Archive for the ‘nonfiction’ Category

Queen Briseis has been stolen from her conquered homeland and given as a concubine to a foreign warrior. The warrior is Achilles: famed hero, loathed enemy, ruthless butcher, darkly troubled spirit. Briseis’s fate is now indivisibly entwined with his.

No one knows it yet, but there are just ten weeks to go until the Fall of Troy, the end of this long and bitter war. This is the start of The Iliad: the most famous war story ever told. The next ten weeks will be a story of male power, male ego, male violence. But what of the women? The thousands of female slaves in the soldiers’ camp – in the laundry, at the loom, laying out the dead? Briseis is one of their number – and she will be our witness to history.

The Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker

Hamish Hamilton

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jacqui Smith

This has been touted as a great feminist novel, but I don’t think it is, not in any positive sense. It is more a polemic against a certain kind of masculinity, toxic masculinity if you like. And against war; the sheer brutality of war in ancient times. It might be supposed to be a re-telling of the Iliad from the point of view of a woman, of Briseis, the former wife of Mynes, a son of the King of Lyrnessus, who becomes the slave of Achilles. But it’s still a story about men, about strutting male egos and the consequences of their butting heads. Achilles even gets to be narrator in a third-person sort-of way some distance into the book, although his ‘voice’ always feels a bit awkward. I’m not convinced that it is even possible to write a truly feminist Iliad, because it’s essentially a story about men and the flaws of men. Could you even write an empowering story about women in that setting? Maybe, but not, I think, at the centre of Homer’s story. Which this is.

I can’t say I liked this book. I did find it oddly compelling, and I did finish it (unlike the last attempt to re-tell the Iliad from a female point of view that came my way).  The author has a fine command of language, although it often feels way too modern for the subject. But it’s a brutal work, pulling no punches in the description of violence and of the treatment of women. If you are at all sensitive to rape, violence or profanity, then this is not the book for you.

(And to add to that, I’ve just seen a flash fiction shared on Facebook that in less than a hundred words tells a better – and far more positive – story, focusing on Cassandra, Odysseus and Penelope).

Introducing an exciting new approach to stargazing in the southern hemisphere, this book features step-by-step routes to help you easily identify key constellations across the southern night sky.

Stargazer takes you through constellations one-by-one, linking them together as you progress using easy-to-follow star routes that guide you across the celestial sphere. Adapted carefully for the southern hemisphere, this book is perfect for budding astronomers learning to navigate our expansive and fascinating universe. Complete with practice exercises, stunning colour photography of nebulas and galaxies, and amazing facts about our solar system and beyond, this book is a reliable and exciting new guide to our skies.

Stargazer: A Step-by-step Guide to the Southern Night Sky

Dorling Kindersley

Penguin Random House New Zealand

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Stephen Litten

Stargazer was originally published as a northern hemisphere guide, but thanks to the team at Penguin Random House Australia it has been updated to aid in the identification of constellations and major star clusters in the southern hemisphere. Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is retained from the UK edition, and is ably assisted by Ian Ridpath and Patrick Armstrong, two Australian astronomers.

The book is divided into 6 sections: an intro to stargazing, 4 routes around the southern sky, and a brief extro concerning planets and the like. Why constellations and not stars? Because the sky is divided into constellations with the named stars tied to the various constellations. Thus, Antares sits in Scorpius and Betelgeuse in Orion. The routes traced are: Crux to South Celestial Pole, Orion to Pleiades, Scorpius to Galactic Centre, and Piscis Astrinus to Large Magellanic Cloud. So, while the southern skies don’t have a naked eye visible polar star, we do have the better view of the Milky Way plus the Magellanic Clouds. There are plenty of illustrations and enough text to illuminate these.

What are missed are some of the constellations that straddle the ecliptic. These include some of the zodiacal ones like Virgo and Leo as well as non-zodiacal ones like Cetus and Ophiucus. So this really is an introductory guide. Not having the original northern hemisphere version, I can’t quickly check to see if the omissions in this are completed by that.

