Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Witi Ihimaera’s Whale Rider is a beautiful gem of a story, highlighting and celebrating Maori culture and society.

Eight-year-old Kahu is a girl growing up in a male-dominated world. Her tribe claims to go all the way back to the whale rider Kahutia Te Rangi and the current chief is her ageing grandfather Koro. It’s a sore point with him that his first grandchild is not only a girl, but also named after the legendary ancestor.

In a society, in which the tribal ways still dictate social and cultural behaviour, the little girl has to prove her worth as her grandfather desperately seeks a successor.

Whale Rider is written from the perspective of Kahu’s uncle Rawiri, who – like the author – knows the Maori culture. Trying to gain her grandfather’s love, Kahu throws herself into her studies of the Maori language and local legends. And with a little curiosity and the secret help of her relatives, Kahu learns the skills usually reserved for boys. When whales start to wash up on the beach of the small Maori community, it is time for the real heir of Kahutia to take their rightful place in the tribe.

It is a beautiful story, weaving together the past and present, highlighting the generational shift in dynamics while trying to hang on to the old ways and legends. The relationship between Kahu and her grandfather is both beautiful and incredibly sad. All Kahu wants is for her grandfather to love her. She’s a good, well-behaved girl, who does not understand why she is being punished with neglect; while he is an old man who only knew one way of running the tribe, and what positions girls in his family are supposed to take and struggles with breaking from tradition.

The book does a wonderful job of introducing Maori culture and includes many Maori names and words. There’s no westernized view of tribal life or belittling of the traditional ways. It showcases the importance of the ancestral legends and the how their culture defines their everyday life. But at the heart, it is a touching story about a little girl and her granddad who live in Aotearoa – the Land of the Long White Cloud – and who have to work at  finding mutual respect in a world in which cultural limitations are changing.

Whale Rider was the first novel by a Maori author to be published, and to me, this is a defining piece of Kiwi Literature. If you are interested in New Zealand at all, read this book first and foremost!


My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Whale Rider
Author: Witi Ihimaera
Publisher: HMH Books
Release Date: May 1, 2003 (originally published in 1987)
Pages: 150
ISBN:  978-0152050160

Voss by Patrick White #AtoZ #60Books

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge. Also part of my 60 Books Challenge: Based on a true story.

Based on a true story of exploration in the Australian Outback, Voss, by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Patrick White,  epitomises nineteenth-century Australian society and explorer mentality.

Johann Ulrich Voss is a German explorer who is set on being the first to cross Australia, based on Ludwig Leichhardt, who famously got lost in the Australian Outback.

It’s as much a story about passion as it is about exploration. Voss meets a young woman called Laura, who is new to New South Wales and who is the – slightly naive – niece of Voss’ expedition sponsor. Laura and Voss connect on a deep level and share an almost spiritual bond as he leaves on his ill-fated expedition into Australia’s red centre.

Why a character like Voss, who although being enigmatic is also quite arrogant and introverted, would choose to lead an expedition is a bit of a mystery. His sponsors insist on him taking a whole entourage of characters with him, even though it is obvious that Voss would prefer to travel solo. Keeping in contact with Laura as far as possible as many letters do get lost, they come to see each other as husband and wife, even though most of their relationship exists and progresses only in their dreams and imaginations.

Though it is not the main character who is the most interesting figure in this story. Voss’ team consists of a handful of men, all distinct and all misfits, even in their own small group of misfits. Their interactions are what moves the plot along, and they are fascinating to observe. Once the group of explorers encounters aboriginal folk in the Outback, the story becomes infused with their spiritualism as well. Aboriginal people come across as completely “other” and strange, compared to the colonial explorers, and their interactions with Voss’ band of people are rife with communication problems and cultural misunderstandings which are nevertheless crucial to the story.

Patrick White’s writing is simultaneously strange and beautiful. He creates characters and paints landscapes the descriptions of which will stay with readers.White’s story is littered with observations and psychology, and sentences are sometimes designed to be tripping people up while reading.

A story of love, loss, and the dangers of the Outback. Voss truly is the quintessential, modernist Australian novel.

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Voss
Author: Patrick White
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Release Date: 1994 (originally published in 1957)
Pages: 464
ISBN:  978-0099324713

Review: Shakespeare Live from the RSC

Today’s star-studded event Shakespeare Live! from The RSC in honour of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death really highlighted what an impact William Shakespeare has had on language and culture over the last 450 years.

Noted actors David Tennant and Catherine Tate, who both previously performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and starred together as Benedick and Beatrice in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, hosted the show expertly, as it was broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakespeare was born to TVs and cinemas worldwide. Especially David Tennant’s excitement was palpable, looking as giddy as a kid in a candy shop as he walked on stage.

