Fiona Farrell and her healing gift to Christchurch

There is no greater gift a writer could give to their own people than a story. Fiona Farrell’s book  The villa at the edge of the empire was nominated as one of the best non-fiction books of the year (NZ Book Awards) – a nomination which is entirely and unquestionably deserved. But The Villa is much more than magnificently and subtly narrated story about the Christchurch earthquakes. It is a precious tribute to the Christchurch community, its individuals and every human being ever affected by an earthquake.

Talking to Fiona is as much a pleasure as reading her books. I was very lucky to spend a rainy afternoon with her, talking about earthquakes, writing and other things that make us human.

fiona farrell
“Trying to make something beautiful, coherent and logical … felt necessary.” Fiona Farrell about writing of her book The villa at the edge of the empire.


It will be 6 years on Sunday since the 2010 earthquake. The rebuilding of the city is still going on and it’s proving to be much longer process than anyone imagined. It is almost impossible to describe how long it takes to rebuild a city to anyone, who has not experienced the aftermath.

It wasn’t just one quake. It has been ongoing. We are about to 15,000 aftershocks, each one a minor earthquake. It is such a long drawn out process. It’s not like a war, which has an ending. It has its own timetable, its own agenda and that’s a very, very, long time, beyond human comprehension.

That reminds me of the ending of The Villa, which I find very beautiful. You end it from an assuring, wider, almost cosmic perspective, which works really calmingly after a read, that can possibly be unsettling for many.

Getting that angle on human behaviour is essential. At any one time, when you’re a human being, you have to believe that everything that you do, think and say is quite important, while on the other hand living with the certainty that everything you do, think and say in the great scheme of things is completely irrelevant. You have to hold both realities in your head. For me, this was a habit of thinking that I got into as a child. I had quite an unhappy family and one of the ways I used to cope with it when I was little, was to lie in my bed and think of myself just going up, through the ceiling, until it was all really really tiny. That’s how I handled it as a child. So it’s not some kind of adult philosophy, but an instinctive way. I think everyone has ways of handling unhappiness and finding techniques for survival.

The narrative in The Villa starts very wide, dives deep into the history, with comparisons between Berlin and Christchurch. After that, it nicely narrows and focuses on Christchurch and later on to Avon Loop. I really like the way narration flows from a wide perspective into something smaller.

When I’m writing I often think it’s like making a film, where you use close up and wide angle, and move between the two.

Avon Loop View, 11 August 2007
Avon Loop View, 11 August 2007, Kete Christchurch, by Cecil (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 NZ)

I think it also works very well for people who have experienced the earthquake in Christchurch and everything that followed, but also for people who haven’t had this experience because it gives a reader space to move. I was wondering when you realized while writing that you need to take an outside perspective of what’s happening in Christchurch and visit L’Aquila in Italy. Was that a conscious decision? Continue reading

Lumber on an epic scale

cover of BarkskinsI discovered at the weekend with a rapidly beating heart, that one of my all time favourite writers,  Annie Proulx, has released a new novel.

Thirteen years since her last novel, Barkskins is, by all accounts, a rip snorter. According to what I can glean from good old Mr Google, it is 736 pages long, spanning 3 centuries, and tells the story of two French immigrants in the new land of America. They are bound to a feudal lord for three years and are sent to work in the dense and remote forests of the New World in exchange for a promise of land. The book follows them and their descendants from 1693 through to the 21st century and various family members travel all over the world, including to little old New Zealand.

Annie Proulx first caught my eye when I read The Shipping News, another great story of families, set in Newfoundland. I have never forgotten the ways she described snow and ice and barren landscapes and the families and eccentrics who lived amongst it.

Cover of The shipping news

Accordion Crimes was also a favourite, charting the lives of immigrants settling in America through the life of an accordion that is handed down through families; Jewish, Irish, Italian and many others.

Both The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain (a short story originally), were also made into movies, both well worth watching.

Ms Proulx, now in her eighties, was a bit of a late bloomer, with her first short stories published in her 50s and her first novel in 1992. She has gone onto to publish 13 works and win over twenty literary prizes, including a Pulitzer prize for The Shipping News.

