I’m an avid reader of thrillers. I read both ‘stand-alone’ novels but also the increasingly popular format of a primary character that features in a series of books.
I am particularly keen – once I have found a character I can empathise with – to read them all, but the main proviso has to be that I read them in the correct order! So, it was with some trepidation that I read “Persons Unknown” as it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t starting off with a new series – Missing, Presumed had already been published featuring the main character Manon Bradshaw.
Most of the time though, even if you start out of sequence it doesn’t really matter as authors have a tendency to hark back to previous cases or anecdotal information that brings you up-to-date on past relationships and any prior connections through historical cases.
I had just started the first chapter when serendipity arrived in the guise of a library borrower wanting a reserve placed on the same book. The customer started telling me what a great book the first one had been and how she was looking forward to receiving/reading this next one. Well, you can’t get a higher recommendation than that! Actually, you can, as when I went to check out the first book Missing, Presumed I found every copy was out on loan!
Persons Unknown has a contemporary UK setting with several well-defined characters investigating a murder in Cambridgeshire which in turn leads back to the ‘wheeling and dealing’, bribery and corruption of high finance in London with its attendant pimps, high-class prostitutes and assorted recreational drugs adding inducements to major players in these corrupt dealings.
As if all of the above were not intricately woven into the complicated plot, Susie Steiner also manages to integrate a number of social issues via her main protagonist, Manon, a middle-aged woman who has adopted a pre-teen black kid but still wants to experience motherhood first-hand and meet, if not Mr Right, then at least Mr ‘I’m happy to be with you whatever the circumstances’.
Manon’s professional and personal life implode when both her adopted son, Fly and her sister, Ellie, are found to have known the murder victim and become police suspects themselves.
This is very much a character-driven novel – Manon’s personal and professional problems, hopes and fears resonate with the reader and you want her to succeed — not only in solving the case but also salvaging her precarious relationship with Fly, who is experiencing racial and institutional injustices and will no doubt be defined by these hugely negative experiences.
After such a riveting read I’m now going to go back to when it all began a few years earlier…
by Susie Steiner
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
Pop! Bang! That’s what happened – literally – when a group of New Zealand children’s authors and illustrators presented inspiring talks to hundreds of Canterbury school children, just ahead of the announcement of the 2017 winners of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
Several of the nominated authors and illustrators toured the country speaking to school children about their work and craft. Hosted in conjunction with WORD Christchurch, they addressed primary and intermediate students who came from across Canterbury to hear them speak at St. Margaret’s College. They talked about what it takes to be a writer and/or illustrator and what keeps them inspired and shared their working processes, all with the aim of sparking readers and the next generation of writers and illustrators. We share some of the highlights here.
Session One: Tania Roxborogh, Leonie Agnew and David Elliot
“Any change for good is powered by fury and passion to make the world a better place” says Tania Roxborogh, and this idea is a driving force behind the story in her book about the Bastion Point occupation for Scholastic’s My New Zealand Story series, told from a child’s point of view.
Through the process of researching and writing this book, Roxborogh was reminded that: “Retelling history is never straightforward” because “people lie, self-edit, and mis-remember” and that “people remember different things.” She added that there is also the problem of bias in New Zealand media – from the right wing as well as the left wing – which she had to take into consideration when researching for this book.
When Roxborogh visited Bastion Point to help her find her point of view for the story, she found herself humbled, prompting her to ask: “What right do I even have to tell this story?” She realised, however, that regardless of who she was, the story of the protesters was a story worth telling.
Roxborogh teaches English and Drama at a Canterbury high school and has written over 50 books.
Snark – Being a true history of the expedition that discovered the Snark and the Jabberwock … and its tragic aftermath.
Elliot’s illustrated book was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, and the Jabberwock and his presentation of museum-like artefacts and the stories he told about them would have had some in the audience wondering if his tale of the mission to discover the snark was true or not.
Elliot says he spent time living in a cottage inside Edinburgh Zoo and you have to wonder if this influenced his work illustrating weird and wonderous creatures.
For The Impossible Boy, Agnew asked: “What if a kid believes in something so much that his faith in it makes it real?” like Peter Pan’s belief in fairies, and on the flipside, “if you were an imaginary friend, what if you discovered you weren’t real?”
