Dan recommends: The best of fiction

Another year is coming to a close and it gives me pause to think about what an amazing year it has been for fiction! We’ve been bestowed with such a wealth of quality new releases, from longstanding authors continuing to deliver, debuts of such genius it boggles the mind, sequels that have been waiting more than a century, and a bold author new takes on an old classic.

Catalogue link to Flames by Robbie ArnottMy highlights for this year start with not only the best book I’ve read this year but possibly the best I will ever read, ever!

I’m talking it up, I know but here’s some of the reasons why… Flames is a tribute to nature, the environment, our place in it, the unseen elements, the powers that rule, and the lives of all things. It weaves myths and small gods into the fabric of the environment, masters of unseen systems which shape lives unbeknownst to the humans inhabiting their land. This is an astonishingly good book. It’s elemental, blurs the lines between reality and mythology, sweeps you up in atmosphere and the sense of place, and the use of language is sublime. The story is set in Tasmania and centres around a family with deep connections to the land and environment. A young woman sets out south, alone to the wilderness of ancient Tasmania, while her brother sets out to build her a coffin and sends a private detective to track down his sister and bring her home.Through the course we discover an ageless world, gods of nature, young people coming of age, and what it is to engage with your world. Superb effort and the best thing I’ve read this year – quite an effort given the next titles I’ll share with you!

Catalogue link to Macbeth by Jo NesboWhen Hogarth Shakespeare set out to create modern retellings of the great works of Shakespeare, they were inspired by their choice of Jo Nesbo to retell Macbeth. Macbeth The master of noir violence and mystery has done an absolutely brilliant job of turning Macbeth (the man) into a Scottish police officer, wracked with guilt of the past, plagued with addiction, and hungry for power. It’s so obvious to me now that Macbeth was MADE for the Scandi-Noir genre treatment. It’s gritty, dark, violent. Full of power, betrayal, and characters walking the fine line between sanity and madness. For this story Macbeth is head of SWAT in a dangerous and corrupt town and together with his mistress, Lady, the rags-to-riches casino entrepreneur, they embark on a powerplay to seize control of the city. But Macbeth has a sketchy past full of drug abuse and violence and as he relapses things get out of control, people get killed, lines get blurred… A great read and a must if you like Scandi Crime!

Catalogue record for The shepherd's hut by Tim WintonThe next two I’d like to share are by two of the most important authors of our contemporary world right now – in my humble opinion. The first is the Australian writer Tim Winton and his newest book The Shepherd’s Hut. It’s the very colourful and memorable account of a young man forced by circumstance to take to the outback roads of rural Western Australia. Such brilliant descriptive writing will have you smelling the eucalyptus in the air, and hearing the crispy arid saltlands crunching underfoot. Jaxie is running and he’s got a vague destination in mind – north. And he’s got to survive the perils of rural Australia, criminals, and the very land that seems to want to kill him from heat, thirst or animal attack. An outstanding book from a great Australian author and written in vernacular language too, strengthening characters and adding some lightness!

Catalogue record for Don't skip out on me by Willy VlautinThe other amazing offering comes from an American author; Don’t Skip Out on Me

Willy Vlautin is one of my favourite authors writing today and his works just keep getting better and better. He writes of contemporary everyday life and he tells the stories of working class Americans and the very real struggles faced by ordinary people in the America of today. This one is concerning a young American Indian man who passionately desires to be a champion boxer. He begins his journey on a ranch in Nevada where an ageing couple has adopted him, and follows him to Arizona as he sets his mind to a life of pugilism. Beautifully written and full of the heart and pathos that Willy Vlautin is famous for. A stellar effort and worthy of much praise.

Catalogue record for Only killers and thieves by Paul HowarthAnd now for the fans of gritty Historical Fiction and WesternsOnly Killers and Thieves

Another great debut from Australia that really captures the Australian Gothic story. It’s the story of two young men, not boys but barely men, after a traumatic family event that sees them on a journey not of their choosing. The book describes the brutality of life in 1800’s Australia, the treatment of the indigenous population, and the rigourous adherence to the ‘old ways’ in this vastly alien and seemingly lawless world. If you like your reading to be vivid, violent, confronting, and troublesome then you’ll sure like this one!

Catalogue record for Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. BarkerI was originally going to keep this list of highlights to five titles but there’s another one that came to my attention recently. It’s the sequel (a prequel to be more precise) that’s taken over a century to come into existence. Dracul

The official prequel to the great work, this one penned by none other than Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew and authorised by his estate. It’s told in the familiar form of diary entries and personal notes, and tells the story of Bram himself who along with his siblings encounter some serious evil and a creature so powerful and unknowable that it threatens their very souls. So well written and very readable, good pace (bit of a page turner), and language that would please the original author. A great read for fans of horror, mystery/suspense, or the classics. Definitely one of my best picks for 2018 and a worthy inclusion to this highlights package (and my colleague Fee loved it too)!

