Scoop Review of Books

No Ordinary In-Laws

Book Review
Bill and Shirley – a memoir
by Keith Ovenden (Massey University Press, 2020) 199 pp. $35
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Overton cover-001The title of this short memoir by Keith Ovenden is misleading – it would be better called “Bill, Shirley and me” as it is an account of Ovenden’s memories of his parents-in-law, Bill Sutch and Shirley Smith. His presence is pervasive through the book. All three participants are (or were) eloquent, strongly-opinionated intellectuals who have made significant contributions to different aspects of New Zealand life. Their interactions were often complex and difficult.

Things did not start well for Keith Ovenden. When Shirley first met her daughter’s partner at Oxford in 1970 she took an instant dislike to him. A year later, when Keith and Helen were married in Wellington, Shirley and Bill did not attend the wedding reception. Then subsequently Bill was charged with an offence under the Official Secrets Act, being acquitted after a highly publicized trial, and died soon afterwards. The controversy over the case has not faded, and Ovenden has had to live with the tarnished memory.

The book is divided into three sections – the first dealing with Bill (whom Ovenden knew only for the last four years of his life), the second with Shirley, and a final section outlining Ovenden’s ideas on the writing of memoir and biography. The section on Bill Sutch is puzzlingly titled “The Lion and the Weasel”, but the reason soon becomes clear – there is a lengthy discussion on whether Sutch was a spy (and what is a spy?). Did he betray his country (a weasel), or was he a patriotic New Zealander caught up in unfortunate events (a lion)? Ovenden outlines the bumbling deficiencies of the Security Intelligence Service at the time, and suggests that Sutch was starting to fail mentally and physically. But the fact remains that he was covertly meeting a member of the KGB based in the embassy of the USSR, and handing over material, the nature of which he never disclosed. I can still recall watching a TV interview with Ian Fraser a few days after the trial, and my impression that Sutch was being evasive and telling an improbable story. Read more »

Poem: Kia atawhai

kia atawhai – te huaketo 2020

by Vaughan Rapatahana


kia atawhai ki ā koutou whānau

kia atawhai ki ā koutou whanaunga

kia atawhai ki ā koutou hoa

kia atawhai ki ā koutou kiritata

kia atawhai ki ā koutou hoamahi

kia atawhai ki ngā uakoao

kia atawhai ki ā koutou ano.


ka whakamatea te huaketo

ki te atawhai.


kia atawhai.



be kind – the virus 2020


be kind to your families

be kind to your relatives

be kind to your friends

be kind to your neighbours

be kind to your workmates

be kind to strangers

be kind to yourselves.


kill the virus

with kindness.


be kind.



More about Vaughan

Experiences and emotions

Book Review
ngā whakamatuatanga / interludes
by Vaughan Rapatahana (cyberwit, 135 pp.)
Reviewed by John Carstensen

interludes-coverRapatahana continues to hone his craft as a poet. In his latest work, ngā whakamatuatanga, one notices at a glance, the usual eccentric typographic features that animate the text on the page and on reading, the usual obscure but apposite lexis. Also, the usual, perhaps not always perfect mix of languages – particularly te reo Māori. There is still some of the focus on self but there is less of the world weary ennui, cynicism and rancour than in earlier works. Experiences and emotions are expressed with finer nuances, more pathos, and often more wit.

Rapatahana has suffered some heavy blows in life and in his writing he processes the pain, the loss and the grief, mimetically and cathartically.   There are the broken marriages, attempted suicide, the death of his son (to whom he dedicated the previous book), the abuse he witnessed in his childhood home and the abuse he suffered as a child, all referenced in various poems. He has struggled with identity and reinvented identity, embracing the Māori part of his ancestry and te ao Māori. He adopted te reo Māori as his ‘first language’ and speaks it fluently.

ngā whakamatuatanga is compartmentalised into chapters: In Chapter 1, ngā wāhi / places, there are some evocative descriptions of place, personification of nature, as in chapter 3, te ao tūroa / nature, and some politicising. Chapter 2, ngā whanaungatanga / relationships, is a standout with moving and memorable phrases and images in the zephyr and note to a dead son. Then there are poems about his father, which are quite disturbing. And others with relationship themes of tenderness and estrangement. Chapter 5, ngā toikupu /poetry, is interesting for its passion and wit. Chapter 6, te raro / the underworld, finishes with ambiguous contemplations of death. Rapatahana writes in a variety of different genres but it is poetry where he excels.