Agnew recommended using a little bit of non-fiction to make your fiction more real. In this case, she used the war-torn streets of Beirut in Lebanon as the inspiration for her setting of the story.
Various authors at the event talked about the hard parts of writing, when you feel like quitting or at least taking a break. Writing can take time! Agnew wrote 100 drafts of her book over 6 to 8 years. She says if you’re stuck, consider what Einstein said: You don’t solve a problem by looking at it in the same way, try looking at things from a new angle.
Agnew fits writing into her job as a primary school teacher by getting up at 5:30am to write before the school day starts. What inspired her to become a writer? Agnew “grew up in a house full of books” and her dad was a journalist who writes non-fiction, but really, she says, she “just wanted to do it.”
In the first session with Tania Roxborogh, Leonie Agnew and David Elliot I felt an overall theme of the elusive – of capturing the elusive writing spark, capturing the Snark, and elusive invisible friends. Another theme that came through for me was the theme of imagination: imagine if someone was trying to take your land, imagine wondrous creatures and lands, imagine how an imaginary friend would feel if they discovered they weren’t real. Imagine.
Session Two: Des Hunt, Jenny Cooper and Simon Pollard
Des Hunt has a love of adventure stories, science, New Zealand animals and he combines all of these into his stories. Sunken Forest was inspired by a real life summer camp he went on when he was 15 at Lake Waikaremoana, a trip that was memorable partly for sparking his interest in geology. The lake was formed during an earthquake landslide that drowned the forest. Standing tree trunks eerily remain there underwater today. Also trapped there are eels which can’t make their way back to sea to migrate to the Pacific islands to lay eggs. Unable to leave, they grow exponentially large.
In Sunken Forest, one such eel befriends Matt, who is sent to boot camp after his father, a boy racer, is sentenced to prison. At camp, Matt has to deal with bullies and getting the blame for things he didn’t do.
In his talk, Des Hunt totally engaged his audience from beginning to end, by which time he had them on the edge of their seats. He cleverly demonstrated the idea of building tension in a story by blowing up a balloon… about to burst at any moment. How do you really build tension in a story? He says: Add conflict and injustice, a disaster and… Pop!… an explosive climax.
While many of those who spoke at the event started writing or drawing as early as their primary school years, surprisingly Des only published his first fiction book when he was about 50 years old but has since written heaps of books. His passion for writing is now so strong that he can’t imagine doing anything else and he hopes to be an author until he dies. This is good news for my young son who was so inspired by Des Hunt’s presentation he immediately went and read Sunken Forest, despite never having independently read a chapter book without pictures in it before. Des certainly inspired him reader to take his reading engagement to a higher level.
It was fantastic to see instant booktalking success in action! Des tours schools doing writing workshops so see if your school can be added to his schedule.
She especially does a lot of research for illustrating the war stories, hiring models and WWI artefacts and taking hundreds of photos to draw from so she could get the details correct. The war stories she works on are “hard to illustrate because they are so sad” but equally she says, they are “really satisfying.” She added: “Sometimes the hardest and most challenging things you work on were the most rewarding.”
This was a sentiment shared by several of the speakers. Getting to a finished product takes times and many drafts! She tries 6 – 10 layouts before she has a rough drawing and after that, a finished painting may take up to 6 hours.
Pollard is a spider expert, lecturing as an adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury and he has been working with spiders for 30 to 40 years. He is interested in telling stories about what spiders get up to and recently worked with WETA Workshop on the impressive display of oversized bugs for the Bug Lab show at Te Papa Museum.
Pollard is an engaging speaker and really brings bugs to life. He told stories (complete with eek-inducing pictures) about the jewel wasp that immobilises and enslaves a cockroach so it can use it as a living nursery, laying its eggs in it to hatch. Ingenious, but gross. We also heard about the clever Japanese honey bees that kill their enemy, the Japanese hornet, by gathering together in a ball around one and quivering – the heat of their buzzing wings stops the wasp from secreting their signal for more wasps to attack them.
Then there’s the insect that looks like a spider, but isn’t, just to scare off predators. After learning all these fun facts, we were left marvelling at the magic of the natural world.
Primary and intermediate students from all over Christchurch lined up to ask lots of questions of the authors and illustrators after they spoke. Here are their inquisitive questions, and answers aimed at inspiring young readers, writers and artists.