Shakespeare Live! not only featured some of Britain’s most famous Shakespearean actors of our time, it also showed the influence Shakespeare continues to have on the performing arts. While the show featured a huge variety of speeches and soliloquies, it also included everything from ballet and opera to musical theatre and jazz. Performances ranged from beautiful and gracious, to funny and moving, and even included social commentary written by William Shakespeare more than 400 years ago which is sadly still current today.

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Intense theatre with unexpected hilarity – Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre, London

This review of Hamlet at the Barbican starring Benedict Cumberbatch was originally posted on Study.Read.Write on August 11, 2015. I realise this review was of a preview performance (as the likes of me did not qualify for Press Night tickets despite having Press ID), and subsequently, the dialogue has been moved around again, moving “to be or not to be” back to its rightful place.

I am republishing the review here in celebration of #ShakespeareDay on the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death.

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Energetic and intimate theatre – Richard III at Trafalgar Studios, London

This is one of my real-life writing samples. I’m a trained journalist, so I sometimes write theatre reviews. This one I’m particularly proud of, as it combined a trip to London (I’m based in Germany), my favourite actor and Shakespeare.

It’s a review of Trafalgar Transformed Season 2: “Richard III” at Trafalgar Studios, London, which ran from 1st July 2014 until 27th September 2014, starring Martin Freeman.

First published on Fernweh & Wanderlust on 27th July 2014, and subsequently on my other blog Study.Read.Write.

Republished here in honour of #ShakespeareDay,
celebrating #Shakespeare400 and all the Bard’s works.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

There is something magical about books that transport you back to your childhood, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is one of those special books,

After a family bereavement, a man returns to his rural childhood home and heads down the lane to the old ramshackle farmhouse next door that he used to visit as a child.

And he starts to remember fragments, of how he used to play with a little, remarkable girl called Lettie Hempstock, who lived on the farm with her mother and gran. Who took him to the pond behind the homestead and called it her ocean.

Neil Gaiman beautifully weaves a tale of magic and half-remembered childhood days. The man had not thought about Lettie and her family in decades, and yet, fragments of his past come back to him that seem too strange and frightening to have happened, let alone to a seven-year-old boy. Something incomprehensible happened in the man’s childhood, which unleashed a darkness on the small community on the lane, and set in motion a devastating chain of events.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a beautiful study of what makes us human, and also on how we perceived the world when we were little. Lettie and her family could not really be witches, could they? But which part of the remembered past are true, and which are childish imagination? Maybe there is no distinction between them at all.

Neil Gaiman seems to have found the perfect mixture of truth and imagination, magic, reality, joy and sadness, wit and dry humour, happiness and fear, which gives the story a sweetly melancholic atmosphere. The book captures the reader’s attention from the first page to the very last, spinning a tale of mystery, old wisdom, love, and resentment. Parts of the story hit close to home, in every sense of those words, while others are endearingly whimsical.

Even the physical book itself insists on being whimsical and that little bit different and special, with its intentionally rough, untrimmed edges of the paper.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane stretches imaginations and definitions of what is possible and what is not; and whether one thing could not simultaneously be another as well. And maybe, just maybe, the fantastical stories we thought we made up as children turn out to be real after all. Not remembering properly may simply have been less painful.

This is one of those rare books whose message you have to digest for a while after you finish reading it. It will make you question your childhood memories and the limitations of your imagination, and Gaiman’s exquisite style will immerse you so deeply in the story that you think you are really walking alongside Lettie Hempstock and the boy searching for the ocean behind the old homestead at the end of the dusty lane.


My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Pages: 181
ISBN:  978-0062272348

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is a classic example of a Bildungsroman.

The development and progression to maturity of the main character, a young Indian man called Siddhartha, is at the centre of this German classic. Finding enlightenment is the most important aspect of the journey the character undertakes in his life, as the novel follows him from a vagabond childhood through what can only be termed a mid-life crisis to his spiritual awakening.

Hesse’s prose is beautiful and poetic, whether you read it in the original German, or in the English translation. For being written by a German, Siddhartha does a wonderful job of bringing the old Indian way of life and the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism to life.

However, you can have too much of a good thing. Siddhartha’s story follows that of the buddha – who, incidently, was also called Siddhartha. The names are taken from deities and holy people. And those unfamiliar with Eastern lifestyles and disciplines might have trouble keeping the terms apart as Siddhartha encounters brahmins and ascetics, and discusses the Atman, hindu deities, moksha, and samsara.

The German word “Bildung” means education, and this is what Hesse attempts with this novel. To educate about the path of enlightenment. But it comes across as trying too hard. While the story itself is enjoyable enough, the constant life advice does grind on. Some books you read and come away from them, and your whole view of the world has changed. And I am sure this is what Hesse was going for with Siddhartha. But some books, like this one, don’t get the message across between the lines, and become too obvious about it.

Someone in a more spiritual state of mind would probably enjoy Siddhartha, but to me it read like a nice story around an Introduction to Buddhism textbook which was meant to give a basic overview and introduce terms and names to be discussed in further lessons.


