Books on screen: Murder most foul, sci-fi classics and more

Read the book before you see the film/TV series, or read the source material afterwards for all the added backstories and characters (that you can absorb at your own pace)?

It’s a tricky one and the answer really depends on your own personal tastes and inclinations. Either way, here is the latest crop of works of literature that are getting a makeover for the screen.

Out now

If you’re a “read the book first” sort, you’d better get cracking before you miss –

  • Alias Grace – Canadian 6 part series directed by Sarah Polley, featuring Anna Paquin and a cameo from author Margaret Atwood. Based on the true story of a young housemaid, Grace Marks, who became embroiled in a double-murder, this series is only available on Netflix and is a rivetting watch.
  • IT – I was terrified by this book in the nineties (and the subsequent mini-series adaptation). The current film splits the tale of a group of kids fighting a malevolent entity that often takes the form of an evil clown into two films – the sequel is due in 2019.
  • Murder on the Orient Express – The Agatha Christie classic gets another film outing (the 1974 version earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar) and with a fairly impressive cast including the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, and Michelle Pfeiffer, with Kenneth Brannagh (who also directs) as the moustachioed Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. The original novel was published in 1934, so avoiding spoilers might prove difficult.
  • The Mountain Between Us – Kate Winslet and Idris Elba’s charter plane crashes into a mountain and that’s not the end of the drama. Based on the novel by Charles Martin.
  • The Lost City of Z – Author David Grann’s hunt for famed explorer Percy Fawcett’s expedition in the Amazon has Charlie Hunnam as the missing Fawcett, with Sienna Miller as his wife and Robert Pattinson as another member of the expedition.
  • Thank You for your Service – Biographical war drama based on the book by Washington Post journalist David Finkel. The film follows several soldiers after their return from deployment in Iraq and their struggles with PTSD and the psychological trauma of war.

Coming soon

  • Chaos walking: The Knife of Never Letting Go – Another young adult sci-fi series adaptation, this time of Patrick Ness’s widely acclaimed dystopian novel. Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland are set to star.
  • Dune –  Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi saga gets another go-around (after the 1984 film directed by David Lynch, and two miniseries’ in the early 2000s) this time with Arrival director Denis Villeneuve at the helm.
  • Break My Heart 1,000 Times – Bella Thorne will star in this “supernatural romantic thriller” based on Daniel Water’s young adult novel set in world where people can see ghosts.
  • Guernsey (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) – Mary Ann Shaffer’s 2008 bestseller set on the island of Guernsey during WWII was filmed earlier this year, with Downton Abbey stars Lily James and Jessica Brown Findlay in the cast and Mike Newell directing.
  • Ready Player One – Ernest Cline’s dystopian future/Virtual Reality/geek nostalgia-fest novel follows Wade Watts as he attempts to find an ‘easter egg’ that will bestow on him a fortune. Directed by Steven Spielberg, expect to see this everywhere in March 2018.
  • Peter Rabbit – A new animated version of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of an adventurous bunny is due in early 2018, with voices provided by the likes of Rose Byrne, James Corden and Sam Neill.

On the radar

With the end of the Game of Thrones TV series on the distant horizon, Patrick Rothfuss is being mentioned as the next George R. R. Martin. Probably because they both have beards and neither have actually finished writing all the books in their respective series’. Lin-Manuel Miranda of super-musical, Hamilton, is producing the series for Showtime based on the first 2 novels of the as yet unfinished Kingkiller Chronicles fantasy trilogy.

Fight like a girl: Clementine Ford

As is often the case when I attend a literary event, I have not read the book of the person speaking (I have good intentions leading up to the event but life generally gets in the way). So I know Clementine Ford only by her reputation as an outspoken feminist and the target of online trolls (it seems, in the modern world, that the first of these things almost always leads to the second). Possibly that’s all you know about her too.

I warm to her immediately. She’s just so cheerful in the face of the abuse that gets flung at her, so “can you believe someone said that?!” about language that is filled with hate, ignorance (and yes, bad grammar). I admire her ability to take rancid, toxic lemons and make mocking, humorous lemonade from them.