Many Worlds

Book Review
The Great Outdoors, and other stories
by John Carstensen (Austin Macauley, London, 2019) 172 pp. £8.99
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

great-outdoors-coverJohn Carstensen is a Danish-Canadian Kiwi author, based in Waikato. This is his first collection of short stories, twenty-four in all.

They cover not only a range of topoi, but also a range of global locales from Kalimantan to PR China to WWII Netherlands, given that, I find his more hard-boiled quasi-Crump Aotearoan tales the most riveting and rewarding. The lead-off The Phantom, for example, is excellent, not only because of its sustained nail-on-the-head tone, but also because it nails so well young teenage sexuality and selectivity. When Carstensen writes this well – which he also does in several other Kiwiana stories such as one of his earliest pieces, Rocks, and the titular tale, too – ka nui te pai! To his credit also, the author attempts to broach substantial themes ki te ao Māori, as well as to provide a workable glossary as pertaining.

There is a rather curious dichotomy at times in the overall literary ambience in this collection: a sort of crisscross of the puritanical and the prurient, sometimes in the same piece.  I think the back cover blurb sums up this aspect better than I can, as here –

   Carstensen is a Christian writer, though not so much a writer of Christian stories, as his stories tend to be more worldly, carnal and gritty than would sit comfortably with many Christian readers. However, his writing does explore some challenging Christian themes.

The earthiness, then, meets the ethereal. Occasionally preachy, yet more often understated, ironic and even ambiguous in tone, with a penchant for daubing the dichotomies of human nature, rather than a fully blown paint-by-numbers portrayal. Sometimes funny too; Bluto for example is laugh-out-loud precise with its recognizable veteran schoolteacher who has been incarcerated far too long.

I have little more to add. For me, one or two stories read more as slice-of-life scenarios without an obvious denouement or resolution. More, maybe the pieces would have benefitted by being compiled into sections whereby there is commonality of place, for there is some mental realignment required when we travel from New Zealand bush to piratical Asian seas, if we read sequentially. But these are my own idiosyncratic minor points. This collection is no curate’s egg; rather a tasty repast.

Carstensen has conjured up a very good book of tricks. Congratulations. Kia mau tonu ngā mahi pai.


Pulse of being

Book Review
the everrumble
by Michelle Elvy (AdHoc Fiction, U.K., 2019)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

the-everrumble-front-coverI like this rather slim (113 pages) selection of episodic short prose pieces, which have been organized into a more integrated non-lineal novel. Indeed, I enjoyed it, as I appreciated its generally positive vibe and innovatory approach.

The book is well-crafted, original, thought-provoking. Clever, in fact.

What, then, is it ‘all about’? This is Zettie’s tale from her birth date in 1965 through to her ‘passing’ at the age of 105. Yet, Zettie’s tale is our own tale, as humans still all-too-often hell-bent on destroying our environment and therefore our fellow creatures – and thus – symbiotically and inevitably – ourselves.

Zettie makes a deliberate decision not to talk or to utter sounds from a very young age – seven. She turns to listening to the manifold noises which she can hear from well beyond the ‘normal’ human range, while at the same time turning to an array of over twenty books and making copious notes from them. These escapades are all interwoven into the two sections of this tome; more adhesively during the second. More, while her biographical potpourri is written in the third person, Zettie’s notes about her myriad significant books, are transcribed in the first person.

Read more »