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Bugs for Kids

Book Review
New Zealand’s Backyard Beasts by Ned Barraud (Potton & Burton, paper, $19.99; hardback $29.99)
Reviewed by Melinda Szymanik

nzs-backyard-beasts_cover-72You might be forgiven for being a little uncertain about what this non-fiction work is all about based just on its title, but the cover illustration steers you straight, and the content inside leaves you in no doubt about the purpose of this lovely book. Barraud has gathered a wealth of interesting information and facts — some well-known and others surprising— about the creepy crawlies that inhabit our gardens, pairing these with his gorgeous realistic artwork to bring the insects to life.

Aimed at older children, with regular use of some complex words (which get a good explanation in the glossary at the end of the book), the text is respectful of its audience, and while detailed and informative, is also clear, easy to follow, and in nice bite-size chunks. The text is a good mix of facts and points of interest.

I learnt a number of interesting titbits I’ve never come across before, despite having knocked around in science books and back gardens for some years now. I didn’t know Aphids only grow wings when food is harder to find. I never knew that that funny little bag thing hanging on the outside wall of my house was a Bagmoth. And a Weta is a grasshopper? – Of course it is!! My only quibble was the cheat of describing the metamorphosis of a butterfly as a ‘magical’ transformation. Everything else is given at least a brief description except for this. While the transformation might seem miraculous or indeed ‘magical’, it is still a biological process and I wanted to know more about it.

The illustrations are lush and detailed and a good size, and to my untrained eye look an awful lot like the real thing. The design is clear and attractive and easy to follow. I would have enjoyed having this book as a child, dragging it out in to the garden to identify the beasties I saw crawling there and comparing their appearance. All the extra bits of information would have pleased me no end. And I can just see today’s children feeling the same. This would be a cool Christmas present, especially if you are planning a family staycation this year.

Lighting the Way

Book Review
Sunset to Sunrise: an illustrated history of New Zealand’s lighthouses by Timothy Nicol (New Holland Press, $39.99)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

 

lighthouses-001Sailing around New Zealand’s exposed coastline is hazardous, and the historic record is full of stories of shipwrecks and drownings. Soon after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, the British imperial authorities passed regulations to enable the establishment of aids to coastal navigation, and the New Zealand government has traditionally taken responsibility for the provision of lighthouses and other coastal lights. By the end of the nineteenth century a network of lighthouses had been set up, manned by keepers and their families who often lived in isolation for many months at a time.

Since the 1970s the New Zealand government has had a policy of progressively automating the lighthouse network, and the last keepers left the remote Brothers Island station in 1990. Since then the lighthouses have functioned by remote control, with regular maintenance visits by staff from Maritime New Zealand. Captain Timothy Nichol, an experienced mariner, had responsibility for inspecting the lighthouse network from 1990-99, and has based the narrative of this book on his annual inspection tour with engineer Ken Belt – an adventurous trip by road, helicopter and boat around the New Zealand coastline. It was no job for the faint-hearted, involving changeable weather, hazardous boat landings and clambering up the vertical sides and lighthouses.

The tiny light at Cape Kidnappers surrounding by nesting gannets. (Source: Sunset to Sunrise)

The tiny light at Cape Kidnappers surrounding by nesting gannets. (Source: Sunset to Sunrise)

The book is a retirement labour of love, combining Captain Nicol’s own experience with information on each lighthouse gleaned from official files, newspapers and reminiscences. The opening chapter sets the scene by explaining the Lighthouse Environment, including the evolution of different types of light, foghorns, radio direction finding, and the equipment kept on different lighthouses. A useful map near the beginning shows the locations of functioning lights, and it was a surprise to realise that I had visited perhaps a third of them over the years travelling round New Zealand.

The next seven chapters, the bulk of the book, comprise a travelogue around the lighthouses region by region, starting at the top of the North Island, and ending with the Chatham Islands. Although the book covers much of the ground covered a decade earlier by Helen Beaglehole, the illustrations, both modern and historical, are a fascinating record of New Zealand’s lighthouse history. It is also a reminder of the problems preserving lighthouse heritage, as the structures are invariably in isolated and exposed locations.

Sadly Captain Nicol died earlier this year, a few months after handing the manuscript to the publisher. This is a beautifully produced book, and I have no doubt that he would be delighted to see it in print.

No Ordinary Island

Book Review
The Rift by Rachael Craw (Walker Books, $22.99)
Reviewed by Rachel Stedman

rift_coverRachael Craw is one of those writers you KNOW you want to read, as she has a gift for creating action-packed young adult adventures. Her first series, Spark has been extremely well received by the YA community in both Australia and New Zealand (it has a hashtag, #SparkArmy), and The Rift looks like it’s going to be just as popular.

