Thursday, 7 February 2019

Chinatown Girl

Chinatown Girl
The Diary of Silvey Chan, Auckland 1942
Eva Wong Ng
Scholastic, 200 pages, paperback, NZ$18
ISBN 978 1 77543 577 8 

 Reviewed by Trevor Agnew

Image may contain: 1 person

Surprisingly, the best account of NZBC (New Zealand Born Chinese) children adjusting to life within their two cultures is a work of fiction. Chinatown Girl by Eva Wong Ng has just been released in its second edition with an eye-catching cover. It is rare for young adult novels to be re-issued but Chinatown Girl has captured readers of all ages as it introduces them to life in war-time central Auckland, as seen through the eyes of Chan Ngun Bo, known to all as Silvey Chan. The oldest reader I know of is in his nineties and he declared that it brought back all his memories of Auckland’s Chinatown in the 1940s.

Silvey is an ordinary twelve-year-old Auckland girl. She has just been inspired by Anne of Green Gables to start keeping a diary. Her first entry is 1st January 1942  and the first words are ‘Anyone reading this without permission risks blindness or worse: YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!’

Silvey is part of a tightly-knit Chinese community. As she works on her family history project for school, Silvey, who was born in New Zealand, learns about life in China, and why her family members came to New Zealand. Meanwhile events around the world have their effect, with the fall of Singapore and the arrival of American troops.
The diary is rich in tiny historical details, such as the tricks the schoolchildren play on their teacher on April Fool’s day, or Silvey watching Ah Yeh (her paternal grandfather) rolling his own cigarettes from a tin of Silver Fern.

Chinatown Girl is also a great introduction to city life in the 1940s, with Lofty Blomfield, five shilling postal notes, sugar rationing, and air raid rehearsals. The bag is to hold a cork to put between our teeth, and cotton wool to stuff in our ears to stop us going deaf if a bomb explodes. Modern readers will find school life in the 1940s a very strange world, while Silvey also has to cope with Chinese School at least twice a week.
In the same way that she attends two schools, Silvey is aware of the two ways of looking at events and people: the way of China and the way of Sun Gum Sarn (New Gold Mountain: New Zealand). She emerges as a lively, intelligent observer, able to cope comfortably in both cultures.
The diary’s emphasis is domestic but there are small excitements (Silvey’s accident with a fish hook) and more dramatic moments (a burglary followed by an identity parade) to make Silvey’s account of daily life at 45 Greys Avenue into a real page-turner. The official celebration of Double-Ten (October the 10th) 1942 by the New Zealand Government is an important event for the Chinese in New Zealand. Silvey’s parents make it clear to her that Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s announcement is a turning-point in NZ Chinese history Nevertheless when she attends the Chinese National Day Banquet she still notes that we…listened to lots of boring speeches.’

Readers of all ages will find much to delight them. For example Sylvie’s mother represents the older generation’s determination to eventually return to China. Thus she insists on showing Sylvie how to kill hens - because she will need to do it in China. 

Despite the shortages and fears of wartime, this is a delightfully readable account offering many insights into two cultures.

NOTE: Teachers will find useful background material in the school bulletin compiled by Eva Ng and Jane Thomson. Amongst Ghosts: Memories and Thoughts of a New Zealand-Chinese Family, (Learning Media, Wellington, 1992, ISBN 0 478 05523 4), which includes an account of the lives of Eva’s parents.

Trevor Agnew
8 February 2019

Below is the original
2005 cover of the first 
edition of Chinatown Girl:

Monday, 8 October 2018

Cook’s Cook: The Cook who Cooked for Captain Cook Gavin Bishop

Cook’s Cook: The Cook who Cooked for Captain Cook
Gavin Bishop
Gecko Press (2018)
40 pages, hardback, NZ$30
ISBN 978-1-776572-01-5

This picture book is a strikingly original and cheerful addition to the rather stodgy books about Lieutenant Cook’s 1768-1770 voyage as captain of the sea-going equivalent of a coal-truck. Cook’s Cook is nicely timed to complement the 250th Anniversary of the scientific and exploring voyage of the Endeavour.  With 94 people packed into a Whitby collier, a bark built for 16, life on board was never going to be easy. The story begins as Cook discovers that the Admiralty has sent the ship’s cook.

