Why the best gift you give your grandchild this Christmas, is a book.

Experts tell us that children who read are better informed, have improved concentration levels, are more sociable, employable and empathetic. Parents know all this, they love to see their child engrossed in a book, but still there’s a chasm between the dream and the reality.

Books often become undesirable to kids, along with school work, music practice, parents, washing and even speaking, from around the intermediate age, but as parents we still insist on continued involvement in nearly all aspects of their lives — except books. Books seem a step too far, too hard. It’s an avoidable battle and I often hear parents say, ‘I’ve given up.’ Buying a real book takes time, some book knowledge, some not-always-available cash and a tough skin if your gift isn’t greeted with enthusiasm.

Let’s imagine a New Zealand, where every child owns a collection of books to take into adulthood. If we can agree on this, then I suggest the task of building this library may need to fall to that under-utilised commodity: grandparents.

Today’s grandparents are from the generation who managed to escape life, or understood other perspectives, through books. We had no option but to read and reread. We know the value of a book that makes a reader care, cry, ponder, imagine and think about themselves in terms of bravery, their place in the world, or the world as it was — or might be. We need someone to access the real books that make this generation’s children feel, and who better than the old folk, Generation Hard-Copy?

On my sixth birthday, I was given a book called Oh Essie. The gift was well-intentioned but the story was ghastly. A forgetful, little girl in Africa, picks up someone’s baby from the market place thinking it was her own sister. She searches from house to house trying to return the baby as darkness creeps up behind her. My sister and I read that book many times, horrified for Essie, and dismayed by her memory issues. But today, if one of us forgets something and sadly, that dismaying nightmare is now a reality, we only need to whisper, Oh Essie to make each other laugh. The book is ingrained in the fabric of our shared past.

It can be difficult to know what’s current or what’s suitable for older children and young adults, so find a book lover — they’re always keen to share their knowledge — or read reviews, find books that have been short-listed for awards, ask a librarian, or go into a book shop and ask for recommendations. Another option is to visit second-hand bookshops, or buy discards from the library. Pre-loved or re gifted books from your own shelves are better for the environment and can keep past generations relevant.

When one of my sons was born, my late father gave him his own copy of When we were very Young. The original dedication and date (1932), defied the austerity of the era that it was first gifted and the new dedication for my son, in Dad’s distinctive handwriting, was also a thing of beauty. As children do, Chris put the book aside for 25 years, but he recently rediscovered it. What might have once been a disappointing gift is now a keepsake. It places him in his family; it grounds him with a sense of longevity and the gift is a time-capsule of sorts.

If there’s one thing grandparents understand, it’s the fragility, the brevity of life. We need to keep giving books as if we missed the memo that ‘technology rules’. We know that big, sullen teenage lump really wants something techie, or cash — mostly cash, and that you are just a means to providing the latest gadget. But teenagers are sullen and oafish because they’ve learned a thing about life, so you can play them at their own game. Keep handing over books, but maybe slip in cash as well, if it’s doable . . . or shamelessly leave the cash as an incentive to get the book read first.

So, grandparents, let’s unite and turn the reading tide. If we decide to gift at least one book a year to the children and young adults we love (young adulthood is a term that loosely extends to age thirty these days), then we might be able to improve the dismal reading stats.

Inscribe and date the book you give, read aloud to the child if they’ll let you, follow up on how they enjoyed it, but most of all, continue the tradition yearly, trusting that you’re doing something important for your grandchildren.

‘Happy Christmas, darling, you’ll thank me in twenty-five years.’






New Book like a Child

From the Hawkes Bay Today:  Linda Hall 2016


MARY-ANNE SCOTT’S first novel Snakes and Ladders,
 aimed at teenagers, particularly boys, is fantastic. It won the 2013 young adult category of the Children’s Choice award at the NZ Post Book Awards. It was also short listed for the 2013 LIANZA awards. However, the Havelock North-based author, mum and musician’s new novel Coming Home to Roost, also written from a young man’s perspective, is a whole lot better.

