The Reincarnation of Hercule Poirot

CoverYes, it’s true. Hercule Poirot has received the kiss of life and is exercising his “little grey cells” in the well-heeled living rooms of British author Sophie Hannah’s latest murder mystery, Closed Casket.

I cut my reading teeth on Agatha Christie’s novels and devoured every word she wrote with a voracious appetite for the refined macabre. To this day there is nothing I like more than curling up with a cup of English Breakfast and watching Miss Marple on TV. I like Christie’s fiction because you can guarantee that despite the heinous nature of their crimes and the unashamed elitism of their lifestyles, the baddies will get their comeuppance and the haughty will be brought down a peg or two. All this, while looking fabulous in tweed and Brussels lace. When Closed Casket arrived, I leapt at the chance to reconnect with my old friend, Hercule.

In many ways I wasn’t disappointed. Sophie Hannah can plot along with the best of them. The British author and former fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, based Closed Casket on “a brilliant, simple-yet-unguessable four-word idea” which came to her as if by magic and felt “very Agatha-ish”. The novel is full of dark pasts, red herrings and so many twists and turns I was kept guessing right to the end. It’s a light, engaging read that motors along. Agatha Christie has been called the “Queen of the Who-Done-Its” and Hannah certainly lives up to her standards.

However, something about the characterisation missed the mark for me. An author distils the essence of their times into their dramatis personae. Like the Sirop de Cassis he sips, the original Hercule Poirot is a rich blend many would consider “noxious”. In 1916, when The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published, the English class system was alive and kicking and Europe was at war. People were bound by convention and were geographically and culturally insular. These were times of lamplight, inequality and suspicion. To Hastings and the characters who interacted with him, Hercule was foreign and disturbing. How times have changed.

Reading Closed Casket is less like stepping into the impoverished grandeur of war-torn England than leaping onto the LED lit set of Big Brother. The characters are all fabulous and uber-confident so there is a mismatch between their motivations and their actions.  Sadly, in this decade of globalisation and mass media, a Belgian detective just doesn’t seem that interesting and the reader is left with the uncomfortable dichotomy of Hercule Poirot meets the Kardashians.

Don’t get me wrong, Closed Casket is a good, fun read but I’d be tempted to learn from other contemporary authors who have recently resurrected famous detectives and not continue with a series. Authors John Banville, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz have brought us singular, at most dual, incarnations of Philip Marlowe, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes recently.

The release of Closed Casket marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of Hercule Poirot and was commissioned by the literary estate of Agatha Christie after the success of Hannah’s earlier work, The Monogram Murders. Sophie Hannah does nothing but honour the Grand Dame of Crime in her Poirot works but she’s a fine author in her own right. I believe she’s at her best in her Culver Valley Crime series which includes excellent titles such as Kind of Cruel and A Room Swept White. I’d love it if Sophie Hannah reconnected with DC Simon Waterhouse and let sleeping detectives lie.

Closed Casket: The brand new Hercule Poirot mystery
by Sophie Hannah
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008134105

Monster Making 101

Recently I braved the heaviest rain of winter to attend the WORD Writer’s Workshop “Teaching the Monster to Speak” hosted by the energetic Tracy Farr.

Tracy Farr (image credit, Matt Bialostocki)

Cover of The life and loves of Lena GauntTracy, who was born across the ditch but who we’ll claim as a Kiwi as she’s lived in Wellington for the past 20 years, wrote The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt in 2013 and received accolades for creating characters so real they could walk off the page. Tracy started her second novel and was determined to achieve the same rich characterization. She investigated her writing process so she could replicate it. The twenty or so other workshop attendees and I were fortunate enough to be able to share her wisdom.

To make truly original, realistic characters, Tracy advises authors to stitch them together, physically and psychologically. To extend the Frankenstein metaphor further, she suggests splicing character traits and collecting body parts. Take your mother’s dark eyes, your cousin’s dress sense (or lack of), your colleague’s habit of giving you compliment sandwiches and your dentist’s squint, and you’re on the way to making your Monster. Tuck away images or sayings specific to your Monster into a real or virtual folder via Pinterest or Scrivener. Make mood boards and observe, collect and record “whatever buzzes”. Place your Monster into a setting and move it around so it can start to take on a life of its own.

The idea is to transform/invent/disguise people you know to create your characters. Tracy says “be aware of when you’re copying and when you’re creating” and encouraged us to do a writing exercise every day. She assured us that, if we do this, something (or someone) will turn up.

