A confusion of princes

CoverSometimes it seems like everything written in  YA speculative fiction is part of a trilogy – or an even longer series of wrist-achingly heavy books –  so it’s quite refreshing to read a well-crafted stand-alone every now and then. A Confusion of Princes is a thrilling adventure set in a futuristic intergalactic Empire, and the world-building is so vast and vividly imagined that I couldn’t help but wonder how on Earth (or in the Empire) the author was going to tie up the story in just one book. The bestselling author of The Old Kingdom series, Garth Nix utilizes a first-person narrative that allows for quick but detailed exposition and the conversational style, along with an action-packed plot and breathless pacing, kept me immersed from the first page to the last. My main feeling while reading? This book is fun!

Prince Khemri grows up convinced that he is the one and only heir to a massive intergalactic Empire – only to belatedly realise that in fact he is one of some ten million Princes (both male and female) all competing for the ultimate position of Emperor. Highly trained in psychic warfare and conditioned from early childhood to believe in his ultimate superiority, not just over ordinary humans but also among the genetically enhanced Princes, Khemri’s innate conscience and code of ethics give him a rare potential to rediscover his own humanity. Throughout the narrative Khemri looks back on his early naïve thought processes and unfortunate choices with a charmingly frank dismay, so it is easy to empathize with him despite his planet-sized ego. This is a good thing, because even in the first few pages he faces death enough times that it was necessary for me to be fully on his side!

The book’s style is fascinatingly reminiscent of a fantasy roleplaying game. Starting out at what could be seen as Level 1 with only a personal Master of Assassins and a couple of priests to their names, Princes are able to win or otherwise acquire more priests, apprentice assassins, and other human assets through their actions. The more priests a Prince has, the greater his or her ability to attack and defend against psychic attacks, in turn creating more opportunities to rise in status and power. The tendency for Princes to regard their human priests and assassins mere commodities reinforces the game-like atmosphere. Humans are cards in a Prince’s hand – useful, but disposable. Khemri, though, goes through several unusual experiences that begin to teach him otherwise. The plot twists expertly at the climax, and despite my disbelief that the story could not possibly be resolved in so few pages, I was proven wrong. Satisfied by the conclusion, yet hungry for more, I was delighted to turn over the last page and find that Nix had anticipated my desire and prepared dessert – a quirky short story set in the same universe!

Similar books on my favourites list…

The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy
Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
The Angel Experiment by James Patterson
For the Win by Cory Doctorow

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Emily
New Brighton

The Five Book Challenge

There are many great book challenges out there such as the A-Z book challenge (where you read books by authors with surnames beginning with A right through to Z) or the 52 book for 52 weeks of the year challenge but sadly, my year, and my bookshelf, were too short to attempt either of these.

Instead, I took on a somewhat easier book challenge which involved reading five books in genres you don’t usually read. The idea is to broaden your horizons  (i.e. stop the PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie binge reading that I am very prone too) and try something different. My picks were Mills and Boon, science fiction, young adult, western, and fantasy, all genres I have never had the time (or, I’m sorry too say, inclination) to read. The nice thing about taking on any sort of challenge is that once you have vaguely mentioned it to understanding family (who incidentally had hysterical laughing fits and commented on how the mighty fallen re the Mills and Boon…) that you are thinking of doing one, you are, indeed committed.

MILLS AND BOON: The Librarian’s Passionate Knight

CoverMy Mills and Boon pick was The Librarian’s Passionate Knight (of course, this had to be any respectable librarian’s Mills and Boon pick). Phoebe is a lonely, bespectacled librarian (note: contrary to popular novelist’s opinion, it is not part of our job description to wear glasses), whose only real joy in her life is her job. One night, she is accosted by her stalkerish ex-boyfriend as she walks down the street. Enter gorgeous billionaire Daniel Barone and his “rock hard abs” who happen to be strolling by at the time. Happily for Phoebe, Daniel (and his rock hard abs) come gallantly to her rescue and an amazing romance begins. There is mention of Phoebe’s tragic past- (with an alcoholic parent and an abusive boyfriend thrown into the sad mix)- and then we are of course back to Daniel’s rock hard abs (Gerard is an author who presumably believes in prioritising). Of course it is the chemistry between the two that audiences are after, and happily there is plenty. This was a light, enjoyable  (though admittedly not especially deep) read. I can see why so many people get addicted to this genre as it is certainly a lot of fun. A good introduction to Mills and Boon? I would (cautiously- and very quietly so my family won’t hear me), say yes.