I found the book to be aesy to follow. Finding the constellations was generally simple (when the weather cooperated). I live in south Auckland and I could achieve adequate viewing conditions by just stepping out the back door, so it is applicable most of us southern hemisphere types. Price is reasonable for a firm-cover edition, $37, and it’s not too bulky so can be carried outside with you. Thank you to Penguin Random House for the review copy.

Long before waka touched Aotearoa’s shores, the land of the long white cloud was home to an array of creatures uniquely adapted to its environments and protected by its isolation.

Encounter New Zealand’s incredible wildlife in this spectacular visual exploration.

Journey through ocean, sky and land to meet a marvellous range of organisms.

Discover fascinating facts, and learn how we influence the survival of our living treasures.

In this magnificent companion volume to Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, Gavin Bishop weaves a compelling visual narrative of our land, our people and our wildlife — past, present and future.

Wildlife in Aotearoa

Gavin Bishop


Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jan Butterworth

The contents of this book are cleverly separated into various categories – Tangaroa’s Watery World explains briefly about our oceans – then further grouped into There are Fish and Whales as Big as a Bus, Some Fish Enjoy the Light of the Sun, and Some Fish Prefer the Dark and Quiet of Deep Water. 

The contents naturally flow on to Because of All These Fish, Aotearoa is the Seabird Capital of the World and Where the Sea Meets the Land.  Each of the species featured has its name displayed next to it and a brief fact about it.  There is a glossary with an explanation of unfamiliar words used and discussions about Safe Places for Native Wildlife on Land and Safe Places for Native Wildlife at Sea, as well as explaining The Kermadec Island Marine Sanctuary.

This is an incredible picture book exploring New Zealand’s unique landscapes and its remarkable wildlife by the award-winning author of Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story.  It is spectacularly illustrated with realistic images and is attractively laid out and contains interesting facts.  I avoided the insects’ page though as the illustrations are so realistic I could feel my skin crawling!

A picture book to treasure, I highly recommend having a copy.

We would all be better off if everyone saw mathematics as a practical ally. Sadly, most of us fear maths and seek to avoid it. This is because mathematics doesn’t have good ‘people skills’ – it never hesitates to bluntly point out when we are wrong. But it is only trying to help! Mathematics is a friend which can fill the gaps in what our brains can do naturally.

Luckily, even though we don’t like sharing our own mistakes, we love to read about what happens when maths errors make the everyday go horribly wrong. Matt Parker explores and explains near misses and mishaps with planes, bridges, the internet and big data as a way of showing us not only how important maths is, but how we can use it to our advantage. This comedy of errors is a brilliantly told series of disaster stories with a happy ending.

Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors

Matt Parker

Allen Lane

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Stephen Litten

Mathematics underpins many disciplines, but one that affects us most is engineering. Matt Parker investigates the mathematical failures of engineering in Humble Pi. There are a surprisingly large number of ways mistakes can be made, and Parker throws light and elucidation on these.

Humble Pi is arranged in the normal manner, excepting the reverse page numbering and an inserted chapter 9.49 between chapters 9 and 10. The failures generally fall into four categories: unexpected consequences, more precision needed, poor planning, and the limitations of computer systems. And in writing that sentence I made a mistake by assuming only three and remembering a fourth. Parker tends to avoid fatal disasters: there’s no comedy in death (unless it’s the Darwin Awards).

Computers do get special mention, as there are numerous ways computers are not the best tool for what they are doing.: random number generation, timing, data storage using the wrong programme. The misuse of computers is impressive. Bridges seemed to feature highly, with harmonic vibrations featuring with two of my favourites; the Millennium Footbridge and “Galloping Gertie” aka the Tacoma Narrows bridge.

I enjoyed this book; Parker writes with humour and style while dissecting the nature of the mathematical failures. I recommend this to anyone with an interest in mathematics, or engineering, or failures. I thank Penguin Random House for the review copy.