Her novels and short storys are filled with hard bitten complex characters and landscapes that are wonderful described, I find I get immersed in her stories and I think this is because she herself has led a full and intense life, always on her own terms. She has been married and divorced three times and has raised three sons alone. She worked as postal worker and a waitress, and early on a writer of magazine articles on everything from chilli growers to canoeing.

She has two history degrees, drifted the countryside in her pickup truck, can fly fish, fiddle, and hunt game birds. But for all her life experience, she has said that she likes to write about what she doesn’t know, rather than draw on what she has already experienced. If you haven’t read her books, I strongly recommend them.

So, I’m on the library waiting list, hoping the book arrives quickly so I can again revel in her wondrous prose!

Bleaker than bleak

For some reason, it took me ages to read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. I’ve been told it’s been very popular in book groups and it’s been shortlisted for a few literary prizes. It was one long read, but not because it was boring or dreary, far from it, I had settled into a reading malaise and just didn’t read very much.

Cover of Burial rites

This is Hannah Kent’s first novel and it is based on fact. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be put to death in Iceland, in 1829.

A servant with a past as bleak as an Icelandic winter, Agnes is found guilty for her part in the murder of two men, one of whom was her employer and in the book, her lover as well.

The author has used a great deal of factual information and certainly done her homework to make details as accurate as possible, but also filled in the emotional details and made a sympathetic case for Agnes’ innocence with fictional aspects. Agnes is regarded still today in Iceland as an evil woman of almost witch-like proportions.

I loved the book, it was very evocative of the landscape, time period and people, and Agnes became very real to me, a woman whose circumstances overwhelmed her control over her own life and future. Knowing it was based on a person who existed and met such a tragic end, made it all the more riveting.

Since becoming obsessed with Vikings through the television series, and Danish crime dramas such as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, anything set up there in the cold Northern climes piques my interest. The intense, dark and never ending winters, the hard lives and meagre existences hold a great deal of fascination.

I look forward to Kent’s next book.

Listen to the Grammy nominated CD from the NZSO

Naxos8-570611The NZSO has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

A recording of works by Chinese composer Zhou Long and the Symphony ‘Humen 1839’, written in collaboration with compatriot Chen Yi, is in the running for this prestigious prize. Singaporean Darrell Ang conducts the recording, which is released on the Naxos label.

“The works are exciting and colourful and provide many opportunities for the orchestra to display its affinity with contemporary music from the Asia-Pacific region,” says Christopher Blake, NZSO Chief Executive.

“This is one of many international collaborations and projects the NZSO has been involved in over the past few years. I’m proud that our players have been acknowledged for their artistic excellence and we look forward to the announcement of the winner next year.”

Widely regarded as one of China’s leading composers, Pulitzer Prize-winning Zhou Long writes music which is consistently compelling. The Rhyme of Taigu revives the spirit of Chinese court music from the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), drawing on traditional percussion instruments. Symphony ‘Humen 1839’, co-composed with Chen Yi, vividly commemorates the public burning of over 1000 tonnes of opium, an event that was to lead to the First Opium War between Great Britain and China.

Listen to Zhou, Long / Chen, Yi: Symphony, “Humen 1839” along with  Zhouu, Long: The Rhyme of Taigu / The Enlightened (New Zealand Symphony, Darrell Ang) with Naxos Music Online and your library card.

Listen to a selection of nominees for the Grammy Awards.

You may think the Grammy Award is all about D’Angelo and Taylor Swift and people you may never have heard about (or indeed care about), but wait there is more! Indeed the 83 different nomination categories are as wide as Best Album notes, Best Historical Album, Best Spoken Word Album, Best improvised Jazz Solo and Best Surround Sound Album.

Naxos Music Online who specialise in mostly Classical Music have made lists of recordings that have been nominated for Grammys and are available through Naxos Music Online – over 35 hours of recordings in a wide range of styles.

