Being prepared isn’t just for Boy Scouts

The worst case scenario survival handbookSome years ago the first in the series of the “Worst case scenario” books made its appearance on the scene.  This handbook is full of useful advice on how to do such unlikely things as escape from quicksand, fend off a bear, or jump from a moving car.  Since then the series has branched out into topics such as parenting, golf, dating & sex, and travel

Given the success of these guides it’s not too surprising that other authors have jumped on the “survival skills” bandwagon and produced their own “how to” guides.  Some of these are seriously worth a look. Continue reading

New Zealand books

What with the death of Sir Edmund setting off a round of introspection about what it means to be a New Zealander and with Waitangi Day coming up I’ve been thinking about my favourite New Zealand books. Some of the titles that come to mind aren’t exactly cheery reading but they definitely capture something about living here at the “uttermost ends of the earth”.

Top of the list are the three volumes of Janet Frame’s autobiography. Yes it’s an obvious choice but I’m not alone in my admiration for To the is-land, An angel at my table and The envoy from mirror city. Jane Campion, who brought the books to the screen, thinks the collected trilogy is the best book ever written by a New Zealander.In the Guardian newspaper recently Campion reminisced about meeting Frame in Levin and about how the story of the magical little red-haired girl from Oamaru was loved by the unlikeliest people all over the world, first as books, then as television programmes and then as a film.  

Ronald Hugh Morrieson didn’t change the novel as we knew it in the way that I think Frame did but he invented New Zealand Gothic and his books capture small-town life in ’50s and ’60s New Zealand in a way his hometown of Hawera never got over.

Morrieson was a womanising dance-band musician who liked a bottle or two of sherry before lunch and lived with his mother for most of his adult life, in fact until she died. After his own death there was none of that historic places nonsense for Hawera thank you very much; no commemoration of Morrieson in the way Frame is honoured in Oamaru. His house was pulled down and a fast-food restaurant built on the site – after all, “who wanted to remember that old drunk”, as one Hawera hard-liner put it.

James Courage is not as well-known as Frame and Morrieson, his books have never been made into films although one, Fires in the distance, has apparently been optioned. His work might be regarded as a tad old fashioned now but he was an interesting character and at least two of his books are still worth reading.

Born in Christchurch and educated at Christ’s College where he has a plaque on the writers’ trail, Courage is remembered every year on the 15th of November, the day PEN (the international writers’ organisation which champions freedom of expression) holds events to mark the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

In New Zealand the New Zealand Society of Authors, which incorporates PEN, named their event after two aptly named Courages; James because his novel A way of love was banned (for its expression of homosexuality) prior to the setting up of the Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1964; and his grandmother Sarah Courage whose book describing colonial life in New Zealand was burned by neighbours who resented comments she made about them. My favourite of his novels is The young have secrets, set in a Sumner which is still recognisable. 

Where the Shopping Mall is God

What was Lost – Catherine O’ FlynnWhat was Lost

This book has been out for a year and long-listed for a number of awards (Booker, Orange and even winning the Costa award for best first novel) so I’m way behind the crowd. (I may work in a library, but I’m not a librarian).

However,  this is the first book that has ever prompted me to write about it since struggling with A-level Chaucer 20 years ago.  And it is good, very good. An easy, entertaining read with humorous observations of contemporary life, this novel is also dark, scary and cleverly constructed.

A young girl has been missing for 20 years and the effects of her disappearance are still subtlety being felt.  Flynn’s characters are sketched with deft and delicate brushstrokes, against the backdrop of a gigantic shopping mall.  Yet it is the mall itself which is the main protagonist. Dominating the landscape and the lives of all, the mall is a menacing God of Shopping demanding worship and human sacrifice!

With some similarities to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Alice Seabold’s The Lovely Bones this book works on many levels.  It is an enjoyable comedy, an intriguing, sinister mystery and a harsh criticism of the consumerism of modern life.

Rarely is such a well crafted book so eminently readable. So read it.


One of the great things about going to book festivals and author visits is hearing what authors are reading and recommending.  Who are the fellow writers they rate? Then you can add the names to that ever expanding list of books you may not really want to read but which you fervently wish you had already read.

When Ian Rankin visited last year he named Lanark as one of his favourite books and Alasdair Gray as one of the writers of his generation.

I’d never heard of it, and was compelled to seek it out only to find that Rankin is not alone in his authorly admiration, Iain Banks and Anthony Burgess both liked it as well.

It is extremely hard to summarise; its sub-title is A life in four books but it begins with book three; it’s set partly in twentieth century Glasgow and partly in a strange other world, it’s political as well as fantastic and you probably just have to read it really. But even if you don’t the nice new edition we recently received at the library is worth reserving just to have a look at the cover, drawn by Gray himself.

Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby is a much admired author who has recently followed the trend for adult writers like Michael Chabon and Sherman Alexieto pop out a Young Adult book. On his American book tour for Slam Hornby has been talking up Paul Zindel’s The pigman, a true YA classic first published in 1978.