What were some of your favourite books (growing up and now) and what writers would you recommend?
An integral part of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults is the HELL Reading Challenge, now in its fourth year. It has been hugely successful in getting kids reading and enjoying the pleasure of stories (and pizza). Kids can pick up their reading challenge cards at Christchurch City Libraries (until December 2017).
Who isn’t writing crime and mystery novels these days? If Dickens, Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope were around now, they’d be making sure that murder and detection was the place to be.
Interesting authors in this field doing the murder route include Jessica Fellowes, (niece of the man who gave the world Downton Abbey), with The Mitford murders, John Gordon Sinclair (the actor from the much loved comedy Gregory’s girl), has a mystery coming up called Walk in silence and Lottie Moggach, daughter of Deborah, has Under the sun.
Aside from promising crime there is a new novel by Salman Rushdie, The golden house, which deals with Obama and Trump America.
A former Booker winner Roddy Doyle has a new novel called Smile.
And don’t forget the Film Festival coming up. One of the most interesting films is an adaptation of the Thomas Cullinan novel The beguiled. Originally made as a vehicle for Clint Eastwood, the novel now gets a feminist makeover by Sofia Coppola with Nicole Kidman leading the cast. We have the reprint of the novel on order.
What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?
Meeting John Safran (big fan) and having the opportunity to ask him questions about his fascinating descent into the world of Australian fundamentalism. His book is perplexing, hilarious, and deeply depressing and the chance to have an hour with him is absolutely going to be the highlight of my very brief visit. And I will see what else I can cram into my 7 or so hours there at the festival, naturally. I really must check the programme!
What do you think about libraries?
At school I immersed myself in the library. While others romped around the sports field I lost myself for hours just walking the aisle and randomly pulling books from shelves to devour in a perpetual romp of discovery. And I always remember a photo I saw in a mining museum in a former colliery in Yorkshire, of miners in their Sunday best, standing outside the brand new library they had fundraised for, the looks on their faces saying they knew that they had created the potential to allow simple escapism, to educate, and emancipate all who entered its walls. But I worry that there are those who say that they are outdated, unneeded in a world of Google. Nonsense. Long form reading, curation, discovery, simply a place to escape to physically as well as intellectually, are all of the utmost import in our current times.
What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?
I think just walking around the city again, taking it in. I haven’t been there for 3 years or so so it will be nice to scratch its back again.
What do you think about libraries?
I love them. I feel connected to the world when I’m in a library. And to a specific locality at the same time. And I feel like I’m around people who love stories and books. Libraries are full of kindred spirits.
What would be your “desert island book”?
I’ve just bought Les Murray’s ‘Bunyah.’ So it would be a perfect chance to glory in it.
Share a surprising fact about yourself.
I am made of 37 trillion cells that have no idea who I am.
I’d be the first to admit I judge books by their covers all the time, but sometimes the blurb is so compelling I have to try the first chapter anyway. Such was the case with Noteworthy, a book with a deceptively bland cover much like the author’s previous book, Seven Ways We Lie. I mean, look at them! A+ for colour-matching but C- for covers that don’t match the content:
Actually don’t look at them, just open them up and start reading instead, because listen to the description of Noteworthy:
After learning that her deep voice is keeping her from being cast in plays at her exclusive performing arts school, Jordan Sun, junior, auditions for an all-male octet hoping for a chance to perform internationally.
I didn’t realise I needed a book about a girl going undercover in an all-male a cappella group, but I definitely did. The blurb doesn’t mention it but she auditions and spends much of the book passing as a teenage boy and (against her first inclinations) becoming friends with the other members of the group. The author describes her book as “approx. 1/3 slapstick comedy, 1/3 hideous music puns, and 1/3 explorations of toxic masculinity and performative femininity,” which is fairly accurate, so if you’re a fan of puns and a cappella and figuring out who you are while pretending to be someone you aren’t, then give Noteworthy a try. If you want something a bit darker with a larger cast of characters, each based loosely on one of the seven sins, then try Seven Ways We Lie.
