Sick leave and my personality change

Winter ailments are striking early. In library after library staff are succumbing to lurgies and being booked off work. When it happened to me, my first thought was: Goodie, now I will read all the books on my shelves that I’ve not had time for.

I started with My Name is Lucy Barton. This was the wrong book at the wrong time. Lucy is sick in hospital having a disjointed trip down memory lane with a truly dysfunctional mother. It is beautifully written, but a Get Well Soon read it is not.

Cover of The life changing magic of not giving a f**kUnfazed, my hand reached out for The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. I needed a life change, and heaven knows the cupboards were long overdue for a bit of attention. After one chapter I lost the will to live. There is only so much origami-like folding of underwear that an invalid can handle. Instead I selected The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k (How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do With People You Don’t Like.) That’s more like it!

HyggeNext up Hygge. This is a Danish word for the concept of Happiness. I soon realised that I had been mispronouncing it for months. Irrationally, this kind of wrong-footing really annoys me. I still call it Higgy*. Anyway, it is the trend du jour. I was feeling quite ho-hum about it all until it got to the bit where you feel all higgy because you do generous things. I had my usual perverse reaction to this. Who exactly is feeling good here? The giver or the givee? Just for the record I would be enraged if people  kept leaving little containers of home-made jam on my doorstep and hung freshly baked bread rolls from my front doorknob. Clearly I was not in a good mental space.

And that’s when I realised that I was going about this Sick Leave reading all the wrong way. What I really wanted to do was rip out my lungs and have a go at them with a meat cleaver. I wanted violence. I was after blood. In quick succession I read two wonderful murder mysteries (The Fire Maker by Peter May and I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill) and followed them up with my first Literary Western (The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt). I felt better almost immediately.

Cover of The Fire maker I shot the buddha The Sisters Brothers

We may have put an end to blood letting and the use of leeches in modern medicine. But that doesn’t stop it from being the way to go when you are feeling enraged by ill health. Give it a try!

*[Ed: For the curious it’s closer to “hoo-ga”. You’re welcome]

Caraval: Magical fantasy

If George R. R. Martin’s Westeros of the Game of Thrones series is a magical take on an historical Britain, then the world of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is a similarly fantastical Italy.

The story starts on a sun-soaked isle, the home of heroine Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella, but inevitably progresses to the home of Caraval, where potions, wishes and magic are real and wind through it like its twisting canals (making it suggestive of an imaginary, fairy tale Venice).

Cover of Caraval

Scarlett and Tella are the daughters of the local governor, a murderous, manipulative brute from whom both sisters would love to escape. Scarlett, the elder cautious sister, hopes to do just that via an arranged marriage… but Tella has other, somewhat more adventurous ideas, involving a trip to the mysterious, magical game of Caraval.

The game is like a murder mystery dinner, but one that takes place over 5 days, involves a whole town as the set, and is infused with magic. It’s all just a game and nothing is real… but Scarlett, who is drawn into the game by her sister and is forced to hunt for her when she is abducted, comes to believe otherwise.

There are clues, chases, shadowy menacing figures, false leads, magically transforming clothes, revelatory backstories and more than a little bit of heady, romantic entanglement. Perfect, escapist, young adult, fantasy reading for a rainy weekend.

But there’s also character progression as the reader watches Scarlett discover her self-worth over the course of the book, starting out as a fearful, somewhat downtrodden character but eventually, through love for her sister and dogged determination, finding strength and confidence in her own choices.

As far as mysteries go, this one kept me guessing (and most of my guesses were wrong). The story is a bit slow to start, and if you look too closely you’ll start to find plot holes, but that said once the main characters are in the game, the pacing is such that it’s a diverting, page-turning ride to the dramatic conclusion.

Though, be warned, a couple of intriguing plot points are left deliberately open, suggesting a sequel may be in the works…

Caraval
by Stephanie Garber
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473629158

Hear Orphan X author Gregg Hurwitz in Christchurch – Wednesday 1 March

Gregg Hurwitz is in Christchurch on Wednesday 1 March thanks to Penguin Random House New Zealand and WORD Christchurch.

Gregg Hurwitz

If you are at all into thrillers, you have probably heard of this New York Times bestselling author of Orphan X and its sequel The Nowhere Man.

