14 of our libraries here in Christchurch are hosting National Simultaneous Storytime tomorrow – Wednesday 23 May – at 1pm. You are welcome to come and join in – our librarians will be reading Hickory Dickory Dash by Tony Wilson, illustrated by Laura Wood, and published by Scholastic.
On Tuesday evening I attended the WORD Christchurch event where the English comedian and author, Robert Webb, conversed with Michele A’Court about his book How Not to be a Boy. A’Court suggested How not to be a boy is a “feminist memoir written by a man”. Webb demurred at that description and joked that the “F word” would ruin his chances of sales success.
Webb said that all throughout his life he had thought about gender and the way it defines roles and sets up certain expectations. So when he came to write a memoir, it seemed natural to use gender and its constrictions as a unifying theme.
As a boy, Webb discovered he did not seem to meet the expectations of what a boy should be. He was quiet and shy and not good at sports. Also, he was terrified of his father whom he describes as a violent, philandering, Lincolnshire woodcutter who didn’t really know how to bring up a young family.
Webb’s parents divorced when he was five, and he was brought up by his mother with whom he had a close relationship. Webb described how he felt most at ease in his mother’s company and he recalled fondly how he and his Mum would often sing along loudly with the stereo in the car. When Webb’s mother died of cancer when he was seventeen, he was devastated.
This experience served to illustrate to Webb that the “boys don’t cry” emotional repression that society seems to expect of males is a toxic expectation that does nobody any good. After his mother’s death, he moved back in with his father, had to retake his O Levels and eventually made it to Cambridge University where, because he had not processed his grief, he fell apart. He sought therapy at Cambridge which he found very helpful. Although not talking about one’s feelings was another trait society expected of males, Webb found talking about his feelings was exactly what he needed in order to heal emotionally.
During the evening, Webb read a couple of excerpts from his book. One was an account of his early teens where a male classmate who was pinching all the girls’ bottoms was challenged by another boy who received a smack in the mouth for his trouble. When the harasser was chastised in class by the teacher, Webb felt a sense of shame that he had been a silent enabler and not a “gentleman” like the boy who stood up to the harasser.
Another excerpt concerned the plethora of books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus which Webb saw as letting men off the hook when it came to dealing with their relationships.
Although Webb realised his book appealed to middle-aged feminists, he secretly hoped copies of the book might be passed around in juvenile detention centres and boarding schools. He said he didn’t claim to be any kind of expert and that is why he had employed a tone of self-mockery. He hoped that by using jokes and describing the many things he has done wrong, he could present some serious ideas about gender roles to a male readership and get them thinking about how gender expectations might be limiting their own lives.
Lucky to see the fabulous @arobertwebb tonight, Robert's self deprecating vulnerability draws you into a vital, heartfelt discussion around masculinity and gender performance. Couldn't resist asking for my fave Mitchell&Webb quote in the signing, thank you! @WORDChChpic.twitter.com/ldabJaPdzr
Taking over from Dame Ngaio Marsh, one of the original Queens of Crime, would be a daunting prospect for any writer, but Stella Duffy (winner of the CWA Dagger Award, and Stonewall Writer of the Year) has beautifully risen to this task in the new inspector Alleyn novel, ‘Money in the Morgue‘.
Set in New Zealand during World War Two, Marsh’s beloved detective finds himself called into a murder investigation, right in the middle of an espionage case. The novel opens when courier Mr Glossip finds himself marooned at a military hospital, thanks to a terrific storm. When the wages which Glossip has just delivered go missing, then an unexpected body turns up in the morgue, it is left to inspector Alleyn to unravel the nights mysteries. He does so with his usual charm, and perfect manners (let’s just say you wouldn’t be surprised to read that upon being asked by Alleyn to pass along the salt, a woman fainted by his feet).
His sidekick is a kind of inspector Fox substitute and cunningly, there are so many mentions of inspector Fox as Duffy talks about this man who is clearly not inspector Fox, that by the end of it you have somehow wound up concluding that this clearly not inspector Fox man, is actually Inspector Fox. There is also mention of Troy, as Alleyn tries and fails to pen a letter to her (but manages an epic three page masterwork to inspector Fox, just saying).
In many respects, Duffy is the ideal candidate to finish a novel started by Ngaio Marsh. As well as being an esteemed writer of sixteen novels (five of these being crime), like Ngaio Marsh, Duffy spent her childhood in New Zealand, moved to London, and as a producer, and scriptwriter, has had a long standing relationship with the theatre. There are some lovely references to the world of theatre, in particular Shakespeare, as Alleyn absently quotes the Bard to himself on several occasions, much to the bewilderment of the local constabulary.
