26 February, 2014

The Lower River by Paul Theroux [Biddy, Highland Park]

Like Theroux himself, the protagonist of his novel served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in his twenties. Ellis Hock recalls this period of his life sentimentally and, when his life in America seems to fall apart 40 years later, he decides to return.

Malabo, the village in the Lower River area of Malawi, is, however, not as he remembers it. The school where he taught lies derelict and abandoned and the people are lethargic and lacking in optimism.

Hock's stay soon takes on a nightmarish quality as he becomes a victim of the pitiless Manyenga, chief of the the village and the starving, poverty-stricken villagers who follow him mindlessly.

I found this story as disturbing as it is compelling. The brutal reality of AIDS-ridden Africa and the dilemma of the effectiveness of international aid organisations are palpable throughout. Hock's experiences are both riveting and horrifying. The characters - from Zizi, the gentle young woman whose grandmother Hock had fallen in love with as a young man, to the power-hungry and compassion-free Manyenga - are strong and authentic. Theroux's masterful writing had me responding with compassion or repulsion to each in turn.

This powerful novel has brought reviewers to compare it in style and subject matter to Conrad's Heart of Darkness and for me it evoked scenes from Lloyd Jones' Mr Pip and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Highly recommended.

Author: Paul Theroux
Publisher: Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date: 2012
ISBN: 9780547746500

25 February, 2014

Cop Land (Blu-ray) [Blair, Central City Library]

American cinema of the 1990s was content to look back as often as it looked forward. It is no surprise then, that it was also the decade of the comeback. A time for faded movie stars to revitalise their careers.

Sylvester Stallone’s career was well in need of resuscitation by the time he landed a role in James Mangold’s 1997 film, Cop Land. Sly piled on the pounds in order to play Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of a New Jersey town full of corrupt New York City cops. With little evidence, he must find a young cop who can testify against the city officers and bring them to justice.

Cop Land never quite lives up to this intriguing premise - Mangold’s film falls back on familiar tropes when it should be taking risks. It bombed at the box office, postponing Sly's come back for several years. Stallone would never again tackle such a serious role, which is a shame, because his sad, understated performance hints at a dramatic career that could have been. For this reason, Cop Land is well worth a rental.

Title: Cop Land (Blu-ray)
Director: James Mangold
Published: 1997

A curious history of food and drink by Ian Crofton [Ana, Central Library]

A curious history of food and drink by Ian Crofton is an interesting little book that looks old, but was in fact published in 2013. It presents curious facts and snippets chronologically, starting with prehistory and ending with Lady Gaga. Each is a little story in itself: facts, fables, menus, and customs – the interesting, the curious, and at times the grotesque.

We have the tale from circa 850 of an Arabian goatherd who noted his flock seemed to thrive on berries from a certain bush; he took the berries to a holy man who disapproved and threw them into the fire. They were later retrieved, ground up and made into a drink. And so is the origin (or the legend) of roasting coffee beans. 

In the early 16th century the Tour de Buerre was added to the Rouen Cathedral. The tower was named this way because it was funded by donations from those who wanted dispensation from the church so they could continue to eat butter during Lent; such was the importance of butter to the Norman population. It continues to be known as the Butter Tower.

A form of Cornish pasty appears in a recipe from 1510, and we are told that in 2001 the European Union awarded Protected Geographical  Indication (PGI) status to the Cornish pasty - meaning the true item (like Champagne) could only be made in Cornwall, with specific features and ingredients.  Ian Crofton notes also that the 19th century miners in Cornwall took the pasties for their lunch; they used the thick crust as a handle, because of dirty hands, and they would throw away the crust afterwards.

In the 16th century the Queen of Poland, who was an Italian noblewoman, created the Slavic speciality ‘baba’ which was like panettone; the dough had to rest on an eiderdown in a ‘male-free’ kitchen, and no-one could speak above a whisper during its preparation and baking.

In 1644 the Puritan Parliament during the English Civil War banned the celebration of Christmas, and there was a specific prohibition on mince pies and plum pudding. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the celebration of Christmas was once more permitted, but the ban on mince pies and plum pudding was apparently never repealed – so they are still technically illegal in England and Wales!

