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Archive for the ‘Books I’ve read’ Category

This is an enthralling and moving memoir by a woman who has been at the forefront of Māori activism for decades. I remember Donna from feminist events in the 1980s, and for her radical essays on Māori Sovereignty in Broadsheet magazine. Her upbringing was strongly Māori, and she tells how when she was a child she only ever met people who were related to her.

Her father, a veteran of the Māori Battalion, spoke Latin fluently, and was a huge influence, although he was later convicted of murder and sent to prison. It was fascinating to read of the Treaty Protest in 1968 which Donna’s father organised. There were 20,000 Māori there, but because it was peaceful, and all in Te Reo, the media missed it completely.

Donna demonstrates that when working for social change action is more important than talking or writing articles. This slim volume (109 pages) gives an honest account of our country’s recent history and deserves to be part of the history curriculum for all students. It ends positively with Donna’s assurance that Aotearoa’s future is hopeful. Her book was published in 1996. I hope she still feels optimistic.

This is a woman fierce and strong
whose dedication is lifelong

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Do you read historical fiction? I’ve always enjoyed it and recently I was e-interviewed by a PhD student from Macquarie University in Sydney. The topic of her research is Historical Fictions and Perceptions of History, and her questions stirred me to think about why I read historical fiction. I had previously thought of this genre as historical romance, with romance meaning a story, not necessarily a love story.

Memoirs and biographies are also historical, and while they’re not usually classed as fiction they may have some fictional elements, as two people writing about the same event will sometimes have quite different perceptions of it. I’m always interested in social history, the stories of people, rather than the larger areas of governments and wars.

Historical fiction helps me to understand my place in the world.  If it’s history I have some familiarity with, it’s affirming of my knowledge.  If it’s new to me, it’s stimulating and educational.  I’ve always enjoyed historical stories, but when I was in the 5th form we had a history teacher who lacked confidence and I’m now ashamed to say we gave her a hard time and she sometimes left the classroom in tears.   My school certificate history exam did not go well and I achieved only a D pass (32%, with higher marks in my other five subjects).  Part of the curriculum covered the 2nd World War which I found boring.  It was just a year or two later I discovered the Gregory Sallust series by Dennis Wheatley and thought how much more I’d have enjoyed the lessons if I’d been told to read these beforehand.

Sometimes I find historical fiction on the Recently Returned shelves at the Library. Once I’ve read and enjoyed one book I usually seek more by the same author. I also get recommendations from friends, and I read reviews.

I’m inclined to believe the historical facts I read. and I’m always pleased to see a bibliography, and maybe an afterword, that indicates the author has done research. I also enjoy historical films and television programmes, such as Downton Abbey and The Crown, but my preference is for novels because they can conveniently be read at any time and place, including in bed. There are so many historical novels, including mysteries, that I wondered whether it might be the most popular genre of fiction, but Google suggests that is Mystery/Crime. I guess historical mysteries are the ideal!

I love a book of history
especially one with mystery

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This latest of the Outlander novels is a large book – 888 pages – too large to be read lying in bed, so it had to be rationed into times when I can read sitting in a chair. I’ve enjoyed all the series over a number of years, and it was good to re-immerse myself in the familiar characters. It might have been useful to re-read the earlier volumes first, but the author kindly provided enough past detail to ensure I could fit bits together. This volume seemed to me to have more links between the two time periods than the previous ones.

One snippet that interested me was an explanation of the name of hollyhocks – a flower which blooms prolifically in my garden. Apparently the Crusaders bought the plant back from the Holy Land because you can make a salve from the root that’s particularly good for an injury to a horse’s hocks – hence holyhock.

This story could be categorised under many of my favourite genres: historical romance and family saga, with hints of science fiction and spirituality. The characters are so well drawn that the reader can’t help but empathise with them.

