Stella Duffy at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

Stella Duffy: writer, playwright, actor, improviser, founder and co-director of Fun Palaces, and general multi-tasker extraordinaire. How, asks interviewer Liz Grant, does she have the energy?

I like working, and I know I’m really lucky to be able to do it — my parents both left school at 14, had very hard working lives, the only time off my dad had was when he was shot down in World War II and became a POW — so when artists talk about how it’s such hard work, and they have to suffer, it makes me want to punch them. What’s hard work is raising seven children like my mother, or being a brilliant man with no opportunities like my dad. I work really hard at my job, but it’s not hard work. I know I’m fortunate to be able to do it.

Liz Grant and Stella Duffy. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. The Piano. Monday 15 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-15-IMG_0166

Family

Duffy’s family history is fascinating — like all families it is complex and messy. While researching she discovered a great-grandmother who had given birth in Holloway prison. The reason for her spell inside? Manslaughter; “I didn’t realise the baby was so ill,” she said in court, “and neither did my (12-year old) daughter.” She worked from 9pm-6am every night (“charring” is the occupation given, scare quotes intentional), providing for her children so that she could be home to get them ready for school, only to lose a child and be imprisoned while pregnant with the next. It’s a far cry from Downton Abbey, that’s for sure, and can be seen in the hard working lives of the families in Duffy’s London Lies Beneath.

“There’s no place like home”

Probably the most interesting for me was the talk of home/not home, how once you move away from the place you grew up you effectively lose it — always missing home, but when you visit it has changed without you. This really resonated as someone who grew up in a small town but now lives in a city, with family across New Zealand as well as far away in Europe, who has lived overseas and now feels the tug of home/not-home wherever I am.

Christchurch in particular has that double-layered effect, walking down streets that have changed beyond measure in only a few years. In cities such as London and Rome the juxtaposition of past and present is even more noticeable, everything built on and around and between the layers of its own history. Duffy loves being swallowed up by such a vast, full and vibrant city, being “a small fish in a very big pond”, keeping the taniwha in the Thames fed with Kiwi accents and secrets:

Cover of London Lies BeneathYou know what they say about the taniwha, don’t you, girl?

She shook her head.

He smiled as he said, It’s homesick, of course, but the Thames is too busy and it can’t get by the ships for fear of being seen and lauded and brought ashore for our pleasure again. It doesn’t like to be looked at, not directly. And it’s bigger, much bigger now, grown full on the secrets we tell to the water. That taniwha lives off our whispers, eating up the fears and tears we tell over the side of a bridge. It’s grown fat on what we hide from in the dark, beneath the bedclothes. There’s no getting away from it either, it will follow you along the Effra or the Neckinger as easy as it rides the tide from Tilbury to Teddington.

— London Lies Beneath, Stella Duffy

Ngaio Marsh

When I first read about Money in the Morgue I was under the impression that Duffy was simply finishing an already mostly-completed manuscript, but no: Dame Ngaio Marsh only left three sketchy chapters with some rough notes and no ideas of whodunnit, where it was done or how. Helpful!

Duffy talked a little about how to recreate the tone of Marsh’s writing without the less desirable -isms that permeate 30s era novels (how to make it seem as if it were written in that time but not of that time, if you see what I mean). The answer? Steal a few of Marsh’s writing tics. “Alleyn rubbed his nose.” “His ascetic monk’s face.” “His long, elegant fingers.” Perhaps we’ll see some of New Zealand’s “primordial landscape”, too. All jokes aside, Duffy is careful to avoid any sense of pastiche or mockery in her writing, being an avid admirer of Marsh’s work.

I look forward to reading Money in the Morgue when it’s published in May 2018, and in the meantime reading Duffy’s recent thriller, The Hidden Room. If you’re interested in learning more about the historical setting of London Lies Beneath, Duffy recommends Round About a Pound a Week, written in 1913 by the trade unionist, Fabian and feminist Maud Pember Reeves. If you’re new to Ngaio Marsh’s writing then she recommends starting with Died in the Wool, a country house mystery set on a high country sheep station in New Zealand.