As Eric Morecambe would have said to Ernie Wise you just ‘can’t see the join’, when you read ‘Money in the Morgue’. The two writers just dovetail so perfectly. Later I learnt that Marsh wrote the first three chapters of this work, Duffy the rest, but had it not been for a sneaky look at a interview with Stella Duffy, and one tell tale passage toward the end of the novel (where Alleyn muses on New Zealand as being like a ‘living entity”, not the most 30s European attitude toward the land) I would not have picked this for myself.
There is a strong cast of characters too including shell shocked Dr Hughes, the stern yet endearing Sister Comfort, and the sparky Rosamund Farquharson. Marsh and Duffy conjure to life an intriguing array of suspects, against the dramatic backdrop of WWII New Zealand. Readers are treated to some evocative descriptions of the land, as well as some lovely insights into New Zealand culture, as seen through the eyes of a young Māori soldier, corporal Brayling. The ending is a satisfying one (all important for any mystery) and the novel is consistently packed with all the fun and endearing Alleyn moments a fan could wish for. This is a truly fantastic partnership between two queens of crime that will leave you wanting more. With any luck, another of Marsh’s unfinished works will be unearthed soon and we will be treated to another Marsh/Duffy installment in this classic series.
Money in the morgue
by Stella Duffy and Ngaio Marsh
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
Ngaio Marsh House event – Sunday 27 May 2pm
The Ngaio Marsh House and Heritage Trust is putting on an event to celebrate the Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy’s new novel “The Money in the Morgue”:
Celebrate with style and panache the publication of Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy’s new novel “The Money in the Morgue”. Be theatrical and wear your vintage clothing, fedoras or berets.
You will get to view the improvements to the Ngaio Marsh House, and then got to Cashmere Presbyterian Church for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and entertainment. Scorpio Books will have a selection of Ngaio’s book’s for purchase.
The auditorium was packed full of excited kids and parents. We were all waiting for 6 o’clock to finally arrive and the star to walk out on stage, I looked around at the demographics represented. It was wonderful seeing kids of all ages present – most clutching well-worn copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. I’m sure one kid was carrying the whole series, his stack of books was almost too big to carry. Several kids got up to boogie along to the pumped vibe music – it was just too exciting to keep still.
Finally Jeff Kinney himself walked on stage – oh my gosh, one of the coolest authors for kids was actually within throwing distance!
If you want to get your kid into reading, introduce them to Diary of a Wimpy kid. You won’t regret it.
He talked a bit about his history, why he became an author and things from his childhood that shaped him. Reading all kinds of things from his local bookstore was a big part of his childhood, particularly comics.
“Comics can also be literature” he said.
Remember that, pictures and the meaning they bring are so important. His books have his cartoons dispersed throughout the text. He describes this as “little islands to swim to,” which is why these books are so great for all levels of readers.
Encourage your kid to read comics, if that’s what they like.
Jeff’s iPad was hooked up to the big screens, so we could see him draw in action. He taught us how to draw his main characters, and showed us how a slight difference in line can make the character have a completely different emotion.
Have a go! Then try do it blindfolded. He had a couple of volunteers up on stage drawing with him, with hilarious results.
It all ended too quickly, and I can’t wait till I get to see him speak again.
Ever found yourself asking “What will get my younger reader hooked on reading? Here’s a few key tips from librarians:
Graphic novels (or comics) are legit
They actually use more of your brain than just reading words alone, because you’re deciphering the messages from the words and the pictures together – so don’t tell me they’re not real reading, ok!
Audio books are also great If the reading isn’t for school and you just want to foster a love of reading – include some audio books! Kids don’t need to be challenged all the time. With an audio book, a kid can get the joy of the story and use their imagination, without the possible struggle or brain strain of reading
Over-size fiction = amazing Ask a librarian where they’re stored at your local library. They’re kind of a cross between a picture book and a chapter book. Sometimes they don’t have many words at all, but the meaning is really deep. Otherwise, just pick up a great picture book!
Be the change Are you reading yourself? Do you read to them? Also, start to think about reading being fun and model that in how you react to what they choose (or don’t choose) to read (that Minecraft book is reading too).
Here’s a few great lists with fantastic titles to hook your younger reader:
A recent addition to the children’s fiction shelves, Pax by Sara Pennypacker is a deeply emotional story that explores the special connection between a boy and his fox. The narratives of the two main characters, Peter and his fox Pax, are beautifully entwined in the tale of an epic journey through a world threatened by war.
Peter and Pax have both faced difficult family challenges early in their lives. When Peter finds and rescues Pax, an important relationship begins to develop that proves mutually supportive and healing. When Peter and Pax are separated by forces beyond their control (the decisions of their human elders and the destructive forces of war) the strength of their bond calls each of them back to one another. Their journey to be reunited turns into a voyage of self discovery. Along the way, both characters encounter two- and four-legged companions that hesitantly, yet expertly, guide them. But will they ever manage to find each other and will their respective experiences have changed the bond between them?