‘John Thompson – a one-handed cook!?’ explodes Cook.
‘Don’t worry, Mr Cook,’ soothes his wife, Elizabeth, ‘Things will work out.’
And they do.

Thompson, the single-handed cook who narrates this story, is a gruff but adaptable old sea-dog. ‘How’d I lose my hand? None of your bleedin’ business.’

The routine diet of pease porridge one day and salt beef or salt pork the next sounds grim but Thompson proves versatile at using local resources. During the voyage he cooks and provides recipes for sharks, albatrosses, geese, stingrays, turtles and kangaroos. He also provides an insight into interactions with the people they encountered. We are all familiar with stories of Tahitians stealing metal objects from Endeavour (including the cook’s fire rake) but Thomson makes us realise that by gathering fruit and vegetables, the visitors were also stealing from the Tahitians. Cook’s plan to eat a fat goose and turkey were also thwarted. ‘H.M.S. Dolphin left fowl behind some years ago, and they’ve become pets.’

With his left hand, Thompson keeps a cook’s log, which provides a quirky running commentary on the events of the voyage.  For example, in March 1770 it becomes clear that New Zealand is not part of the vast southern land that Joseph Banks had hoped for. Thompson writes, ‘We have not found the Great Southern Continent. For Mr Banks and several other continent-mongers, such was their disappointment that they were sick after supper. Can’t blame my left-over dog pie.

Actually Thompson had made a roast dish and a haggis from the dog, as well as the pie. For those with a canine taste bud, Gavin Bishop has provided a butcher’s diagram of a dog, while Thompson has included the recipe for his Tahitian specialty, Dog and Breadfruit Stew.

There is an enjoyable running joke throughout the book as Thompson aspires to have a feature named after himself, but is always thwarted. He is, however, responsible for one of New Zealand’s most original place-names and even includes the recipe for it.

The illustrations are splendid water colours, full of the rich 18th Century detail which Bishop lavished on his edition of Tom Thumb. Each double-page spread has its own unifying theme, but is also full of tiny details, like Thompson’s ever-present wooden spoon. The plan of the ship, for example, shows that each of the gentlemen’s cabins contains a chamber pot.  

The features, which we have come to relish in Bishop’s earlier picture books, return in unexpected places in Cook’s Cook. The turnip from The Three Pigs has a place of honour on the cover. The rats from Rats seem to be everywhere. Thompson never sees the legendary big-footed Patagonians but the cliff formation that Banks and Solander encounter is actually a gigantic monster’s foot straight from The Horror of Hickory Bay.  While Cook is in New Zealand waters, the eyes of the Maori ancestral gods and spirits observe proceedings, just as they do in The House that Jack Built.

I was puzzled at how Bishop would conclude John Thompson’s story but he has done it brilliantly, with a breath-taking display of story-telling skill. I won’t spoil the surprise and delight of the last pages, except to say that the tale continues right on to the final endpapers where 38 seagulls fly over the map of Endeavour’s voyage. Each port of call on the map is identified by the dish which Thompson served there. ‘Pease porridge’ predominates.

 With Cook’s Cook, Bishop has brought a whole new perspective to the voyage, yet his carefully-absorbed historical knowledge also enlivens and illuminates every page.  Children’s literature can now boast not one but two roguishly endearing sea-cooks.
Trevor Agnew
Oct 2018

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Looking back at Kate De Goldi in the 1990s: Sanctuary; Love, Charlie Mike; Closed, Stranger

Looking back at Kate De Goldi in the 1990s
By Trevor Agnew
The 1990s are a long time ago. I was younger then and, reading Love, Charlie Mike, I was able to laugh at Gran’s argument with the taxi-driver who took her to the newly-built railway station. Gran declares, ‘This is not the station, young man…. Moorhouse Avenue, young man, quick smart about it.’

Now, the huge brick building in Moorhouse Avenue has vanished and I feel as confused and disoriented as Gran.

I remember being fascinated by the realities Kate de Goldie created in my mind. I actually went looking in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens for the Moreton Bay fig tree she describes there in Closed, Stranger. There isn’t one but Kate de Goldi needed it as a mood-setter, so she painted it in. I remember being surprised that the benches in the rose garden weren’t the same colour as in the book. Brown? Green? Who was right?

