swim

Written by: Ingrid Horrocks

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ruth Avery

This book is a mix of a mother’s life, her family’s travels, and tribulations, interwoven around swimming holes, the sea, and people and creatures that live and depend on the sea. Thrown in the mix is global warming, COVID, and questionable animal tourism.

Ingrid Horrocks is married to Tim and is the mother of twin girls. Early on, we are introduced to the family unit, their lifestyle, and learn about the fragility of life both in and out of the water. Swimming has always been a strong part of Horrocks’ life as she feels she isn’t very good at it, so she perseveres. Her best memories seem to be water related.

Swimming is the thread of this travel book that takes the family to Colombia, the Amazon, America, and Australia. The author is concerned about all forms of water including that in New Zealand and the way humans are treating a valuable resource. Horrocks loves swimming and shows the joy and peace it brings through her writing. She incorporates a Māori perception of water – ‘awa as a living being.’

Their travels are interesting to read, especially in a COVID travel void. Imagine taking twin nine-year-old daughters to the Amazon – what could possibly go wrong? Amazingly not much did. They just got the experience of a lifetime and lived a little, outside of a health and safety-mad New Zealand. Horrocks brings us back to reality with talk of tsunamis, Indigenous Australian peoples’ struggles, and Extinction Rebellion protests.

Horrocks follows other writers that are interested in water – Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and Mary Wollstonecraft – even driving around parts of Great Britain to see where Smith lived her life.

Suddenly we’re back in New Zealand and it feels unexpected. The ending is a bit underwhelming, and I think Horrocks didn’t quite know how to finish it.

I enjoyed Where We Swim but was looking for a bit more drama. I felt parts were disjointed and it was trying to cover too many subjects in one go.

The Commercial Hotel | Regional News

The Commercial Hotel

Written by: John Summers

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Ruth Avery

Judging by the tone of the language and topics of this book, I pictured the author in his 60s, but the fly leaf photo is of a much younger man. John Summers’ novel is an eclectic mix of family history and stories from his past. The chapter about the birth of his son is focused on the history and impressive sales figures of Arcoroc glass cups (used in hospitals). Go figure!

Summers writes in very simple language and without a lot of expressive flourishes to draw you in. I enjoyed the Elvis chapter as it was an event I could immediately picture. When talking about a group of Elvis impersonators in an Upper Hutt club, Summers made me laugh with his plural of Elvis (Elvi). It sounded like a fun night with all Elvi born equal on the stage (despite age, ethnicity, or appearance). One impersonator said, “The more you drink the more I look like Elvis.” Priceless. The best line of the book for me was: “I left the building before Elvis. The better ending.”

Not so enjoyable for me was the chapter At the Dump. It’s admirable that Summers wants to do his bit for the planet, but I think saying he’s given up buying plastic food wrap is a bit prosaic for a novel and is better suited to a blog. There’s a chapter about freezing works, and while that is a very New Zealand image, I found it grim (and I eat meat). However, there were some great expressions from co-workers: “All hair-cream and no socks”, and “He’d done a stretch in the chokey”, are very real.

Summers talks lovingly about the nice times he had with his grandfather, and this is a delightful sentiment: “In truth, it was his presence I was seeking. In that shed crowded with oiled tools and old things, the anxieties of School Certificate maths, schoolyard hierarchies and my looming, uncertain future all shrank and went still.” I could relate to that.

Elling | Regional News


Written by: Simon Bent

Directed by: Ross Jolly

Circa Theatre, 30th Jun 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Elling (Jeff Kingsford-Brown) is an anxious, tic-ridden, satchel-clutching mummy’s boy who has spent an undefined period of his life in a mental institution. His new roommate is the bold, sex-obsessed but virginal Kjell Bjarne (Gavin Rutherford) who takes a dubious approach to personal hygiene. Despite being chalk and cheese, they soon form a strong and empathetic bond such that, when the time comes, they are transferred to an Oslo apartment with the intention that they transition together into the ‘real’ world.

It’s clear from the get-go whose side we’re meant to be on. The health system representatives are hard and uncompromising while Elling and Kjell are sweet and self-aware, so we laugh with them, not at them. And there are laughs aplenty as they bumble through their new reality and the threat of returning to state care if they don’t adjust.

Initially, they retreat into themselves when faced with simple tasks, such as answering the phone or shopping. Then their self-isolated co-dependence is abruptly challenged by the arrival in their lives of heavily pregnant neighbour Reidun (Bronwyn Turei) and veteran poet Alfons (Steven Ray).

Kingsford-Brown and Rutherford give masterful performances in the main roles with nuanced physical and vocal characterisations that render Elling and Kjell as always sympathetic and never ridiculous. We’re drawn into their struggles and want them to triumph.