IMG_2211
Clementine Ford with some of the tamer reader feedback she’s had, WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View at the Christchurch Arts Festival. Sunday 3 September.

Clementine Ford comes across like your best friend who is much smarter and more perceptive than you, and who is prone to dropping hilarious truth-bombs into the conversation while you’re chatting over wine. Except in the auditorium at Christchurch Art Gallery. With 150 other people there. And no wine.

This was obviously a flawed analogy but you get the drift.

She’s also very respectful (not of the trolls) of her audience, warning everyone that there will be some very strong, very unpleasant language shared in the presentation, most of it via screenshots of the “missives” she’s received from various men who feel the need to tell her that she’s wrong, stupid, evil, sexist, fat, sexually unattractive, a professional sex worker, as well as various terrible things that should happen or be done to her. The warning is needed. It’s cumulatively rather overwhelming and makes you feel sick for humanity, even as each one is dissected, commented on and ruthlessly pilloried.

IMG_2208
Slide from Clementine Ford’s talk at WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View at the Christchurch Arts Festival. Sunday 3 September 2017.

On the upside I’m surprised and delighted to hear Ford, an Australian, acknowledge not only Ngāi Tahu but also Ngāi Tūāhuriri (Christchurch sits in the traditional rohe/territory of this Ngāi Tahu hapu) and to use “Aotearoa” in preference to “New Zealand” because a friend of hers has challenged her to use indigenous names as a statement against colonialism. Also, her pronunciation was better than average.

But back to the trolls. Reading the messages Ford has received from various men makes you wish that they really were misshapen goblins living under bridges and not actual humans walking around with a cellphone in their pocket and the notion that they can say whatever they want to another person, if that person is a woman, with a complete lack of consequences. This is a situation that Ford has tried to turn around as she frequently adopts a “name and shame” approach. This may seem harsh but when you read the things that men have said to her it seems more like a public service than anything. The irony is, though Facebook is happy enough to be the medium of choice for threats of sexual violence and abuse by these trolls, the sharing of such by Ford often violates their “community standards” and has sometimes resulted in her account being blocked. But not those of the people doing the abusing.

Well, that seems a bit screwed up, Facebook. But Ford acknowledges that Facebook has its claws in us and a boycott simply wouldn’t work. Possibly advocating for a change to the laws around online abuse might help.

Ford has other helpful suggestions for dealing with sexism and sexist behaviour such as forcing someone to explain their sexist joke, with “I don’t get it. Why is that funny?” or pretending not to hear the sexist/offensive thing and forcing them to repeat it once or even twice. This subtly shifts the power dynamic in the interaction.

In the online world she is in favour of out and out mockery (with reference to Harry Potter and the boggart – your greatest fear that can only be vanquished by laughing at it). Ford advised deploying a series of gifs, the following of which is my favourite.

Inspirational little girl gif

Inspirational.

This was a really illuminating, funny, and challenging session but one which only a handful of men attended and relatively few young women, two groups I really feel would have benefitted a lot from the realness of Ford’s feminist experiences (and rude jokes about her genitalia).

IMG_2200
The crowd at Clementine Ford’s Fight like a girl session, WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View, Christchurch Arts Festival, Sunday 3 September 2017.

As it was it ran overtime and nobody wanted to stop, least of all Ford herself. But the talk was being recorded so I’d recommend giving it a listen when it becomes available or –

He’ll be back: The Terminator returns… again

Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

This is how Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese describes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in the 1984 film The Terminator. He didn’t know how right he was. The Terminator just keeps coming back. The perfect pop culture metaphor for a franchise that can’t be killed.

In 1991 a sequel followed. At that time the $100 milion budget of Terminator 2: Judgment Day made it the most expensive film ever produced and it was a cinematic juggernaut (I did my bit by spending my pocket money to go and see it two weekends in a row).

And from there the Terminator just kept rising from the ashes (or still burning wreckage of crashed truck/plane/HK). A trilogy of novels set after the events of T2 follows Sarah and John Connor who have fled to South America.

A television series followed. Before Lena Headey was the ruthless Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones she was the equally determined Sarah Connor in the The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

There were a further three movie sequels (with varying degrees of coherence), the most recent being an alternate timeline Terminator: Genisys which brought back a lot of the attitude of the first film (but positively tied itself in time-travel knots).