Help your tamariki to korero Maori with this brilliant first words book by Stacey Morrison, gorgeously illustrated by Ali Teo and John O’Reilly.
My First Words in Maori equips your whanau with the first words you need to speak te reo at home together.

With lively pictures labelled in Maori and English, each page introduces the concepts and words children use as they first begin to talk, get to know people and explore the world around them.

Designed by Maori language champion and broadcaster Stacey Morrison for parents and tamariki to read together, with plenty of details in the illustrations to point out and name, scenes include: Taku Tinana/My Body, Taku Whanau/My Family, Taku Whare/My House, Wahi Takaro/At the Park, Tatahi/At the Beach, Te Marae / The Marae – and much more!

This is the perfect book to bring the Maori language into your home and have fun with the kids on their language journey.

My First Words in Maori

Stacey Morrison, illustrated by Ali Teo & John O’Reilly


Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jan Butterworth

This book features words that will be useful to any child learning to talk, as well as phrases that will help in conversing in Maori.

Each double page features a subject – Pets/Mokai, Clothes/Kakahu, Emotions/Kare a-roto, or House/Whare – and is attractively illustrated with a colourful array of items that relate to it – Cat/Ngeru, Dress/Panekoti, Lonely/Mokemoke, or Ipad/Ipapa.  It was good to see the
Food/Kai page featured Marmite/Ihipani – a Kiwi staple!

The phrases are basic little sentences to encourage talking – The rabbit is jumping!/Kei te pekepeke te rapeti!, Where are your clothes?/Kei te makariri koe?, How are you?/Kei te pehea koe?, or Our house!/To tatou whare!  There’s a great map of New Zealand listing place names so you can say where you’re from.  The back has a basic list of numbers, colours, and shapes.  Stacey Morrison explains in the prologue that some English words have more than one translation in te reo so she used the most common Maori word.

This is an awesome resource that will be invaluable to families learning to speak te reo.

Once there was a clever girl who liked searching for interesting things on the ground. She wanted to know why shells could be found in rocks so far away from the sea. But her father thought education was no use to a girl, so Joan had to leave school.

Many years later, she bought an old map. To her amazement, she saw that it marked a treasure hoard. Not of gold and jewels, but of dinosaur bones.

Nobody had ever found dinosaur fossils in New Zealand before – in fact, top scientists had said it was impossible. But Joan was intrigued. She decided to learn everything she could about palaeontology and hunt for these dinosaur fossils.

This is the fifth picture book in an acclaimed series of true stories about the lives of famous Kiwis written by David Hill and magnificently illustrated by Phoebe Morris.

Dinosaur Hunter: Joan Wiffen’s Awesome Fossil Discoveries

David Hill & Phoebe Morris

Picture Puffin

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jan Butterworth

“I can dream.  That’s one of the big things in life.”  Joan Wiffen

Until the late 1960s scientists believed dinosaurs never lived in New Zealand.  Then a dinosaur skull was found in Australia in 1968 and the thinking changed.  Now scientists thought they could have lived in New Zealand but needed proof.

This book tells the story of how a farm wife from the Hawke’s Bay proved New Zealand once had its own dinosaurs and became an international expert in dinosaur fossils.

The clever drawings tell the story of how she became interested in geology and fossils, then how she discovered a map showing the remote Mangahouanga Stream as a possible location of bones  and decided to go digging.  After sending a plaster cast of her findings to an Australian museum, they confirmed it was the vertebrae of a 70 million year old theropod – a dinosaur the size of a truck with sharp, saw-edged teeth.

Joan Wiffen had made a ground-breaking discovery and re-wrote history.

The Wiffen’s and their helpers continued exploring the remote stream for the next thirty years and made more fossil discoveries.  Some of those dinosaurs are cleverly illustrated in the final pages, along with a handy timeline of Joan Wiffen’s life.

This book was interesting as I hadn’t really paid attention to prehistoric New Zealand.  I vaguely knew that fossils of giant penguins and sharks the length of cricket pitches had been found but not actual dinosaurs.  Joan Wiffen also seems an inspiring woman more attention should be paid to.