Cover of WriteTracy based her workshop on four main writer’s resources: Sarah Quigley, Write; Linda Barry’s nearsightedmonkey Tumblr; Jason Steger, It’s fiction and that’s a fact (on Helen Garner’s The Spare Room); and The Exercise Book: Creative Exercises from Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters (see also

Tracy Farr’s new novel, The Hope Fault, is due for release by the Freemantle Press next year. Make sure you keep an eye out for it – an eye, his ear, your brother’s obsession with drones, the butcher’s stutter, the purple coat you saw at Farmers… Make it real then make it strange. Happy stitching!

More WORD Christchurch

“Important things are happening” – Jane Smiley

At the Christchurch Art Gallery last night, a keen group of contemporary fiction fans gathered to hear American author Jane Smiley talk about her life, her books and her love of “playing” with fiction. Jane appeared at this WORD Christchurch event with thanks to the Auckland Writers Festival.

Jane Smiley - WORD Christchurch
Jane Smiley. Flickr 2016-05-09-IMG_4137

Well-known Christchurch literary promoter Morrin Rout introduced Smiley as a “formidable chronicler of her times” who has written 27 books including adult novels, books for children and young adults, and non-fiction works on subjects as diverse as craft, computers and Charles Dickens. This woman is one smart cookie. She studied Old Norse, Old English and Old German among other languages at university and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Iceland, an experience which prompted her to write The Greenlanders (which Jonathan Franzen considers to be one of the best novels ever to come out of the USA).

Despite all this heady stuff, Jane Smiley comes across as a warm, witty, engaging woman who, like many of us, loves nothing more than trying to figure out what makes other people tick. She openly admits she grew up in a “very gossipy family” and enjoyed the talkative, mentally challenging environment.

Not surprisingly, she builds her recent trilogy,  The last 100 years, around family of similarly formidable characters. The Langdons have roots in agriculturally-based Iowa where the main topics of conversation are firstly the weather, secondly gossip and thirdly the news. Sound familiar? This certainly struck a chord with the Christchurch audience who perhaps also live in a town where “important things are happening and no one pays any attention”.

Cover Cover Cover

Jane Smiley is aware of the rare talent she has “to express a feeling in terms of an image or metaphor”. If you haven’t read her yet and you’re looking for an insightful author who will make you think, you’re in for a treat.

Jane Smiley and Rachel - WORD Christchurch
Jane and Rachel. Flickr 2016-05-09-IMG_4147

Read more:

Confessions of a Jane Smiley groupie

I’m a great fan of Jane Smiley. I came across her in the late 90s when I read Moo and was impressed by her ability to write about issues confronting contemporary humanity – in this case how agribusiness was impacting on academia – with a quick wit and a writer’s eye that can spot hypocrisy at a hundred paces.

I followed up with Good Faith in which good natured real estate agent, Joe Stratford, gets seduced by the rich pickings of the US property boom and becomes a wheeler dealer par excellence. I was hooked.

Cover of A thousand acresJane Smiley spoke at the Great Hall at the Arts Centre when she visited Christchurch to promote her 1998 historical novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and I was there in the front row. Smiley shows her range in this novel by writing about American history as competently as she does contemporary issues. And, I mustn’t forget to mention, Smiley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres.

Jane Smiley is an author to watch. She doesn’t flinch from the big themes and her penmanship would make many fellow authors want to throw down their laptops in a fit of chagrin and take up a nice, easy career in brain surgery.

When I was offered the opportunity to see her WORD Christchurch talk at the newly reopened Christchurch Art Gallery on Monday 9 May, I jumped at the chance. I’ll make sure I get there early and I get a spot in the front row again. I’m a Jane Smiley groupie and I’m not ashamed to shout it to the world!

Short and sweet

Cover of Stone MattressShort stories are delicious. Like chocolates in a box, you pick one that looks good and indulge in a bite-sized treat. I was recently stuck at Auckland Airport and lifted the lid on a copy of Stone Mattress, nine tales from the ingenious mind of Margaret Atwood. I must admit I found these stories rather moreish. Three tales and seventy five minutes later, I heard my name over the loud speaker and had to make a frenzied dash for the departure lounge.

Cover of Dear LifeOne of my favourite short story authors is Alice Munro who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her work. Her latest title Dear Life contains ten bitter sweet tales that resonate at the deepest level of the human psyche.

Cover of Between my father and the kingAt the moment I’m savouring the most recent collection of stories by Janet Frame. The critics say Between My Father and the King contains some of her best writing and includes previously unpublished work.

For exceptional collections that will give you a taste of other cultures and times, try those by Haruki Murakami, Yiyun Li, Edna O’Brien, Colette and the ever-perceptive Rose Tremain.