Now I look at the titles that missed out on inclusion to this list with some sadness – like I say, it was a remarkable year for quality fiction! Here at least you have a selection for your holiday reading this summer. Grab one at your local library, settle in with a cup o’tea (or something else), and get some amazing stories in for the hols.

Happy reading,

^DevilStateDan

Stacy Gregg interview: “I write for strong, brave independent-minded readers who aspire to be heroes”

CoverSeveral years ago now, I bought Mystic and the Midnight Ride by Stacy Gregg as a Christmas present for Miss Missy, my daughter. We read our way through all the Pony Club Secrets books as I (and other members of my family) bought them for her as Christmas and birthday presents. Miss Missy quickly become a huge Stacy Gregg fan (seriously, just the other day we were chatting about favourite authors, and Miss Missy said, “Jacqueline Wilson and J.K. Rowling are great of course, but Stacy Gregg is the author I’ve been the most obsessed with.”)

I even persuaded my twenty-something year old brother to get a signed copy when Stacy attended Storylines in Wellington. He willingly, if somewhat embarrassedly, stood in line with a crowd of young pony-mad girls to get her signature. Miss Missy was very excited when, a few years later, Stacy visited Christchurch Storylines, and willingly signed the rest of her entire collection of books (there are a lot!!) We sent Stacy a photo of Miss Missy’s dedicated Stacy Gregg shelf, which Stacy then shared on her blog—super cool!

So I sort of feel as though I’ve been with Stacy Gregg from the start. I’ve enjoyed all the books I’ve read (though I haven’t kept up with them all, I have to admit). I loved The Diamond Horse, and have just finished The Fire Stallion. I think it’s my favourite book so far, although I’m now reading The Princess and the Foal, which I didn’t read at the time when Santa gave it to Miss Missy — I think it might be my favourite too.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Stacy Gregg at WORD Christchurch Festival, and being able to chat to her afterwards, and so I was very excited to be able to ask her a few more questions.

Cover

First of all, what gave you the idea of writing about Brunhilda? I was fascinated to learn a little about her, and about Viking girls. I’m curious: Did you like the story of Sleeping Beauty when you were little? What were your favourite fairytales?

I think my favourite fairytales were always the creepy ones. Hansel and Gretal hanging in a cage in the witch’s living room while she fattened them for the pot, wolves eating grandmothers whole, that kind of thing. The romantic ones left me cold. Brunhilda is all kinds of mythic and historic figures. Yes, she’s the origin story of the Sleeping Beauty myth, and she’s also the Queen of the Valkyries from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and she’s the Icelandic Princess who is central to Snorri Sturluson’s Eddic poem. There are different versions of her throughout time – this is the update in which Bru reclaims her power and stops waiting for true love’s kiss to wake her. I don’t think girls have time for that anymore.

Brunhilda and her brother had some pretty serious sibling rivalry, and so did Anna Orlov and her brother. Do you have any brothers and sisters? If so, did you fight with them a lot?

I know! What’s my problem with siblings? You would swear I have a brother that I hate like poison. In fact I have just one sibling, a sister, and we get on famously – although we did fight like cat and dog when I was a kid so I do understand that complexity of being rivals I guess.

I was surprised by some of the things I read about the Vikings in your book. What was the most fascinating thing about Vikings that you learned while you were researching the book?

In the past I’ve written books with historical narratives anchored in the time of Empress Catherine the Great in Russia, Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus in Spain and the Italian Civil War, but this one with Vikings was definitely the most fun yet. They had such a brutal and noble way of viewing the world and their pantheon of gods is so nutty, so there’s a lot of Norse mythology in this book – Thor, Odin and Loki all make an appearance and I really enjoyed researching them. And of course travelling to Iceland and visiting Thingvellir – standing on the Law Rock where the Viking counsel held their AGM – that was very inspiring. The landscape of Thingvellir is spectacular – it’s the shooting location for everything “Beyond the Wall” in Game of Thrones – so dramatic and beautiful.

What did you enjoy most about Iceland? How cold was it when you were there? You’ve been to Russia too; do you enjoy the cold?

I had originally planned to go to Iceland in December until I realised that it would be too wintry – Iceland only has a couple of hours of daylight a day in that month. By the time I went it was spring – which meant minus five degrees during the day. I really feel the cold so I pretty much lived in a massive duvet-like Canada goose jacket the whole time I was there, sometimes teamed with fleece lined overalls. So no, I don’t theoretically like the cold, and yet I would say that Iceland and Russia are my two favourite places that I’ve ever been. Russia for the food (I know! Who would have thought?) and Iceland is just so outrageously beautiful. The next book is set in Berlin and Poland I’ve just been there on a research trip and it was freezing too! I need to start writing in warmer places.