Any dinosaur fan will love this book.  As well as those who aren’t dinosaur fans but like interesting women.

A lively anthology of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, celebrating the birds of Aotearoa.

On the skyline
a hawk
languidly typing
a hunting poem
with its wings.
– Hone Tuwhare

New Zealand birds have inspired mythology, song, whimsical stories, detailed observation, humour and poetry. There are tales of shooting and taxidermy as well as of admiration and love. From the kakapo, kokako and kaka to the sparrow, starling and seagull, both native and imported birds have been immortalised in print.

This is a varied and stimulating selection from the flocks of New Zealand writers who have given our birds a voice. They have brought extinct birds back to life and even enabled the kiwi to take flight on the page.

Bird Words: New Zealand Writers on Birds

Edited by Elizabeth Easther


Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jan Butterworth

Birds have always inspired the world’s writers to wax lyrical.

For many New Zealanders, our native birds hold a particular appeal, from our national icon of the kiwi to the cheeky kea, the melodic tui, and the graceful fantail.  In the Maori culture birds are a link between earth and sky, connecting mortals with their gods.

This anthology came about after Easther noticed how much New Zealanders revere their native birds and how beautifully we write about them. The collection features some of New Zealand’s best-loved and well known writers, with 62 works of fiction, essays and poetry, as well as obscure historical writings and less well known pieces.

Illustrated with delicate black-and-white watercolours by natural history illustrator Lily Daff, this book is very pretty and is an impressively wide-ranging collection of New Zealand writing, authors and styles and topics.

On 17 September 1944, General Kurt Student, the founder of Nazi Germany’s parachute forces, heard the growing roar of aero engines. He went out on to his balcony above the flat landscape of southern Holland to watch the vast air armada of Dakotas and gliders, carrying the British 1st Airborne and the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. He gazed up in envy at the greatest demonstration of paratroop power ever seen.

Operation Market Garden, the plan to end the war by capturing the bridges leading to the Lower Rhine and beyond, was a bold concept: the Americans thought it unusually bold for Field Marshal Montgomery. But the cost of failure was horrendous, above all for the Dutch who risked everything to help. German reprisals were cruel and lasted until the end of the war.

The British fascination for heroic failure has clouded the story of Arnhem in myths, not least that victory was possible when in fact the plan imposed by Montgomery and General ‘Boy’ Browning was doomed from the start. Antony Beevor, using many overlooked and new sources from Dutch, British, American, Polish and German archives, has reconstructed the terrible reality of this epic clash. Yet this book, written in Beevor’s inimitable and gripping narrative style, is about much more than a single dramatic battle. It looks into the very heart of war.

Don’t miss hearing Antony Beevor talk at the Auckland Writer’s Festival Saturday 18 May 2019.  Click here for details.

Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944

Antony Beevor


Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Stephen Litten

For many World War II armchair generals, no subject is likely to generate a vigorous discussion than Operation Market Garden – the attempt to capture a series of bridges in the Netherlands in late 1944. Devised by the recently promoted Field Marshall Montgomery, the aim was to capture a bridgehead over the Rhine in the Netherlands and pursue the Germany army into Germany. Needless to say, the operations did not go as planned.

Beevor starts the action a few weeks before the actual period in question, as the situational background is important in understanding the decisions behind the plan. He then follows the planning and implementation of the operation as envisaged. The last chapter is devoted to the aftermath of the operation and the German response. Those that know about Operation Market Garden and the film, A Bridge Too Far, will be aware that it failed.

Beevor, as part of his research, sought answers as to why. Blame is firmly attributed to Monty and his senior commanders. Beevor consulted documents from multiples sources, including Dutch and German, before writing this book. These two sets are important – both were witnesses and participants to the plans as executed. The Dutch army also had an Army Staff College who would have failed Montgomery for implementing a plan so simple and obvious as running directly up the road and straight for the Arnhem bridges.