Looking at the Future

The great Australian news magazine, The Bulletin, has ceased publication, but this website still gives you access to many of their articles and reviews. A recent article I read with interest was Ten Life Changing Trends by futurist Richard Watson. His 10 trends for the future are:

  • Concious capitalism “embracing a model in which shareholders, employees, customers, and the environment are all deemed important.”
  • Making things ” resurgence of interest in arts and crafts” Internet technology enables people with specific hobbies to communicate and share ideas, plus a longing to slow down and participate in more meaningful activities.
  • Robotics
  • Industrial provenance “emergence of ethical and environmental concerns (and) the issue of traceability……opportunity for local suppliers to create product biographies, with details of social and environmental impacts of everything from manufacturing and distribution to disposal.”
  • Data Visualisation ” Our new visual culture is partly a response to Too Much Information but it is also a reaction to time famine.”
  • Data mining
  • Rhythm and balance ” People will seek out quietness and islands of tranquillity”
  • Intimacy “move back towards a small number of more intimate relationships……Spaces (and services) that allow people to engage in face-to-face conversation. Also old-fashioned communications like letter writing and actual meetings”
  • Fantasy and escape “more people escape via everything from physical emigration to movies and virtual worlds.” Continue reading

Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights – Story into song

Waiting for Kate BushI’m reading a Kate Bush biography by Rob Jovanovic and might also tackle Waiting for Kate Bush which sounds  a bit quirky (satirical novel and music biography). Before Bjork, Tori Amos, and other female singer songwriters who flirt with the odd side, there was the mighty Kate Bush, with her spooky vocals and interpretive dance. She has inspired a range of artists, even Outkast has namechecked her.

Any book on Kate will of course talk about her legendary 1978 song Wuthering Heights (BBC Radio 2 Sold on Song article). Kate becomes Cathy – Heathcliff’s ghostly lover howling at his window. The mood and tone of Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights is conjured up in a song.

What other songs have arisen out of literature? I thought of Paul Kelly’s beautiful song Everything’s turning to white, based on the Raymond Carver story So much water so close to home – also the inspiration for the Australian movie Jindabyne. It tells the story of a wife tormented by her husband’s inaction. He and his fishing buddies find the body of a girl in the river, but leave her there while they continue their expedition.

There’s a neat database called Songs inspired by Literature (SIBL) that lists a whole lot more songs – and I followed this train of thought, ending up with The Smiths (a literary band if ever there was) and found out my favourite lyrics  from Reel Around The Fountain, “You’re the bee’s knees, but so am I” and “I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice” are quotes from the film adaptation of A Taste Of Honey by Shelagh Delaney. Who knew?

No Country for old men

MoviesWith the new Coen brothers’ film No Country for Old Men receiving great reviews, I decided to read this thick slice of Texan Gothic by Cormac McCarthy. A hunter stumbles on a drugs buy gone wrong and decides to abscond with a suitcase full of 2 million dollars. His flight is pursued by a grizzled local sheriff, (played in the movie by Tommy Lee Jones), various criminals from across the Mexican border and, most disturbingly, a hit man whose favourite method of execution is by using a cattle stun gun. Yuck!

At times it reminds me of Elmore Leonard’s Valdez is Coming and Upton Sinclair’s Oil, recently filmed with Daniel Day-Lewis as There will be Blood.

However, the typical Hollywood ending isn’t found here and it will be interesting to see if the Coen brothers have resisted pressures for a conventional finale.

Great Young Adult author to visit Christchurch

Red spikesI have just read the most riveting book, and it has made me very excited that the author is the keynote speaker at the South Island Children’s Librarians’ Conference this year.   Margo Lanagan’s Touching earth lightly is totally absorbing, gutsy, honest, shocking and real.  This is top-class writing, perfectly structured.  Margo Lanagan is clearly someone who truly understands the complexity of the human race, particularly young people, and is not afraid to be completely honest about it.   This novel is for older teenagers and adults, and not for the faint-hearted.  Her latest collection of short stories Red Spikes won Book of the Year, Older Readers, in the 2007 Children’s Book Council of Australia’s book awards.

By all accounts, Lanagan is an excellent speaker, and also a very challenging and perceptive social and literary commentator.  I recommend her work to anyone interested in young adult literature, or who works with young adults, and thoroughly look forward to her keynote address when she comes to Christchurch in March. 

Doomy Gloomy Non-fiction

My colleague teases me about my liking for books about disasters, terrorism, wars and various other horrors. But the National Book Critics Circle Award feeds my habit … The National Book Critics Circle consists of nearly 700 active book reviewers, and their annual literary prizes have some brilliant non-fiction of a doomy nature.

Heart like waterThis year’s finalists have just been announced and they include:

Winners in past years have included the following essentials if you like your non-fiction emotionally weighty:

Foxy Roxy

Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones liked Roxy Music so much his first band was named after one of their songs. Strange then that punk came along and made all that vintage glamour look a bit old, and not in a good way.
Re-make/Re-model is the story of how art, fashion and music combined to create Roxy Music, a group that Bryan Ferry said was ‘above all, a state of mind.’  In 1972 Roxy Music released their first album and Re-make/Re-model explores the years leading up to it; years that saw the dissolution of the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms and the application of ideas within fine art and the avante garde to the making of mainstream popular culture. 
In describing the birth of the band, Remake/Remodel also follows  British Pop art, born in the fine arts departments of Newcastle and Reading universities, from post-war austerity to ’60s London. The unprecedented access Bracewell had to Ferry, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay creates a fascinatingly detailed look at one of the most original groups of its time.