What’s the weirdest things you’ve eaten in your travels? And what is your favourite food?

Fermented Greenland Shark is the iconic traditional food in Iceland. In my book Hilly explains how you take the shark, which is totally toxic if eaten fresh, and crush the poison out by burying the shark under boulders on the beach for a month. All of which is true. By all accounts it tastes disgusting. I never gave it a go because the Icelandic people told me it’s just for tourists now – the Vikings ate it out of necessity. Puffins are on the menu for tourists too – they catch them in giant butterfly nets and they taste a bit like muttonbird apparently. I didn’t eat them either on the grounds that they are too cute. I did eat reindeer carpaccio at an amazing hotel called the Ranga down on the southern coast which is the best place to see the Northern Lights. And in Russia my favourite meal was probably raw mince with raw quails eggs and pickles. I thought I was ordering a burger at the time but it turned out to be amazing.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve been able to do because of being an author?

I was incredibly lucky when I was working on The Princess and the Foal to be given full access by Princess Haya’s staff to do my research in Jordan. I spent time at the royal palace where she grew up and spoke to people who’d known her as a little girl. I visited the royal stables and rode Arabian horses in the desert and floated in the Dead Sea and ate amazing food and was made to feel so welcome. Afterwards, when the book was published in Arabic, I did a book tour in Beirut fell in love with the place. It’s a really liberal Middle Eastern society there, with a strong French influence to the food – again it’s all about the food!

What was your favourite book as a kid?

Ohhh – there are so many. Watership Down was a standout at primary school and Charlotte’s Web. When I met Princess Haya we both bonded over our mutual love for Walter Farley’s novel The Black Stallion. And at High School it was Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole and probably by then To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m wading my way through various titles on Hitler – the new book is set partly in Berlin from 1939-45. I haven’t struck one book yet though that has gripped me. I try not to read when I’m writing as I’m a terrible mimic and I adopt other people’s styles too easily so I have to read in the gaps between writing. The last book I read was Paul Cleave’s The Cleaner and I’m onto the sequel – Joe Victim. Cleave is very dark and very funny and Joe is my favourite psychopath since Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

Did you enjoy English when you were at school? What was your favourite subject?

I loved English. But I always tell kids that if they want to be writers it’s not all about getting the best marks in class because sometimes within the school system I’m not entirely sure being creative is rewarded. Passing exams is about ticking the boxes not thinking outside them. I also think that grammar skills don’t really get taught in English at school. I didn’t really learn how to use apostrophes until I was working on newspapers as a journalist. I learnt my writing skills being chastised by sub-editors. As a consequence I think my copy is very clean now and my editors don’t have to correct much. The most important thing you can do if you want to write is read, and think critically about the work you are reading and then try and utilise what you’ve learnt in your own writing.

Do you (as an adult) read pony books by other authors?

No. I read the “Jill” books by Ruby Ferguson as a girl. I don’t read any modern pony fiction and I guess now I don’t really consider my books to be pony fiction. I think of them more as far-flung epic action adventures that just happen to feature girls and horses.

Are there any authors that you’d recommend to girls who’ve read all your books and are wondering what to read next?

I think I’m more in the vein of adventure – I write for strong, brave independent-minded readers who aspire to be heroes. I’d probably be inclined to point them towards male authors who occupy similar terrain – like Rick Riordan or Michael Morpurgo. I’m not a girly writer, despite the glitter on the jackets.

Blaze from Pony Club Secrets always reminded me of another pony called Blaze from a picture book Billy and Blaze by C.W. Anderson which I loved as a child. How do you come up with all the names for the horses in your books?

Oh it was really hard to name the horses in the Pony Club Secrets series! That’s because the name of the horse features in the title. And often in real life a horse is given a human name – our horse for instance is called Cam, and he shares a paddock with a horse called Dennis. But you can’t really have a title like “Dennis and the Golden Trophy” because it gets confusing. Who is Dennis? Is he human or horse? So the horses have to have ‘horsey’ names like Blaze and Fortune and Storm.

Although Pony Club Secrets is set in New Zealand, when I was reading the books, I thought it seemed like a slightly English version of New Zealand. Did you do this on purpose?

Well the books were always intended for the UK market and my publishers HarperCollins are based in London so it kind of naturally evolved to be slightly a combination of the two countries which I think works.

Stacy Gregg. Image supplied.
Stacy Gregg. Image supplied.

Do you have a favourite horse colour?