Ramona Blue is the most recent novel by Julie Murphy, whose book Dumplin’ I enjoyed last year. They have similar themes of teenage girls in small towns trying to be confident in who they are while suffering from crippling doubts, but where Dumplin’s self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean deals with this by entering the local beauty pageant, Ramona Blue is aggressively happy to stay living in a trailer with her dad and supporting her pregnant sister, definitely isn’t frustrated that she can’t go to college, definitely isn’t upset that her summer girlfriend has gone back home to her boyfriend.
In the middle of all this Ramona’s childhood friend Freddie moves back into town and they start swimming at the local pool, which Ramona turns out to be rather good at, and maybe also start having feelings for each other, but that can’t be right because Ramona has always known she was gay, hasn’t she? And she still likes girls, so what’s going on? Spoiler! it’s the elusive bisexual, now captured in fiction. I was worried when I realised the direction the book was going in but it was handled really well, and is only one strand of Ramona’s complex story.
If that’s still too light-hearted for you then maybe you’ll appreciate Tiffany D. Jackson’s grim debut, Allegedly.
Inspired by a similar case in Maine five years ago, Allegedly is told from the perspective of the now sixteen-year-old girl (Mary) convicted of manslaughter of a white infant when she was only nine. Her case is famous; books have been written, a film is in the works, and at the time of her trial the public were pushing for the death penalty. Eight years later she’s living in a group home while attempting to study for her SATs despite the interference of the women who run the home and the other girls living in it — while newly pregnant. The discovery that the authorities will take away her baby when he’s born prompts Mary to re-open her case, declaring she has been innocent all along. Was she? Or is she just doing whatever it takes to keep her unborn child?
Right at the end of the School Holidays I succumbed to ‘The bug’.
Temperature, shivers, face-ache, sneezing, splutterings, sore throat, several hot-water bottles, over the counter meds and copious amounts of tea/coffee/honey, lemon and ginger combos later, I am now dealing with a more head cold-like scenario. What really upset me is my diligence in having the Flu Jab appears to have been for nowt!! Swiftly moving on …
Streaming eyes and almost constant nose-blowing meant that the only source of entertainment I could tolerate was talking-books … Plug in and LISTEN. So I did.
First offering from OverDrive audiobooks was Round the Horne Movie Spoofs. In my weakened state I managed several wry smiles – OK 1960s British ‘camp’ humour admittedly, but quite clever for all that although one offering was sufficient as smiling wasn’t helping the face & teeth-ache symptoms!
Second offering was The Captive Queen the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine – wife of two kings – King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England, and mother of such notables as Richard the Lionheart and King John (of ‘Magna Carta’ fame). I just thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t live in huge, draughty castles and gratefully placed my hot water bottles in my ‘nest of rest’ set-up for the requisite warmth and comfort.
Third offering I had picked up from the library prior to being ‘felled’ – I persevered, but really CDs don’t work in a sick-room environment. The constant getting up to change the discs is tiring. It takes forever to rearrange yourself back to that exact comfortable position you had previously discovered. But then, adding insult to injury, just as you start to feel relaxed and drowsy, the sonorous tones of the narrator announce that ‘this ends Disc xx’. Do this manoeuvre fifteen times and you are ready to hurl said CD Player through the bedroom window. Common sense prevailed as this would have left me both freezing cold and wet as rain lashed down the east coast of the South Island. Sufficed to say I can remember little of the plot or characters.
Final offering is a BBC Radio dramatization of an Ellis Peters ‘Cadfael’ mystery and will keep me going until I feel ready to open the physical pages of a book.
My listening choices will, in all probability, not be yours, BUT the variety that is available is a fantastic resource to have with just a library card and a Pin/Password.
23 July marks the 5th anniversary of the passing of one of Christchurch’s most famous locals, Margaret Mahy.
One of New Zealand’s most prolific writers for children and young adults, Margaret’s writing has touched lives over many generations. Her stories and poems are full of magic and fun with a moral tale in the weaving.
Many of her tales have been brought to the the screen.The Changeover, filmed locally, will be released on film on 28 September 2017.
Margaret Mahy has been an inspiration to writers. She established a retreat for authors in Governor’s Bay, and in her video A Tall Long Faced Tale she tells how publishers would often ask her to rewrite a story up to eleven times! Take note.
I was lucky enough to meet Margaret at the 100th anniversary of the New Zealand School Journal. There she was, in her famous rainbow wig, for all the world holding court at the National Library of Wellington. She signed my journal. I’ll never forget it.