There is a nasty T intersection joining St Albans Road, with a concrete dome in the middle. One of the characters in Closed, Stranger  – Max perhaps – speeds over it in a car at one critical point in the story. I always thought of that story when I circled that dome. Now it’s gone, replaced by traffic lights. I remember the dome.

Sometimes the things she describes don’t even exist. A home in Closed, Stranger is given a real address and street number. I couldn’t resist having a look, but of course there was just a gap in the street numbering. I remember laughing as I strolled from letter box to letter box. No such number.

Then there’s Sanctuary. I remember a small family aquarium at New Brighton and a large crocodile in a small pond.   If you ever saw that crocodile, you understand everything that happens in Sanctuary. Kate De Goldi saw the crocodile.

Now it is 2018. Another century. Another millennium. These three novels have been reprinted. Are they as good as I remember them? I’m busy at the moment but one day I’m going to read them again.

Meanwhile, here are the entries I wrote for The Source website back in the 1990s. This is what I thought then. It’ll be interesting to see how the stories have aged. The characters are strong, so I think it’ll be like vintage wine.

Sanctuary Kate De Goldi (1996 rep. 2018) Penguin pb $18 ISBN 9780143772002
‘Kate de Goldi’s first novel for teenagers is Sanctuary, a romantic triangle which also mirrors Noah’s Ark in its treatment of an animal rights dispute. A small zoo owned by an elderly couple is about to close, and the fate of a panther becomes an obsession, leading to tragedy.
Catriona Stewart (called ‘cat’, which is symbolically interesting) is in a state of dispute with her erratic mother Stella. She is also attracted to two young men and makes an unwise choice. Personal anguish follows.
This is a fresh and exciting novel, with vivid descriptions of the seaside suburbs of Christchurch. The characters are all convincing and the problems facing Catriona are both plausible and unexpected.’

Love, Charlie Mike Kate de Goldi (1997 rep. 2018) Penguin pb 9780143772026
 ‘Christy loves her cousin Sonny who she met for the first time at their grandfather's funeral. Now he is a peacekeeper in Bosnia and his letters have stopped. Was it like this for Gran when Pops went away to war? Perhaps not, as their marriage failed, but why is Christy's dad so odd since the funeral? Two experiences of love, parting, war and betrayal are separated by two generations but Christy comes to see that her relationship with her cousin and lover Sonny echoes the experiences of her grandparents, Pops and Gran, the latter once a beautiful and imperious woman, but now so bewildered she does not recognise the son she lives with. The outcome of that earlier wartime story is influencing the present and Christy decides to try and uncover some family secrets from her demented grandmother. The situation is complex but clever construction makes for a novel impossible to put down once started.’

I also wrote a brief outline of New Zealand Young Adult fiction for Magpies magazine, and mentioned Love, Charlie Mike:

… ‘Few teen writers have looked as hard at social issues as Paula Boock, But Kate De Goldi in Love, Charlie Mike shows an equally caring and serious approach.   She manages to create such real worlds that the characters seem to live just round the corner.  In my day, we left mussels for the Maoris,’ says Gran, freed by Alzheimers disease from the rules of society.  It is Christy who has to take over the role of authority figure as she tries to find out why her love affair with her Maori cousin has ended, and what the secret is that has eroded the happiness of her family.  Christy’s mature self-confidence, her passionate enthusiasm for life and her eagerness for the truth make her a marvellous character.  Kate De Goldi is the best of the emerging teen authors. …’

Closed, Stranger Kate De Goldi (1999 rep. 2018) Penguin pb $18  ISBN 9780143772040

