David Veart

Last year at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival the programmers had the inspired idea of  hosting a three course lunch with each course chosen by a food writer. David Veart  got to choose the dessert, an easy task given his collection of over 600 cook books, which he began when he was researching his M.A. thesis on Maori market gardening in Auckland.

He’s observed a few changes in attitudes to food himself, having once worked in a restaurant where the customers were given plastic corks to sniff and where the mixing of the dressing for the Prawn Cocktails was a matter of sticking your arm into a huge drum. Those were the days.

At a session hosted by Marie-Chantal of Greece lookalike Victoria Wells (only prettier),  the editor of dish, Veart and Alexa Johnston, author of Ladies a plate, were simultaneously heartening and dispiriting to me as the world’s worst cook.  I’ve always been in agreement with Lady Barker’s statement that cookbooks are only useful if you already know how to cook so I was heartened by the trend to numbered steps, exact ingredients and, Halleluyah, bold dark type with none of this pale blue on pale grey nonsense.

Dispiriting was the observation that some funerals feature the deceased’s  cookbook. I have recently noted references to signature dishes in eulogies and worried that there could be none at mine. Now I have to worry that this cookbook tomfoolery will take off and the lack of a cookbook will be noted post mortem.  As if it’s not bad enough to be a culinary inadequate in life but further humilation awaits in death.

Anyway they were a very engaging duo, Peta Mathias was in the audience and she is as gorgeous and opinionated as ever, and I might just get a cookbook out of the library and work on a signature dish.  Historical cookbooks are fascinating and we’re lucky in Christchurch to have a great collection in the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre, ready for perusal if not for borrowing, which in a way is even better because then you don’t have to even try  to cook from them.

Valley of Grace by Marion Halligan

Last year at the Christchurch Writers festival I went to hear Marion Halligan read from one of her books. She is obviously very popular in her homeland Australia, but she was not an author I knew anything about, and unfortunately I found the excerpt she read to be a bit dull.

I was therefore quite surprised when I was intrigued enough by a review of her latest book, Valley of Grace to reserve it. I then spent a couple of days sick in bed, and found myself (and my dripping nose) transported to Paris, the setting for this book, and obviously somewhere that Halligan is very familiar with.

Central to the story is Fanny, who seems to embody all that is French; elegant, understated and chic. She meets and marries Gerard, a talented restorer of old Parisian buildings. Fanny works in an antiquarian book shop, so there is a ample opportunity via their two professions for Halligan to recount fascinating historical titbits about the history of the city, as well as the story of these two people and their desire to have a child.

For smallish book there are a number of side stories, including memories of the French resistance, a lecherous lecturer and his long suffering wife, death and the process of dying (with a wonderful visit to Lourdes), a heartbreaking story of a hidden and abandoned child, friendships, sexuality and the agonies and pleasures of raising children. There are detailed and luscious descriptions of houses and interiors, gardens full of fresh produce and dainty flowers, descriptions of cakes that sent me diving to the pantry, and a feeling that I wanted to pack my phrase book and head off to Paris tomorrow.

I’m wondering now if I judged Marion Halligan too harshly, perhaps she was just having a bit of a bad day at the Readers and writers festival and chose the wrong passage to read, (or perhaps heaven forbid, it was me, and I had festival fatigue), but whatever the reason I wish she had read a piece from this novel, because I know that I would have been first on the reserve list if she had.

When will there be good news?

When will there be good news? I wonder when Kate Atkinson wrote this book that she had any idea that this phrase would be on everyones lips? Thankfully I didn’t read this book last year after hearing her at the Christchurch Readers and Writers festival, but saved it for a good weekend read when I needed a little bit of escapism from all the doom and gloom. What I love about fiction is that fact that I can go from the brutal reality of the The Wasted Vigil (see previous post) to a gritty but somewhat more cheerful story from Kate Atkinson, who specialises in great eccentric characters and gripping drama with a good dash of humour.

Reggie, a plucky sixteen year old steals the show, managing to overshadow the familiar and somewhat complex Jackson Brodie who we have met in previous outings. Reggie is an orphan with a precocious wit and a predisposition to solving crime, who I hope we will meet again, alongside Louise Marlow, a world weary detective with ongoing feelings for Jackson Brodie, and the man himself, who manages to spend part of the book in a coma, after a train crash, but still has a brooding effect on everyone he encounters. (But not while he’s in the coma of course!)