It was noted during the Great Plague of 1665, that onion-sellers appeared to be immune to the disease. The same phenomenon was apparent during the cholera epidemic of 1849. What better recommendation for a health food?

So are just some of the many stories in this book.  I think you will find it interesting, amusing … and it will give you food for thought.

Title: A curious history of food and drink
Author: Ian Crofton
Publisher: Quercus, 2013
ISBN: 9781782069409 (hbk.)

23 February, 2014

The coming bond market collapse : how to survive the demise of the US debt market by Michael Pento [Clare, Massey Library]

Yes, this is another one of those 'we're all doomed' books. For those with a strong stomach, read on. It does paint a not-so-rosy picture of the future world economy, but I happen to believe that it's better to be informed than not.

Michael Pento is an economist, with experience working on Wall Street and as an investment company owner. He frequently appears as a guest speaker on CNBC, CNN, and other news outlets.

You don't have to read this book cover to cover (I didn't), but it is certainly informative about what could happen, and there's no point pretending that everything's rosy, because if you pick up any newspaper, you'll find troubling evidence that no-one really knows what's going to happen to the world economy.

Pento's book follows on from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and looks at the way the bond market (which consists of government bonds held by purchasers at a certain interest rate, sort of like term deposits) are structured and what could happen when these bonds come to maturity and people want their money back, with interest.

It offers advice for governments and investors on how to manage your assets and be protected from the coming crisis, so there are choices for people who want to plan ahead. It's a reasonably easy read for such a heavy subject and is well-written and researched. You can form your own opinion on whether the author knows what he's talking about. Recommended.

Title:  The coming bond market collapse : how to survive the demise of the US debt market
Author: Michael Pento
Publisher: Hoboken, New Jersey : John Wiley & Sons, Inc., [2013]
ISBN: 9781118457085 (hardback)

Blue by Brandy Wehinger [Anita, Blockhouse Bay]

I must admit it was the cover that drew my attention to this book -  (by the artist Misery aka Tanja Jade Thompson), and it was worth the read, and it was by a NZ author!

I didn't think I was the sort to read a lot of zombie books but looking back over the past few years, post-apocalyptic books seem to feature quite strongly, and many involve zombies - go figure. 

Blue is a new take on the zombie genre, with Blues being rare and unusual - half-zombie and half-human. Blues retain their cognitive function but are practically immortal, and Katie is one of them. She remembers the world as it was and has been a Blue for 60 years. It is when she starts interacting with a humans again that the story starts. 

Seen through the eyes of a few individuals,  this is a tale of love and zombies at the end of the world (as it says on the cover). Humans live in colonies above the ground, either in trees or in old high-rise buildings, to protect them from the zombies. There are different types of zombie, the usual slow shamblers, fast cunning variants (scary!) and the Blues.  I enjoyed this book, but it does end at a point where the story has not yet finished, so I think there will be a sequel - which I will probably read! Yeah, I must like zombie books after all.

Title: Blue 
Author: Brandy Wehinger
Publisher: Random House New Zealand
Date: 2013
ISBN: 9781775534921 (pbk.) 

21 February, 2014

Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson [Elizabeth, Highland Park Library]

 Albert of Adelaide is an appealing and witty novel. It could be described as a children's book for adults and if you have ever read the modern children's classics Abel's Island  by William Steig, or E. B. White's Charlotte's Web,  you will know that is praise. It has anthropomorphic characters, a naive hero on a quest which exposes him to danger and self-discovery and themes of loyalty and friendship. Albert is the lone platypus in an Adelaide zoo where the indigenous animals dream of Old Australia, somewhere in the northern desert, the last remnant of the land as it was before they were before they supplanted by European man and his accompanying animals.                                                           
When Albert takes advantage of a keeper's lapse to escape from the zoo he follows the South Australia train tracks, or rather the trail of broken glass bottles that have been thrown from the  carriage windows, to the end of the line and thence to his promised land. Old Australia is not what Albert expected. While there are no humans, dogs or horses,  the animals carry rifles, wear clothes and get drunk and "almost everyone he had met made their living by stealing,cheating, gambling, or burning things down... Albert had come to the conclusion that another key to survival in Old Australia was in picking a criminal element you liked and sticking with it." Old Australia is a downunder wild west yet Albert does not lose his decency and idealism.