Cover of Total recall: My unbelievably true life storyJames Cameron announced earlier this that he will produce the sixth installment of the Terminator franchise, with shooting due to start next year. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 90s action star who never really went away, will reprise his role.

Last year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of T2 a 3D version was released and this will hit New Zealand screens briefly next week. I’d say get your tickets booked lest you miss out but… he’ll be back.

The tale of a murderous governess

Cover of Jane Steele: A confessionIf you loved the Brontë classic Jane Eyre but always wished Jane had been a bit more… murderous then Lyndsay Faye’s novel, Jane Steele: A confession may be just your glass of arsenic-laden brandy.

The novel follows another unfortunate 19th century orphan girl looking for her place in the world, but she’s a good deal “spunkier” and prone to violence than Miss Eyre. In fact, she’s rather more modern than Jane Eyre in a number of ways (sex, swearing, self-defense etc.)

Jane Steele’s life is a mirror to Eyre’s in many ways from attendance at an abominable boarding school to securing a place as governess in a home that harbours secrets. Although the deaths are always justified after a fashion, the bodies do start to pile up and a worryingly perceptive policeman may just be onto her.

Author Lyndsay Faye is a fan of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and in the historical afterword reveals that it was the author’s scathing rebuff to her critics in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre that partly inspired her to write the novel, in particular the quote, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion”.

And so she’s succeeded in creating an unconventional heroine imbued with more than a little “self-wrongedness”. Jane (Steele, that is), doubts herself, her worth and her goodness constantly but loves fiercely and loyally… much like that other Jane.

There’s a good deal of mystery in the story from Jane’s mystery inheritance to the traumatic past of her young charge and the plot gallops along like a runaway horse making it a fairly riveting page-turner, and… Reader, I devoured it.

So if ladies in corsets (who also carry knives in their skirts) sounds your thing then I’d highly recommend Jane Steele for your next wet weekend.

Further reading

Reading brown: Pacific stories and voices

A little while ago I saw Kiwi author Paula Morris ask on Twitter “Why aren’t you reading brown?”

Which prompted me to feel a bit guilty about how few Māori and Pacific New Zealand authors I read… and then I pretty much forgot about it because life is too short to feel guilty about the books you haven’t read. As a librarian I’m exposed to a constant stream of new and interesting looking titles and (spoiler alert) I read hardly any of them.

But, for a couple of reasons the notion that I should expand my reading into more Polynesian fare stuck.

The main one being that I had a one week holiday coming up during which I could get in some solid novel-reading. The second being that the holiday in question was in Rarotonga (of the aforementioned Polynesia). And thirdly, because I had a couple of titles on my For Later Shelf that were available in time to take the trip with me (sometimes the Atua* of the Holds Lists smiles upon thee).

Cover of Stories on the four winds: Ngā hau e whāMy first holiday read was not a novel at all but a collection of short stories. I always think with short stories that they are less of a commitment than a whole novel. Something that you can move easily on from should it not be to your taste. However Stories on the four winds: Ngā hau e whā was by far the more emotionally gripping and in places gruelling of the two books. In the space of relatively few pages I was drawn into murders, deaths and losses as well as tales of joy, love and connection. I started blubbing before the plane had even landed.

Writers, with their writerly tricks can surprise you, and indeed this was the brief for all the stories in the book (from a variety of well-known and perhaps less well-known Māori and Pasifika writers) – to surprise the reader. So every story has a twist or takes you somewhere you don’t expect. Even though the stories are short, they pack a punch and I found with some of them that I had to take a break between them, to get my bearings again. Standouts for me were the contributions from Albert Wendt, Alice Tawhai, Ann French, Jacqui McRae, K-t Harrison, and Reneé.

Cover of How to party with an infantMy second book was a novel and after the emotional rollercoaster of Stories on the four winds it was a nice change of speed. How to party with an infant by Kaui Hart Hemmings was perfect holiday fare. Hemmings is not a New Zealand writer but she is Hawaiian and I very much enjoyed the film of her first novel, The Descendants. I have so far neglected to read the source novel (more book-related guilt) but thought that this story of a single mother raising a small child in San Francisco would suit me.