This is a story that presents a realistic view of life from the perspective of both children and animals. As hinted at in the naming of the fox Pax, it explores the journey taken to find an inner peace. The novel addresses mature topics such as war, grief and anger. These are treated sensitively, and balanced with discussion of ideas such as acceptance, the peace and freedom that comes from knowing oneself, what it really means to be home – and the importance of letting go.
Perhaps more suitable for readers 8 years and older, it may still suit those in the younger age bracket if time is allowed for discussion around some of the heavier themes involved. It is also a fantastic read for teenagers and adults! I particularly enjoyed the way in which Pennypacker’s extensive research of red fox behaviour lent credibility to the story of Pax. The portrayal of Pax’s thoughts and feelings is realistic and offers the kind of insight not often seen in more idealised animal characters of children’s fiction.
With both dystopian and fairytale undertones, the world of Peter and Pax is brought to life in the book with the aid of the moody illustrations of Jon Klassen. The author Sara Pennypacker also wrote the acclaimed Clementine series as well as many other popular children’s stories.
If you are interested in this book you may also wish to take a look at…
Diary this! On Tuesday 15 May 7.30pm, WORD Christchurch, in association with Auckland Writers Festival, presents Robert Webb in conversation with Kiwi comedian and writer Michele A’Court. Robert is a comedian, actor, and writer, appearing in such gems as Peep Show and Mitchell & Webb. Hewill be speaking about his new book How Not To Be a Boy at the Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College, 12 Winchester St, Merivale. Robert will also be signing copies of his book after he speaks. Find out more and buy your tickets.
In his book, Robert looks back to his childhood, through to his university years where he met his friend and comic partner, David Mitchell (both performing for the famous Cambridge Footlights). We are with him for his school days, and as he grapples with grief after the death of his mother.
Growing up, Webb found that society expected boys and men to love sport and play rough, drink beer, never to talk about their feelings, and never to cry. When Webb became a father, he began thinking about the expectations society has of boys and men – and how these expectations were often at best, absurd, and at worst, limiting and emotionally damaging.
Webb will discuss, among other subjects, how various relationships made him who he is as a man, the life lessons we learn as sons and daughters, and “the understanding that sometimes you aren’t the Luke Skywalker of your life – you’re actually Darth Vader.”
I’ve just read five books in a row written by male authors. I’ll freely admit that this doesn’t qualify as a statistically significant sample. And yet I feel compelled to wade right in and share with you my thoughts on the abilities of men to really really understand their female characters. We’re not talking Nicholas Sparks here, so Buckle Up. It could be a bumpy ride.
In my fantasy “authors I have a bit of a crush on” life, for some reason I have William Boyd pegged as a Big Game Hunter type of a man – leaning nonchalantly against a muddy Landrover, smoking a Camel. As a result I’m always taken by surprise to rediscover that he writes really well about women. In The Dreams of Bethany Melmoth the portrayal of Bethany herself is very finely wrought. However, not to move the goalposts, I think that Boyd is trying to appeal to a female readership here, I just can’t picture male readers taking to this book at all.
Colin Cotterill gets round the problem of writing about women by simply excluding them, if not altogether, in the main. In The Rat Catcher’s Olympics there are really only two female characters and they are like male characters only with female names and husbands. This doesn’t deter me from Cotterill as an author, as his male characters have quite well-developed feminine sides anyway. Colin (I feel we are on first name terms) is the only author I have ever tried to meet: in Chiang Mai at The Blue Diamond Cafe which I had heard he frequented. The Rat Catchers Olympics is a hard novel to recommend to others. Dr Siri is an acquired taste and you need to have a high tolerance level for all things Laotian and in this book, Russian.
Chris Bohjalian in The Flight Attendant, takes the cliché of a promiscuous air hostess and weaves an unsettling murder mystery out of it. Like a lot of male authors he’s really better at vampish/bad girl females – chances are you’ll not easily recognise yourself in Cassie.
Deon Meyer in the brilliantly dystopian Fever gets round the whole issue by paring the female presence in his books right down to the bare minimum – the very beautiful and the very sporty. Post an apocalyptic disaster, guess what? It will still be a man’s world!
Only William Nicholson in Adventures in Modern Marriage comes even close to trying to get under the skin of females you might meet in your everyday life. One woman at a time he does this really well, but he too has a problem with interactions between women – which , let’s give credit here, he does at least attempt to portray.
This seems to me to be a major problem area for many male authors. They struggle to write about women in groups, they have no ear for dialogue between women.