The author's unpretentious, almost storytelling style of narrative and dialogue create a convincing Australian setting and characters even though he is an American. I believe this story would make a very satisfying and entertaining audiobook. It is published by the TWELVE publishing house whose mission is to publish no more than twelve books per year, "Works that explain our culture; that illuminate, inspire, provoke, and entertain." You can read more about them at www.twelvebooks.com

Title: Albert of Adelaide
Author; Howard L. Anderson
ISBN: 9781455509621 (hardcover)
Published: 2012
Publisher: Twelve   

19 February, 2014

The golem and the djinni by Helene Wecker [Christine, Takapuna Library]

New York at the beginning of the 20th century was a melting pot of many different races and types of people.  The strangest of these surely were the jinn and the golem: one a creature of fire and wind trapped in human form; the other a mass of clay, animated by arcane and forbidden spells.  

They are alike in their constant wakefulness and the need to appear human. They are so different in their essential natures. 

In The golem and the djinni, author Helene Wecker turns conventions on their heads. Here the golem - built for drudgery - is a female named Chava, while the jinn is a self-willed, hot-blooded male. Can they find homes for themselves among the teeming multitudes? Is that what they really want? 

Then Chava's maker decides he is not content with what he has done and he want her immortality for himself.

Title: The golem and the djinni
Author: Helene Wecker 
ISBN: 9780007480173
Publisher: Blue Door, 2013 

Freeman : a novel by Leonard Pitts [Christine, Takapuna Library]

What African American would voluntarily go to the war-ravaged southern states at the end of the American Civil War, after enjoying freedom and a measure of comfort and security in Philadelphia? 

Sam does just that, seeking his long-lost wife, a fellow slave whom he abandoned when he ran to gain his own freedom.    

Alongside this narrative runs that of Prudence, a white woman with a vision of a school for former slaves and their children. Her dream is at odds with a world in which the abolition of slavery does not equate with a change in attitude of whites towards blacks. 

These two central characters move forward, calmly, certain that they are in the right in the midst of chaos. This is a powerful narrative that shows the malignancy of slavery and its persistent stain.

Author: Leonard Pitts 
ISBN: 9781932841640
Published: 2012
Publisher: Bolden

18 February, 2014

Into My Arms by Kylie Ladd [Kathy, Birkenhead Library]

This is a book that makes you think about consequences and 'what ifs'.
It is about families and relationships, breaking up and reuniting, ethical dilemmas and the conventions of modern society.

Skye meets Ben when she is working at a Melbourne school. She is instantly drawn to him and despite being in a long-term relationship, breaks up with her partner and starts a relationship with Ben. When Skye's mother meets Ben, there is something about him that disturbs her, so she makes some enquiries and discovers a shocking secret that has ramifications for all involved.

I couldn't see a way the author was going to resolve Ben and Skye's dilemma, but Kylie Ladd has written her ending beautifully. She makes you care about the characters and what will happen to them. The main storyline is about Skye and Ben but it is supported by tales of other characters - Skye's twin brother, a young Iranian refugee, and both Skye and Ben's mothers. It was a hard book to put down as I wanted to race through to the conclusion to see how everyone's stories ended.

Covering controversial topics in the same style as Jodi Picoult, Kylie Ladd has written an excellent tale on a difficult subject. Into My Arms would also be a stimulating read for book groups.

Title: Into My Arms
Author: Kylie Ladd
ISBN: 9781743314586
Published: 2013
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

17 February, 2014

The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam [Emma, Birkenhead Library]

I have reviewed a book by Nadeem Aslam before, and I have to say he has become one of my favourite authors.  His writing is like beautiful poetry - there is no other way to describe it.  He is able to invoke the scent and the feel of a place and even when situations are very, very bad, descriptions of small details notice something special in everything.

So this story was very tragic and frustrating, yet I came away with a sense of understanding. It is set in modern Afghanistan, post-Russian invasion and post-Taliban rule, in an unstable time when American forces occupy and local leaders compete for power and territory by allying with whichever is the powerful group in their area. Whether they support the Taliban or Americans, their extreme positions deny people (especially women) their freedoms, and put even the innocent in danger.  