BRUCKNER, A.: Symphony No. 4, "Romantic" (1886 version, ed. L. Nowak) (Pittsburgh Symphony, Honeck)SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphony No. 10 (Boston Symphony, Nelsons)Orchestral Music - PISTON, W. / ANTHEIL, G. / COPLAND, A. (Spirit of the American Range) (Oregon Symphony, C. Kalmar)ZHOU, Long / CHEN, Yi: Symphony, "Humen 1839" / ZHOU, Long: The Rhyme of Taigu / The Enlightened (New Zealand Symphony, Darrell Ang)MONTEVERDI, C.: Ritorno d`Ulisse in patria (Il) [Opera] (Guimarães, Rivera, Boston Baroque, Pearlman)MOZART, W.A.: Entführung aus dem Serail (Die) [Opera] (Damrau, Prohaska, Villazon, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nézet-Séguin)RAVEL, M.: Enfant et les sortilèges (L`) [Opera] (Leonard, Madore, SKF Matsumoto Chorus, Saito Kinen Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa)STEFFANI, A.: Niobe, regina di Tebe [Opera] (Gauvin, Jaroussky, Forsythe, Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Stubbs)BEETHOVEN, L. van: Missa Solemnis (Kühmeier, Kulman, Padmore, Müller-Brachmann, Bavarian Radio Chorus and Symphony, Haitink)Choral Music - RATCLIFF, C. / KIRCHNER, S. / GRANTHAM, D. (Pablo Neruda: The Poet Sings) (Conspirare, C.H. Johnson)Vocal Recital: Padmore, Mark - HAYDN, F.J. / MOZART, W.A. / BEETHOVEN, L. vanVocal Recital: DiDonato, Joyce - HAYDN, J. / ROSSINI, G. / SANTOLIQUIDO, F. / DE CURTIS, E. / FOSTER, S.C. / KERN, J. / NELSON, H. (Joyce and Tony)PUCCINI, G.: Opera Arias (Nessun Dorma - The Puccini Album) (Kaufmann, Santa Cecilia Academy Orchestra, Rome, Pappano)ROUSE, C.: Seeing / Kabir Padavali (Trevigne, Weiss, Albany Symphony, Miller)Opera Arias (Soprano): Bar toli, Cecilia - ARAJA, F. / RAUPACH, H.F. / DALL`OGLIO, D.KARPMAN, Laura: Ask Your Mama - Moods for JazzPAULUS, S.: Three Places of Enlightenment / Veil of Tears / Grand Concerto (Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)RZEWSKI, F.: People United will never be Defeated (The) / Four Hands (Oppens, Lowenthal)

Listen with Naxos Music Online and your library card.

Geraldine Brooks and the Pulitzer Surprise!

The Secret ChordWhen Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel March in 2006, she had no idea that her book was even up for consideration. At home with her eight year old son, painting figurines, she did not even believe the first caller. Her little boy answered the door when a florist delivery came and said: “Mummy can’t come now, she is having a Pulitzer Surprise!”

And last night in Christchurch at a WORD Christchurch event, The People of the Book were out in full force to hear Pulitzer prizewinning author Geraldine Brooks chat about writing and her most recent novel The Secret Chord. There – in Rangi Ruru’s beautiful new theatre – sat a petite, young Geraldine Brooks and her interviewer, Morrin Rout (wearing it must be said, distractingly eye-catching brick pattern tights). Let the excitement begin!

MarchGeraldine was originally a journalist who worked in the Australasian Bureau of The Wall Street Journal – a job which taught her that you can’t write around what you don’t know. She admitted to a New Zealand connection for her front page story on our research into Climate Change and Methane Gases – with its catchy title: The Farting Sheep Story.

When she talks about writing, Brooks several times made mention of finding the void in a theme and filling it:

Historical fiction works best when you have some blanks to fill. The trick is to let the story tell you what you need to know.

people of the BookThe viewpoints of different women is often the way for Brooks to get a fresh view on an old story that we think we know. It is still so true that you can get to powerful men through the women in their lives and she ranks an afternoon tea with Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife Khadijeh as one of the most remarkable afternoons of her life.

On her latest book The Secret Chord, she said her interest became piqued when her son asked for classical harp lessons (she’d been hoping for the recorder) and that David appealed to her as a character because every single thing that life can fling at you seemed to happen to him. She was particularly interested in how women affected David and how they wielded power in subtle ways.