When looking for a book to read, there are a few boxes that I prefer to be ticked: strong female protagonist, sassy side characters, fantasy dystopian futures with rebellions and creative interpretation of both sides being morally grey (hey, I didn’t say that the check list was realistic).
Carve the Mark, upon first glance, appears to fulfil this perfectly. There are bad guys, there are good guys. Both think they’re good, both have morally corrupt aspects. And in the middle of it all, there’s Cyra and Akos, diametrically opposed foes, bound together by fate.
My personal thoughts:
I have not read the Divergent series (gasp), and I tend to avoid authors who have copious amounts of fan service behind them, worrying that their next book will fall flat as a pancake. My initial hesitation was correct. It took more effort to get past the first fifty pages of exposition than reading all of Brisingr by Christopher Paolini.
Things happened. Characters that I was supposed to somehow be attached to died. The main character’s gift was hurting her. That’s it. You can now skip the first fifty pages and get into the actual story. You’re welcome.
Once it actually got into the story, I was pleased to find it improved. Relationships and conflicts felt real, there were a few twists that I didn’t quite expect. However, what I truly found great about this book was its main character Cyra.
My best friend from high school suffered from chronic pain, and I found the description of Cyra’s curse to be relatable and realistic, not shying away from the ever-present pain. It wasn’t something that could simply be lifted by magic. It was something that had bad days and worse days, and through therapy and self-reflection could be managed.
TL;DR 7/10, but skip the first bit
Carve the Mark
by Veronica Roth
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
The night’s chair was Morrin Rout, WORD Christchurch trustee and host of the Plains FM show Bookenz.
Bill Wicks is an ex-military man and surveyor whose book Different Shadows is part of a series centred on Sergeant Harry Brent, who has been put to pasture solving cold cases while he recovers from a hunting injury. Bill uniquely sets the action in Christchurch and Queenstown. This case has something to do with a bombed latrine…
Katherine Hayton works in insurance and writes fantasy and crime in her spare time. Her newest book, The Only Secret Left to Keep, is the third book in the Ngaire Blakes Mystery series, based on a Māori policewoman based in Christchurch. Highly topical, the story begins with a body found in the aftermath of the Port Hills Fires in the summer of 2017, and traces a trail of evidence back to the divisive Springbok Tour of the 1980s.
Last but certainly not least, we heard from ex-opera singer and local historian Edmund Bohan. Unfortunately he didn’t sing for us. Edmund has written six mysteries for nineteenth century Inspector O’Rorke to ponder. A Suitable Time for Vengeance and The Lost Taonga bring this popular character back for a final two books in the series.
Katherine knew she wanted to write a trilogy so she set aside parts of Ngaire’s life; backgrounding, saving confronting moments such as her relationship and an ‘I’m going to die’ moment for other books. She feels she is finished with Ngaire, but may develop another character from this into another series.
Edmund’s O’Rorke is popular with the ladies. Edmund wanted to write a sensation novel that transferred to a New Zealand setting. In New Zealand’s quite violent nineteenth century, when there was much political and religious unrest, the Inspector is dragged out of retirement to track down the ‘dreaded Linsky,’ a stealer of bodies. The overarching theme in this series is that you can never escape your past.
Bill’s protagonist Sergeant Harry Brent is ‘basically normal’, just slightly flawed. Well none of us are perfect. Harry, unlike O’Rorke, is not very good with women. He wonders if he’s tough enough for the job. It’s a tough job. Bill’s writing has a military flavour, but this series is not gory like Bill’s first nonfiction book, A Long Way to Come to Die.
All agree there is a fair bit of not pleasant research to be done in order to appear authentic. Katherine talks to American detectives online, Edmund and Bill draw on their professional experience and contacts, while all three read widely in the genre.
When it comes to publishing, each has approached a different option. Katherine publishes eBooks, while Edmund recommends the benefit of remaining with a lifelong publisher (Hazard Press), if possible, to preserve the continuity of series writing.
Bill’s wife Gabrielle was tasked with the job of editing and getting published. She embraced it gladly, saying it was much nicer than that other horrible book” (A Long Way to Go to Die – a book as gory as a Peter Jackson exhibition). Getting sponsorship from the Spinal Trust where she had worked before retirement, Bill and Gabrielle self-published. Says Gabrielle :
” I didn’t want anyone to tear Bill’s stories to bits.”
The Ngaio Marsh Awards, to be held in September as part of the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival, were established by Craig Sisterson, in response to the literary elite’s (who remain unnamed, but may be publishers…) continued view of Crime Fiction as ‘not literature’, despite the genre’s rising popularity internationally.
Sadly due to family illness, fourth author Justin Warren, author of Forgotten Lands, couldn’t be there.