SCIENCE FICTION: The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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As soon as I mentioned to my all-knowing hubbie that I needed a sci fi read, I was told that The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was my perfect match. I couldn’t argue. I was hooked from page one by Adams’ wondrous mix of fantasy and Wodehouse/Milligan-ish humour (I mention this as an avid fangirl of the two). Lines like:

A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools”

could have come straight from Plum himself, and inspired lunacy such as:

“Not unnaturally, many elevators imbued with intelligence and precognition became terribly frustrated with the mindless business of going up and down, up and down, experimented briefly with the notion of going sideways, as a sort of existential protest, demanded participation in the decision-making process and finally took to squatting in basements sulking” 

is certainly on a par with the great Spike Milligan.

As to the story, it all begins one Thursday afternoon as Arthur Dent protests the upcoming destruction of his house to make way for a new bypass. Unfortunately, the earth too is scheduled for demolition that day to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Arthur and his friend, a hitchhiker from another planet, soon find themselves the sole survivors of the demolition and armed with nothing but their towels and a book which displays the words ‘DON’T PANIC’, they begin their journey of inspired lunacy through the galaxy. I inevitably made my way through the series in far shorter time than I would have liked. Happily though, each book is sheer genius, a sure winner even for those who, like me, are not really big on fantasy.

YOUNG ADULTS: Wildlife

CoverMy awesome colleague and YA expert Alina (who also blogs, plug plug) recommended me Wildlife by Fiona Wood.  As a big fan of I Capture the Castle style YA (i.e well written, with a good plot, which is just as good to read if you’re an adult), this was an ideal match for me. Told by two narrators (which I didn’t actually realise until a quarter of the way through, YA readers are obviously far more on the ball – or just far more awake- than me), ‘Wildlife’ tells the story of two girls’ experiences attending a school wilderness camp. Lou is recovering from the tragic death of her young boyfriend- while Sib is simply trying to survive a toxic friendship and her first romance. Clever, touching and memorable, ‘Wildlife’ is a joy to read and certainly got me hooked on Fiona Wood. I did, incidentally, read Cloudwish straight after this, a gorgeous read about the teenage daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant family. A fabulous introduction to YA (thanks Alina!!).

FANTASY: Good Omens

CoverGood Omens – An angel and demon working together to bring about the apocalypse- a bit of confusion about where exactly the young anti Christ got to – what could possibly go wrong? Happily for fans of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, plenty, and it makes for fabulous reading.
Though admittedly the middle part of this did drag a bit for me (with a little too much back and forth between multiple characters, some of whom just didn’t interest me as much), this was a thoroughly enjoyable read far worth pursuing till its fabulous end. A hilarious, clever read, ”Good Omens’ is a wonderful fantasy novel to start on. Pratchett and Gaiman really are a writing team made in heaven.

WESTERN: Riders of the Purple Sage

CoverRiders of the Purple Sage tells the story of Jane Withersteen, a 28 year old Mormon woman facing pressure to marry one of the polygamous elders of her community. Brave, fair but determined to keep the peace, Jane is also faced with the problem of continuing her friendship with two friends – one of them a notorious gunman and killer of Mormons.