It certainly did. The book has a sly sense of humour and uses the mechanism of the protagonist, Mele, listening to and writing the stories her parents’ group friends tell her. There are some really great characters in there, full of anxieties and insecurities – worrying about measuring up to other parents, fitting in, being good enough. As well there’s a bit of light romance of a very grown-up kind because everyone in this book has kids. I liked this book for its knowing jabs at the “Mummy Wars” aspects of parenting whilst celebrating the great, affirming friendships that can grow out of that shared experience.

For other recommendations of “brown reading” do check out Paula Morris’s post Why Aren’t You Reading Brown? for 21 titles by Māori and Pacific writers. Get the Holds Lists Atua on your side and you could be reading one before you know it.

* Te Reo Māori for supernatural being or god.

40 years ago in a galaxy not far away…

On a Wednesday in 1977 a phenomenon began. That phenomenon was Star Wars.

Cover of The making of Star WarsReleased in only 32 cinemas in the US on 25 May of that year the sci-fi space opera broke all box-office records and changed the movie making business. Star Wars was one of the first films to generate “round the block queues” for screenings (the literal definition of a “blockbuster”).

George Lucas famously popped out for lunch with his wife on opening day, saw lines of people queuing outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, and only then realised he had a hit on his hands. He’d expected a flop. So much so that he had a bet with friend Steven Spielberg that Close Encounters of the Third Kind would beat Star Wars at the box office. And that’s why Spielberg still receives 2.5% of profits on the film.

At least some of Star Wars’ initial success was as a result of the canny work of marketing director Charles Lippincoat who, ahead of the film’s release, shopped the novelisation (ghost written by sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster) and Marvel tie-in comics at events like San Diego Comic-Con. This generated a buzz amongst sci-fi fans who were already primed by release date. This is now standard practice with genre films and franchises who put a lot of effort into creating hype ahead of release, but back in 1977 it was a “thinking outside the box” strategy.

Cover of The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures 1977-1985Star Wars also invented movie merchandising. As you walk the aisles of your local toy store, the proliferation of movie tie-in toys and action figures is down to the phenomenal success of Star Wars in this area.

Merchandising was such a small part of the movie industry prior to Star Wars that, in 1973, before the film was made George Lucas exchanged $350,000 worth of directing salary for the merchandising rights and the rights to the sequels. Conventional wisdom at the time was that this was a good deal for 20th Century Fox. It eventually cost them billions.

Star Wars display - X-wing fighter
Just some of the sweet merchandising $$$ that Fox never got. Star Wars display at South Library, 15 May 2017. File reference: 2017-05-15-IMG_5174

And of the movie itself? Well, I’m a fan and have been for as long as I can remember. I cannot recall the first time I saw the film. In the late 70s and early 80s you simply absorbed Star Wars from the atmosphere. You fenced with lightsabers of rolled up Christmas gift wrap, you hummed the theme music, you played with your cousin’s X-wing fighter toy.

I love the film, even despite its many flaws – a not exactly diverse cast, sometimes creaky acting, the occasional alien proboscis that looked like it was made out of cardboard, plot holes that you could fly a Corellian freighter through – but to me it’s still a vastly enjoyable tale.

Cover of Flash GordonGeorge Lucas was inspired by the Flash Gordon type serials of his youth, the films of Akira Kurosawa, the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the “heroes journey” mythology of Frazer’s The golden bough. Star Wars is a cinematic melting pot of references and homages that distills them down to a classic “good vs evil” story. The kind that’s timeless in its appeal. Or at least I hope it is… because I’m planning on watching it for another 40 years.

Further information

James Gleick at WORD Christchurch: No spoilers for Time Travellers

James Gleick does not want to offend anyone.

The author of numerous books of a scientific bent is careful with his words and keen not to ruffle any feathers. It’s speculation on my part, but I wonder if his experience is that, on the topic of Time Travel, passions might sometimes become inflamed?