I like a really bright bay or a very rich golden dun with black points. Although lately all the horse-protagonists in my books seem to wind up being grey for some reason.

Do you have a favourite character (girl and or horse!) from your books?

I am totally besotted with the two girls in my new book, The Fire Stallion. Especially my Viking princess Brunhilda (Bru for short). Bru is so sword-wielding and stoic and yet she’s still sensitive and devoted beyond all else to her horse. She’s a hero in the true mythic sense and she just sort of leapt onto the page right from the start and gripped me by the throat and said “let’s do this”. I want to be her.

Did you have a pony when you were young? Can you tell us about your first horse?

I had to beg my parents for years. They were convinced I was going through a phase. When I finally did get a pony (her name was Bonnie) they didn’t have a clue what to do. Neither did I although I was convinced I was a genius. I was very lucky that they enrolled me in pony club. My sister rode too and we competed every weekend but we never had starry ponies and we wore homemade jackets and jodhpurs held up with safety pins. My daughter was lucky to have a horsey mum I think, and also times have changed and everything is so much swisher now than it was back then – there’s so much gear to buy and the horses are so fancy now. Cam is actually my daughter’s horse but I’m lucky I get to ride him quite a lot at the moment as she’s busy working on Power Rangers!

Do you have a special place where you write your books?

The Fire Stallion is dedicated in part to the Sea Breeze Café in Westmere – which is where I am sitting right now answering these questions. I’ve just bought a new apartment and also a new desk in the hope that I can spend more time writing at home in future.

You were a journalist before you became an author. What did you like most about that job?

I loved the variety. I did everything from features and fashion so one day I’d be interviewing Donna Awatere Huata and the next I’d be down at Mount Ruapehu because it was erupting and then I’d be in Sydney for a Louis Vuitton launch eating fancy canapes and drinking champagne. Journalism taught me so many skills that I use all the time – I research in the same way now that I did back then and I’m pretty fearless about bowling up to people that I need to talk to and asking them the right questions. Plus I can hammer out a super-huge word count under time pressure. It’s also the reason today I like to work in a café – it reminds me of the buzz of the newsroom.

Stacy Gregg. Image supplied.
Stacy Gregg. Image supplied.

Did you always want to be an author?

Totally! I just didn’t think it was a realistic expectation. I mean riding horses and writing – it doesn’t sound like a real job does it?

What is the best thing about being an author?

Everything. I love the freedom of it, creating your own routines. The flipside is that it’s a very uncertain profession. You have to have a bit of steel in you to get through the phase when you’ve been working on a manuscript for three or four months and no one has seen it yet and you’ve hoping it’s as good as the last one and that you’ll be able to continue to pay the rent. That sort of existence is not for the faint hearted.

Do you think being a journalist has made you a better writer?

Absolutely – although I was always a “style writer”. I did features, not hard news reporting. I never actually went to journalism school – I don’t think I would have survived that environment of nuts and bolts reporting. I managed to pester my way into a job at More Magazine and I learnt from the editors I worked for – Lindsey Dawson, Warwick Roger, Paula Ryan, Donna Chisholm, Wendyl Nissen, Stephen Stratford, Steve Braunias. It was an education.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an author?

You need a back-up career – books are a slow business and even once I was getting published with Pony Club Secrets it took about three years for the royalties to begin coming in. The average author in the UK earns two thousand pounds a year. In New Zealand I’d think it’s probably about the same. If you are determined to do it, look at the market and do your research and think about your career as a big picture, not just one book. And then write. And rewrite. And get your manuscript into perfect shape before you approach agents to take you on – you’ll only get one chance to impress them so the work needs to be tight.

What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you?

What? In my entire whole life? Like I’m going to tell you that! I am mortified by things all the time that I do and I have no memory of my victories but a long memory for all the times I’ve been a twit. My days as a fashion editor left me open to daily embarrassment. I was at the Viktor and Rolf show at the Tuileries in Paris and I was allocated a seat in Row Z but I was so busy chatting to my friend Lisa Armstrong who was front row I didn’t realise I was single-handedly holding up the runway show because Vogue editor Anna Wintour couldn’t get past me to get to her seat. Her people had to move me on. That was a bad moment.

Lastly, where did you get those amazing silver boots you wore to WORD? Do you have lots of shoes?

When the Sunday Star-Times first launched their magazine “Sunday” I was their fashion editor and I had a column called Shoe of the Week. So yeah, it was a work-related hazard that I developed a shoe obsession. The silver boots are Balenciaga and despite the fact that they look crazy to walk in they are super comfortable. They were also nose-bleed inducingly expensive. They have since been surpassed on my latest London/Berlin trip by a pair of black patent Prada stilettos and some furry Birkenstocks that make me look like an Ewok. I shall have to write a lot of books to pay for them….