A constant on classic Western lists, ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ has influenced many other Western novels due to its winning formula of romance, action, strong plot, and evocative descriptions of the American West (there are a lot of descriptions of sage incidentally – much, much, sage – in fact, there are no descriptions of sage that Zane Grey does not like). While some may argue this classic is now a little dated, it remains an engaging read and, I imagine, a must for fans of this genre

With the New Year coming up it is the perfect time to set yourself a book challenge- why not try one out? There is a great list of 2018 reading challenges by Popsugar and of course there is our own library book challenge this summer for kids and one for the adults too. Whatever stage you are at (whether you have just finished a book challenge or are about to make a start) we’d love to know. Feel free to leave a comment below. Good luck and of course have fun!

Sanitoriums and Dust Jackets: Cool Stuff from the Selectors

9780993191190Holidays in Soviet Sanitoriums

I couldn’t resist the title Holidays in Soviet Sanitoriums:

Holidays in the USSR were decidedly purposeful.  Their function was to provide rest and recreation, so citizens could return to work with renewed diligence and productivity

So, no lounging by the pool or sipping a pinacolada for these folk then?  The sanitoriums turned out to be a cross between a medical institution and a form of summer camp, complete with exercise regimes, edifying and educational talks, and strictly healthy but bland diets.

Many of these institutions have closed, some have become more like the western ideal of a spa complete with mud wraps and the like, while others have maintained their strict adherence to alternative forms of physical therapy.  For a fee, you can soak in crude oil, be wrapped in paraffin, wax, endure electrotherapy – or for the really adventurous, spend your summer vacation in a salt mine breathing in the pure minerals and sharing a curtained off dormitory area metres underground.

As well as the information about the therapies available, there is also fascinating insight into the architecture of the time with photographs alongside the interesting stories of the healing properties meted out in these unique institutions.

9780500519134The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970

I nearly always judge a book by its cover, it is an enticement…a taste of things to come, but I sometimes find myself  wondering if I have read a particular book as so many of the more recent book covers look very alike.

The covers in the era 1920-1970 were works of art in their own right.   Representing a variety of art styles from Art Deco, Modernism, postwar neo-romanticism and the intriguingly named Kitchen Sink School (Wikipedia tells me a form of social realism depicting the situations of the British working class), this book includes over 50 artists mainly from the US and the UK.  It is beautifully put together by the publishers Thames and Hudson and is a lovely book to dip into, both to read about the artists and to admire the beauty and detail of the covers.

Serial killers

Face facts, life has bad patches. I’m in one right now: post Italy holiday blues; Skype meltdowns in the middle of calls to the grandies; and Pneumonia.

GormenghastTime was I would have bounced back from all of this, but now it feels more like I am seeping. Seep-back requires that you do nothing. This is so much harder to do than one might have thought.

What I really needed was a good book. And the best books for holidays and dark times are serials. The first serial I ever read was way back in my twenties – The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake – a cultish read at that time. I loved these books and I remember, in particular, that my understanding of the importance of setting and naming in a novel stems largely from these reads. Ah Steerpike, Titus Groan and Fuschia!

DissolutionForty years passed before I read another serial: The Dissolution series by C.J. Sansom. Far surpassing anything else written about the time of King Henry VIII, these books get down and dirty with England at the time of Henry’s reign and they do this through a hunchback lawyer – Shardlake – as the main protagonist. If you’ve read Hilary Mantel and have tired of Philippa Gregory, do yourself a favour and try Sansom’s clever murder mysteries set in Cromwell’s time.

My Brilliant FriendAnd that was it for me and serials. Until we went on holiday to Italy, and right at the last minute I remembered that I’d been given the first book of The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend. I popped it into my hand luggage, and what a wise move that turned out to be.

Written in Italian and translated into many other languages, I have become a Ferrante groupie. I now know that this is the pseudonym of an author who wanted her real identity kept secret (but who has just been outed by a nosy journalist). I’m also now aware that there are actual Ferrante tours of Naples  which visit all the main locations mentioned in the books. And I’ve learnt that a TV series on the Neopolitan Novels is currently being filmed in Italy.

But mainly I fell onto the couch, and into another world of family and friendships and fall-outs. A world that does not stop after one book. A world peopled by characters so real you want to slap them, or as said by reviewer John Freeman writing for The Australian:

Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.

