Scoop Review of Books

Woman. Rocks. Science.

Book Review
Rocks, radio and radar: the extraordinary scientific, social and military life of Elizabeth Alexander
 by Mary Harris (World Scientific Press, 595 pages. $148, or e-book $29.95)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

alexander1Elizabeth Alexander (1908-58) was a pioneering scientist who undertook research on widely different topics in England, Singapore, New Zealand and Nigeria, but sadly died before her 50th birthday. Her extraordinary story has been documented by her daughter, Mary Harris. While my initial interest in this book was for its New Zealand content, it is an intriguing case-study of a capable woman scientist who fitted her life around family commitments, urgent wartime research, and the career choices of her husband.

Born in 1908 to parents who were university graduates, Elizabeth Caldwell spent her early years in India, where her father was Principal of Patna Science College. She became a ‘colonial orphan’ when she and her siblings were sent back to England for their education. Elizabeth was clearly an outstanding student, winning a scholarship to study natural sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge. Originally interested in physics, she subsequently decided to specialize in geology, and graduated with a PhD on the Aymestry Limestone. In Cambridge she met Norman Alexander, an Auckland scientist studying for his PhD in the Cavendish Laboratory. They were married in 1935, and almost immediately set off for Singapore where Norman had been appointed Professor of Physics at Raffles College.

While raising her three children, Elizabeth continued her geological work with a study of rock weathering under tropical conditions, including burying samples to assess the speed of rock decay. The outbreak of war in Europe led to a move to the Naval Intelligence Service where she worked on radio direction finding at the Singapore naval base. At the time the term ‘radio direction finding’ was also being used as the cover name for the different and very secret technologies of radar.

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Securing the Past

Book Review
Making History: a New Zealand story
 by Jock Phillips (Auckland University Press, 384 Pages. $45)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

jp-cover-001Over the last half century there has been a growing interest in New Zealand history. Books on all aspects of history are popular, supplemented by films, TV, the internet and exhibitions in museums and galleries around the country. Jock Phillips is a pioneering public historian who has sought new ways to communicate history to a wide audience. His autobiographical memoir is a fascinating account of how perceptions of history have changed through his career.

At the outset, I must make it clear that this is not a fully objective review. I worked under Jock at Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and have a high regard for his dedication and management skills. In reading this book, I was keen to find out more about his background and motivation.

As the son of two history graduates who studied together at university, it was almost inevitable that Jock would become an academic. He won a scholarship to Harvard, immersed himself in US politics in the Nixon era, and returned to Victoria University to teach American history. At that stage he had never studied New Zealand history – in those days a poor relation in the academic world – but he gradually came to be fascinated by the social history of his own country. His understanding grew as he worked on two books – the first on domestic stained-glass windows with friend and collaborator Chris Maclean, and the second on Kiwi male stereotypes which eventually became his best-seller, A Man’s Country.

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Rite of Passage

Book Review
The Fell
by Robert Jenkins (RedDoor Publishing, 2019)
Reviewed by Johnny Tell

410khbegzulVery recently I posted a review for this novel on and make no apology for posting another here. It is my intention to ensure The Fell finds as wide a readership as possible. It matters that much.

The Fell is tagged as a debut novel by Robert Jenkins and RedDoor Publishing, but the quality of its craftwork suggests otherwise.  I would like  to know more about the author but his bio tells us little.

The Fell reads like a classic of literary fiction, a rite of passage that stands testing against any previous work. I suspect, in time, if it finds its feet,  it will rank alongside the likes of The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Actually, for readers today, this will eclipse them. They are vanilla in comparison.

To be fair, in comparison Fight Club is tame and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is set in a normal and well-run institution.

The Fell reeks of lived experience and is in places harsh, brutal and disturbing, but also poetic, subtle, tender and clever. I suspect for many readers it will be almost too subtle, an entire life-changing event is distilled into a single line. “I let him have me all”, is all we hear about the boy narrator’s first experience of homosexuality. A line referencing a hilariously inappropriate folk song catches you unawares until it percolates and then stuns with how very appropriate it really is. His view of old people in a park is heartbreakingly on the money.