The Fire Stallion by Stacy Gregg is available now ($24.99 RRP, HarperCollins)

The Fire Stallion
by Stacy Gregg
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008261412

Podcast – Teaching war, teaching peace

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.

11 November 2018 marked one hundred years since the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War. The scale of this war makes a compelling argument for commemorating it – we must remember in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past – yet does this argument hold true? Guests are invited to ponder the question: Does teaching about war translate into teaching about peace?

Part I: Rowan Light (University of Canterbury)
ANZAC Day commemoration as teaching; changes to ANZAC Day over time including shift from veteran- to state-led event.

Part II: Katerina Standish (National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago)
Acknowledgement of violence in New Zealand curricula and its impact on teaching war and peace

Part III: Laura Jones (Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum)
The ‘Gallipoli: Scale of our war’ exhibition; role of the museum in encouraging audience reflection on notions of war and peace.

Transcript – Teaching war, teaching peace

Find out more in our collection

Catalogue link to New Zealand society at war 1914-1918Catalogue link to Johnny EnzedCatalogue link to GallipoliCatalogue link to New Zealand and the First world war 1914-1918 Catalogue link to Stand for all timeCatalogue link to The Anzac experienceCatalogue link to They fought for us: PasschendaeleCatalogue link to Anzac heroesCatalogue link to The story of the first world war for childrenCatalogue link to The Anzacs: An inside view of New Zealanders at GallipoliCatalogue link to AnzacCatalogue link to Remembering the First world war 1914-1918, Teaching resource  

More about Speak up – Kōrerotia

The show is also available on the following platforms:

Further First World War stories

Although the commemorations marking the centenary of the First World War have come to an end, the war continues to be remembered and its stories continue to be told.

The war is a huge, big subject which sometimes, to me, feels too massive to truly comprehend. Therefore it really is those individual or local stories that can connect us back to the subject.

image_proxyThis year two books about very specific aspects of the war have stood out for me. One is In the shadow of Bois Hugo: The 8th Lincolns at the Battle of Loos by Nigel Atter. I like is because it is a detailed reexamination of one battalion at one battle, something quite rare.

The 8th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment were one of the volunteers units raised soon after the war broke out in 1914. Very new to the Western Front in September 1915 they were part of a group of untested battalions thrown into the Battle of Loos. Following the men of the battalion through their training and the confusion of this first battle, Atter has researched and told their story in incredible detail. This is an excellent book if you want to find out about some, perhaps, less well-known aspects of the war.

image_proxy (1)The other book that stands out for me is Percy: a story of 1918 by Peter Doyle and with illustrations by Tim Godden. This is the story of an individual, based on a small archival collection, poignant and moving.

From this archival collection Doyle has fleshed out the story of Percy Edwards, a conscript from North Wales who joined the army in 1918. We are introduced to his family of miners, the village of Cefn where they come from, and his sweetheart, Kitty. The illustrations really add to the atmosphere of the book, which reminds us that however big the big picture is, its the stories of individuals that connect us to and create that picture.

Are there any recent (or not) First World War book that have made an impression on you?

Dracul – viscerally visual

The characters and scenes in this story remain imprinted in my mind’s eye. Dacre Stoker’s Dracul has not been written like a screenplay but it would make a sumptuously surreal film.

Dracul is written by Bram Stoker’s Great Grand-Nephew, Dacre Stoker, in collaboration with J.D. Barker.

The authors’ note (p.483) asserts that this is the story that was left out of the original Dracula. Bram’s publishers shied away from the content of the first 101 pages of Dracula, which Bram claimed to be a true story:

I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight. (pp. 483-4.)

In the original preface of Dracula, Bram states that it is his “duty to present it before the eyes of the public;” “a warning of a very real evil” (Dracul, p.484).

Compiled from Bram’s notes and translated from other language editions, that apparently did include the original text, Dacre and Barker have deftly crafted the story of Ellen Crone. Ellen is the Stoker family’s nanny and the reason for Jonathan Harker’s pursuit of Dracula in the later part of the story.

Ellen is beautiful; ageless and perfect. Yet sometimes her blue eyes become grey; her blonde curls become wispy, thin, and she disappears from the house, hiding under her hood, to regain her strength.

“What colour will Ellen’s eyes be today?” wonders Bram. Where does she go, returning replenished and young again: what is her secret?

Bram, suddenly fit after being unwell for years as a child, and his sister Matilda become obsessed with finding out. 

Ellen appears never to eat. Her room is coated in dust. Under her bed is another: filled with soil. 

Bram and Matilda’s investigations lead them to a tower room in Artane Castle: another bed, more soil, and whose hand?!