Apparently, the short story is one of the hardest genres to get right so I’m forever grateful that these authors have mastered the art. Short stories must be one of the most honest and immediate forms of communication around. They encapsulate moments of insight by some pretty amazing human beings and are a perfect treat at the end of a busy day. Happy sampling!

Election selection made easy (er)

Vote now - advance voting at your librariesThis weekend New Zealanders cast their votes in the country’s 51st General Election. The media and the internet are chocka with the personalities, policies, plots, subplots, secrets, lies, dirty laundry and general haranguing that will influence us one way or another on Saturday 20 September. How is it possible make a decision amidst all this fracas?

Well, like everything else these days, there is an online tool designed to help you out. Vote Compass asks your opinion of various issues, gets you to rate politicians and then compiles your answers in a nice, colourful chart. Although this is a poll, it’s still an interesting way to find out what you’re thinking. The only problem for me is that the survey shows I am 65% compatible with one party and 64% compatible with another and, as these were the parties I was thinking of voting for anyway, it hasn’t helped me one iota.

The King's Curse at Christchurch City LibrariesAlternatively, libraries are a politically neutral place to search for accurate information. Online or in the library, you’ll find everything you need to know about the political scene in New Zealand. There is a full set of electoral rolls available to view and you can do advanced voting at nine branches of Christchurch City Libraries.

I am currently reading Philippa Gregory‘s excellent Cousin’s War series and, as I plunge nightly into the terrifying quagmire that was life under the reign one history’s most tyrannical despots, I’m reminded how hard won the right to vote is and what a privilege it is to live in a stable democracy in 2014. It’s totally worth doing some homework and making a sound decision.

Zentangle your way to happiness

Cover of Joy of ZentangleI first came across zentangles when I was searching through the library new titles lists. I was fascinated. Could there really be an art form I had never come across before?

Well, yes there is. Zentangling is new, it’s fun and (truly) anyone can do it.  It’s a simple process. You take a pencil, draw a frame, add a string then fill in the spaces with ‘tangles’ or patterns using a black ink pen. There’s no rubbing out. You have to trust your intuition and let the design evolve in its own way – very Zen. The results are striking and it’s easy to produce a good looking piece of artwork in a short time.  I guess you could call it doodling with purpose.

Zentangles have been developed by calligrapher, Maria Thomas, and her Buddhist partner, Rick Roberts. One day Rick observed Maria drawing background patterns on a manuscript and noticed she was in a calm state of well-being similar to that achieved through meditation. The couple decided to develop a system that would bring this good feeling to others and zentangles were born.

You do need to become a Certified Zentangle Teacher to teach the system correctly. There are beautifully textured cards to tangle on, micron pens and pencils to buy through the Zentangle website but if you’d like to give zentangling a go without investing more than a couple of dollars – grab a notebook, a black pen and one of the titles available at Christchurch City Libraries. These books will teach you the basics and set you on the path.

I’m Zentanglethoroughly enjoying the process. I’ve heard of many creative types who’ve struggled to produce any work recently. If you’re like me and are finding it hard to concentrate, this may just be the way back to the creative zone. Limiting colour and size simplifies your choices and you never feel the need to produce something impressive or ‘worthy’. Time disappears and each line takes on its own dimension and purpose.

A zentangle is a puzzle of your own creation and only you know how to solve it. Highly recommended creative escapism.

Albert Wendt – A celebration and a fitting end to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013

Search catalogueThe final session of the 2013 Auckland Readers and Writers Festival celebrated the life and work of poet, novelist, writer, teacher, academic and artist, Albert Wendt. Robert Sullivan spoke to this gifted and charismatic author who received a warm reception from his attentive audience.

Albert Wendt has been fundamental in shaping the contemporary literature of the Pacific. In his work he confronts racism in New Zealand, speaks openly about the effects of colonial upheaval on his people and incorporates Samoan storytelling and rhythms of language into Western form. He says his novels have to work when he reads them aloud. If they don’t work, he rewrites.

His novel Sons for the Return Home, the story of a Samoan man and his Western girlfriend, was written forty years ago and has become a seminal text. Leaves of the Banyan Tree took the author over 15 years to write and has been well received around the world. His poetry is some of the most engaging and memorable work produced in this country.

Wendt is a very visual writer. When he spoke, he told us of the black beauty of the lava beds of Samoa, the sun setting over  a circle of white stones where the two oceans meet, and the black star shape of the flying fox bat as it sails overhead. It is no surprise he’s turned to painting in recent years. He says, ‘I love the tactile feeling of the paint. I can get into the zone and stay there.’