The story follows Elliot as his father sends him to a new city to start an apprenticeship, thereby taking him away from a “bad influence”. His new boss and housemate is a no-nonsense character named Arnie. As Elliot struggles with his new surroundings, his ex-girlfriend Lena is not done with him yet.


By the time Snakes and Ladders was published, I’d just completed a writing course at Whitireia. I’ve heard people say that you can’t learn to write but I don’t agree. I was your typical ‘adult nerd’ in the class, desperate for skills and I soaked up the knowledge like a sponge. I also learned that a new book is pretty much like a child — a lot of fuss and excitement to start with but eventually it has to find its own way in the world and it either sinks or swims.


Arnie has been the most commented on character in this book so far, and I did actually have a real person in mind. He’s the older brother of a very good friend of mine and over the years I’ve been amazed at how this particular man can say so much with so few words. I heard someone ask him once when his wife was due back from her overseas trip, and he said, ‘The calendar’s got ‘vacuum’ on the 29th so I’m thinking then’. My own boys said they could hear my voice coming through Elliot’s mother’s words occasionally . . .


You can spend years working on a book and it’s really appreciated when people say what they did, or didn’t like. The harshest criticism is sometimes the most beneficial. After Snakes and Ladders came out our esteemed local author, who’s now living in France, wrote to me and said, ‘I liked your book, I think you can write, but I couldn’t stand all the f…ing exclamation marks’ and then he went on to do a line of !!!!!!!!!!!


Mum and I share a love of books and words, but we don’t discuss my plot lines really. I’m quite spoilt because I have a sister, Jude, who’s an editor and we spend hours discussing every aspect of story, the dialogue, the plot, the characters and the themes. My mother’s stories are timeless and special. She has 28 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren who all love her books and it makes me realise what a legacy she leaves to our family.


There’s the standard answers about funding for the arts, or the dire state of publishing or the politics of the literary big guns, but I’m actually pretty happy to be writing here in NZ. Although my story situation is universal, the setting is uniquely Kiwi, and the characters are (mostly) the product of our culture.


It feels scary seeing my books in the local shops for some reason and buzzy when I find them in out-of-town shops. It seemed indecent to stare in the Havelock/Hastings area, when Coming Home to Roost came out a couple of weeks ago and it was fresh in the shop windows, so I snuck out at night and had a long look when no one was around.

an unstable obsession

Once I discovered Geonet, New Zealand went from being a peaceful corner of the world to a couple of rocking, jolting, vulnerable islands. I imagined us being flipped like pancakes or mashed up like potatoes. Harmless gusts of wind became precursors to the big one.

It’s not that I’m afraid of Mice

As I unlocked the bach on a sizzling evening last week, I couldn’t have been happier; a week alone to write and read.

I turned the pump on and heard it fire up. But as I unpacked the car, I realised the pump was pumping for too long. Bugger. I hadn’t been here five minutes and I already needed help.

‘You’ll have to ring the plumber in Wairoa,’ my eldest son said.

The plumber gave me two options. Either I turn the pump on and off as required, or I could climb into the pump shed, find the switch, and tap it with a piece of wood to release the jammed mechanism.

Fine strands of cobweb had already brushed my arms inside the bach so the idea of climbing into the pump shed didn’t appeal.

The garage door lock was jammed. ‘You’ll need CRC,’ the same son told me. ‘It’s in the garage though so you’ll have to manhandle the lock first.’

Shit, I thought and went for a swim.

When I came back, I got the wooden spoon and marched out to deal to the pump switch. I wore rubber gloves as a spider guard, leaned right in and tapped the first thing I saw. The pump turned off immediately. Huh!

I swapped the rubber gloves for oven mitts so I could get maximum leverage and moved on to attack the garage door. I pulled and wriggled and swore and suddenly, the lock clicked open. Yes!

The next day, I cleaned the bach. There’s no need to elaborate on the work but needless to say I felt the approval of generations of female ancestors as I vacuumed every corner. That night I stared around in a satisfied way at the clean space. Something twitched under the bookcase, and there it was again, under the table.

‘The mouse traps are in the third drawer in the garage,’ my son told me.

How do I put the cheese in? I wanted to ask, and the ancestors approved when I kept quiet.