Ellen’s trail grows cold then until, as adults, the Stoker siblings renew their investigations. They are sure they have seen someone from their past die for a second time. How can this be?

This compelling tale begins with Bram undergoing an ordeal that lasts the duration of the book; interspersed with the history learned during childhood as Bram hurries to write down his story. Guarding a malevolent creature in a locked tower room, Bram recounts the events that led him here, fearing his own demise.

Not all of this story is focused on the gory habits of vampires (but be warned, dear reader, there is much blood). Ellen’s character is problematical. Her story is poignant; her eventual fate even more so. Are her intentions self-serving and evil? If so, why has she nurtured Bram and not harmed him? And who is the creature in the tower?

The language of this book harks back to the original literary text – reflecting the way English was spoken in the nineteenth century – so it comes across as authentic. It’s up to the reader if you believe it…or not!

Dracul placed a commendable third in GoodRead’s best reads for 2018 – Horror – almost toppling the twentieth century’s master of horror, Stephen King. In my opinion it should have won.

Find more Horror fiction

The Other Side of Christmas

We all look forward to Christmas, don’t we? Well, maybe not everyone does. As well as family gatherings, stuffing ourselves with turkey, Uncle (insert name here) with one too many glasses of bubbly aboard regaling us with heroic tales of his long-gone youth and opening presents, as with all things in life, Christmas has its downside.

The struggle to write and post all our Christmas cards before the NZ Post cut-off dates. After all, no one likes to look callous and uncaring at Christmas. Or the harassed shoppers fighting the crowds to complete their present buying list. Oh no, Ballantynes have sold the last Nativity scene doily that I wanted to give to deeply-religious Aunty Doris!

But if it is all looking a little stressful, take a moment out of your busy pre-Christmas schedule to enjoy these offerings from the library and you’ll be feeling better in no time.

CoverCharley Jordan Streaming MusicCover

You can stream some music to counteract those sickly carols pumped out at your local mall. Charley Jordan sings Christmas Christmas Blues, Christmas Tree Blues, No Christmas Blues and the Santa Claus Blues so this is a man who knows about the bittersweet nature of the festive season.

Or perhaps it is something to suck the saccharine out of your children you seek.

And when you are sprawled exhausted on the couch on Christmas Eve, spook yourself gently or chuckle into Yuletide with the following:

CoverCover

Dan recommends: The best recreational non-fiction of 2018

2018 has been a stunning year for me when we talk about books and reading, and here’s a selection of recreational non-fiction titles that I have enjoyed in the back half of 2018 and that you too can enjoy over the New Zealand summer season!

Cover of A collection of conversations with Richard Fidler, Volume 3First up; an audiobook! A Collection of Conversations With Richard Fidler Volume 3

Volume 3 is another outstanding collection of conversations with Australian ABC Arts journalist and author Richard Fidler. His genius with interviewing technique unwraps some amazing stories from people who have done amazing things with their lives. The common thread among all of these interviewees is their passion for continued learning, their curiosity about the world, and their passion for life. In this volume we hear from a blind woman who navigates by sonar, a Bundjalung woman who rose to become one of Australia’s brightest lights, a man who spent 10 years alone in the bush before gaining a doctorate while being homeless, the animalistic life of comedian Bill Bailey, and many more fascinating stories. A great summer’s day listening at the bach, maybe with a glass of something refreshing…

Cover of Leviathan, or the whaleNext we have the soon-to-be-considered-classic work of Philip Hoare Leviathan, Or, The Whale

I was lucky enough to see/hear Philip Hoare speak at this year’s Word Christchurch festival, and it was the realisation of a dream that I didn’t know I had – to meet the man who has had me mesmerised with his writing about the sea and natural science too often to count. Philip Hoare writes of the sea in such powerful and beautiful language. This particular book is his own graceful exploration of whales, their place in our world, our human history interacting with them, and the perils that they face at the hands of humanity and environmental changes. A book to read slowly, embracing every sentence for its beauty and poetic brilliance.

Cover of Wisconsin death tripIn completely the other direction, 2018 was the year I discovered this book from long ago – Wisconsin Death Trip

This book is a surreal journey about the real events surrounding the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin way back in the 1890s. Over a decade or so the townsfolk underwent what can only be called a mass-mania with incidents of murder, arson, infanticide, institutionalisation, and all manner of other horrors. These stories are told through archival newspaper reports and the most astonishing images taken from glass-plate negatives taken during the time. Haunting images and crazy stories… an amazing piece of captured history.