Best of all Geraldine Brooks would slot right into any one of my book groups, her reading tastes are so similar. She is currently enjoying The Chimes by Anna Smaill (2015 Man Booker Prize longlist); thinks that the best book she has ever read is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (who won the Pulitzer Prize the year before her in 2005); is a big admirer of Hilary Mantel and can’t wait for her next book and (Geraldine was born in Sydney) she admires Tim Winton‘s writing as well.

I’d had an evening of minor mishaps prior to this event: a near miss at the restaurant where I was to meet my colleague (we sat waiting for one another in different parts of the venue). Then we held up the signing queue trying to get my photograph taken with this wonderful author – in the end the photo was out of focus. In the confusion, Geraldine misheard and signed the wrong name in the book. It took time for her to draw flowers over the mistake and insert the correct name (that copy is now valuable!). Finally I lost my car keys and had what felt like the entire theatre in an upheaval helping me look for them. You’d be forgiven for thinking “I wish I’d also gone to hear Geraldine Brooks – just not with them!”

But, I drove home on a high – so happy to be in the car, moving through my mundane surroundings to my precious home, and all the time thinking: I have met a Pulitzer Prize winner. I am so fortunate.

We have Geraldine Brooks’ works in book, eBook, and eAudiobook format.

You can also listen to Geraldine talk about The Secret Chord on RadioNZ.

The Best and Worst Children’s Books of 2015

Best and Worst Books posterThe end of the year is approaching and that means it’s nearly time to evaluate the best and worst children’s books of 2015. Hosted by Christchurch City Libraries, in conjunction with the Canterbury Literacy Association, the Best and Worst Evening is a Christchurch literary tradition. 2014’s event was so popular the event has been moved to the larger venue of the Everglades Golf Club on Marshland Road.

Speakers this year include Mary Sangster (chairperson of Booksellers NZ and the new owner of The Original Children’s Bookshop), Kirsten Smith (Kaitakawaenga – Ngā Ratonga Māori at Christchurch City Libraries), Karen Healey (Young Adult author), Trevor Agnew (children’s book reviewer) and Eibhlin and Saoirse Hill-Shearman (Youth opinion).

Our annual Holiday Reading list will also be officially announced on the night. Holiday Reading is a recommended selection of new titles added to Christchurch City Libraries in 2015 and includes picture books, chapter books, young adult, non-fiction and Te Reo titles.

Come along on Wednesday 25 November to the Netherlands Society Clubrooms, Everglades Golf Club on Marshland Road, from 7-9pm. Bring a gold coin for refreshments and early Christmas raffles.

Paul Cleave wins the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award

Cover of Five Minutes AloneCongratulations to Paul Cleave who on Sunday 4 October was revealed as the winner of the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for his book Five Minutes Alone.

Cleave beat a strong field of 4 other finalists – Barbara EwingPaddy RichardsonTina Shaw, and Paul Thomas – and is a fitting winner in many ways:

  • he is a Christchurch local; what could be more appropriate for a prize named after Christchurch’s own Queen of Crime?
  • his books have sold over a million copies worldwide and have been translated in several languages;
  • he is the first author to have won the gong twice. He first won in 2011 for his book Blood Men and has been shortlisted every year since;
  • he has the perfect name for a crime writer. Proof? Check out the title of the post on the Kiwi Crime Watch blog: “Contenders get Cleave-d in historic Ngaio Marsh victory“.

Yet, interestingly, Cleave was apparently surprised to win and has been reported as having said in his acceptance speech that New Zealanders hold Kiwi writers to a higher standard than they do international authors.

As a lily-livered reader of only the coziest of mysteries (Mma Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is my Goldilocks measure), I have not been brave enough to sample any of Cleave’s nine novels. Therefore I would really love to hear your opinions. Do you think that Kiwi crime writing, and Cleave’s specifically, is on a par with the best in the field internationally? What attracts you or puts you off reading New Zealand crime novels?