Traps aren’t easy to operate, especially when you’re wearing oven mitts. The next morning, the traps were empty of mice and cheese. A trail of mouse poo taunted me. So I used finely grated Parmesan, in a crafty, appetizing way. Huh.

I walked past the spare room and saw the dog had messed up a throw. You know your house is pristine when you adjust messed up accessories. No wonder she’d rearranged the damn thing. I washed, soaked and bleached the vomit off the blanket, the duvet, and the heavy white cover. Shit.

I decided to mow the lawns ……  I admit to having help starting the mower.

I see now why guys always mow in straight lines because I became very confused as to where I’d already been. I created my own spider’s web on the lawn.

‘How do I turn the mower off?’

‘You’re kidding me right?’ I’d tried a different son this time, and I got the two youngest boys together.

‘There’s no obvious switch,’ I shouted over the fearsome noise. ‘No ‘off’ button.’ They laughed. My tolerance was shot. The day was sweltering; the mower was hot enough to combust. I hung up.

‘Put me on video call’, one of them managed to say when he rang back, and even that took figuring out. ‘Now go up to the mower, and we’ll show you.’

I couldn’t hear them. ‘Get earplugs,’ they spluttered. I’d like to have given them earplugs.

I wandered up the deserted street. Every sensible man had dived for cover, but I found Two Bob tinkering under his car. No one gives Two Bob much credit, but he was very helpful once he’d stopped laughing. SHIT.

‘Let the mower cool down,’ he told me, when it finally shuddered into silence. I can’t bear to mention the garage door disaster as it finally crashed down for the day, and just missed the dog’s hind legs.

I went inside for a cold drink and there in the cupboard I found a poor, soft, little mouse in the trap. It’s becoming less pliable everyday.



Your iCloud Storage is Full


I’ve had three emails recently from iCloud — all crisp and official in the Apple colours and terminology. Of course there’s no one to reply to; the email is almost sterile in his hospital cleanliness and rightness. Anyway, we Catholics know full well, there’s no arguing with a cloud.

Each time one of these dire warnings has arrived, I’ve groaned and died a little. (iGroan, iDie) 

Your iCloud storage is almost full. You have 7.99 MB remaining of 5 GB total storage. 

It was with a huge amount of reluctance I let myself be frightened into the whole iCloud business all those years ago. ‘You could lose everything,’ was the mantra spouted to encourage me to sign up. I had to pay a strapping young lad — who could’ve been out using his muscles in my vege patch — a small fortune to connect me to the cumulus, but I went ahead.

Then it felt quite good. I had a mental image of my emails and photos being lugged up to a fluffy attic in the sky where termites and other earthly hazards couldn’t get them. I probably mixed up some of my childhood religious propaganda with a dose of natural superstition and then added a sprinkle of high tech terminology I’d gleaned from smart young things. I figured I had all my bases covered.

If I ever wanted to find a Christmas photo from the last ten years, I only had to reach into the cloud.

The reality of finding a ladder long enough (iClimb) or a young man desperate enough (iPay) seemed a problem I would face in the future.

Well the future is here, and I’m not happy. Who can I talk to? How the hell can the cloud be full? I was lead to believe clouds were infinite, like sand. Apple didn’t tell me I was only getting a mini cloud.

Maybe some of my other beliefs are up for question. Do only good people sit on clouds or is a regular free-for-all up there? Could someone be swinging in a hammock defacing my photos and reading my emails?

But the big question is, who the hell says it’s full?

Full is a term we’re all familiar with. I know when the fridge is full because when I shove in one more plate of leftovers — the olives spill down the back. And I know when my stomach is full because that last greedy slice of pizza forces me to sleep bolt upright all night. So I understand full. But how can the cloud be full? Has anyone checked? Is someone storing too much?

The next time I’m soaring at 30,000 feet, I’ll be scouring the spaces: the atmosphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere …. It can’t all be used up.

If it’s really true and the clouds are chocka, (iDoubt) then perhaps the smart pioneers amongst us should start looking elsewhere. I’ve been eyeing up the oceans and wondering if we could plumb the depths, in virtual submarines. (iSink)

Clearly it has to be unreachable for ordinary mortals; otherwise I’d upgrade my own damn storage and go back to using the attic. (iReady).





