This novel follows two close friends, Westie and Max, through an emotional crisis which destroys both their lives. Max tries to tell what happened; his story plunges back and forwards in time but builds a convincing picture.
To Westie, adopted at birth, family barely matters and he looks forward to leaving home. At Max’s house, it is Dad who has left home to live with a woman half his age. Max’s highly eccentric mother, Dee, leans heavily on Psychic Hotline for advice, while his young brother Leon seems increasingly disturbed.
Then two women enter the young men's lives. For Max, it is Meredith bringing him music, compassion and love. For Westie, it is Vicky, his birth-mother bringing him a mother’s love and heartache. Max becomes obsessed by his new-found ‘real’ mother, and, in a brilliantly written passage, is unbelievably cruel to his adoptive parents. Some have raised eyebrows at the hint of incest between mother and son, but this is very skilfully, almost tactfully, handled. (Apparently such attraction between an adopted child and a ‘birth’ parent is not uncommon.) When Vicky comes to her senses and leaves, Westie seems to lose his senses, and the threads of Max’s tale begin to come together in a tragic climax.
Closed, Stranger is a splendid story, gripping and well told. It deals well with such issues as drugs and youth suicide, without losing the drama and intensity of the plot. The dialogue is marvellously accurate. Many readers will be unhappy about the swearing but Kate De Goldi’s young men talk just like young men. They don’t always get things right but the reader learns lots from what they see and say. Ultimately the book is about people and their relationships with each other, their families and friends. De Goldi's characters interact with each other and develop and change with a satisfying rightness.

Trevor Agnew (1990s and Sep 2018)

Monday, 13 August 2018

Why I Want to Live in Southland
by Trevor Agnew

I want to look up at night and see the stars, thousands of them.

 I want to tail lambs beside the Moderator of the Southland Presbytery.

 I want to sit on a grassy knoll at The Dunsdales and watch the wood pigeons soaring and tumbling over the bush at sunset.

I want to go on a five minute shopping trip in Winton, and take half an hour because I met friends up the street.

I want to smell the smoke from the Kingston Flyer.

I want to walk out into the bush at Borland and hear the tiny frogs whistling in the moonlight.

I want my daughters to speak with the soft Southland burr.

I want to write articles for the Southland Times.

I want to make the class I’m teaching stand up and look out the window at the sun reflecting off the upturned hull of the great Takitimu canoe, the Takitimu Mountains.

I want to drive a combine harvester once round a paddock of wheat.

I want to sit in the sunny wee cove where the Ngai Tahu pulled up their canoes at the village of Oui, and watch the falling tide reveal the cockle beds.

I want to cast dry fly on the Otapiri Stream and wet fly on the Oreti River.

I want to watch my wife win a prize for her pikelets at the Central Southland A&P Show.

I want to see the great dome of ever-changing sky over the Southland Plains.

I want to stand in the freezing rain at Turnbull Thomson Park and cheer on our daughter’s junior hockey team.

I want to go round a lambing beat at Dunearn.

I want a Hokonui farmer to show me an old whiskey still.

I want to live in a town where I know my children are safe; where I know all the gossip about my neighbours and they know all the gossip about me.

I want to see them mining coal at Nightcaps and peat at Hokonui.

I want to speak at the Anzac Day Dawn Parade at Winton and the Anzac Day morning service at Centre Bush, and drink the coffee that the RSA have spiked with rum.

I want to hear Alan Galt explain that the RSA coffee tastes funny because of the milk, “The cows have been in the swedes.”

I want to go to the graveyard at East Winton and read the names of my friends on their tombstones.

I want to catch blue cod off the coast of Stewart Island.

 I want to visit the remains of the Maori princess, dead 400 years, and still resting in her little cave on the island in Lake Hauroko.

I want to get my firewood by the trailer-load from the mill, and stack it neatly ready for the winter.

I want to teach at a school where the staff go netting flounders at Oreti beach.

I want to go to a meeting of Federated Farmers at Hokonui, with scones for supper.

I want to see the glow-worms at Te Anau and Deep Cove.

I want to walk through the ringing hard, frosty mornings that blossom into clear, sunny Southland days.

I want to dig in the sands of Te Wae Wae Bay for toheroa.

I want to eat toheroa.

I want to eat mutton-bird.

 I want to eat swedes that have had the frost on them.

I want to eat swedes that have had the frost on them, with haggis.

I want to eat swedes that have had the frost on them, with haggis, and mashed potatoes, and give the Address to the Haggis.

I want to live in Southland.