The story follows a few days in the lives of six very different people, who may have shared histories, brought together this time by events around them. An elderly doctor and his American son-in-law who are seeking their dead daughter and wife's lost son; a young extremist who is injured when leading an attack on their village; a young woman school teacher who has become in danger through teaching children; an extremist American soldier; and a crazy Russian woman looking for clues on her dead brother. All these people have suffered or been affected in some deep way due to the repeated invasions and conflicts in Afghanistan. Such futility.

Title: The Wasted Vigil
Author: Nadeem Aslam
Published: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008
ISBN: 9780307268426

15 February, 2014

To be or not to be, by Ryan North and William Shakespeare [Stanley, Ranui Library]

Murder. Madness. Intrigue. Hamlet is known as one of the most epic and well-regarded of The Bard’s plays. In this rendition, Ryan North has adapted the play into a second-person narrative – aka a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style Shakespeare!

With his characteristic over-the-top humour, North pays homage to Shakespeare, preserving the madness of Hamlet, the rage of Laertes, and the foolishness of Polonious – with a postmodern twist. As well as flippant comments about the sexist or pre-modern social values the characters hold, of course. What about Ophelia, you say? Well, she’s a scientific genius.
Gloriously anachronistic and irreverent, and funded through the Kickstarter platform, this is a book for the postmodern generation. You can choose to play solitaire while waiting for the ghost of the slain king (!), or freestyle rap with your bro’ Horatio. (Purists can opt to follow the more traditional tragic storyline, down to the dialogue.) There is an even an extended section in the book where you can defend yourself against pirates – even down to choosing which pirate limb to attack! The play-within-a-play The Murder of Gonzago is itself included in here as, you guessed, a chooseable-path story. 
The book is a good length – after reading for an hour, I had still not "played" as Ophelia – or tried some of the stranger paths that Hamlet can delve into, like living a life as a pirate captain. There are nearly 100 endings – all illustrated gloriously by a cast of writers, illustrators, webcomics and graphic novelists. 
This is one for readers interested in the space where teen fiction, graphic novels and The Bard interact.

Author: Ryan North and William Shakespeare
ISBN: 9780982853740 
Publisher: Breadpig
Published: 2013

13 February, 2014

Chindi By Jack McDevitt [Lynda, East Coast Bays Library]

Chindi was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2002 and I understand why. It captured my imagination and held my attention from the beginning through to the exciting ending. It is the third book in a series, but reads as a standalone novel.

It is a space adventure beginning with an unknown signal that turns out to be coming from alien stealth satellites orbiting various habitable planets in the galaxy. This occurs at a point when humans have spread to the stars, but found few other intelligent species. All but one are extinct and the survivors are not very impressive. 

A group of rich alien enthusiasts, calling themselves the Contact Society, decides to set out to search for the source of the satellites. The protagonist is Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins, the captain of the superluminal spacecraft belonging to George, the leader of the group. This search leads them to the discovery of other alien remains of advanced civilisations, and a world of avian beings that prove to be as savage as they are beautiful. 

Then the Chindi is discovered. It is a giant asteroid ship. The group manages to board the ship and makes a strange discovery.

While the book held my interest throughout the early discoveries, it was towards the end that I became so caught up in the adventure, I literally could not put it down. I was desperate to find out how it would all end. The wonder and danger of space comes through, and as with life, not everything goes as one would expect. A worthwhile read for any science-fiction fan. 

Title: Chindi 
Author: Jack McDevitt
ISBN: 9781472203236 (pbk.), 1472203232 (pbk.) 
Published: 2013   
Publisher: London: Headline    

Lynda - East Coast Bays Library

08 February, 2014

Born Weird by Andrew Kaufman [Sue W]

So this is how I came to pick this book up. First of all, I had it in a pile of books awaiting attention and it got returned because there were so many needing attention. And then  a major  renovation of the study necessitated everything moving out of the aforementioned space, and that included my library books. Oh my, what is a girl to do when her books have been hidden? Get some more of course! So I wandered lonely as a cloud through the fiction area, sighing dramatically at the lack of inspiration when I spied the Kaufman book. I had rejected it once, maybe unfairly? I felt a bit guilty so thought I would give it a go and knew if my attention was fickle, I had other options immediately at hand.

