Shifting Colours by Fiona Sussman

My short review of Shifting Colours by Fiona Sussman from the NZ Herald on Sunday:


Shifting Colours
by Fiona Sussman (Alison & Busby)

A beautiful and emotional story, Shifting Colours takes us back to apartheid South Africa, exploring maternal love and social bonds. Miriam is black and is adopted by the white employers of her mother and taken to England, away from the turmoil of 1960s South Africa. Sussman, born in South Africa and now living in New Zealand, uses this unconventional story to lay bare the lies and struggles of apartheid. She is not afraid to examine the grey areas of human relationships.

Reach by Laurence Fearnley

Reach cover imageReach by Laurence Fearnley, Penguin, ISBN 9780143571728, RRP $38

You know how sometimes you start reading a book and you think about the characters in a certain way and then they change and you realise you were totally assuming they were this type of character, when it turns out they’re actually not, and it’s a very pleasant surprise?

That’s a long-winded introduction to this review and also exactly what happened when I was reading Reach.

Reach follows three characters, exploring the relationships between them all. Quinn is a successful artist, planning her next exhibition. Marcus is her partner, a vet who is re-establishing his relationship with his teenage daughter, lost when he left his marriage and moved in with Quinn. Callum is an itinerant deep sea diver, living in a campervan, deeply attached to the sea.

We meet Marcus and Quinn first and they are respectively devoted but put-upon, and creative but cold. I assumed these were their tropes, which really was not giving the author enough credit* because as the story unfolds Fearnley does a fantastic job of revealing the different sides to these two people and the ever-changing nature of their relationship.

Marcus may be put upon but it also becomes clear that he does a good line in abdicating responsibility, passively avoiding its sticky little tentacles. Quinn, on the other hand, isn’t passive but observant, like when you purposefully listen to other people so they feel obliged to tell you everything.

Reach is wonderfully written, if a little slow to hit its stride which meant I almost gave it up. It would have been massively disappointed if I had, considering how much I enjoyed it by the end. Fearnley’s strength is in gentle but powerful description, invoking mood and place. Small details matter, and the author clearly knows her stuff (or has researched well) when it comes to the art world, commercial deep sea diving and animal medicine.

Again and again though, I come back to the characters. By the end of the book I genuinely liked them all (even Marcus, though he also annoyed me) and felt like I’d dipped into their lives for a long moment. I wished them well. I felt grateful to Fearnley for giving me access to them. I think many readers will feel the same.

*In my defence this is the first time I’ve read Fearnley.

Spark by Rachael Craw

Spark cover imageSpark by Rachael Craw, Walker Books, ISBN 9781922179623, RRP $21.99

So, I did a short radio review of Spark (which you can listen to here) but I thought it was worth devoting more space to, especially as Rachael Craw is a New Zealand author.

Spark is like the best kind of action movie come to life in a book (okay, that sounds weird). Awesome female protagonist, check. Surreal but believable conspiracy theory plotline, check. A montage of our lead female learning to fight with her new found skills and powers, check. A tasty sounding love interest, check.

Pressed close, the scent of his skin, the thrill in mine – the whole sensory overload – makes my pulse race, not just in a swoony, soundtrack-and-fireworks way, but actual palpitations, like “oh crap, I think I’m having a cardiac arrest”.

Spark centres around Evie, our aforementioned awesome female protagonist. Evie’s mum has just died and she’s now living with her aunt. One bright spot is her reconnection with her childhood best friend, Kitty. But seeing Kitty again changes something in Evie, and suddenly she (and we) are propelled into a world of purposely modified DNA, Sparks, Shields and Strays.

To try and put this simply, Evie is part of a DNA modification experiment gone wrong, and now she’s a Shield, driven to protect Kitty, her Spark, from a Stray – a similarly DNA modified human who’s now driven to kill Kitty. Throw in an attraction to Kitty’s brother and you’ve got yourself a hit!

Did you get all that? Because believe me, that’s the basic explanation. Craw does an excellent job of fitting a large amount of exposition into a small amount of time and not making it hugely obvious. Evie struggles to understand what’s going on, which makes her very believable and empathetic because the reader is being taken along on that journey with her.

The second best thing (I’ll get to the first) about Spark was the drive that comes from the story. We barrel along at a stunning pace, and Craw and her editors keep things tight. The writing is spot on and strong enough to not allow the pace to overtake it.

The best thing about Spark is Evie. What a great female character. She reminds me of some of the best action movie females – strong enough to kick lots of arse, vulnerable enough to be a bit unsure about it and very smart.

