22 January, 2017

The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee

Having recently labored through two introverted novels which felt mumbled and had slow pace plots, reading Janice Y.K. Lee’s novel was a relief. 

Lee’s eloquent description of living abroad, along with intricate characters and drama plots had me looking forward to my evening read – to escape my own introverted mumbling and slow paced life.

The novel follows three expatriate women from the US who have all moved to Hong Kong. 

Margaret the perfect wife and mother of three, Mercy the Korean American Columbia graduate recently cast adrift into adulthood and Hilary the lonely wealthy housewife desperate to fill a void in her life. 

Their stories crunch into one another, resulting in life changing circumstances as they navigate some of the tougher  situations motherhood can present. From kidnappings, adoption and adultery this is a drama that is hard to put down.

Author: Janice Y. K. Lee 

Reviewed by Suzy D, Mt Albert Library

Colour Bar: the triumph of Seretse Khama and his nation by Susan Williams

This inspiring true story caught my eye in the strangest of places, on the small screen. It’s very rare for me to first hear of a story this way and compel me to find the book, so my initial reaction of seeing this title on the Auckland Libraries website was one of surprise then determination in reading it.

Colour Bar is the historical account of the lives of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams. He was the heir of Bangwato, the largest nation in Bechuanaland; now called Botswana. She was a white English clerk. Their love and consequent marriage shook the world. Many throughout the British and South African government of those post World War II years, worked to keep Seretse away from his home and away from power. However, despite their political machinations, Seretse ultimately came home thanks to his own calm attitude and persistent work for the country and people he loved. Seretse Khama became the first president of the newly independent Botswana on 29th September 1966.

Although there are many chapters pertaining to the political upheavals and historical events that stood on their path, this book is mostly a love story. It is, according to the Daily Mail, “one of the greatest love stories of the twentieth century,” because through all the hardships of estrangement and exile, Seretse and Ruth remained steadfastly loyal to one another and their love only grew stronger as their family grew.

If I wasn’t shaking at the injustices, I was crying my heart out as I read this memoir. For me this was an exceptionally well written book of a love that triumphed over the prejudices of their age. I truly believe that this is how history should be written.

For those interested, Seretse and Ruth’s story is now dazzling the silver screen under the title A United Kingdom.
Author: Susan Williams

Recommended by Surani R, Waitakere Central Library, Henderson. 
Surani R enjoys reading biographies, travelogues, some non-fiction, and loves fiction that makes you laugh out loud. She also finds comfort in children’s fiction with thought-provoking stories. 

20 January, 2017

Piece of Mind by Michelle Adelman

The days are sticky and swampy, everything feels slightly soiled and crumpled in this heat. So for me, I don’t want my usual to read. No slightly cruel humour, complicated relationships or existential angst. But then again, I don’t want to gorge on the book equivalent of junk food. There needs to be some calorific value as well as pleasing to the palate.

So for me, Piece of Mind  offered just the right combination of ingredients. Rather lovely, whimsical and  gentle yet thoughtful. This is a book about Lucy, who undergoes a sudden change in life circumstances that wrench her from the touchstones of daily life and the familiar company  of her father with whom she lives.

Lucy had an accident that left her with head injuries at the age of three. You wouldn’t necessarily know that she has certain limitations; it hasn’t affected her mental capacity as such.

This is what we do know about Lucy that sets her as slightly apart in her functioning from other 20 something year olds. She is ridiculously clumsy, catastrophically messy, her brain seems unable to hold and follow through beyond the concept of “tidying up”. Her memory is impish at best and holding down a job, full or part time has not been successful.

Yet Lucy is so engaging in her way of thinking, there is an intimacy and empathy for this character as we are privy to how she makes sense of things and tries to make signposts for getting through life.
Imagine then how disorienting is would be for Lucy to sudden lose her father and have to relocate from the comfort and familiarity of the family home to a studio apartment, and that’s being generous, with her brother.

Take this book somewhere tranquil to help make those fleeting holiday moments stay a little longer.  This book is the long cool drink, the welcome breeze for these close humid days.

Reviewed by: Sue W Central library

Title: Piece of Mind
Author: Michelle Adelman

Sue W loves her fur babies equally but differently and used to administer time out to think about bad behaviours, however since Patrick the fox arrived, she can no longer lock a miscreant in the spare room least Patrick is set upon.

18 January, 2017

People knitting by Barbara Levine

I’m a knitter. I knit nearly obsessively, and have for years. Yet as far as I know, there is only one photo of me knitting. 

Barbara Levine has curated a wonderful collection of people from all walks of life, and all stages of life, knitting. From interned POWs, to movie stars (Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman – and I challenge you to see evidence of Betty Grable’s soon-to-be baby).

As I look through the images, it is hard to pick my favourite – although the little girl with the cat is right up there. Oh, and First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, knitting during a conference. 

To me, the most poignant is the man knitting for his baby, having been prescribed knitting as an anxiety therapy five years early. The photo is from 1951. Doing the maths, you wonder what horrors he saw during the Second World War. If knitting helped him weather the dark hours, then pick up those needles. 