Cover of The Hidden RoomCover of Round About a Pound a WeekCover of Died in the Wool

Fife-ing it up with Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin was born in Fife. I was born in Fife. Ian Rankin studied at Edinburgh University. I studied at Edinburgh University. Ian Rankin writes successful, suspenseful and gritty crime fiction. Nope, nothing. But I am most affirmatively a mahoosive fan-lassie for his thrillers set in the Athens of the North a.k.a. Edinburgh and featuring Mr Booze John Rebus.

Marcus Elliott and Ian Rankin
Marcus Elliott and Ian Rankin. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0127

Last night Christchurch played host to Ian Rankin as the opening event of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season and it was a full house at the Charles Luney Auditorium of St Margaret’s College. It was also a slightly more blokey audience than most book events attract, albeit it in a very metro, groomed and grizzled with grey fashion. Marcus Elliott, the Christchurch coroner, was asking the probing questions.

Rankin claims most crime writers would rather be rock stars than writers. Aged 12 he created a band called The Amoebas. With no musical ability himself – and no friends who actually wanted to be in a band – The Amoebas were entirely fictitious, but Rankin still managed to create world tour itineraries, lyrics for top 10 hits and music press interviews.

Writers are shy, nerdy kids who create worlds

he said, and while for most people the adult world draws a halt to childish imagination, for writers it keeps going. Rebus is his imaginary friend, but one who wouldn’t like Rankin in the real world. Rankin claimed Rebus would label him “a wishy-washy liberal”.

The first Rebus novel, Knot and Crosses is celebrating its 30th anniversary and Rankin said the character of Rebus leapt “fully formed” into his head. He didn’t entirely realise he was writing a crime novel and was a little perturbed to see what he thought was the next great Scottish novel appearing in the then “not sexy” crime section of his local bookstore.

He was aware early on he needed help with creating an authentic police world and wrote to the then Lothian Police to get some advice. He was also briefly a suspect in a missing person/murder case!

Asked if he counted policeman amongst his fans, Rankin said “weirdly yes”. Everyone likes a maverick and Rebus is his own man but also on the right side. His novels represent authentic investigations but with all the boring bits taken out, a streamlined version of a real investigation.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin: Writing Rebus. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0140

Rankin added that keeping the series fresh wasn’t too challenging as Edinburgh, Scotland and Rebus had all changed. Rebus has retired, and after years of booze, fags and fried food, his body is starting to wind down. Rankin has recently gifted Rebus Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) but added he needs to work hard at remembering new story elements, for example he forgot he’d written in a pet dog for Rebus and then had to re-write and add the pooch in later!

Rankin said he likes to explore different social issues and each novel starts with a theme: immigration, people trafficking, xenophobia, banking crisis or business scam – but he is mindful that he also needs to create an exciting read. He says he doesn’t plan too much and sometimes the ending changes because the narrative knows better and he has to “trust to the muse”. All his books end before the criminal trial because, he says, he knows nothing about the Scottish criminal system and is too lazy to do the research.

Marcus Elliott asked about the TV versions of Rebus, and Rankin said there was early interest from the actor Leslie Grantham better known as Dirty Den of Eastenders’ fame. Later the BBC wanted the rather rotund Robbie Coltrane to play Rebus, and Rankin was like “Jesus you know he (Rebus) was in the SAS”! He recently got the rights back and would like to see them filmed in a more leisurely Scandi-style rather than the breakneck a-novel-condensed-to-an-hour speed of the ITV series. Writer, and fellow Fifer Gregory Burke is involved and the actor Ken Stott may even reprise his role.

There was time for a few questions from the audience, and it was the usual mixed bag with questions that aren’t questions and some sneaky self-aggrandisement. Rankin was asked about his love for the music of the late Jackie Leven, a prolific Scottish singer-songwriter, who he collaborated with on a CD and series of stage performances. He was also asked how he researches and makes authentic the criminals that appear in his fiction. He has spent time in prisons particularly through literacy in prison programmes, but was recently shocked when a fan described his recurring crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty as a “big, huggable, loveable bear of a guy”. He fears he has perhaps over-identified with Big Ger and is going to make him horrible again.