The Rift is the tale of Meg and Cal of Black Water Island, where Cal is an apprentice Ranger. Meg’s always wanted to be a Ranger too, so upon her return to Black Water she’s jealous of her one-time friend. But on Black Water Island, hostility can get you killed. Because on the island strange things happen: cell phones don’t work, nor do any electrical devices, and there’s a herd of deer who can communicate telepathically. Oh, and there’s an interdimensional rift that, when it opens, admits the dreaded Hounds. And just as Meg arrives, the Rift is about to open. Can Meg and Cal overcome their guilt over the past to protect the herd and save the island?

The Rift is a fast-paced and exciting read. Meg and Cal are well-described, engaging characters, and because the story’s written from both their points of view, it’s likely to appeal to both sexes. I enjoyed the naturalness of the dialogue and the physical competence of both characters.

I did have a few quibbles. There were plenty of tropes: the evil drug company, ridiculously snarky teens and way too many Proper Nouns. But the biggest challenge was the Rift itself. I kept wondering – where did this thing come from? Where does it go? And why aren’t there any government scientists on the island checking it out?

That being said, as the narrative tension began to build, the action sparked, and it was impossible to stop reading. I refused to get out of bed one morning as I just needed to find out what was going to happen next! So, if you’re a fan of action-packed fantasy, The Rift is a great read.

The Rift is certain to appeal to fans of Maggie Stiefvater, V.E. Schwab or Suzanne Collins, and is highly recommended for older teen readers. Personally, I hope there will be a sequel, as I want to know more about Meg, Cal and Black Water Island.

War 3.0

Book Review
The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age by David E. Sanger (Scribe, $35)
Reviewed by Valerie Morse

perfect-weapon-cover-webIn October, the New Zealand government called out Russia for its “malicious cyber activity” with Government Communications Security Bureau director general Andrew Hampton telling Radio NZ’s Checkpoint programme that the government was “very concerned” about malicious internet activity. Reports of China’s intrusions into Australian companies have raised alarms in recent days, and now Chinese company Huawei has been banned from a role in building the new 5G network because its network systems are viewed as having back doors for the Chinese government. Two years ago, the NZDF said said that it wanted to acquire offensive cyber weapons, among a raft of other purchases and upgrades. Unlike warships, firearms and aircraft, however, there has been little public discussion and debate about the acquisition of this wholly new class of weapon and if the offensive, eg. proactive, use of cyber weapons is a good idea in terms of New Zealand’s foreign policy. The cyber war, it seems, has already begun.

In his new book, The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, author David Sanger, the national security correspondent for the New York Times, aims to provide some much needed, and highly readable, background to the issues and pose some challenging questions for an informed debate.

Sanger’s opening is dedicated to providing some context into why cyber weapons are so useful; they are, he says, the “tools available between diplomacy and military power.” He explains that they represent a more credible threat than much more powerful weapons because they can be used without, “demonstrations of open military might that invited retaliation, escalation and international condemnation.”

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Guarding Our Health

Book Review
The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell by Diana Brown (Otago Universith Press, $35)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

murielbell-web2This is an authoritative biography of a significant New Zealand scientist.  Even though I heard of Muriel Bell in my childhood in Dunedin, I had no idea of the range of her work until I read this book. Her career was unconventional for her day in that few women in the 1920s studied medicine, and very few indeed carried on to a doctorate in medicine and a career in research.  Furthermore, when she married, her husband managed their domestic life and she mostly retained her maiden name and continued to advance her career.  Her second husband lived most of the time in Wellington while she remained in Dunedin. She had no children.  From a 21st-century perspective, none of this seems unconventional: I must admit I was expecting a more Bohemian story.

This book is careful to mention the various specialties and research links of the many worldwide scholars that Dr Bell interacted with and learned from.   Footnotes abound, but surprisingly there is no bibliography so if, for example, you want to find out what “Preston Lady Doctor” refers to, you have to scroll back through the footnotes to find the first mention of it.  The book is full of names that mean nothing to a general reader today, important though they would be to a scholarly reader to establish just what Dr Bell’s own contribution was.  Amongst the unknown international names are well known New Zealanders such as Sir Charles Hercus, Sir John Walsh and her friend Dr Elizabeth (Bess) Gregory, respectively deans of the Otago Medical, Dental and Home Science schools.  She was also friends with Peter Fraser and Millicent Baxter, but the author was unable to find out much about her personal life.

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