My Rating: ♥♥

Title: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse
Publisher: Bantam Books
Release Date: December 1, 1981 (originally published in 1922)
Pages: 160
ISBN:  978-0553208849

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London was a huge surprise. Expecting a crime novel and police procedural, this book is so much more than that.

It all starts with Constable Peter Grant, an officer in the Metropolitan Police. He’s only supposed to take witness statements in a murder inquiry – and ends up interviewing a ghost.

Turns out there’s a Chief Inspector at the Met who is also the last wizard in England. And Peter Grant has just become his first trainee in decades, investigating cases that could have supernatural elements to them.

Rivers of London is refreshingly British. Sort of Scotland Yard meets Harry Potter (minus the wizarding school), and you can’t get much more British than that. Aaronovitch really knows how to write convincing dialogue incorporating British slang with just the right amount of sarcasm, and DC Peter Grant is a very well-written character and a narrator with a great voice. It’s smart and witty, without being patronising. It is also just as refreshing to see a non-white protagonist, especially as a detective of the Met, who is unselfconscious about his mixed-heritage ethnicity.

The author obviously knows London like the back of his hand. It is also pretty obvious that Aaronovitch is a proper geek as there are several references to the works of authors and scientists, as well as British pop culture. The amount of detail that goes into the police procedure descriptions is incredible.

The magic in this book is unique. The river Thames and her tributaries are in fact deities who are alive, and the Old Man of the River and Mama Thames are both fighting over the control of the rivers. There’s no silly wand-pointing. Peter and the Chief Inspector can pick up the essence that magic leaves behind, and they really use their full magical and non-magical arsenal to solve their cases.

Rivers of London is a great urban fantasy with the perfect mixture of detective story, magic, and British humour.


My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Rivers of London
Author: Ben Aaronovitch
Publisher: Gollancz
Release Date: January 10, 2011
Pages: 392
ISBN:  978-0575097568

Note: In the US, this book is known as Midnight Riot

Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Quite Ugly One Morning is the first novel by Christopher Brookmyer, and the first to feature Scottish journalist Jack Parlabane.

Jack, just back from L.A. after a hitman tried to dispose of him, can’t seem to catch a break. And he can’t keep his nose out of things that intrigue him. Like the doctor in the flat below being murdered.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. The descriptions are very graphic and detailed, and there’s an almost juvenile potty-mouth humour throughout the book. But if this is your sort of thing, and you enjoy a good detective story with the protagonist being a Scottish (in all senses of the word) journalist, than Quite Ugly One Morning is the book for you!

The cast of characters in this novel is really well developed, no matter how small their role. And it’s refreshing to see such an expansive yet diverse cast. The story itself is beautifully crafted as well. Although the crime gets solved pretty early on, there’s never a dull moment, as the rest of the story skillfully spells out the solution by connecting the dots one by one.  It’s almost as if two stories run parallel to each other – one is of the good guys on the heels of the baddies, the other is the bad guy’s incompetent try to cover their tracks.

Even though the book was first published in 1997, it touches on some social issues that are still prevalent in British society today. And it’s a shame that even nearly 20 years on, nothing much has changed.

A working knowlede of Scottish colloquialisms may help understand some of the dialogue. But even if not, imagine listening to incomprehensible Scottish banter in the pub.


My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Quite Ugly One Morning
Author: Christopher Brookmyre
Publisher: Abacus
Release Date: July 3, 1997
Pages: 312
ISBN:  978-0349108858

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith #AtoZ #60Books

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith may be called blasphemy by Austen purists. I call it a brilliant and exciting update of a classic.

Because let’s face it: what’s been missing from Pride and Prejudice were zombies!

The undead are mostly viewed as a troublesome nuisance. Letters get lost when the mail couriers are caught and eaten. That sort of thing.

Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters are trained in martial arts and really know their weapons. As does Mr Darcy, who is a monster hunter in this reincarnation. And to be honest, I find him much improved with a sword and a musket.

The author, who credits Jane Austen as co-author, kept mainly to Austen’s writing style. But the dialogue got more hilarious, and the scenes a lot gorier. There are blood and innards and talk of brains being eaten everywhere. Elizabeth is a proper heroine, there are fights to the death, exhumations, and beloved characters who get infected with the “mysterious plague”.

It does help to have read Pride & Prejudice before, to compare the two stories. You’ll find that you’ll want to go back to the original again and again to see the two versions side by side. It’s laugh out loud funny when you picture all these well-loved and well-established characters with their noble attitudes facing a zombie apocalypse head-on. Yes, it’s silly and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. After all, it is a parody and having a bit of fun with classic literature.

But how could you pass up something like this?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Oh, and by the way: there are ninjas, too!


My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Publisher: Quirk Books
Release Date: May 1, 2009
Pages: 319
ISBN:  978-1594743344