You could say the general theme of the book is loss, and how to keep going, and the initial chapters relay the story of a young girl who is the only remaining survivor after her mother, brother and sister are brutally murdered. Escapism you say? Thankfully, we discover that the young girl is now a doctor who, with her husband and baby boy, generally manages to get on with life, (with the support of the ever helpful Reggie who is her nanny), until the murderer is released after 30 years in jail, and her sudden and strange disappearance gets everyone on the hop.

There is a certain predictability in how the story unfolds, which personally I find somewhat comforting, but enough of a twist to keep you on your toes. I’m looking forward to Atkinson’s next outing, that according to TimesOnline will feature two female characters, Gloria and Louise, at a murder mystery weekend. I’m sure they will be the usual quirky and interesting characters that Kate Atkinson (and I) love.

UNESCO City of Literature

Ooh la la, there’s a new UNESCO City of Literature in the world, which is only the second one in the world, and it is the first in the Southern Hemisphere!

This particular award is one of six thematic awards which make up UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network designations. Edinburgh was the first city to receive recognition in 2004 as a UNESCO City of Literature, and now we have Melbourne to add to the list (okay, so it’s not a very long list so far!).

Am not sure that we’ll see Christchurch make the list any time soon, but there are definitely lots of ‘literary’ happenings here, as witnessed by The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2008 and Te Tai Tamariki, as well as local authors such as Gavin Bishop, Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Fiona Farrell, Bill Nagelkerke and Carl Nixon. And there’s plenty of books which evoke Christchurch as their primary setting, such as 24 hours by Margaret Mahy, Davey darling by Paul Shannon, The cleaner by Paul Cleave, Shiftlight by David Jubermann, Room by Laurence Fearnley and The Opawa affair by Edmund Bohan.

Sadly though, we don’t have the wealth of organisations that Melbourne has which support the fantastic literary side of the city. One such place is The State Library of Victoria, which is creating a Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, scheduled for a 2009 opening. It should eventually house a variety of literature bodies, such as the Australian Poetry Centre and the Victorian Writers’ Centre. I can certainly see why Melbourne deserves to be the second UNESCO City of Literature.

Escape to Asbestos 2 with Jane and Joyce


Joyce: I haven’t had a good snivel sesh at the end of a novel for a while but Petropolis by Anya Ulinich broke the drought. Maybe it was empathy with a dead, frozen and disillusioned librarian that opened my usually cynically rusted floodgates but blub I did … Tell us Jane did you shed a tear or two?

Jane: No I didn’t and I’m trying to think why not. I feel like I’m cold hearted and not very nice now. However, tears aside I loved this book from beginning to end. I have a signed copy from the Reader and Writers festival and will treasure it forever! Did you find Joyce that every character in this novel was fascinating, strangely believable but also weird and alien at the same time? Written by someone else with less talent the characters could have been plain unrealistic and used for cheap jokes, but I wanted to meet them all and have some new best friends.

Joyce: Anya Ulinich read from Petropolis at the Christchurch Festival and so I was prepared for something a little kooky and unusual. Like you Jane I found all the characters intriguing. Sasha Goldberg is pure genius, described on the blurb as the “ultimate outsider”. Sasha is an overweight romantic with a missing father, a dangerously perfectionist mother and a dead-end life in the Siberian city of Asbestos 2. At 14 and desperate for love she meets Aleksey, an art school drop-out whose vodka induced silences she mistakes for hidden depth (well we have all been there). It doesn’t work out, surprise, and Sasha escapes to the US as a Russian Bride in search of her father and a new life.

Jane: Yes, and what a new life. Landing in the middle of Arizona as a new mail order bride was not exactly uplifting for Sasha. I was ready, after reading about the strip malls, heat, smells and the new fiancé, to cheer her on as she leaves for New York in the hope of finding her father. There are a number of great characters to meet along the way, and I did find myself falling for Jake; a young man with Cerebral Palsy and an acerbic wit. The way in which Ulinich managed to describe his unenviable situation, alongside his attractiveness was a highlight for me.