But did you know his skills extend way beyond the crime genre? He’s also a Shakespeare-tragedy scholar and a writer of comic books.  Gregg will be interviewed by local crime reviewer Ken Strongman. After the talk, there will be an audience Q & A and book signing, with books available to purchase on the night. Book your tickets now.

Gregg has a contract for three more Orphan X novels, and Bradley Cooper’s production company has picked up the film rights. Gregg has experience writing for television, so he is on screenwriter duties for this movie adaptation.

I asked my Dad – who is thriller and crime buff  – a few questions about Gregg:

You’ve read books by Gregg. Tell me a bit about them.

As mentioned I have read three of Gregg’s books over the past year. My first taste was Don’t Look Back about a year ago. A great story about a single mother on an adventure tour group to Mexico, concerns over being trapped by a dangerous predator and secrets wanting to get safely back home to her son. Great “edge of the seat” stuff to keep you glued to the pages.

I then noticed the highly acclaimed Orphan X which I read next a few weeks later. Evan Smoak is the man. Taken from a group home and trained in undercover operations it has more potential thrills, twist and turns you think you could handle. It is no surprise Bradley Cooper is signed up for the movie.

I was hooked by now, so read one more of Gregg’s books to confirm my theory. I read Tell no Lies in May of last year and this one was based in San Francisco, a counsellor with ex cons and suddenly anonymous threats from a killer. No rest again as the action is maintained.

He is bleeding good, one of my favourites.

What are the best things about his writing?

The joy of his books is the immense variety, realism yet excitingly dangerous and ever changing scenarios. Some people may only like to read them during the day as those noises from inside your house could be the precursor to something evil.

Are you keen to see him in person? What would you ask him?

If I happened to meet Greg my question would be how hard is it to switch from comic book to a serious badass thriller.

Thanks Dad!

More:

CoverCoverCoverCoverCoverCover

Dragon Springs Road – Janie Chang

Cover of Dragon Springs RoadDragon Springs Road by Janie Chang has as many layers as a Chinese puzzle. This beautifully painted tale is a saga containing a mystery, with elements of romance, fantasy, fairy tale and Chinese spiritualism. The story is set against the dramatic backdrop of the 1911 Chinese Revolution; the last reign of the Xing Dynasty.

Jialing is a young hun xue (mixed breed) girl abandoned by her mother. The other word used to describe her isn’t very nice. Jialing’s mother was Chinese, her father British. Her plight highlights the status of women and those of mixed race in a changing society. Women at this time were regarded as property, with little options for independence.

Grandmother Yang, the Matriarch of a well respected family, takes Jialing in as a Bond Servant. She is property of the family until she can buy her freedom. Unfortunately for Jialing, her options as an adult are limited. Although educated, discrimination against her Eurasian appearance makes her almost unemployable.

When a family finds itself in financial difficulty, even wives can be sold; or as servants, or worse, into brothels. Jialing can only hope to be a mistress or a prostitute, unless she is lucky. Aided and protected by a Fox Spirit, Jialing attempts to find a home, friendship, her mother, independence and love.

Janie Chang is also the author of Three Souls.

This is the perfect book to read during Lunar New Year!

Dragon Springs Road
by Janie Chang
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780062388957

Lunar New Year events

All about China

Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars

In the hunt for Iolanthe Green, Anna Treadway takes you through a simpler time in many ways, with a notable absence of all the technology and urgency that dominates our existence today. This is what I found quite charming about the book – stepping into a time where you seemed to survive on tea and toast, your entire wardrobe could fit in one bag, you walked to get from A to B and you felt wicked if you stayed on the bus beyond the stop that you had paid up to.

I definitely had preconceptions before reading Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars – as we all do when we read the blurb on a book. I was expecting a really gripping mystery that would take me behind the scenes of the theatre district – so that I could literally peek behind the curtain of a world that I’ve never seen. This didn’t quite transpire, but I wasn’t disappointed because instead I was taken on a tour of 1960s Soho. But even this was secondary to witnessing some of the less pleasant aspects of life and relationships in this time.

Miranda Emmerson does a great job of highlighting the multitude of social issues that reigned during the mid 1960s. The story winds its way through racism, social hierarchy, police brutality, unplanned pregnancies – a time with some very big restrictions on personal freedom as abortions and gay relationships would both still be illegal for a couple of years. My overactive sense of fairness left me continuing to hope that the characters Anna and Aloysius would stand up and rebel against their treatment and segregation – and in small ways they did – but ultimately they were somewhat resigned to their place in the world. Ahh the frustration!!