I’m saving the fourth and last book for my Christmas read, my not-so-Secret-Santa gift to myself!

Any suggestions for other very readable series?

Mona Anderson’s tale of High Country life

A River Rules My Life has been re-released!

Originally published in 1963, Mona Anderson’s unique perspective of a woman’s experience on a South Island farm brings to life the High Country of days gone by.

Deep in the Rolleston Ranges, in the Main Divide of the Southern Alps, Mount Algidus Station is isolated between the mighty and dangerous Wilberforce and Rakaia rivers.

Mona crosses the Wilberforce as a new bride in the 1930s to start her life in this harsh environment. To get to her new home she must ride a dray cart for hours in a freezing wind – perched on top of all her worldly possessions – including a piano!

Mona’s observations of everything from errant cooks to brave horses are quite matter of fact and entertaining, while sad events are accepted as a part of life.

When World War II takes away many farmhands never to return, Mona and her husband Ron are stretched to do many jobs, and Mona has to muck in – feeding the men, and working alongside them – often on horseback.

Poetry and “back country” ditties pepper the tale, including one written by the author. Most notable are these lines written by a young hand leaving to join the Army:

Oh land of river, rock and spur / Of sunkissed hills and sky so blue / I, a humble musterer, Will ever leave my heart with you. / Tho I dwell beneath some distant sky / My memory will ever turn / To mates I knew in days gone by / And evenings when the camp fires burn. / For I am leaving you this day / To return again. But who can tell, / For good or bad. I cannot say.  Mount Algidus, I wish you well.

The charm of this book includes quaint “station names” for many local features; such as Bustmegall (Bust my gall) Creek, More-rain Hut and Boulderstone Creek (the Rolleston). Mistake ‘Hill’, at 7000 feet illustrates the Southern capacity for understatement.

Filled with thrills and spills (no-one is spared a dip in the Wilberforce), this book is a cornerstone of New Zealand back country life and a must for your holiday reading list.

More information

A River Rules My Life
by Mona Anderson
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781775541141

Donation of Polish books to Christchurch City Libraries

On Saturday 9th December, Central Library Peterborough hosted Mr Zbigniew Gniatkowskted, the Polish Ambassador to New Zealand; Mrs Winsome Dormer, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Poland for the South Island; Anna Gruczyska, President of the Polish Association in Christchurch; and Krysia Wiek, member of the Polish community in Christchurch. The Polish Embassy kindly gifted books in Polish, and about Poland, to the library.

The Polish collection has been a part of the Christchurch City Libraries’ World languages collection for several years now, established after the original Polish Library at the Hereford Street Community House perished in the February 2011 earthquake, with the entire collection of books lost.

In addition to purchases made by the Christchurch City Libraries, the Polish collection contains book donations from members, and on this occasion from the Polish Embassy. In addition to a number of books in Polish, the donation includes several books on Poland and Polish history in English, for the Christchurch City Libraries collection.

View Polish language items in our collection.

After presenting the collection to the Christchurch City Libraries our guests stayed for a morning tea – delicious polish buns made by Krysia – and a chat with the Central Library Peterborough team.


Information and photos from:
Anna Gruczynska
President of the Polish Association in Christchurch
Annie M
Central Library Peterborough

Is this the real life?

Confession time. My reading tastes tend towards non-fiction. Not exclusively, but you’re far more likely to see me curled up with a good gardening book or a lush costume history than a weighty fantasy tome. This can make things slightly awkward when it comes to reader advisory (“You work in library – you must have read [insert novel/bestseller/literary worthy here]!”) All I can say is thank goodness for Novelist Plus and Fantastic Fiction for easing the stress of fiction read-alike queries!

I like to liberally sprinkle my reading fare with a good serving of memoirs, and this year has thrown up a few really good (and quite varied) reads. Often I pick up a memoir knowing absolutely nothing about the person concerned, just because that can be bizarrely fun. For instance, the first I’d ever heard of Russell Brand (some years ago now) was reading My Booky Wook – yes, I live in a hole. I just liked the title.