The session started to wind up but Rankin still had time to apologise for Donald Trump being half-Scots and to warn us of the seething rage and stabby darkness carried inside romantic fiction writers. This was a witty and polished session with truck loads of well-executed anecdotes and crime fiction insights.

Ian Rankin signs book
Ian Rankin. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0150

The Pearl Thief

Cover of Code Name VerityElizabeth Wein has been one of my must-read authors since reading the beautiful punch in the gut that is Code Name Verity a few years ago. I’ve since tracked down the rest of her bibliography and can honestly say there isn’t a book she’s written that I haven’t loved.

This probably doesn’t make sense to you if you’re not a re-reader, but there are certain books that worm their way into your heart and you need to read them again in order to spend more time with your favourite characters. Books that make you grin foolishly or tear up on the bus. Books that make you thrust a copy into your friends’ hands and say: ‘Read this! It made me have feelings and I need you to read it so that we can have feelings together!’

Elizabeth Wein frequently provokes such outbursts from me. (Sorry, friends.) So I was very excited to read her latest novel The Pearl Thief. Technically it’s a prequel to Code Name Verity but it works well as a standalone.

Cover of The Pearl ThiefJulie arrives at her recently deceased grandfather’s estate in Scotland in 1938, having come home early from boarding school. No one’s around so she wanders down to the river in her brother’s kilt and an old jersey, enjoying the summer afternoon. She falls asleep tickling the trout… and then wakes up in hospital with a giant bump on her head and no memory of what happened.

This is only one of the mysteries she has to solve, as missing scholars, dead bodies and stolen river pearls start to pile up, along with a lot of unfounded local suspicion toward the Scottish Traveller community. Which is awkward as Julie is getting to be quite good friends with two Traveller siblings, Euan and Ellen. Will they figure out the real culprit before the Travellers are framed for the crime?

So many of my favourite things contained in one book: mystery, archaeology, librarians, and Julie running around the moors dressed as Davie Balfour from Kidnapped!, kissing the local girls. Sound like you? Reserve a copy of The Pearl Thief now and beat the rush! And if you also have feelings about Elizabeth Wein’s books and need to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

The Pearl Thief
by Elizabeth Wein
Published by Disney-Hyperion
ISBN: 9781484717165

ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover of Rose Under FireCover of Black Dove, White RavenCover of A Coalition of LionsCover of The Sunbird

The Girl Before : JP Delaney

Have you ever wanted to unclutter your life? Jane wants to start life over; a clean slate. Emma, the girl before, wants to be rid of not just “the clutter from our past…but the stuff we carry around inside our heads.”

Like a lesson on the Japanese art of tidying, the house at 1 Folgate Street offers just that. But does it come at a price?

Image supplied

The architect of this minimalist house, Edward Monkford, has strict rules for his tenants. 1 Folgate Street is a perfection of minimalist architecture; not one personal item may be on view to detract from the intention of this “sentient” house, programmed to respond to its occupants’ daily needs.

This is a great psychological thriller of repetition compulsion (a term coined by Freud). But who is acting out the sexual psychodrama?

Like pentimenti (parchments written over), Jane relates her tale over the Emma’s, discovering first Emma’s tragic death, then the similarities between them. Not the least being their physical resemblance.

But who is the reliable narrator? Jane? or Emma? And who killed Emma? Was it Edward, whose wife, too, looked like Emma and Jane, and also died tragically. Was it suicide? Or was it someone else…

The Girl Before is the first book under the pseudonym JP Delaney, used by Anthony Capella. This story had me riveted, addicted, then spectacularly surprised by its conclusion.

Pop your sleuth hat on these school holidays to keep up with the kids and enjoy this psychological thriller.

The Girl Before
by JP Delaney
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781786480286

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:

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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!

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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!