Albert Wendt at AWRF 2013Witi Ihimaera, Bill Manhire and Selina Tusitala Marsh read excerpts from Wendt’s work and the audience was treated to performances by the author’s granddaughter, talented opera singer Isabella Moore, and by the Kila Kokonut Krew.

It was a wonderful and fitting end to the celebration of literature that has been AWRF 2013. In her conclusion, organiser Anne O’Brien said 13,000 people had attended the sessions this year which is a 25% increase on last year. She thanked Albert and his peers, the writers from New Zealand and around the world, who came and made the event so worthwhile, and the audience who engaged with the authors and supported the vision of New Zealand’s largest literary festival.

Plans are already underway for the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2014. Do try and get here if you can.

Jackie Kay – ‘What you can survive makes you stronger’

Red Dust Road by Jackie KayOne of the highlights of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013 for me has been discovering the work of British author Jackie Kay. How did I manage to live so long and not come across this woman? She is a multi-award winning poet, short story writer, memoirist and novelist. She writes for children. She’s also one of the most endearing, funny, exuberant people I have come across. When she walks in a room, the energy lifts. You can’t help but be drawn to her bright smile and her genuine warmth.

Jackie Kay’s writing contains the bittersweet wisdom of someone who’s faced big challenges in their life. She was born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father then adopted by a white couple with Communist Party affiliations. In 1960s Glasgow this was unusual to say the least. This, together with her candid sexuality, means she’s faced prejudice from many quarters. Throughout it all, she’s stood by what she believes in. Jackie Kay is one amazing woman.

Her latest collection of sJackie Kay at AWRF 2013hort stories, Reality, Reality is brilliant. You’ve just got to read it. I bought it off the stand at the Festival and wolfed it down. The title story introduces a woman who performs daily cook-offs against imaginary competitors to the blinking red eye of her security alarm. At her session, Kay read from ‘Those are not my clothes’, a tragically funny story of an elderly woman in rest home. The author says she’s drawn to older women characters because their stories tend to disappear under the radar.

When I spoke to Jackie Kay, she told me she was on her way down to Christchurch on a kind of pilgrimage. Her adoptive parents met in Christchurch at the Coffee Pot above the Communist Party Bookshop. She was looking forward to finding the street they lived in which has apparently just been released from behind the Red Zone. In addition, her old neighbour from Glasgow is a psychologist and is now living in our fair city.

If you see Jackie, make her welcome. You’ll be very pleased you did.

It’s (pretty) easy being green

Back to the land at CCLWhy is a Writer’s Festival like a box of chocolates? Because there’s something inside for everyone.

Today I saw Tony Murrell, from Radio Live’s garden programme, host a lively session with The Gardener magazine editor Lynda Hallinan and sustainable gardening writer Janet Luke. All three are highly regarded gardening experts. They’re passionate about plants and their enthusiasm was infectious. I’ve never seen the microphone passed to so many people so quickly. It seemed everyone in the audience had a question to ask or a comment to add.

Tony Murrell has noticed a huge resurgence in interest in growing food at home in recent years. He laments the fact that many of today’s gardeners have lost the skills needed to grow veges successfully and have to spend money on re-education, tools, catalogues, fertilisers, etc. This results in expensive crop of perpetual spinach, lettuce and tomatoes which people get bored with and ‘turn back into camellia hedging’.

His panelists disagree. “It’s not all about money, Tony,” said Janet. “You are such an Aucklander!”

Linda said, “Don’t spend anything! Don’t build raised beds, don’t hire a garden designer, don’t buy a tonne of compost. Just buy a spade, dig a hole and plant things.” She believes gardening journalism has made it sound difficult and it’s not. “It’s natural. Plants grow and produce fruit because they are fulfilling their biological function. People think it’s harder than it is.”

Some sustainable gardening tips:

  • Lasagne your compost heap
  • Pile fallen leaves into a black polythene bag, tie it off, punch a few holes in it and store behind your garden shed for a year. It makes great compost.
  • If your plants look great above the soil but have nothing beneath, your garden has too much nitrogen and not enough potassium.
  • Janet Luke and Lynda Hallinan at AWRF 2013Blue flowers attract bees. Plant rosemary and borage to help pollination.
  • Chop out the middle of your lemon tree and prune to a vase shape.
  • Avoid systemetic sprays – they hurt bees.

If you’d like to know more, visit your library and check out Linda Hallinan’s Back to the land and Janet Luke’s Green Urban Living. They’ll give you plenty of helpful advice on how to get your garden doing what comes naturally.