Now this kind of book isn’t normally my cup of tea as I prefer to escape from the ugliness of our world when I read – or at least know the characters will have a win somewhere in the mix; but I still found it quietly entertaining and feeling very grateful for the rights that I was born in to!

51xl0dd9yl

Miss Treadway and the field of stars
by Miranda Emmerson
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008170578

Mimi Kiwi – in Inspector Flytrap

inspectorflytrapInspector Flytrap in The Da Vinci Cold (2016)
by Tom Angleberger & Cece Bell

A kiwi in a mystery… How curious!

Written and illustrated by the talented and prolific husband and wife team of Tom Angleberger and Cece Bell, Inspector Flytrap is a series of books about a flytrap trying to become the greatest detective that ever ‘grew.’ This means he hasn’t got time for small-fry mysteries to solve – he only handles ‘Big Deal’ mysteries. He is accompanied by his helpful/unhelpful assistant Nina the Goat who eats everything, unfortunately. It is hard to be incognito when you have to cart around goat-proof gadgets.

Their first big mystery sends them to a top secret art lab to help some art scientists get some perspective. Case quickly closed. And then he meets “a really grumpy rat” – Mimi Kiwi. When one of her flowers goes missing, Mimi tries to enlist the help of Inspector Flytrap…

“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Flytrap! Well, I’m not a rat. I’m a kiwi. Mimi Kiwi.”
“Hello, Mimi Kiwi,” I said. “I am Inspector Flytrap… I’m sorry I thought you were a rat.”
“Hmmph,” said the really grumpy kiwi.
“What’s a kiwi?” I asked.
“DUH!” said Mimi Kiwi. “I am.”

It was quite a surprise to stumble over a kiwi in this kid’s book since it’s published in America, so I talked to the author Tom Angleberger all the way in the USA to find out what inspired his Mimi Kiwi character.

Tom said:
I’m so glad you enjoyed the kiwi in our story…. even if she was rather rude! I’ve been fascinated with kiwis since I was a kid. My first exposure might have been a book called “Birds do the Strangest Things”. Not only are they interesting birds, but that name: kee wee! It’s fun to say! …Plus it’s short and this is a book for easy readers!

When Cece went to draw the pictures for the book, she must have looked at photos of kiwis and thought the wings were just hard to see…. because for a while Mimi Kiwi had wings! When I told Cece that kiwis are wingless then she had to figure out how to draw one DRIVING a truck! That’s not easy, but Cece is the greatest so she figured it out!

goatwhochewedMimi Kiwi makes a return in the third book in the series Inspector Flytrap: The Goat Who Chewed Too Much – out now.

The books in this series make for a snappy read (pun intended), punctuated with one-page comics throughout. Ideal for ages 6-9.

Other comics by the duo include Cece’s Rabbit & Robot and comic El Deafo and Tom’s Origami Yoda Book series

Don’t be afraid to contact an author or illustrator you admire and make a connection – you might just solve a mystery!

The Victoria Street Ghost

If you were out taking an evening stroll along the streets of north central Christchurch in March 1894 then there is a good chance that you may have seen a ghost.

For that is what a young man named Cunningham initially thought that he had encountered on the night of March 9.

At 11pm Constable Isherwood was performing his evening rounds north of Cathedral Square. Being a Friday, the policeman was no doubt anticipating a night of drunken brawls and other misdemeanours. Yet when he was approached by a panic stricken Cunningham he could not have imagined that the young man would tell him such a bizarre tale.

Shortly before, Cunningham had learned from some children that something frightening was lurking in the grounds of St Matthew’s Church. As he approached the church, a figure clothed in white had suddenly leapt over the fence. At first the figure had proceeded to leap up the street towards a group of people. Then, to Cunningham’s dismay, it turned and bore down on him. His courage failing him, Cunningham did not stay to confront the figure but instead ran in the direction of Cathedral Square.

After telling Isherwood, he was directed by the policeman to give a statement at the nearest station. At first the police may have been sceptical of his claims. Only a week earlier there had been reports of women and children in Opawa being frightened by what they had believed was a ghost but which the local police insisted was simply a case of a girl in a white apron being misidentified. Yet as the police were soon to learn, Cunningham was not the only person to have encountered the strange figure that evening.