Normally when I give a book a “second try” I find my first instinct was correct and I still don’t like it. But this was a delightful surprise. It was glorious, a mix of everyday reality but with that dusting of the magical, which really is the perfect combination. Rather than setting the fantastical in a land that is very evidently another world and dimension, this is life as we know it with this shimmery magical element that sparkles its iridescent wonder amidst the quotidian of the every day. What could be better?

So this is about the Weird family, weird by name, weird gifting from a grandmother. Forget being blessed with ability to fly or x-ray vision, these are rather more earthy. One family member is given the ability to always forgive people, while another never gets lost. These are gifts that also have their negative aspects, so are thereby known as “blursings” by the Weird siblings. 

At the beginning of the book, the grandmother, the aged matriarch of the family, announces the exact date and time of her departure from this mortal coil and advises one of the family members that all siblings must reconvene around her bedside before the appointed time if they wish their giftings to be removed. And off we go.

This book is just glorious, and now I am contrite in harshly prejudicing Kaufman’s work and yes I should have known better given that I loved The Tiny Wife and will now immediately go and order All My Friends Are Superheroes.

Title: Born Weird
Author: Andrew Kaufman
ISBN: 9780007441402
Publisher: Friday Project, London
Date: 2013

07 February, 2014

The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography by Philip Levine [Simon, Readers Services]

Recently I discovered the poetry of Detroit, Michigan-born Philip Levine, who in 2013 was awarded the Wallace Stevens US Poet Laureate award, some 50 years into his career. I was so enamoured with the urban elegiac tone of the first volume of his I encountered, The Simple Truth, that I read up on his body of work and learnt he had written a memoir entitled The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography. I may not have bothered to seek it out if not for the fact it had a chapter dedicated to Levine's experience having John Berryman as a mentor. As a Berryman fan I had to read this chapter.

That chapter, which, not insignificantly, Levine chooses to open the book, did not disappoint. I found all the ruthless but hilarious hatchet jobs pulled by Berryman on the work of his students, when balanced out by his energy and passion for those students who gave their all and did not commit the cardinal sin of “bootlicking”, moving and inspiring.

Levine also writes with warmth and humility on his relationships with his mother and brother; his burgeoning working-class consciousness as a young man making a living in the Detroit motor parts industry; the sense of artistic liberation he felt when discovering Frederico Garcia Lorca's Poet in New York; his uncompromising loyalty, and self-acknowledged passive hypocrisy, to the roots of communist activism - all this and more.

One of my favourite chapters is The Bread of Time Redeemed. He writes of a young girl he meets in the apartment of a sort of surrogate family he has found himself living with. Upon finding out she has secret writerly ambitions he assumes he might be able to mentor her, but when he finally reads the only poem of hers he will ever see, he realises she has a natural genius that he could never lay claim to. It gives him pause for thought and he has a sudden, sobering epiphany: he will only be the poet he wants to be by virtue of boring old perseverance.

In the introduction Levine writes that in this final chapter, the chapter that moved me above all others, he has "taken great liberties with actual events." For some reason this doesn't bother me in the slightest.

Title: The Bread of Time: Toward An Autobiography 
Author: Philip Levine
ISBN: 9780472086252
Year: 2001
Publisher: University of Michigan Press

- Simon, Central City Library

05 February, 2014

What are you doing out here by Norman Harris [Anne, Helensville]

I thought it an appropriate date to review this little treasure I came across recently. 

With the first New Zealand v India cricket test about to start, it is worthwhile to remember the heroes of our sporting past, not to mention tales of prowess and doggedness. There aren’t many stories that resonate more than the Johannesburg test, Christmas 1953.

Yes, New Zealand lost the test by 132 runs, collapsing in both innings.

Yes, Bert Sutcliffe’s innings is one for the record books – powerful hitting while covered in bandages, thanks to the South African bowling attack – attack, quite literally!

But, it is the low-scoring cameo of fast-bowler Bob Blair that raises this test innings to legendary status. He faced 7 balls for his 6 runs. Yes, his 6 may have been massive. But the fact he was on the park at all is something to marvel at.