Sometimes confusion, honesty and raw experience are encapsulated in a single word and the simplicity of language used by the young character is employed perfectly.

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Woman in Law

Book Review
Shirley Smith: an examined life
by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press, $40). 464 pages.
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

ss-cover-001As the years pass, I have become less interested in reading fiction. Why bother to read made-up stories when the actions of real people are so fascinating and unpredictable? This new biography of Shirley Smith (1916-2007) is an example of an unusual life, skilfully narrated by Sarah Gaitanos.

Shirley Smith was the only daughter of a prominent Wellington lawyer. After studying at Oxford, she later became a pioneering woman lawyer in what was then a male-dominated profession. It seems a simple heroic story, but there are several unexpected twists. Although she showed an early interest in studying law, this was vetoed by her father, who felt that it was no profession for a woman. Instead she studied classics at Oxford in the late 1930s. Her social conscience was aroused by the gathering political storms in Europe, and she joined the Communist Party. The atmosphere of the times is nicely evoked by the recent movie, “Red Joan”. In later years Shirley confided that she was so thankful that she was at Oxford rather than Cambridge, where she might have been recruited as a potential spy.

Returning to New Zealand soon after the outbreak of war, she joined the Classics department at Victoria University College, then moved to a similar position at Auckland  where she taught Latin. It was during this period that she met and subsequently married Bill Sutch, a brilliant but erratic economist and left-wing intellectual. Shirley insisted on retaining her own name rather than becoming Mrs Sutch – almost unheard of at the time, especially once she had a baby. When she returned to Wellington to join Bill, she started attending weekly meetings of the Wellington Central branch of the Communist Party, and came to the notice of the Special Branch of the NZ Police (forerunner of the SIS). A report on her activities noted that “SS is evidently well versed in the doctrine of Communism and she gave a lecture on the Fundamentals of Dialectical Materialism which was too advanced for most of the members present”.


Identity photo of Shirley Smith attached to her Special Branch file. There is no explanation of how this photo was obtained.

Identity photo of Shirley Smith attached to her Special Branch file. There is no explanation of how this photo was obtained.

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A Novel Novel

Book Review
by Vaughan Rapatahana (Rangitawa, $38)
Reviewed byJohn Carstensen

cover-novel-vaughanNovel, now there’s a novel title for a novel, and a novel approach to writing a novel, perhaps best described as a deconstructed narrative. It is obvious from the beginning that it is not a conventional narrative structure. On the first page we find the Afterword and yes, the Forward is at the end. Also, for the benefit of the reader, an Addendum outlining the proper structure and set of rules for The English Novel, most of which are broken in Novel.

In this, his second novel, Rapatahana returns, with greater success, to the themes of geopolitical conspiracies, imperialist neo-colonialism, perpetrated in this tale, principally by the USA and the nefarious activities of the CIA. Pitched against the oppression of Aotearoa New Zealand, the Philippines and other countries are the rebels and fugitives, one fugitive in particular, a New Zealand Māori called Norton, a reappearance of a Rapatahana alter ego.

Novel is divided into short chapters of rapidly shifting scenes, tracing the footsteps of Rapatahana himself across territories he knows well, especially Aotearoa, the Philippines and Hong Kong and the settings are described in vivid, convincing detail. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, shootings, stabbings, beheadings. The narrative proceeds at a fast pace throughout  a number of subplots and the abrupt shifting from one to another  can seem a bit disorienting but it all comes together into a kind of circular mélange, with Norton, the principal protagonist, ultimately seeking an existence in ‘non linear time.’

One sometimes encounters a statement within a text that could have been stage-crafted as dramatic irony, as a commentary on the story itself, as in the following quote (p. 32):

Still, he couldn’t help sensing undercurrents, an undertow. Like there was a plot to the story but no one could quite sus it out just yet. They all knew they had a role or two to play, but no one had gotten round to giving anyone a script, eh. Who was the bad guy? Who was the killer? Who was the sheriff? Who was the author and what were they on about anyway?

What indeed? Anyway, a thoroughly interesting read.