Provincial Government Buildings, corner of Durham and Armagh Streets, Christchurch [ca. 1885]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 12, IMG0084.
Earlier, at 9pm, two women had been returning home from a visit to Papanui. Making their way towards the provincial buildings on Durham Street, they had been startled by the appearance of a figure in white. When the figure started to follow them they ran screaming towards Gloucester Street Bridge. There the figure overtook them and blocked their path before escaping into the grounds of the provincial buildings.

An hour later, a number of distressed children residing in Victoria Street had told their mothers that they had seen a ghost. Although these reports were initially dismissed, their mothers were surprised to later learn that there had been some truth to their children’s stories.

The police step in as attacks increase

The matter soon caught the attention of Inspector Thomas Broham. Recognising that someone was purposefully making an effort to disturb the peace, he ordered his men to apprehend the individual.

Inspector Broham, from the Hall-Huston murder case, Timaru. Ref: 1/2-027927-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22721260

The next recorded sighting occurred on March 12. At 8pm two girls, Lizzie Smith and Bella Leith, were sent to deliver a message. As they passed a side street on Papanui Road the figure, now known as “the ghost”, jumped out at them.

On the following evening, at 11pm, Alfred James DeMaus, a machinist who lived on Montreal Street, was walking with several women near the vicinity of today’s Knox Church. DeMaus was already aware of the supposed ghost and after one of the ladies caught sight of a white cloth beneath a nearby tree, he went over to investigate. There he found two young men hiding. DeMaus reprimanded them for their behaviour and in response one of them struck him on the head, knocking him to the ground. His attackers quickly ran off when the women came to his aid.

Corner, Bealey Avenue and Papanui Road, Christchurch [ca. 1915] Muir & Moodie. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0100.
The confrontation with DeMaus did not deter the perpetrator, as the next evening the ghost struck again.

This time the victim was Albert Bellamin, a compositor who lived on Armagh Street. That night, as he walked home, his route took him past a paddock on the corner of Armagh and Madras streets. Nearing the paddock, he saw a figure dressed in white tights and wearing a mask illuminated by phosphorous (a chemical which glows when exposed to oxygen) which, was behaving erratically. Unsettled by the sight, Bellamin crossed the street. The figure, however, leapt out at him and proceed to dance around him in an attempt to prevent him from going on his way. Bellamin tried to force the figure aside but as he did so it grabbed him by the arm and kicked him into a gorse fence. By the time Bellamin had pulled himself out of the hedge the strange figure had vanished.

Hysteria grips the city

The threatening behaviour of the ghost worried Inspector Broham. People were afraid to go out for evening walks. Reports of the attacks were printed in The Press, and with each repetition the stories became ever more fanciful. The ghost was credited with the ability to make unnatural leaps and was said to have been seen in various locations at once. Some of these sightings, which ranged from Opawa to Addington, could no doubt be attributed to nervous people assuming that any figure they saw at night who happened to be wearing an item of white clothing was the ghost.

Another location for sightings of the ghost was Hagley Park. There its victims were often nursemaids and unattended ladies. A pair of lovers, who had met in the park, were also subjected to a terrifying experience. While they had been sitting on a bench the ghost had crept up behind them and thrust its face, with its fiery eyes, between theirs.

The Avon, Christchurch [ca. 1900]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 7, IMG0087.
The pretence of apprehending the ghost was even used by some citizens to commit crime. On March 17, after going home with Annie Davis, Andrew Galletly found that his money was missing. Upon leaving her house, he encountered a man who told him that he was a detective hunting for the ghost. The supposed detective warned him not to lay a complaint against Annie and took Galletly drinking at a hotel on Cashel Street. It was later discovered that the “detective” was a local rogue, John Carey Dudfield, who worked with Annie Davis to commit crime.

By the beginning of April the hunt was for the ghost was still continuing, as Inspector Broham had issued orders for his officers to collect legitimate claims of sightings in order to differentiate them from the embellished tales.

Ghostbusted

After a month of suspense the reports of the ghost suddenly disappeared from the newspapers. People assumed that the police had made an arrest but were puzzled as to why it had not been announced. Then, in a column of the Observer on 28 April 1894, it was revealed the reason for the sudden silence. As well as being the son of a well-known local doctor, the culprit was also a mental patient who had escaped from his carers. The fiery eyes which had given him a supernatural appearance were attributed to the use of rings made out of phosphorous material.