Turei, Ray, and William Kircher provide expert coverage of the personalities who surround Elling and Kjell. A highlight is Turei and Kircher’s turn as painfully pretentious underground poets at an open mic night.

Andrew Foster’s clean, IKEA-esque set design and the actors’ healthy disregard for the invisible walls gives a pleasing freedom of movement that is beautifully supported by sensitive lighting (Marcus McShane) and sound (Ross Jolly and Niamh Campbell-Ward).

While the chunky knits of the costume design (Sheila Horton) place us firmly in Norway, this story is universal. It’s charming, gently funny, and life-affirming; a wonderful antidote to the winter blues.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street | Regional News

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Presented by: WITCH Music Theatre

Directed by: Ben Emerson

Te Auaha, 30th Jun 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, many of us have attended the tale of Sweeney Todd. The musical follows the titular barber (Chris Crowe), who lost his wife and daughter Johanna (Olivia Stewart) to a great injustice at the hands of Judge Turpin (Thomas Barker) and Beadle Bamford (Jthan Morgan) some 15 years ago. Finally released from his internment, Sweeney returns to the “hole in the world like a great black pit” that is London hell-bent on vengeance. Here, he sets up shop with pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Vanessa Stacey) and earns his appellation as The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

It’s fascinating to see a large-scale musical with mammoth production values in an intimate space like Te Auaha. Seated in the very front row, my friend and I are at eye-level with action befitting a grand stage. This is deliciously overwhelming, especially in the ensemble numbers, made magnificent, dizzying by choreographer Greta Casey-Solly and honed to vocal perfection by music director Mark W Dorrell.

Giving us some welcome breathing room, some of the goriest scenes are set further back behind plastic strip curtains reminiscent of a slaughterhouse. Joshua Tucker’s inspired design screams of rank despair… God I love it.   

Both lead actors inhabit their roles in this dark, dank world entirely, Crowe with his thousand-yard stare, Stacey with her wicked spark. Together they are twisted, tormented dynamite. Sending shockwaves down my spine is Crowe’s Epiphany, with his world-class vocals heightened by Stacey’s journey from shock to terror to resignation, all in the shadows.

The blinding talent of the cast comes to the fore in Frankie Leota’s stunning vocal performance as The Beggar Woman; Zane Berghuis’ lovely legato lines in Johanna as Anthony; Stewart’s confident soprano; Ben Paterson’s hilarious turn as Pirelli; Jared Pallesen’s aching Not While I’m Around as Tobias; Barker’s suitably disgusting Johanna (Mea Culpa); and Morgan’s every greasy move. 

Bravo to director Ben Emerson and WITCH Music Theatre. Beyond outstanding.

North & South: A Tale of Two Hemispheres | Regional News

North & South: A Tale of Two Hemispheres

Written by: Sandra Morris

Walker Books

Illustrated by Sandra Morris

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

North & South for me was a refreshing step away from a nightly reading selection heavily featuring robots, treehouses, a hybrid Dogman and flying furballs, and the never-ending speech bubbles that comics afford.

Author and illustrator Sandra Morris has written a delightful and picturesque introduction to the world we live in, the changing seasons, and the animals that coexist with us around the world.

It’s easy to use the book as a talking point about seasons and migration with some of the world’s most wondrous animals, who by their very existence adapt and adjust to the climate and inhabitants around them. The illustrations elevate the words beautifully and are evidence of the author’s many talents.

Most interesting to my eight-year-old was the hoatzin, otherwise known as a stinkbird, as it emits a smell like manure and regurgitates fermented plants to feed its hatchlings. From the pungent aroma of the hoatzin we quickly digressed to conversations about the lifecycle and how prey and predator are ever-changing depending on where you are in the food chain. The awful pungency of the hoatzin means the young chicks are at the mercy of capuchin monkeys, snakes, and birds who are attracted to the smell.

Morris has categorised the animals giving them each a conservation status. The polar bear, for instance, is deemed vulnerable, at high risk of extinction, whereas the green tree python is of low concern with a relatively low risk of extinction. There is a glossary and an index too that will help the most curious of minds to extend their knowledge and vocabulary.

Despite this, my son did become disengaged with the length of North & South and suggested that measurements to show how big the animals are in relation to humans would have been cool. Of course, I hadn’t thought of this, and was reminded how different the world is through a child’s lens and how reading North & South a little and often may just be the way to go.

Two Besides: A Pair of Talking Heads | Regional News

Two Besides: A Pair of Talking Heads

Written by: Alan Bennett

Faber and Faber

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

What makes Alan Bennett’s Two Besides: A Pair of Talking Heads important is the context in which it came to life. The monologues are undoubtedly beautifully written and decidedly iconic, but that they were borne of the pandemic makes them utterly human and essential. Nicholas Hytner’s preface is as much a part of the book as the monologues, for it revisits the process of re-making Talking Heads into a BBC show during the pandemic. He discusses the artistic process and the vital importance art plays, especially theatre with its reliance on physicality, in connecting humanity despite the forced distance of quarantine. His preface is a reflection on how making art is inherently human, and that despite compulsory isolation we remain connected.