I do think the author could have made this into two volumes of manageable size, but I loved it nevertheless. There were many threads left hanging ready for sequels. Anyone who’s enjoyed previous Outlander novels will relish this one.

They travel back between the stones
surviving wars and broken bones

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This book demonstrates the possibilities that may be available after you’ve lost everything. It starts with a breath-taking courtroom drama, then a terminal diagnosis that shakes what’s left of the author’s equilibrium. With their home and past life lost, the future uncertain, and very limited finance, she and her husband Moth set out to walk 630 miles around the south-west coast of England.

It’s amazing to read the true story of a pair of 50-year-olds walking for days on end, with insufficient money, often unable to afford even a packet of chips. They subsisted on instant noodles, sometimes flavoured with dandelions, and often ran out of food. When Moth found a hairy wine gum in his pocket they cut it in half to share.

The small tent they carried gave scant protection from wild weather, and they learned that foot miles are different from road miles. The latter are about time rather than distance.

Occasionally they went to places I’ve visited, which increased the story’s interest for me: Glastonbury, Tintagel, the Minack Theatre, Mousehole, Penzance, and the Geevor Tin Mine.

The book vividly describes the spectacular scenery and the wildlife, including a thieving seagull. What they saw and experienced gave this couple purpose, and restored hope. It is an inspiring read. I understand there is a sequel, and I’ll look out for this.

The challenge they took on was huge
a tiny tent their sole refuge

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Those who experienced the Christchurch earthquakes will find this novel enthralling, and possibly disturbing. I recommend it to anyone who seeks to understand the effect the earthquakes had on the people of Christchurch.

After starting with an earthquake, the story later goes on to consider the effect a virus spreading from China would have on international students, and much of what is written seemed so familiar. Two major issues that have affected all of Christchurch this century are laid bare through the eyes of a group of University students who are also feeling their way through new relationships. In some cases the consequences of the earthquakes have influenced responses to the pandemic.

I found parts of this book moving, especially the return to the red zone. Everyone who lived through the earthquakes has their own story and it’s good to have some of them recorded in this novel. It relates how the after-shocks have eaten into our psyches and will remain with us indefinitely – perhaps for ever.

Bringing the earthquakes and the pandemic together in one novel is brave, and it may be too much for some readers. I appreciated the author’s personal story at the end. This self-published book will surely be one that is valued as a fictional but believable chronicle of unusual times.

As well as living through the quake
we now have vaccines we must take

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After reading a number of novels lately, this book made a good contrast. It starts with theories, backed up by archaeological evidence, about how sheep became domesticated in Neolithic times. They were were valued for their ability to provide meat, milk, hides, and wool. What might be the remains of the world’s oldest cheese are the vestiges of a feta-like sheep’s cheese found on shards of Croatian pottery dated to 5,300 BC.

The invention of scissors came through the need to shear sheep of their wool, and there is a lovely story of how Roquefort cheese was first made from curds of sheep’s milk. Being on tenterhooks harks back to the practice of wet woollen cloth being stretched on a wooden frame called a tenter, where it was fastened in place with hooks so that it dried taut without shrinking.

Discussing the astrological sign Aries, the author explains that Zodiac signs in common use are wrong, because the stars have changed position since mediaeval days, something I learned years ago at Stonehenge Aotearoa.

The dog’s role with sheep was first as a livestock guardian, then later as a herder. In the 18th century working dogs were exempt from taxation, while pet dogs were taxed. To tell the difference, working dogs would have their tails docked, presumably the reason some breeds still have their tails removed.

It was fascinating to learn of the importance of the wool trade to England’s economy from mediaeval times, and its role in the development of capitalism. At one stage almost 98% of customs revenue came from wool exports alone. Once textile factories were established children were employed, often from a very young age.

From the 1640s sheep gut was used for condoms. These were originally protection from syphilis, rather than for contraception.

I was surprised to learn that far from being stupid sheep can recognise and remember at least fifty different faces. What’s more they can still recognise the same faces after two years. Some of us might not manage as well!