Title: People knitting: a century of photographs 
Author: Barbara Levine. 

Recommended by Annie C, Helensville Library. 

Annie C is a voracious and versatile reader, but her habitual reads are fantasy, romance, and a diverse selection of non-fiction subjects. A life-long love of children’s books, particularly picture books, helps in her day-to-day role as a children’s librarian. 

17 January, 2017

The Circle: a novel by Dave Eggers

The last Dave Eggers book I read some years ago literally did what it said on the tin. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius was a tour de force of a book that took me on an emotional rollercoaster of a journey from start to finish. Strangely though, I never sought out any of Dave Eggers' successive works until I came across The Circle: a novel, in a recommended list of books with ”good plot twists”.

After reading this thrilling, dark tale of a future world visible on the horizon of today, I have vowed not to neglect Mr Eggers any longer!

The story follows the journey of Mae Holland, a young twenty-something as she starts her new job at a leading California based internet company called The Circle.

On the surface, The Circle is the perfect place to work; free gyms, healthcare, housing, celebrity chefs in the cafeteria and first in line to test all the latest gadgets and gizmos. However, as Mae begins to climb the professional ladder, gaining popularity and an increasingly public profile, the price to be paid for these gains becomes tragically more evident.

A modern parable about the dangers of allowing society to be consumed by the internet and social media, it challenges the reader to ask questions about their rights to privacy and information. This dystopian tale is hard to put down and almost impossible to shake off once you have.

The film adaptation starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks is due for release in April 2017 so reserve yourself a copy to read sooner rather than later!

TitleThe Circle: a novel
Author: Dave Eggers

Reviewed by Jo C, New Lynn Library

Jo C is a librarian at New Lynn Library. She loves a good crime thriller, dark dystopian tales and anything left of centre. Her favourite authors are Stephen King and Margaret Atwood. 
Jo C's reading pledge for 2017 is to read more non-fiction and try new genres!

The edge of lost by Kristina McMorris

This enthralling story of an immigrant to America in the early part of the 20th century covers a lot of ground and delivers an unexpected ending.

In 1919 young Irish boy, Shan Keagan, is living in Dublin with his indifferent uncle and performing in pubs to make money. When he discoverers his birth father was an American soldier he dreams of travelling to New York to find him. The opportunity arises and he and his uncle join the hundreds of people hoping for a better life in America. However, his arrival in New York is not quite as he had expected.

Nearly twenty years later, Tommy Capello, an inmate of Alcatraz prison, is working as a gardener when a prison guard’s young daughter goes missing.

There is a connection between these two stories but it is not apparent until well into the book and when you do realise, you wonder why you hadn’t made the connection earlier.

I enjoyed reading about the different locations and situations introduced in the story, from grimy Dublin, to New York boroughs, burlesque clubs and the famous Alcatraz.

There’s also a huge range of characters, both appealing and not.

From the cover image of a child looking towards Alcatraz, I was expecting the story to only focus on the prison search, but was pleased to find so much more. The themes of hope and survival are subtle but leave you thinking about how the choices we make change the directions of our lives.

Title: The edge of lost
Author: Kristina McMorris

Recommended by Kathy N, Collections Development

Kathy N can’t sleep unless she has read a bit before turning the light off. As well as most fiction, she enjoys craft and lifestyle books to get project ideas for her rural home. She spends much of her working day buying books for Auckland Libraries.

13 January, 2017

Dad Art by Damien Wilkins

I was quite keen to read this one after listening to the author read an extract at the writer’s festival last year. Needless to say he went for probably the funniest chapter in the book, so it was a great sell. That’s not to say that there are no other laughs in Dad art, but topping observations on giant faux faecal matter, takes some doing.

I found this book to be an enjoyable read that dealt with a lot of different issues. The central character is Michael Stirling, an acoustic engineer dealing with: growing older, health issues, dealing with separation from his wife, getting back into the dating scene, connecting with his father and daughter and her generation, having to live in Wellington… okay not that last one so much. He is well and truly entrenched in his mid-life crisis and does not seem to be able to get to grips with being a divorced man in modern day Wellington.

It all sounds a bit dour but what this novel does is inject these real life situations with some truly funny musings and moments to equally balance Michael’s story. Such laughs come through his interactions with his daughter and her ‘performance art and his Te Roe classes. Damian Wilkins doesn’t seem to bog this story down too heavily with symbolism in this novel but there are nods to identity in the flag debate and Te Reo Maori and Michael’s divorce/dating is again mirrored through his daughter’s 'ropy' performance art.

It’s fun, it’s local, it’s good. Read this book and then go see the Great War Exhibition at Te Papa in a new light. Heh heh.

Title: Dad art
Author: Damien Wilkins

James W sneezed the other day into his raised elbow in a bout of politeness and was at once revered by his niblings as asserting his ‘swag’ over everyone else… James now carries a handkerchief wherever he goes.