Joyce: Jake is wonderful; sharp, funny and not sorry for himself. A little bit like the novel really, comic, strange but in many way deadly serious. Everyone should read it..really..oh but it might pay to keep some tissues handy.

Romance is dead: Sex sells

One of the ironies of The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival was that the star guest, Robert Fisk, works for the main sponsor’s opposition. Tony O’Reilly, who owns The Independent that Fisk writes for, also owns Australian Provincial Newspapers, which in turn owns The New Zealand Herald, The Star in Christchurch and most of New Zealand’s commercial radio stations. Anyway, it’s The Independent you’ve got to thank for this post.

The Independent has reported that Mills and Boon, the venerable romance fiction publishers who have reached 100 years in the business, have turned the heat up a notch. Gone are the days of emotional attachment between hero and heroine – from 2009 in the UK (and already in the US) it’s “sex for enjoyment” as their marketing director put it, in a series called Spice.

It is part of a continuing pattern for the Mills and Boon books – once upon a time they published sports and craft titles, before moving into escapist romances. They’ve been getting gradually more explicit ever since. All this begs the question: If Mills and Boon books have got progressively raunchier, does the audience, ah, keep pace?

One thing’s for sure: the title writers will have a field day… if they weren’t already!

Blogging with Donna and other people

The last session I went to at the Festival was one where the star blogger of Christchurch City Libraries, was on a panel with New Zealand novelist Rachael King and American novelist Mark Sarvas, known for his literary blog, The Elegant Variation.

In the chair was Guy Somerset and he was excellent in getting the goods from the three bloggers. I thought Donna was excellent and a credit to our library for the way she described how the library started a blog, how it grew, what worked and how our blog had gradually built up a reputation. Rachael King’s blog is more literary and is not about book reviews but more on what she is reading and writing and ruminations on this. Apparently she gets a number of other Kiwi writers adding their voice to the blog, including Keri Hulme (now come on Keri, stop blogging and get that “Bait” novel out there to your public!)

Mark Sarvas may live in California but he reminded me of a New Yorker in that once he got the floor he wouldn’t let up. He was as much a motormouth as Mark Billingham but not as funny. He tended to dominate the session and though I’m sure a lot of the audience liked him I wondered if our good old cultural cringe means we think that anyone who comes here from the Northern Hemisphere must automatically know more about anything than we do. I wondered – even though it’s none of my business – how he can put so much time and energy into a blog that has no commercial sponsorship. Someone afterwards suggested private income and if that’s the case good luck to him (he said with peevish envy).

Also there, in the front row, was Graham Beattie whose blog is one of the best known in New Zealand and a blog that you could use as your one and only (other than the CCL blog of course). He said a few words and was as generous and unassuming as ever. So, with the two Kiwis on the panel and Mr Beattie in the audience, it was obvious to me that we can do it as well as anyone in the world.

And as this is my last blog from the Festival, I have to say it was great fun and my initial reaction on Friday (that it didn’t have the pizazz of the Auckland Festival) was knocked on the head in the weekend as the readers and writers came out in droves and there was a real buzz about the place.

Sorry I haven’t the time to go through some of the funnier moments but perhaps a later blog could go into such moments as Mark Billingham and the nipples in the bath scene from his latest book where he singled out a woman in the audience (one of our very own bloggers no less) who was doing a facial “Whaaaaaaaaaat?!” at some faulty research on his part

Philip (now back and knowing his place in downtown Sydenham)

Festival faves

Bookman Beattie has posted his best of the fest, here’s mine:

  • Festival crush – Arnold Zable – collector of Yiddish curses
  • Best hair – Vanessa Collingridge
  • Best baby – Vanessa Collingridge – so well behaved he could come to a poetry session
  • Most terrifying CV – Vanessa Collingridge
  • Best chair – Philip Norman – not just an easy chair but a self-confessed la-z-boy
  • Best shoes – Kate Mosse – platform sneakers
  • Best handling of a disgruntled book lover – Lloyd Jones when he invited a woman who had “paid money to hear him” but couldn’t to sit beside him on the couch
  • Best description of bad writing about art – Hamish Keith “prose so opaque it could well have been made from clay” (of a piece about pottery)
  • Best unknown (and unlikely) fact about a personal hero – A.S. Byatt is a Terry Pratchett fan
  • Best controversy – Fiona Kidman giving the Montana fiction fight another airing, much to Marion Halligan’s delight
  • Never miss the opportunity to see this woman read award – Tusiata Avia
  • Discoveries: Arnold Zable, Karlo Mila, Anya Ulinich

It’s not about me – or is it?