Manners Maketh the Man…

I was early for my Wellington to Hawkes Bay flight as I wanted a long uninterrupted run at my book. The rain lashed the windows of the far-flung building that holds the provincial travelers and the room was fuggy as the crowd of passengers grew. I shut out the crying babies and cellphone shouters and hunkered down over my riveting story. (All the light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr)

Eventually, we were bing-bonged into a queue and as I stood waiting in line, the man checking our boarding passes began talking about the new Dreamliner out on the tarmac. With emotion in his voice, he told us about the plane that was to be phased out and in true kiwi style, we, the silent column of people, edged away from his unseemly show of sentiment. The man was holding my boarding pass, so the onus of discussing the company’s fleet of planes was my responsibility. I provided the ooh, aah and reallys? at the right times.

Released at last through the sliding door reminded me of similar releases many years ago when we had to stand in a line at school. The monitor holding the door open often had to make small talk with the nun on duty. The real skill required by the selected monitor was an ability not to giggle when your friends laughed at you from their positions of safety.

Once on the plane I showed the steward my ticket. ‘Eight on the left,’ I think she said. My boarding pass was my bookmark and I was still wearing my reading glasses. It didn’t bode well for finding eight on the left.

I couldn’t think if C was window or aisle but I sat down by the window to get out of the way. I’ll move if I’m in the wrong spot I thought and before I knew it, I was again transported back to World War 2 and the story of a little blind girl.

‘You’re in my seat.’ I looked up at a middle-aged man in a crisp pale blue shirt. His beady animal eyes, peered at me from behind wire-framed glasses and he frowned as if I’d taken his winter store of chestnuts.

Oh, hell. I could be too, I remembered. ‘Sorry.’ I grabbed my bag and began to slide out. I hadn’t even managed to set both feet into the aisle before he shoved past me and jammed himself down in his window seat.

My knee hurt where he’d banged it and my pride hurt at my stupidity for not making a better effort to check my seat number. The man settled into his seat as if he was nesting in a bed of twigs. I glanced at the people in the row behind me and although I’m not a great believer in sisterhood for the sake of it, there was a very satisfying connection between the ladies seated there and myself. A smirk and raised eyebrows was the quiet show of solidarity for a rude man.

I sat down in my aisle seat and tried to ignore the ferreting buffoon beside me. He patted his pockets and arranged his things. Each jabby movement connected with my arm or foot and I slid away as far as I could towards the aisle. He found his phone and brought out enormous earmuffs. Really? It wasn’t exactly long haul.

Reading time is precious and I was determined not to let him spoil my flight. I went back to my book.

I turned the pages and tried to block him out but he was a complete pain in the bum. I re read the page, once, then twice. His arm was angled far over the centre line and I had to hunch into my seat to avoid its sharp edge. Was he completely thick?

The forty-five minutes felt interminable and my concentration static. As we came closer to Hawkes Bay he upped his busyness and went from music listening to photo taking. The latter required more twisting in his seat, and his swiveled leg kicked me as he angled for the photo.

Finally the familiar landscape of the parched dry brown of Hawkes Bay came into view and we touched down beside the sheep and goats. Everyone in the plane prepared to disembark and the airhostess did her patter. I was just going to close my book when I had a brilliant idea for revenge.

I kept reading.

There was bustle around me and we taxied to a halt outside the terminal. I kept reading.

Passengers unclipped seatbelts and began to stand up. Lockers were opened and bags were dropped down. I clutched my book as if my life depended on it.

The man beside me was now facing me, intent on his getaway. His toys were packed away and he was ready to push on. I slowly marked my page and managed one of those fake yawns. People filed past us, so I hunted around on the floor for my sandal. I managed to push it further away.

I dragged out my purse and was just going to stand up when I just knew I wouldn’t be able to walk one step with that stone in my sandal. I slipped it off and flicked nothing out.

My sidekick was hovering a few inches above his seat with his neck twisted to avoid the overhead locker. At last I was ready. A quick glance up the aisle behind me showed I was not quite the last person off the plane so I waved them to please go first.