This was an easily read book, packed with intriguing and humorous facts.

This history regarding sheep
lists many facts within its sweep

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This honest and informative memoir of the education system in Aotearoa over fifty years is both inspiring and depressing. Inspiring to know that one man worked so hard to enable children to have a positive learning experience, and depressing to know that the current bureaucracy would most probably stifle similar idealism. Surely there is some hope with Kura Kaupapa Māori and Steiner schools. Much of Tim’s career was based in Auckland, and I appreciated the references to familiar places.

The book is a delight to read, with many amusing anecdotes, such as the octopus kiss. Tim states that his responsibility as a teacher is to find a way for every child to excel at something, and he laments how risk-averse, how boring our schools have had to become. He stresses the importance of waiting until a child is ready for whatever it is you want them to learn, including reading. His observation is that schools won’t work for many children, particularly those from non-Pakeha backgrounds, unless we change the structures and values of our schools. Tim says maths is always easier for children who know their times tables, reminding me of how I insisted my daughters learn these, although they were not then part of the curriculum. I discovered last week that primary school children are no longer being taught to write a cursive script, and I wonder how they will then have a distinctive signature. Perhaps all they will need is a strong password.

Tim champions mainstreaming, although he prefers to call it inclusion, saying the influence of other children will raise the expectations of everyone involved, including parents and children. I was interested in his recounting of time spent with the Correspondence School, as I was once enrolled there myself.

Tim is open and honest about both his personal and professional life, and his book would engage anyone who’s ever been at school in any capacity.

His ideas and ideals shine through
to change what happened hitherto

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I enjoyed the first six novels in this series, but found this final saga just too drawn out. At 800 pages it was awkward to hold while lying in bed, which is where I do most of my relaxing reading.

The thoroughly researched story of the fight for Irish independence and women’s role in it is engaging, and the author keeps up the suspense, but I found the end disappointing. It’s clearly left ready for the next (final?) instalment. However, after such a marathon read a bit more resolution was called for. I understand the author died in June this year, but she left detailed notes of the continuing story, which will be completed by her son Harry, and is planned to be published in the northern spring of 2023.

This novel has been the top selling book in Aotearoa this year, and must certainly have provided an escape for many during lockdown and Covid uncertainty. I wonder how many others were disappointed with the ending?

This sister still remains a mystery
that’s buried deep in Irish history

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This is a raw, bleak book, about abuse and addiction. The story tells of a woman’s traumatic childhood, then different stages of her life. It starts in Australia, moves to Aotearoa, then to America.

Reading it wasn’t helped by the fact that in this edition pages 185-200 were missing. At first I thought I must have skipped something, then checked the page numbers and realised there was a gap in the printing. I also found that six later pages were printed twice. This is something I’ve never come across before.

The Australian author said the book took a long time to write, and it took me a long time to read it. The story is brutal, and it dragged at times. I was tempted to give up, but wanted to know what happened to the central character. Not sure whether I could recommend it, but it does give a different perspective on life. I chose this novel after reading a Guardian review that said it was a meditation on vulnerability and remarkable empathic, but I shan’t be seeking any more by this author.

This was too brutal for my taste
and suffers from the printer’s haste

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This is a complex book with several layers. It’s the story of a privileged media family, somewhat similar to Rupert Murdoch’s, but the characters all have parallels in Tudor times. A cast list at the beginning explains who they all are, which is useful. The sisters of the title are the equivalents of Elizabeth I and her half-sister Queen Mary.

The fact I’ve read plenty of historical novels helped me appreciate the nuances and guess what might happen. Literary quotations give the story extra resonance. This was certainly a very different novel, more of a romance than my usual choices, but thoroughly enjoyable. There is a prequel, Wife after Wife, primarily about the modern Henry VIII, and I rather wish I’d read that first.

Some characters are truly devils
and this resounds on several levels

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