Cover of 11 Explorations into life on EarthAnd perhaps in the lead up to Christmas you could indulge in a British custom and read about the history of the Royal Institute’s Christmas Lectures 11 Explorations Into Life on Earth

A very compelling volume of short accounts of the sessions delivered by many noted British scientists including Richards Dawkins and the great David Attenborough himself. These lectures were aimed to get kids excited about science and they are very entertaining and informative – you’ll love them too!

And the last title I’ll share with you is a micro-history. A micro-history is a work which focuses on one very specific piece of human or natural history. In the past I’ve enjoyed brilliant micro-histories like Salt by Mark Kurlansky – the amazing story of the most popular food seasoning in the world, or The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester (a repeat offender when it comes to micro-histories!) – an account of a madman who made the most significant contribution to the English language dictionary. I may one day write a blog just about the amazing world of micro-histories (Alina has done a very good microhistories list to start with) but for this time it’s all about Krill in The Curious Life of Krill.

Cover of The curious life of krillThis is a fascinating read about one of the most bountiful and important food sources in the Earth’s oceans. Written with an expert’s mind and a writer’s sense of storytelling this is a most enlightening read. Krill; they’re not as small as you think, and they are almost definitely the most important link in the food chain for life on Earth. Great read. Cool creatures. Think of them when you’re BBQ-ing your prawns this Christmas! 🙂

And that’s the back half of my 2018 reading in recreational non-fiction. These are not all the titles that crossed my path but definitely the most interesting and the ones I would like to share the most.

Happy Christmas season to y’all and happy reading for the rest of 2018!

^DevilStateDan

Summer eReads – Escapism

Summer holidays is about having some me time, wherever you spend them. Sitting back and relaxing with a book, a bit of escapism – and what better than some easy reading novels, like a trashy romance, or a mystery or thriller you can’t put down.

Here’s an interesting fact: Romance is our most popular genre on OverDrive. The best thing about reading romance as an eBook is that no one knows what you are reading; they can’t see the cover with the topless hero with swooning maiden.

Summer Lovin’

eBook summer romances worth swooning over.

A heartwarming and refreshing debut novel that proves one thing: there’s not enough data in the world to predict what will make your heart tick.The Kiss Quotient

A woman on a quest to be the heroine of her own story and the duke in shining armor she rescues along the way…Duke by Default

Everyone in Green Valley, Tennessee knows that the six bearded Winston brothers have been imbued with an unfair share of charm and charisma… and are prone to mischief.Dr. Strange Beard

He’s been a bad, bad rake — and it takes a governess to teach him a lessonThe Governess Game

A tour de force novel about a troubled marriage and the one old forgotten promise that might be able to save it.All your Perfects

Deep within the peaceful heart of Amish country, a life-or-death emergency shatters a quiet world to its core. Between You and Me is an emotionally complex story of love and loss, family and friendship, and the arduous road to discovering the heart’s true path. Between You and Me

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If romance is not your thing and you prefer a fast-paced, spine tingling mystery or thriller, try out these latest eBooks.

It’s a mystery to me

eBook mysteries and thrillers to keep you reading this summer

She planned her own funeral. But did she arrange her own murder?The Word Is Murder

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are back in the New York Times bestselling series that Lee Child called “the most sustained feat of imagination in mystery fiction today.”Island of the Mad

This is the story of three best friends: one who was murdered, one who went to prison, and one who’s been searching for the truth all these years . . .Jar of Hearts

What if the person you thought you knew best turns out to be someone you never knew at all . . . ?Pieces of Her

New York Times bestselling author William Kent Krueger delivers yet another “punch-to-the-gut blend of detective story and investigative fiction” (Booklist starred review) Desolation Mountain

‘The Death of Mrs Westaway is Ruth Ware’s best: a dark and dramatic thriller, part murder mystery, part family drama, altogether riveting’ AJ FINN, bestselling author of THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOWThe Death of Mrs Westaway

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An Evening with Lee Child – Past Tense – WORD Christchurch

I am well into the morning-after glow of having spent an evening in the company of Lee Child, Paul Cleave and 750 of his Christchurch fans – and what a night it was! This is my first WORD Christchurch event – this one presented in association with Penguin Random House New Zealand – and I couldn’t have asked for a better author to kick off with. Lee Child is funny, intelligent and relaxed as he responds to Paul Cleave’s questions. He looks every bit as he does on the back cover of his books too. Now don’t worry – there are no spoilers for Past Tense in here – nor were there any in the interview, thankfully. I am still only part way through the book so I would have been gutted if it had been discussed in depth.

Have you ever wondered if Lee Child is channeling any of himself into our favourite character? Turns out that he is. He has gone out and experienced moving around the States as Jack does and has a similar dislike for technology. He also told us that other than the leather jacket and boots that he was wearing on the night; everything else will find itself in the bin in a few days and he will leave with new clothes. The basics aren’t expensive – he’s tried expensive clothing and found that they look the same anyway. And yes his jeans go under the mattress at night!