The lovely Asian man wanted me to step in front of him, but naturally, I insisted he keep going.

Steamy outrage poured off the man behind me. I risked a smile in his direction and my gall angered him even more. At last it was just ‘old pushy’ and me.

I slowly stood up and made my leisurely way to the front. I readjusted the straps on my bag before I tackled the steps down from the plane. It was all I could do not to giggle like the schoolgirl on door duty years ago.


Coming In Second

the starched uniform of St Mary's Primary.

The starched uniform of St Mary’s Primary.

I could always tell when Mum was expecting another baby because she used less and less tie on her apron bow. Standing beside her as I dried the dishes I could see the ever-expanding strings stretch around her body and then I would ask my older sister for confirmation of the impending arrival.

I was slow to wise up on the facts of life and Elizabeth kept me informed of approaching siblings right through to number nine.

There’s plenty of data showing the importance of sibling order on a child’s personality, but it mostly relates to families of three or four children. I read somewhere that birth-order personalities repeat: first born through to fourth, in large families, which explains our number nine as he’s already out on a limb.

It’s very hard to parent four children consistently, and even harder to repeat the cycle for another four…. and then one more. Research does show, however, that eldest children are usually capable, leaders, problem solvers and often, high achievers. I think Elizabeth can take a bow.

There is no doubt that my eldest sister carved out the road — she chiseled the track with a pickaxe sometimes. I remember her negotiating curfews, clothes choices, pocket money and then the spending of said pocket money, dates, school lunches, private thoughts, (surely not), social activities and bedtimes, to name a few. She was often in meetings with Mum and Dad long after I’d grown bored and wandered off to perfect a cycle of forward rolls on the lawn outside.

I never appreciated the hours she put in to extend our radio time from thirty minutes to forty-five. As for the discussions about panty hose, I think she spent three full days in the summit boardroom.

Being second is a luxury role. It has all the perks of being a top dog in the family dynamics but none of the real responsibility. Once the eldest child has secured a new boundary, the door is open for number two to reap the benefits. Once Elizabeth had her driver’s license, I didn’t bother getting mine. She harmonized to my melodies and she hauled me out of parties and pubs minutes before our curfew expired.

There is also less expectation on number two. ‘Make sure you help your sister,’ was the parting instruction Mum would give me as she went somewhere, (probably to the maternity ward).

Elizabeth could cook a full roast dinner at aged eight and I can remember her asking me to stir the gravy. She let me read as I moved the wooden spoon, and neither of us held out much hope for a smooth consistency.

There should be a club for happy-go-lucky second children — I’m sure there already is one — where we can remember the times we weren’t cared for, or adored. There should also be a special club for eldest children — an appreciation club, but I suspect they’re all too busy charging ahead, being responsible, to stop and play ‘I remember’.


Evie’s War by Anna Mackenzie

Gripping YA title set in WWI

Gripping YA title set in WWI

It’s a long time since I’ve read a book in diary form and I wasn’t sure how I would find the format. Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks was an impressionable book for me as a teenager and I remember how I became unaware of the changing dates as I became engrossed in the book. I expected the same experience when I picked up Evie’s War by Anna Mackenzie. However I was surprised to find that the passing days and dates added to the tension of the story and I found myself studying the order of events with a sense of foreboding or relief depending on the stage I was up to in my reading .

Evie’s War is a triumph for Anna as she marries the fictional life of Evie with the realities and facts of World War One.

Evie is a young eighteen year old, traveling to Europe for a holiday. In the beginning, the story captures the differences between colonial NZ and Edwardian England as well as the way of life for the newcomers. I was lulled by the gentile era, the tea parties, the ignorance of the children. but as war encroached on England in 1915, young Evie was forced to grow up in a hurry and I was jolted out of my comfortable reading. She railed against the constrictions of the day, the dress, the customs, the lack of equality between the sexes and Evie’s development was real and fascinating. The reality of WW1 in all its gritty horror was spilled onto the pages and it was heartbreaking to read of Evie’s loved ones being killed or injured.