27 December, 2016

Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Witi Ihimaera

The protagonist David has everything a man could wish for – a loving wife and two adorable daughters, successful university career and good friends. He also has another life in “the Gardens of Spain”, places of encounter for gay and bisexual men.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The book is a story of a gay person coming out. It is Witi Ihimaera’s first novel centred on gay characters, radically different from his earlier Maori writing. Its main focus, and the strongest part, is on a family drama, relationships between a husband and wife, father and daughters, son and parents. Family problems are nothing new, yet the challenges faced by sexual minorities in keeping up with conventional family standards have hardly been addressed in literature.

The narrative shifts in time, looking back into the protagonist’s school years, personality development, career challenges, sexual attractions and experiences. There are lots of gay sex scenes and descriptions of naked male bodies.

Apart from David’s story, the novel shows the lives of other gay men in Auckland in the 1990s, “the lost boys”, as the author calls them. Not all of them, as the main character, are married fathers who had to conceal their identities. Some may look happier than others, while each is still “unhappy in his own way”. The book touches on such issues as HIV, drugs, depression, loneliness and suicide.

Author: Witi Ihimaera

Recommended by Maria M, Central Library

Maria M believes reading is the best way to understand other people and places. She is an avid bilingual reader who is particularly interested in New Zealand fiction.

23 December, 2016

Skeptic: viewing the world with a rational eye by Michael Shermer

2016 seems to have been a non-fiction year for me. Having started off so whimsically with manga and (amazingly) a romance novel, it has morphed into a steady run of science, history, philosophy and scepticism... memories.

With that off my chest, my last pick for the year is Michael Shermer’s Skeptic, the second book I’ve reviewed by this author (the previous being: The believing brain), this one is a collection of the author’s columns from Scientific American (which we have in our catalogue in print and online!).

There is a lot to get your blood up in this book if you enjoy turning your critical eye to issues which are of the controversial variety. There can be few more qualified fellows to guide you through the journey than Michael Shermer (I’m so tempted to all him the Sherminator, oh! I just did). His combination of scientific understanding and a pleasurable writing style make this a bright and breezy read.

Each article is only a couple of pages each and covers a large variety of subjects from Aliens (including his own ‘brush’ with abduction) and conspiracy theories, to a famously heart-breaking pseudo scientific story on attachment therapy. Shermer (The Sherm? No, too far) is cutting and concise in his opinion and reasoning, and is flush with both as well as backing them up with interesting statistics and facts. Are you one of the minority (statistically speaking) who believe that having things explained is cool? Then unless you’re a long time borrower of Scientific American, this is the book for you!

Title: Skeptic: viewing the world with a rational eye
Author: Michael Shermer

Skeptic or sceptic? James W tried to get to the center of these differences but found the fiber of the task lacking color. Thus, he hopes his northern neighbors won’t take offense at his inability to analyze the issue.

20 December, 2016

The curse of beauty : the scandalous & tragic life of Audrey Munson, America's first supermodel / James Bone.

In this new investigative biography author, James Bone sets out to uncover the story of a remarkable woman, who otherwise would have been erased from history. A renowned artists’ model once celebrated as the “American Venus” and “the world’s most perfectly formed woman”, Audrey Munson is the subject of many great Beaux-Arts monuments across the United States. She is the largest female figure in New York City after the Statue of Liberty, towering 25 feet above the Municipal Building opposite City Hall.

Sculptures of her posing as goddesses, nymphs, angels and heroines also stand outside the Brooklyn and Frick Museums, New York Public Library and the Pulitzer fountain outside the Plaza Hotel, plus many others across the U.S.

At the height of her fame she moved in High Society and dated millionaires. She began appearing in silent films during the industry’s nascence and is credited as the first woman to appear naked in a film. So how did she end up dying alone and forgotten in a mental asylum where she had been incarcerated for decades?

One of the most compelling things I found about Munson was that she was a woman very much ahead of her time. An early feminist, she campaigned for womens’ right to vote and transgressed societal norms: eschewing corsets and high heels and celebrating the female form in its natural state.

However; Munson’s beauty, fame and celebrity were to prove ephemeral. Her career became tarnished by scandal, engagements were broken off and she was cheated out of money owed to her. Eventually she was reduced to working as waitress in a diner.

Ominously, her life’s trajectory followed a gypsy fortune teller’s prediction given to her as a young woman. The gypsy foresaw her achieving wealth and acclaim but “when you think happiness is yours, its fruit shall turn to ashes in your mouth”. For the rest of her life Munson believed she was cursed.

What struck me most, reading about her fascinating and ultimately tragic life, was the huge price she paid for her beauty. On the one hand she was exalted and rewarded for being a sex goddess but on the other hand she was exploited and punished for the same power she had over the opposite sex. I found it very disturbing how much sexism, misogyny and censorship played a part in her downfall in what were still very repressive times to be a woman. I am glad that she is now getting the recognition that she deserves.

Title: The curse of beauty : the scandalous & tragic life of Audrey Munson, America's first supermodel 
Author: James Bone

Also recommended: Empty mansions : the mysterious life of Huguette Clark and the spending of a great American fortune / Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. 

Karen I likes reading memoirs and biographies about people with interesting and unusual lives, because she spends a lot of time reading and doesn't get out much.