I enjoyed Arnhem: it is a good read and the action reporting is balanced (it seems confusion abounded on both sides early in the battle). While the title is Arnhem, that city is not the sole focus, as fighting continued along the entire 120km route. It was the target, however, and despite later claims the operation was 90% successful, in this case the miss may as well have been a mile. Read it. I thank Penguin for supplying a review copy.

Why do we prefer to drink tomato juice on flights?
Why do we eat less when food is served on red plates?
Does the crunch really change the taste of crisps?

In Gastrophysics pioneering researcher Professor Charles Spence explores the extraordinary, mind-bending science of food. Whether it’s uncovering the importance of smell, sight, touch and sound to taste or why cutlery, company and background noise change our experience of eating, he shows us how neuroscience, psychology and design are changing not only what we put on our plates but also how we experience it.

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating

Professor Charles Spence


Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed  by Jacqui Smith

I don’t I have ever before come across a book that was almost 40% notes before; but this is a quite unusual volume in other ways. It’s a book about food science on a whole different level; about the psychology, chemistry, biology and even physics of eating. What effect does the environment, expectations, colours, sounds, smells have on the experience of food… It’s all here. And it’s all very interesting.

I suspect that almost anyone who works in the food industry and has a passing interest in science would be fascinated by this book. As would anyone with an interest in food and eating. It’s not a simple read, and I found that I preferred to read it a bit at a time with a pause for digestion. It does have some interesting adventures for the domestic cook as well, especially if you’re into hosting dinner parties. You’ll learn more than you really want to know about the ways in which the food industry manipulates what we eat. There’s even some surprising advice for weight loss – try using red plates!

Is vocabulary destiny? Why do clocks ‘talk’ to the Nahua people of Mexico? Will A.I. researchers ever produce true human-machine dialogue? In this mesmerizing collection of essays, Daniel Tammet answers these and many other questions about the intricacy and profound power of language.

In EVERY WORD IS A BIRD WE TEACH TO SING, Tammet goes back in time to explore the numeric language of his autistic childhood; in Iceland, he learns why the name Bl r became a court case; in Canada, he meets one of the world’s most accomplished lip readers. He chats with chatbots; contrives an ‘e’-less essay on lipograms; studies the grammar of the telephone; contemplates the significance of disappearing dialects; and corresponds with native Esperanto speakers – in their mother tongue.

A joyous romp through the world of words, letters, stories, and meanings, EVERY WORD IS A BIRD WE TEACH TO SING explores the way communication shapes reality. From the art of translation to the lyricism of sign language, these essays display the stunning range of Tammet’s literary and polyglot talents.

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries & Meanings of Language

Daniel Tammet

Hachette Australia

Supplied by Hachette New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve Litten

Daniel Tammet suffered from autism as a child, and saw the world in numbers, rather than words. Not surprisingly, this different view of the world, and language, made him a troubled user of English, his native tongue. At least, as a child. After moving to France and learning the joys of literature in French, he was re-introduced to English. Which he saw in another light. For apart from the whole number thing – words evoking numbers – he also has a certain degree of synaesthesia: words evoke other sensations.

It is this complex array of foibles, both bane and boon, that inspired this collection of essays. Daniel recounts an adventure language teaching in Lithuania, attempts at reviving a mostly dead language, chasing down a fellow autistic poet, a childhood vocabulary test and so forth. But instead of coming across as a whiney, life was hard sort, he buzzes with excitement. Yes, the difficulties of childhood were sad, but he recognises that these were his problems. The reader doesn’t suffer for Daniel’s limitations. Rather, he carries them along with his love of language and human communication.

I enjoyed this book. It gave me an insight into another mind, another method of approaching languages, for Daniel doesn’t confine himself to exploring just English. His essays, some of which are deeply personal, are not about him; they’re about language. For writers, language is almost all they have. For people who use words, and that is almost all of use, the title sums up what we strive for with our use of words: every word is a bird we teach to sing.