Previous winners of the Ngaio Marsh Award:

Cover of Cut and Run Cover of Blood Men Cover of Luther The Calling Cover of Death on Demand Cover of Where the Dead Men Go

수선화가 피기시작한 2015년 겨울…

작가와의 만남은 그 책을 이해하는데 많은 도움을 주는것 같습니다. 지난 일요일  Christchurch Arts Festival의 일부인 WORD Christchurch 에서 “평양의 영어 선생님(Without you there is no us)” 의 작가 수키 킴의 강연을 들었습니다.  작가와의 만남 자체도 신기했지만, 많은 수의 참석자들 때문에 놀라기도 했습니다. 북한에 대한 관심 때문인지, 내가 미쳐 알지 못한 작가의 명성 때문인지는 정확히 알 수 없었습니다. 작가의 말도 안돼는 상황 설명에 웃는 다른 사람들과 달리들 웃지 못하고 눈물이 났던 까닭은 무슨 까닭이었을까요… 작가의 따뜻한 용기에 박수를 보내 드림니다

Cover of Without You, There Is No Us수키 김(Suki Kim)은 한국에서 태어나 13세 때 부모를 따라 미국으로 이민을 가 뉴욕의 컬럼비아 대학에서 영문학을 전공하고 영국 런던대학원에서 동양문학을 공부했답니다. 2003년 첫 장편소설 “통역사(The Interpreter)”로 펜 헤밍웨이 문학상 후보에 올랐고 미국 내에서 민족 다양성을 뛰어나게 표현한 문학작품에 수여하는 펜 경계문학상과 창조적인 인간을 구현한 작품에 수여하는 구스타브 마이어 우수도서상을 수상하기도 했습니다. 아울러 가장 명성이 높은 구겐하임, 풀브라이트, 그리고 조지소러스 재단 오픈소사이어티의 펠로십을 휩쓸었답니다.

Korean children's books, Flickr Sept-2015-Ch.jpg
Korean children’s books, Flickr Sept-2015-Ch.jpg

2011년 7월부터 같은 해 12월까지 6개월간 평양과학기술대학에서 학생들에게 영어를 가르치며 그녀가 진실로 원하는 것은 북한의 실상을 직접 보고 느끼고 그것을 글로 쓰는 것이었답니다. 그 경험을 토대로한 “평양의 영어 선생님(Without you there is no us)” 2014년에 펴냈습니다.

이 달에 새로이 소개할 책은 이호백 작가의 그림책 “도대체 그 동안 무슨일이 일어났을까?”입니다. 이책은 뉴욕타임스 2003년 최우수 그림책으로 선정되어 미국의에서 ”While We Were Out”이란 제목으로 번역·출간되었으며,일본어,불어로 출간되기도 했답니다. 아이들의 호기심을 이끌어내기에 아주 좋은 책입니다. 작가의 허락으로 책을 읽어 보았습니다. 아이들과 함께 들어 보세요.


New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2015

Last night was one of the most important dates on the New Zealand children’s literature calendar: the night when the winners of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for 2015 were announced and celebrated.

We are thrilled to join in congratulating these great authors and their fantastic books:

Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and Young Adult Book Award

Singing home the whale by Mandy Hager

Picture Book Award

Jim’s letters by Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper

Junior Fiction Award

Monkey boy by Donovan Bixley

Non-fiction Award

Mōtītī Blue and the oil spill by Debbie McCauley

Best First Book

Māori art for kids by Julie Noanoa and Norm Heke

Maori Language Award

Ngā kī Sacha Cotter and Joshua Morgan, translated by Kawata Teepa

Cover of Singing Home The Whale Cover of Jim's Letters Cover of Monkey Boy Cover of Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill Cover of Maori Art for Kids Cover of Nga Ki

Children’s Choice Award Winners

This year children were given the opportunity to choose the finalists as well as casting the vote for the winners.  Nearly 16,000 votes were cast and these are the winners:

Picture Book

The Anzac puppy by Peter Millett & Trish Bowles

Junior Fiction

The island of lost horses by Stacy Gregg


The letterbox cat & other poems by Paula Green & Myles Lawford

Young Adult Fiction

Night vision by Ella West

Cover of The Anzac Puppy Cover of The Island of Lost Horses Cover of The letterbox cat & Other Poems Cover of Night Vision

Have you read any of these books? Do you agree with the judges’ choices?