Cover of The girl with the lower back tattooAmongst this year’s finds, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo wasn’t quite such a stone-cold intro. I’d seen some stand-up by Amy Schumer and had enjoyed it the point of snarfing my drink (always a sign of good comedy). I find her “oversharing” comedic style both endearing and fascinatingly horrifying, and her writing is much the same. I did find it a bit patchy, but her story has definitely gone on my list of female voices I’ve enjoyed hearing. I laughed a lot, I felt for her, and I admired her honesty.

Honesty (or the appearance of it) is I guess what we look for in a memoir. Reading memoirs can feel voyeuristic as a reader, sometimes to the point of discomfort but (unlike the nastiness of tabloid journalism) it is at least consensual voyeurism. I don’t mind that someone might only be telling what they want to tell (a somewhat odd criticism often levelled at autobiographists and memoir-writers, as though they are under an obligation to bare all). I’ve always figured that that is their right and I listen to their story knowing that the bias is part of the story.

I’ve just started Little Me: My life from A-Z by Matt Lucas, and I’m enjoying it very much. Again I knew little of the man other than some of his television appearances (I’ve particularly enjoyed his character on Doctor Who and his appearances on QI), but I saw the book go past in a transit crate, read a page or two, and was engaged enough by his friendly and straightforward writing style to place a hold.

Matt’s take on the whole “telling the truth but not the whole truth” thing is this: “I’m only forty-three. If I spill ALL the beans, then no one will trust me, no one will hire me and I’ll have no option but to go into the Celebrity Big Brother house.” More seriously, he talks about not breaking his promises to those he’s loved – which makes me like the guy.

In an about-turn sharp enough to cause whiplash, my other favourite memoir of the year is about a dog and his gardener. Nigel: My family and other dogs by Britain’s Gardeners’ World host (and one of my personal gardening heroes) Monty Don, is a delight.

Nigel, a gorgeous retriever, shot to fame as a result of his scene-stealing, haphazard appearances in Monty’s garden tutorials. He has his own social media sites and fan mail, and caused great concern amongst viewers recently when he disappeared off camera for some weeks due to a back injury. I have always loved Monty Don’s visible love of, and delight in, his garden.

In Nigel we learn of his love for the generations of dogs that have been a part of his life, in all its highs and lows. Ostensibly a piece about the special place dogs can hold in our lives, the book is also an open and honest look at Monty’s personal and business highs and lows, his struggles with depression and how his garden and his dogs help him through.

I’m not sure what 2018 will throw in front of me in the way of memoirs, but I hope they continue to be refreshingly random and varied. Peering into other lives life might seem a bit voyeuristic, but on the whole I think being invited to take a look makes for an enriching and more empathetic view of the world.

Are you a fan of memoirs too? Subscribe to our monthly Biographies and Memoirs newsletter.

Summertime Reading Club is for the littlies too

Don’t forgot to drop in a great board or picture book into the picnic basket or backpack as you head to the park this summer. They are a great way to entertain and engage with your kids as you lounge in this glorious weather.

Reading a book with tamariki provides awesome opportunities to explore, laugh and build bonds that come from conspiring over the antics of Hairy Maclary or Spot the dog. Maggie and I are looking at cheeky bears, foxes and chicks in this board book at Upper Riccarton Library.

Christchurch City Libraries Summertime Reading Club – Kōrero pukapuka ā te wā o raumati this year is for newborns to teens, covering ages from zero to 13 year olds. Developing language, a curious wonder of the world and love of reading – all come from the books we share right from when our children are babies. Plus there are great prizes to be won!

We will be here at the library all summer, so pop on down and grab a great book. Don’t forget to let us know which books made your day.

If you want some ideas, our Holiday Reading lists are highlight the best books of 2017, including picture books.