 - Trevor Agnew (2001)

Winner of a competition by ‘Country Life’ programme , Radio New Zealand.
Broadcast on 3 and 4 August 2001.
Reprinted in Christchurch Press, 18 Aug 2001
Reprinted in Southland Times, 23 Aug 2001
Reprinted in Winton Record, Sep 2001
Used in Newsgram (aerogramme for Kiwis overseas).

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas Ant Sang Michael Bennett

 Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas (2018)
Ant Sang (ilustrations)    Michael Bennett (text)
Penguin Random House NZ
Paperback  264 pages  NZ$40
ISBN 978 0 14 377124 1

Helen is a young woman, living in present day Auckland, whose concern with threats to the environment accidentally disrupts a biological research demonstration by her boyfriend Marion. Suddenly Helen is kidnapped by two female warriors from the future – the Go-Go Ninjas of the title – and swept off three centuries into the future. The world of 2355 is what remains after the destruction caused by global warming, wars, famine and floods.

In the first of several very good black jokes, Helen is called “world-wrecker” and is told that the devastation is all her fault. The ninjas, unaware that Marion can also be a boy’s name (if your mum is a John Wayne fan) have kidnapped the wrong person.

Along with Helen, we learn how Marion’s development of paramecia “peace balls” to create new ways of healing and communicating led to the near-extinction of the human race.  The peace balls - the red blob menacing Helen on the cover is one of them - destroy people's ability to think and communicate. Only three groups of humans now live in what used to be Auckland. The mindless Tree People are the slaves of The Riders who use a mixture of technology and cult theology to survive.  The third group, of course, are the Go-Go Ninjas who survive in Little Tokio, an underground shelter, where they have created a culture based on a few 1950s films which survived. The jokes about Bruce Lee and Go-Go dancing are a recurring feature of the story.     

Helen, quickly adjusting to her new situation, realises that the only way forward is to make another time-jump and help kidnap the right Marion. Needless to say, more complications follow, ensuring a fast-paced action story with several surprises and, unusually in a dystopian story, a reasonably happy ending

This graphic novel was originally conceived as a film script by Michael Bennett and it has the tightly-connected plot and well-constructed surprise twists of a good action film. At the same time Ant Sang’s illustrations bring an imaginary world into being, with convincing detail and skilfully shifting viewpoints. As soon as you have read this book, you immediately turn back to page 1 and start through again, this time appreciating the carefully planned structure and the careful placing of tiny hints (such as Helen’s cold) which will be significant later.

Ant Sang’s artwork (which has had some colouring assistance from Kiwi comic creators such as Adrian Kinnaird and Dylan Horrocks) is beautifully matched with the story and dialogue, making each sequence a tiny drama in itself. For example when Helen is draping an illegal protest banner from the Sky Tower, a drowsy security guard fails to spot her on the outer balcony. Then he thinks she’s going to jump. “Miss, don’t do it. …You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” She slips but grabs on to the banner, “STOP GLOBAL WARMING.”

Such ironies, quirks of human behaviour and razor-sharp storytelling, as well as the ability to project some social issues of the present into the future, make Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas a winning graphic novel.

Ant Sang has an interesting website showing stages in the development of the illustrations, beginning  at

Trevor Agnew
11 July 2018

Friday, 22 June 2018

The Mapmakers' Race Eirlys Hunter

The Mapmakers’ Race
Eirlys Hunter, ill. Kirsten Drake
Gecko Press
Paperback  NZ$25
ISBN 978 1 776572 03 8

Reviewed by Trevor Agnew
Books with maps have always been among my favourites, from Tolkien to Ransome, from the Hundred Acre Wood to Moomin Valley.  I have also long enjoyed children’s books where irritating parents were got out of the way early on. The Mapmakers’ Race has a map for every chapter and right at the beginning Ma Santander misses the train, and so her four children have to compete in the titular race by themselves.  The result is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, with plenty of action and humour.

The Race is a contest for teams of surveyors and cartographers to lay out the best route for a proposed railway from Grand Prospect to Coalhaven. (We are in a steam-age fantasy world, where coal is vital.) The prizes total 3,500 guineas, so a remarkable range of well equipped (and sometimes unscrupulous) teams have entered.