I know the festival is over but I’m not ready to let go just yet and this was one of my favourite sessions. There were writers on the panel who may not have been discovered by readers here in Christchurch but who should be if their readings were anything to go by. Plus it was such a good festival I plan to bang on about it for quite some time, so there.

It may not be about me for the writers but as far as many readers are concerned it should be. I remember Margaret Atwood saying at an author event that after a character in one of her novels lost a lot of weight readers were always asking her how she did it. When she replied that she wasn’t the character, they would say “yes, but how did you lose the weight?”

For Christine Luenens going into character is like being an actor; it does come from the inside, almost like harnessing the extremely powerful imagination we express in our dreams.

Anya Ulinich’s novel Petropolis was one that made it onto my very long list of books to read after the festival – my notes say someone described it as “kinky, grotesque and very funny” – what more could any reader require? Horns were locked when Ullnich’s U.S. editor’s desire for the book to be about a girl discovering herself came up against Ullnich’s more political motivation.

Mark Sarvas’ experience raised the interesting question of what is a first novel. Is it the book you write first or the book that is published first? Sarvas set aside his first which was much more autobiographical than his second, for which he wasn’t remotely tempted to use his life, but has now returned to his first . This gave chair Rachael King the chance to ask if using one’s life was easier or harder, a very good question. “Inherently more difficult” said Sarvas, although this novel did have more serious subject matter.

One of the differences between non-fiction and fiction panels at festivals seems to be that non-fiction panels are much more about the topic of the book, while fiction panels get onto the lives and writing habits of the writers. Both can be good, but I’m a fan of the life and habits side of things – where else would you hear the lovely phrase “plume and feather duster”, which Christine Luenens used to describe her approach to writing and domestic duties since the birth of her children.

Having a practitioner as the chair was an advantage in this session, as it was in the non-fiction session Painting a Picture – New Zealand Artists on Sunday. It may be that King and Philip Norman are good at putting people at their ease but it seemed that their in-depth knowledge of what it means to produce a first novel or a biography helped them to establish a rapport with their panels.

Not another bloody blog

It was a proud moment to see our very own Donna Robertson on the podium on Sunday, looking cool calm and collected, and not a sign of nerves to be seen.

Rachael King, author of The Sound of Butterflies, and a blog with the same name talked about her blogging being useful for her writing process. She finds that creating and keeping the blog going gets her fired up to continue on her second book, and she enjoys the feedback from other authors. Her blog is primarily about being a writer, but she avoids getting too personal.

Harry, revised
Harry, revised

Mark Sarvas, the third panelist is the author of Harry Revised, and the founder of the literary blog The elegant variation (I must reinforce here the word literary, not a piece of genre fiction ever makes it to this blog, I can assure you). If you have read his blog he often refers to both “I’ and “we”. I (as opposed to we ), thought there was more than one person writing for this blog, but no, he uses “we” when he is in reviewer mode and “I’ when it is more of a personal post…. Silly me.

Our Donna reinforced the fact that the team of Library bloggers can more or less blog about whatever we like, even (gasp) genre fiction. I swelled with pride.

Now Mark Sarvas doesn’t mind a bit of controversy. Apparently, when he criticised another author this year for writing what he saw as an appalling book, the comments box went hot. I can’t remember the author’s name or the title of the book, but I have this strange compulsion to track it down and read it. For some reason I think I might enjoy it.

Rachael King said how much she enjoyed being able to go to our Readers and Writers blog at the end of the day, and catch up on some of the sessions that she had missed.

Bookman Beattie, as the most iconic of all New Zealand bloggers, acknowledged that his job is a full-time one, and it is certainly incredibly worthwhile to consult his blog you want to know anything about books, both here and throughout the world.

So thanks to Donna for waving the flag. It’s been a long, fun, interesting weekend, and having Donna as our editor has made it all the more so.