Sunnyside Asylum, Christchurch [1896?]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0095.
We may never know the identity of the perpetrator. It is possible that he was committed to Sunnyside Asylum to prevent any further escapes. Although a few similar ghost scare cases appeared in other South Island towns in the months that followed, the disturbance was not repeated in Christchurch by any imitators. With months of dark winter evenings on the approach, this must have brought relief to both Inspector Broham and the people of Christchurch.

Further reading

The Reincarnation of Hercule Poirot

CoverYes, it’s true. Hercule Poirot has received the kiss of life and is exercising his “little grey cells” in the well-heeled living rooms of British author Sophie Hannah’s latest murder mystery, Closed Casket.

I cut my reading teeth on Agatha Christie’s novels and devoured every word she wrote with a voracious appetite for the refined macabre. To this day there is nothing I like more than curling up with a cup of English Breakfast and watching Miss Marple on TV. I like Christie’s fiction because you can guarantee that despite the heinous nature of their crimes and the unashamed elitism of their lifestyles, the baddies will get their comeuppance and the haughty will be brought down a peg or two. All this, while looking fabulous in tweed and Brussels lace. When Closed Casket arrived, I leapt at the chance to reconnect with my old friend, Hercule.

In many ways I wasn’t disappointed. Sophie Hannah can plot along with the best of them. The British author and former fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, based Closed Casket on “a brilliant, simple-yet-unguessable four-word idea” which came to her as if by magic and felt “very Agatha-ish”. The novel is full of dark pasts, red herrings and so many twists and turns I was kept guessing right to the end. It’s a light, engaging read that motors along. Agatha Christie has been called the “Queen of the Who-Done-Its” and Hannah certainly lives up to her standards.

However, something about the characterisation missed the mark for me. An author distils the essence of their times into their dramatis personae. Like the Sirop de Cassis he sips, the original Hercule Poirot is a rich blend many would consider “noxious”. In 1916, when The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published, the English class system was alive and kicking and Europe was at war. People were bound by convention and were geographically and culturally insular. These were times of lamplight, inequality and suspicion. To Hastings and the characters who interacted with him, Hercule was foreign and disturbing. How times have changed.

Reading Closed Casket is less like stepping into the impoverished grandeur of war-torn England than leaping onto the LED lit set of Big Brother. The characters are all fabulous and uber-confident so there is a mismatch between their motivations and their actions.  Sadly, in this decade of globalisation and mass media, a Belgian detective just doesn’t seem that interesting and the reader is left with the uncomfortable dichotomy of Hercule Poirot meets the Kardashians.

Don’t get me wrong, Closed Casket is a good, fun read but I’d be tempted to learn from other contemporary authors who have recently resurrected famous detectives and not continue with a series. Authors John Banville, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz have brought us singular, at most dual, incarnations of Philip Marlowe, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes recently.

The release of Closed Casket marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of Hercule Poirot and was commissioned by the literary estate of Agatha Christie after the success of Hannah’s earlier work, The Monogram Murders. Sophie Hannah does nothing but honour the Grand Dame of Crime in her Poirot works but she’s a fine author in her own right. I believe she’s at her best in her Culver Valley Crime series which includes excellent titles such as Kind of Cruel and A Room Swept White. I’d love it if Sophie Hannah reconnected with DC Simon Waterhouse and let sleeping detectives lie.

Closed Casket: The brand new Hercule Poirot mystery
by Sophie Hannah
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008134105

Sleuths and Spies day

sleuths and spies

Put on your gum shoes, trench coat and fedora and come along to our Sleuths and Spies fun day on Saturday the 29th of October at Central Library Peterborough!

Get your magnifying glass ready to crack our secret codes and puzzles, follow clues to solve a mystery, test your dexterity on the laser beam course and discover how crimes are solved at our forensics station. Science Alive! will also be there with “Science Snippets: Spies and Secret Messages” between 1.30 and 2.30pm, so come as your favourite spy or detective and follow the clues to 91 Peterborough Street.

But don’t worry: if you’ve misplaced your deerstalker hat then you can use our photobooth to create a disguise on the day!

In the meantime check out some of our favourite spy and mystery fiction for kids and teens:

Cover of Precious and the MonkeysCover of A Pocket full of MurderCover of Liar & SpyCover of A Spy in the House

Bleaker than bleak

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

Cover of Burial rites

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to Kent’s next book.