Podcast – Issues affecting men

Speak Up Kōrerotia logoChristchurch City Libraries blog hosts a series of regular podcasts from specialist human rights radio show Speak up – Kōrerotia. This show is created by Sally Carlton.

Sally talks with Donald Pettitt (Canterbury Men’s Centre), Iain Fergusson and Steve Carter (mental health advocates) about issues affecting men.
Part I: Campaigns to raise awareness of men’s issues; Why are men’s issues not often explicitly singled out in rights discussions?
Part II: Issues affecting men and their mental health outcomes
Part III: Systems that support men’s rights, and what is still needed

Transcript – Issues affecting men

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The World’s Best David Walliams

David Walliams came into the Christchurch Boys High auditorium through the crowd – a real rock star entrance.  And in kid books circles (and tv entertainment ones) he really is that level of famous. There were about 700 kids and 400 adults here to see Mr Walliams.

Rachael King, WORD Christchurch literary director asked him about the 20 million books he has sold – “All bought and burnt by Simon Cowell”, he said. David had the audience in the palm of his hand from the get go, with stories, heaps of audience participation, and his trademark naughty wit. Even the obligatory Australia diss – The World’s Worst Children?:

Well, I’ve just been in Australia and met a lot of the children …

He read us the tragic tale of Windy Mindy whose farting into wind instruments leads to a galactic end.

The kids in the audience served up stories about why their siblings are so bad. One answer had the crowd in stitches (beautifully conveyed in this tweet):

CoverBad Dad is his latest bestseller, and tells the story of Frank, whose Dad is a banger driver who ends up in jail after being a getaway driver. David read for us a rather splendid excerpt about how one might get the dreadful medical condition Bottom Freeze (including cryogenically freezing your bottom for posterity). 

CoverDavid’s favourite of his own books is Gangsta Granny (my kid’s fave too), and it came from listening to his own Gran’s stories about the Blitz:

Every old person has a story to tell.

He read Gangsta Granny’s famous naked yoga scene (and see Tony Ross’s brilliant illustration came up on the big screen). David gave a big shoutout to his illustrators Tony Ross and Quentin Blake – both in their 80s.

Walliams explained a bit about why he loves a villain:

Without Voldemort, Harry Potter would just be having a lovely day at school.

Burt, the Ratburger villain, was inspired by a contestant in Britain’s got talent who ate cockroaches. Ergh. Miss Trunchbull (from Roald Dahl’s Matilda) is one of his fave villains. It’s that combo of funny and evil,  and who wouldn’t want to be a villain (for a day).

We got to see sneak preview clips of Ratburger (Walliams himself is unrecognisable as the grotty villain), and Grandpa’s Great Escape (Jennifer Saunders is the Matron in that, and veteran actor Tom Courtenay is Grandpa.) He is that rarest of beasts – an author who gets to see his creations come to life first hand, because he stars in the adaptations.

David admits he was a reluctant reader. He went to the library with his family every couple of weeks, and would pick books on the solar system, space travel, and dinosaurs. And then he discovered Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It got him into reading, and to writing.

Roald Dahl is his “gold standard”. When he visited Dahl’s Gypsy Cottage and met his widow, she said kids still ring the doorbell and ask to meet the author. David has visited the Roald Dahl Story Museum and looked at the handwritten manuscripts. He clearly loved the writing set up of Roald Dahl – sitting in armchair, a picture of his much-missed daughter nearby, with a big ball of rolled up choccie wrappers to add to, and a telephone (to put a sly bet on the gee gees).

And David loves his fan mail, and who wouldn’t when kids are so honest:

Little Britain fans – he thinks the funniest thing he’s ever written is this:

10 lucky kids got to ask a question, and got a fab box set of Walliams’ books. A ripper of a prize I reckon. Thanks to David Walliams, WORD Christchurch, HarperCollins New Zealand, Merivale Paper Plus, and the crew involved in the event – and to everyone who came along, you rocked and made it a fun whānau night. It was especially awesome to get to get your book signed and a picture taken. Ka rawe!