So which of you didn’t like Tom Cruise in the big screen role of Jack Reacher? No? Me neither! Quite simply because he doesn’t have the requisite traits that we all know Reacher to have – if anything, Tom Cruise is the antipode of Jack Reacher.

But this isn’t something that we will have to continue to grin and bear for any future films. That’s because there won’t be any. It was in Lee’s contract with the studio that he could opt out of any future movies once two had been made. So he has. Instead we have something much more worthy to look forward to. A TV series! He has just signed the paperwork to put Jack Reacher onto the little screen and I for one will be happily bingewatching it. If luck has it, there will be 8 seasons which will incorporate 24 books – 3 per season. One book will be chosen as the main theme and the other 2 will be cannibalised to round out the episodes. Can’t wait to see the result.

It was nice to see Lee graciously accept the book of a first-time author from the audience, when he was offered it. I had the impression that he genuinely supports up and coming talent. He does however, heartily disapprove of a well established author who quite blatantly kicks off a series with a character who is a bit of a dead ringer for ol’ Jack. David Baldacci… you know who you are! Amusingly, Lee didn’t take this affront lying down and is openly disparaging of such behaviour. He even went as far as to name a couple of his minor characters Baldacci and made sure that Reacher got a chance to punch them in the face. It seems that was enough to assure the absence of David Baldacci at some book events that he and Lee Child were due to attend together. Better watch your back DB!

So, ‘how does he remain as thin as he does?’, was one audience member’s question. Lee has discovered that stoking the fires of his creativity is as simple as keeping himself hungry. He writes better like this. He puts it down to some primal part of his brain that is activated when he is hungry – and it’s no doubt trying to imagine what it will have to do in order to hunt and forage to fill this need. Deep stuff.

So even though food doesn’t play a huge part we can rest assured that he is consuming copious amounts of coffee. This stuff must be running through his veins as it’s not unusual for him to consume 36 cups of coffee in a day! 36! Mind blown! How on earth does he sleep at night, I wonder?

So that was my night with Lee Child. It was a very entertaining time that was had by all. And no I didn’t hang around for my book to be signed, because I didn’t have a couple of hours to spare! Maybe next time.

Time to immerse myself back into Jack Reacher’s world – Past Tense here I come!

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Best book covers of 2018 – My pick of New Zealand’s finest

Throughout the year, I’ve been eyeing up the book covers of Aotearoa in order to create an assemblage of the most beautiful, bright, and bold. Luckily there were plenty of tasty covers to feast upon.

CoverGOLD: Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble

Cover art by Xoë Hall, published by Victoria University Press.
I had my eye on this one back in April, when VUP Books tweeted their cover reveal.The bold sexy colours! The snaky Medusa lettering!

This stunner of a cover is a perfect match for the badass fab poetry in Tayi’s collection.

I’ve had a look at more work by Xoë, and WOW WOW WOW. My eyes are so pleasured.

She designed that spectacular dress on the cover of Tami Neilson’s Sassafras record.

SILVER: Are friends electric? by Helen Heath

Cover by Kerry Ann Lee, published by Victoria University Press.

Helen Heath’s book is one of the year’s best; the poems are a compelling blend of earthy and intelligent. The beautiful tableau on its cover is by artist Kerry Ann Lee.

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BRONZE: Go Girl. Oh Boy.

Go Girl: A Storybook of epic NZ women by Barbara Else. Illustrations by Ali Teo, Fifi Colston, Helen Taylor, Phoebe Morris, Rebecca ter Borg, Sarah Laing, Sarah Wilkins, Sophie Watson and Vasanti Unka.

Oh Boy: A Storybook of epic NZ men by Stuart Lipshaw. Illustrations by Ant Sang, Bob Kerr, Daron Parton, Elliot O’Donnell (aka Askew One), Fraser Williamson, Michel Mulipola, Neil Bond, Patrick McDonald, Toby Morris and Zak Waipara.

Both titles published by Puffin (Penguin Books New Zealand).

This pair of books are a stand out. The bright sturdy covers, the diverse range of historic and contemprary Kiwis depicted, and the illustrations by New Zealand’s finest. An all-ages joy.

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BLACK AND WHITE AND READ ALL OVER

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TYPOGRAPHICAL DELIGHTS

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PERFECT SIMPLICITY

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FACES FRONT AND CENTRE

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GROUPS

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BOOKS OF POETRY RULE THE COVERS SCHOOL

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Browse more covers of New Zealand books published in 2018.

More best book covers

Best book covers of previous years

For more on local book covers and design, see the PANZ Book Design Awards.