Bob’s morning had started early at 4am, with the arrival of a telegram telling him his fiancée Nerissa was one of the fatalities of the Tangiwai Rail Disaster.

This is the tale of the disaster and the test. It is simply written, but powerful for that. The facts are enough. 

This book may be tiny – less than 60 pages of text – but I challenge you to read it without teary eyes.

Read and remember why sport – cricket in particular – is so much a part of the New Zealand psyche. 

~ Anne.

Author: Norman Harris, with a foreword by Bob Blair 
Publisher: Last Side 
Publication year: 2010 
ISBN: 9780473163310 

03 February, 2014

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness [Biddy, Highland Park]

The Crane Wife is a popular old Japanese legend. Patrick Ness' novel follows a nice albeit rather bland man, George Duncan, whose life mirrors that of the man in the legend. The story begins with George being woken by a desolate keening sound. He discovers a large white bird - a crane - shot through the head by an arrow. This dramatic beginning piques the interest of the reader and the book held mine right to the last page.

As well as the parallel of the Japanese legend, another myth-like tale is sporadically inserted into the narrative. This is Kumiko's story - a story of the relationship between a lady and a volcano - which is represented in artworks on tiles created by George and Kumiko. Both are astonished at the response to their art and the frenzy of prospective buyers who seem compelled to have them - at any price!

This novel fits best into the genre of magical realism in my opinion. The quest for truth is one of the themes, along with forgiveness and male-female relationships. These "real-life" issues are interwoven smoothly into the myth-peppered story and all the characters are believable and have an individual appeal. 

I would recommend this book to those who enjoyed Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus or readers who like a taste of fantasy without being quite ready to immerse themselves in that genre.

Author: Patrick Ness:
Publisher: Canongate Books, Edinburgh
Date: 2013
ISBN: 9780857868725

- Biddy, Highland Park 

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman [Emma, Birkenhead Library]

  Girlchild is set in a trailer park in Reno, and is narrated by Rory Dawn Hendrix as she grows from child to young woman.  Rory has family - but her older brothers are in Santa Cruz, her father is "unknown" and Grandma isn't allowed to babysit.  Rory's mama works nights in bars and has a "bad radar" so lots is up to Rory herself.  Rory follows the Girl Scout handbook for sage advice on how to deal with life's challenges, also on how to build important life skills. She works on working out how to get out of the Reno trailerpark, even as events beyond her control threaten her already fragile equilibrium.
    Rory Dawn is an excellent heroine.  She is smart, sensitive, tough, resourceful and caring.  She goes on long bus rides to visit her grandma and flunks the spelling bee final to stay with her mama, who needs her.  She uses the library a lot (this is where she finds the Girl Scout Handbook) which of course is very cool!  She cares about social justice and I really liked her.  I also liked the depiction of the sparse physical environment, the desert and the bars and even the way that the gambling is always there, a part of life in Reno.
  Although this novel is about a child and young teenager, it deals with adult themes; adults and older teens would like it. It is Tupelo Hassman's first book - I am looking forward to reading more of her work.

Title: Girlchild
Author: Tupelo Hassman
Published: New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
ISBN: 9780374162573

02 February, 2014

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver [Judy, Orewa]

Lionel Shriver is one of my favourite authors - and she doesn't avoid sensitive subjects. Probably best known for the stunning 'We Need to Talk About Kevin', she tackles the subject of obesity in her new book.

In the novel, Pandora's much-loved brother, who has fallen on hard times, arrives at the airport with a new look. In the few years since they've seen each other, he has gained so much weight that at first she doesn't recognise him. His appearance and eating habits cause havoc with his family relationships, and Pandora makes a huge sacrifice to help her brother beat his addiction to food. (As often with Shriver, everything is not as it seems).

Shriver has first-hand knowledge with this subject - her loved older brother became obese as an adult and died in his mid-50s, leaving Shriver hurt and wondering if she could have done more to help him.

Title: Big Brother
Author: Lionel Shriver
ISBN: 978-0-00-727109-2
Publisher: Harper Collins

Judy, Orewa Library