Anna McKenzie’s research is phenomenal and as a zealous reader of WW2 stories, it was an eye-opener to read about a war that I knew less about. I would recommend this book to people of all ages starting with teenagers, 13 and older.

Convalescence: The Fine Art

I remember a time when I had even less wisdom than I have now and one of my sons became ill with Glandular Fever. We all know that glange, as the trendy young things say, is a long slow process of rest, rest and more rest.

As a child, I’d loved Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did and various other books that involved long periods of bed rest for sick children. Those fictional invalids used their months/years to expand their horizons with great reading.Bearing this in mind, I knew what Chris needed.

Firstly, I settled him into crisp clean sheets, adjusted the curtains so that he was lying in a soothing filtered light, and brought him a glass of water, (not too hot and not too cold). I set out for the library.

No doubt I had my warrior headdress on and probably elbowed my way to the front of the queue, shouting ‘medical emergency,’ because in record time I was staggering home with at least a dozen tomes of suitable mind-enriching literature. They formed a small beside table.

‘You’re hungry? Sure.’ Again, I knew what to do. Out I went to buy vegetables for his broth and fruit for his smoothie.

As I drove back up the drive the second time, I was disappointed to see at least four cars dropped haphazardly by the front door. This clashed with my image of quiet visitors, one at a time.

There was a sound of laughter coming from his room and as I went closer I saw that my coffee table had been carried into Chris’s room and his friends were setting up a TV at the foot of the bed. His stack of newly acquired books was being used to prop the TV up to a decent height.

The curtains were shut and the screen flickered as the visiting boys selected the games. ‘Hi Mum,’ Chris called, without looking at me.

I smelt the KFC before I registered the red and white bucket seeping fat onto the linen and I saw that everyone, infectious or otherwise, was hoeing into the tub. Chris had a big, cold coke in one hand and the controls for the play station in the other. He managed to turn and wave then. ‘I’m feeling much better,’ he said and another perfect parenting dream faded. The thing was, he looked better.

So nowadays, I have no advice for ill or recovering friends. But sometimes, when I visit someone who’s reclining on a cool verandah with plenty of pillows surrounding them, a long glass of water and a good book within reach I can’t help but think, oh, yes, you know how it’s done.


Johnny Depp Would Understand


‘Have you ever seen white asparagus before?’ I asked my youngest son as I stood in front of an array of creamy white spears arranged on a shop counter. He didn’t answer. ‘Or purple? They look amazing, don’t you think?’

I know young men avoid idle chatter, and I didn’t expect much response, but even a grunt would’ve been kind.

I turned around to get his attention and saw he was staring at his phone. His eyes bulged and he’d gone white around his mouth and a sort of grey everywhere else. ‘Are you alright?’ I asked.

‘Oh my god,’ he said. There was a pause as he read his email, and then — ‘I’ve passed.’

And so, amidst the bustle of shoppers and trolleys, five years of study came to an end. The big brown envelope, which in my day, heralded the news had been replaced by a ‘ping.’ To me, a phone doesn’t have the same ceremonial effect, but it is what it is.

I gave him a brief hug whilst he was still in shock — obviously nothing that would draw attention, and we went to a bar where we could sit and take it in.

‘I start getting paid, now,’ he said, staring at his phone. And then, a bit later: ‘I owe $100,000.’


The next day I helped him pack the last of his things into a suitcase. It was most likely my imagination, but he seemed older already. He was heading off to work in St Lucia and then Verona. He needed smart clothes, a tie for heavens sake.

‘There’s too much in here,’ I said. ‘You’re going to break the zip.’

‘I have to take it all.’ He consulted his phone. ‘The temperature ranges from 30 degrees Celsius down to 0 degrees.’

‘Well it won’t close and something has to come out,’ I insisted. ‘What’s in here?’

‘No. I need that.’ He leapt forward and grabbed the tatty plastic bag out of my hands. He opened the top and showed me inside. ‘It’s my pirate suit.’


‘You can’t go to the Caribbean without a pirate suit.’

‘Sure,’ I said, watching him stuff it back. ‘I agree.’

I felt relieved and briefly happy again. I wasn’t obsolete and suddenly he wasn’t so grown up after all.