I think as a young adult book Spark works extremely well. There may be some readers who find it overwhelming but it largely avoids the traps of being too “messagey”, too detached from the realities of life, and too obviously gender focused.

Christmas is coming soon and Spark should rightly be on every teenage book lover’s wishlist. And the best news? There’s two more books to come in this story!

Win a copy of Play in the Garden by Sarah O’Neil

Play in the Garden cover imageKids don’t have the patience or the interest in having their own garden patch, they just want to have fun! Sarah O’Neil knows this well. Her series of clever outdoor projects will get kids outside throughout the growing season, having fun in the vegetable garden. While learning to grow vegetables is covered in the book, the focus is on various cool projects to make and do – with and without the help of grown-ups – and kids will discover at the end that they have learned a lot about gardening. There’s text and side-bars for kids and grown-ups.

Beginning in the spring, they can get their hands dirty testing soil, fool the birds with stone strawberries, race Jack up the beanstalk, stir pots of stinky weed brew, grow plants for free, create a pirate map and find buried treasure, craft corn dolls, design their own stepping stones, and more.

Thanks to New Holland I’ve got a copy of Play in the Garden to give away! Entering is easy – just fill in the form below and submit and you’re in the draw. And here’s the review I gave on MoreFM earlier this week:

This competition is now closed.

 Play in the Garden Competition Terms & Conditions

  1. Winner will be chosen at random from complete entries.
  2. Prize will only be sent to a New Zealand postal address.
  3. Entries will not be stored, used for any other purposes, or on-sold. Entrants’ details are only collected for purposes of sending out prize and will then be deleted.
  4. Judges’ decision is final.
  5. One entry per postal address.
  6. Prize is one copy of Play in the Garden, posted to one New Zealand postal address.
  7. Prize has been supplied by New Holland Publishers.
  8. Competition closes 6pm, 22 October 2014.

Stand by Me by John Kirwan

Stand By Me cover image

Stand by Me by John Kirwan, with Elliot Bell and Kristy Louden-Bell, Penguin, ISBN 9780143570639, RRP $40.

I think it would be fair to assume I don’t need to introduce John Kirwan to my New Zealand readers but for overseas folks Sir John is an ex-All Black, possibly the best ex-All Black of all time. In our space in the world this makes him a BIG DEAL.

He’s also the face for mental health awareness in NZ, mostly through fronting a series of TV ads about depression and subsequently writing a book about his own experience with depression, called All Blacks Don’t Cry. He’s basically bucked the “harden up mate, she’ll be right, let’s get pissed*” trend that’s been pervasive in our society, which our worship of male sports stars has a lot to answer for. This makes him, in my space in the world, a BIG DEAL.

Now he’s turned his attention to teen mental health which is awesome because the more attention paid to this the better, and he brings a lot of attention.  The starting point is his own fears and expectations as a parent so Stand By Me is mostly aimed at parents and caregivers of teenagers but it has a lot of good information for others who work with young people and for young people themselves.

Much like All Blacks Don’t Cry the emphasis here isn’t just on the experience of mental unwellness, it’s just as much on the experience of recovery and resilience. The text combines commentary from John Kirwan, psychologists Elliot Bell and Kristy Louden-Bell, and psychiatrist Lyndy Matthews with passages of personal experience as told by young people, and parents and caregivers of those young people.

All these viewpoints mean that the tone varies from person to person but consistently keeps the spotlight on recovery and hopefulness. No one gets the opportunity to put their judgeypants on.

It also means there’s a wide range of topics covered and readers are bound to come away with at least one piece of new knowledge or food for thought. It’s obviously a book meant to be read by those seeking help and information, and the writers and publishers have done a great job of keeping that foremost in their decision-making on content and editing.

Chapters are short but tight and the most salient points are pulled out and repeated. At the end is a comprehensive list of further resources and sources of information and help. Topics range from depression and anxiety to eating disorders and self-harm to one of the best discussions of suicide and how to talk about it that I’ve ever read.

Now we come to my soapbox moment. I’m personally affected by mental illness and especially depression, and have recently been deeply affected as a parent. It’s hard, in both instances, but perhaps a little bit more so when you’re the parent. And finding help, MAKING those that are supposed to help do so, can feel like an impossible task. So we need to talk about this, desperately, because some of our young people are really, really unhappy and we can be complete sh*ts to them (well, and each other but that’s a whole other soapbox) and they deserve so much more. We all do but they need a chance.

If you’re a parent or caregiver, if you’re a counsellor or a teacher, if you’re a young person … whatever reason you might have for being interested in the mental health and wellbeing of our young people, Stand By Me is an absolute must-read.

*For my American friends, “pissed” in NZ means drunk, not angry.