Penniless and suddenly parentless, the four young Santanders have to improvise. Fortunately each member of the family has talents which will be useful in their quest.   Sal (14) is the sensible one with a good grasp of mathematics and surveying. Twins Joe and Francie (11) are strongly bonded. Francie doesn’t talk but Joe speaks for them both. Joe never gets lost, a handy skill for an explorer, while Francie, the cartographer, has an amazing talent which readers will enjoy learning about. Even young Humph and the family pet, Carrot the Parrot, are able to contribute. The Santander family are indeed a team; each of them has an ability that helps them towards their goal of making the perfect map.

Since they have to survive in the wilderness for four weeks, they are lucky to have the help of a slow-speaking local lad, Becket, a red-headed beanpole, who is a master of many practical skills; he can fish, hunt and cook. He’s also a dab hand at storytelling.

Can five children and a parrot head off half a dozen other teams, including the unscrupulous Roger’s Ruffians and the self-confident Monty’s Mountaineers (who are all mounted on mechanical horses)?
Of course it is the down-to-earth Beckett who points out that the other teams are also all “pompous asses.”

As well as being obtuse, the opposing teams are often funny. The scientists, of the SOLEM team (Society of Logical Explorers, Mappers and Navigators), for example, speak in such technical jargon that Sal has to translate what they say.
“The outcome was an inadequately nutritious calorific supply.”
“They didn’t take enough food,” Sal explained to Humph.

In fact, Eirlys Hunter’s dialogue is always enjoyable and often amusing:
What about the wolves?’
“High mountains.”
“Extreme weather conditions.”
“Nothing to worry about then,” they said together.

Illustrator Kirsten Slade has provided lively pictures and has also created a strip-map to give readers a bird’s-eye-view of each part of the dramatic landscape encountered by the Santander family.

The story trots along at a cracking pace. Bears and wolves and several other creatures make their appearance, the villains are villainous, there are plenty of jeopardies and the conclusion is very pleasing. Through it all, the Santanders are resourceful.

Humph gets the whole mood of this satisfying story in one sentence:
“I like being a venturing boy.”
“I do too,” said Joe.


Trevor Agnew    3 July 2018

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Sunken Forest Des Hunt

Sunken Forest    Des Hunt
Reviewed by Trevor Agnew

Sunken Forest
Des Hunt
Scholastic (2016)
269 pages, paperback
ISBN   978 1 77543 413 0

Given that New Zealand’s longfin eels can live for a century and grow to a length of two metres, it was a certainty that Des Hunt would one day write a novel with an eel as the hero. Or in this case, heroine. Elsa is the name young Matt gives to the queen-sized eel he encounters in Lake Waikaremoana. (Matt reads widely and has definitely been influenced by reading Born Free.)

Waikaremoana is not a lake to be messed with,” warns a fisherman and Matt would be the first to agree with him.

This was deep jungle – New Zealand style.”

Matt doesn’t want to be there, but he has been sent to this tightly-run wilderness camp because of his tainted reputation at his new school. Already suspected of theft, Matt has fallen in with bad company in the form of Cam and Jay. At the adventure camp at Lake Waikaremoana, which is run on semi-military lines by Mr Klineck, Matt is suspected of further misdemeanours. (It is interesting that Matt finds some literary comfort in comparing himself to the falsely-accused David Balfour in Kidnapped.)

He strikes up an odd companionship with the bookish Paul and comes a little closer to understanding girls like Azura and Maddy. When one of Cam’s vicious tricks has serious consequences for the group members, they begin plotting revenge but a natural disaster puts many lives at risk.

As always Des Hunt provides a strong element of science – in this case geology – but he also raises moral issues which will be important to his young readers. Matt’s reputation is repeatedly slurred by a caller on talk-back radio, and the powerful influence of social media on opinion is well shown. The harmful power of peer pressure and gossip is also sharply depicted. Words can wound and leave scars.  
There is also a strong moral issue. Are Matt and his friends seeking justice or do they just want revenge? The matter is well debated in a lively and satisfying adventure that manages to bring together unrelated events from decades earlier, and produce a satisfying conclusion, featuring the monster eel as a key player.  As Matt reflects, “Lions were animals that scare people… Eels were much the same, scary in form with a bad reputation.” 

Sunken Forest may indeed give us all a better appreciation of eels.

Trevor Agnew 
23 Jul 2016