The monologues belong to a larger collection of 14, all uncomfortably candid. These two vignettes portray ordinary women, lost and confounded. An Ordinary Woman is a monologue of contrasts. The speaker wrestles with her wants versus what she knows to be acceptable, ordinary. Lust becomes disgust, love devolves into hate, the beautiful mutates into the grotesque, and the abnormal is normalised as she falls in love with the wrong person. The Shrine is a portrait of bereavement. Bennett captures the numbness, emptiness, blandness, and rawness of death. How in overcoming grief your loved one dies twice over. Both monologues are powerful sketches of what it inherently means to be human.

These monologues, already portraits of humanness, were brought to life when our own lives seemed so uncertain, bleak, and detached from one another, making them even more powerful, even more real, even more human. Reading just two made me crave the others. In the context of our larger global story, when we were barred from some of our basic human needs and in which many of us felt less human than ever before, Two Besides: A Pair of Talking Heads becomes a naked portrayal of ourselves, a reminder of our connectedness, our solidarity, and our humanness.

Magic Lessons | Regional News

Magic Lessons

Written by: Alice Hoffman

Simon & Schuster

Reviewed by: Ruth Avery

Magic and witches are not normally my bag, but I found this book quite captivating initially. Maria, the lead character, is found as a baby left in the snow by another witch and her story takes flight from there. I got reeled in slowly, despite the magic potions provided in most chapters. Hannah, Maria’s saviour, is the witch all women go to for men troubles, health problems etc. Hannah dishes out potions and probably more importantly, advice. Love potion number nine features in the book, with measures of nine of multiple items including red wine, to be stirred nine times. Some of the potions (old wives’ tales in today’s parlance) are still used today.

There are some gruesome descriptions of both animal and human abuse that I found distressing. But they were witches, and they were different times. Maria’s constant companion is a black crow, a dead giveaway that she’s a witch apparently. Her parents sell her as a maid for a better life and when she’s served her five years, she is free to leave Curaçao to follow her man to Massachusetts via boat. She falls in love age 15 (he’s at least twice her age) and how’s this for speed dating? On their second night together, he vowed he loved her, the third night she was his, on the fourth night he gave her a sapphire, on the fifth a small packet of diamonds and, on the sixth…

Like Hannah, Maria has inherited the gift of helping others and this charming imagery shows how she gains new clients: “The referrals were knots in a rope, buds on a tree, birds that sang to summon others who might need a tonic or a cure.” Alice Hoffman uses old-fashioned language as the novel begins in 1664 and I had to Google ‘scrying’ – foretelling the future.

I found Magic Lessons long and I struggled to stay engaged but wanted to finish it. Obviously, I’m in the minority as the author has 36 published books.

Chosen | Regional News


Written by: Geoff Cochrane

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Tania Du Toit

Chosen has been an amazing book to read and brings to light a poetic perspective of Geoff Cochrane’s life. Cochrane writes passionately, expressing the beauty in the ordinary everyday movement of things and coming to terms with ageing and the events leading up to it. In his poems, I felt his joy, sorrow, physical pain, and inner battles with himself.

Starting with his youth, he recollects fond memories of his childhood, the neighbourhood and street that he grew up in, and Wellington in its heyday.

As a young adult, Cochrane recalls his late nights out on the town, his personal habits, and people that have had an impact on his life, whether it be through films, their books, or personal encounters.

Cochrane battles with the realisation of ageing and the fact that his body is starting to let him down, while his mind is still youthful and eager to experience and create more memories.

Knowing that he needs some medical attention but procrastinating a trip to the doctors, he eventually caves and receives both bad and not-so-bad news. This sends him into emotional turmoil regarding his health and he finds it quite ironic that some changes must be made to preserve his mortality.

“Morning drenched grasses. Morning’s grasses, drenched.” Beauty best described through the eyes of Cochrane. His young self observes, appreciates, and absorbs the simplest of surroundings, the natural art on our planet.

While enjoying a cup of coffee at a café, a gentle “soulful pooch” chooses Cochrane out of a crowd to introduce himself to. “He wants to say hello”. Being the one that usually observes his surroundings, he was politely interrupted with a beautiful and uncomplicated meeting of two souls.

The reality of having to acknowledge the inevitable (his life versus death) reveals a battle between fear of death, and coming to terms with accepting the reality of what is to be.

Chosen has been a very easy, yet emotional read. I could relate to Cochrane’s poetry more often than not and reading his point of view was quite intriguing.