A curious full house gather at the Piano for this WORD Christchurch session featuring Gleick and fellow New Yorker Daniel Bernardi (erskine fellow, film and media studies scholar, science fiction expert and documentary filmmaker). They discuss the ins and outs, twists, turns and paradoxes of Time Travel. Before long there is, as is the new tradition when two educated Americans speak in the presence of non-Americans… a jocular swipe at the current US president.

James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi
James Gleick and Professor Daniel Bernardi, Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0194

Fortunately this science-loving audience is not in the least offended by the joke.

Cover of Time Travel by James GleickGleick’s book Time Travel: A history is an exploration of the literature, science and zeitgeist of Time Travel. It’s far-ranging, smart and brain-expanding.

But what made him want to write on that topic in the first place?

I discovered this weird fact – that Time Travel is a new idea. That didn’t make any sense to me.

Why did it take until H. G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine for people to explore that as an idea? It seems a few things came together: photography and cinema were showing people a slice of the past in the present; instantaneous communication was suddenly possible making the lack of temporal alignment in different places more obvious; and time standards became a thing for the first time. As Gleick puts it, “the way people thought about Time was up for grabs”.

Then Einstein came along and things got really interesting.

Though Einstein’s theories allowed for the possibility of a sort of Time Travel, Gleick is quick to point out that it’s not the punching-a-date-on-a-machine or opening-a-portal-to-another-era kind. It’s really just the acknowledgement that there is no universal time. Everyone’s experience of time is personal and given the right set of circumstances (speedlight travel, for instance) your version of time can slow down relative to everyone else’s. This means that the Time Travel stories of the “Rip Van Winkle” (or Futurama) kind become technically possible. But Gleick doesn’t believe the imaginary, sci-fi type Time Travel that continues to excite our imaginations exists, or that it will. Though he seems apologetic about it, as if he’s mindful of deflating the aspirations of wannabe Time Travellers in the audience.

On the enduring appeal of Time Travel in literature and popular culture, Gleick feels that it lets people explore many things about families and relationships – it gives you the ability for “a do-over”. Like the movie Groundhog Day. He points out that a lot of Time Travel stories are about fathers and mothers, families and parents.

Take Back to the Future – isn’t this really just a movie about looking at your parents and realising they were once young like me, and wondering “what was that like?”

This is far from the only reference to Time Travel in popular culture, and many in the audience probably come away from this talk with a reading/watching list that includes:

  • A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – indicative of pessimism about the future of “our benighted country”.
  • Doomsday book – H. G. Wells never wrote about going into the past but Connie Willis does.
  • “All you zombies” by Robert Heinlein – An early short story that became the movie Predestination and is an interesting example of The Grandfather Paradox.
  • Looper – Movie that nicely skirts over the paradoxical plot difficulties by having Bruce Willis tell his younger self “If we’re going to talk about Time Travel sh*t we’re gonna be sitting here making diagrams with straws all day”.
  • Interstellar – Bernardi’s pick as the film that best visualises the science of Time Travel.
  • The Planet of the Apes series – Bernardi’s favourite for its use of Time Travel to address issues of gender and race.
  • Arrival – A film that Gleick feels works very well in performing a “subtle trick” on the audience. All Time Travel stories have to do this but in this film you barely notice it happening.
  • Twelve Monkeys – Another Bruce Willis film that deals with a Time Travel loop and deals with a death.
  • “Blink” – Gleick’s favourite episode of Doctor Who, in particular a scene set in a spooky old house, “old houses are great time travel machines”. It’s also the first episode in which the phrase “timey-wimey” is used.
James Gleick
James Gleick: a man in want of some straws. Flickr File Reference: 2017-05-16-IMG_0198

Gleick is at great pains to try and describe these stories in a way that does not reveal any important plot twists. In the case of Planet of the Apes this is… is adorable the right word? The movie came out in 1968. But no spoilers!

Another appealing aspect to Time Travel is that it’s a way of escaping death. After all, (spoiler alert!) Time will kill us all in the end.

When we hear Time’s winged chariot it’s not delivering good news.

But what is Time (other than universally deadly)? Scientists may tell you that Time is the 4th dimension and that it’s similar to the other physical dimensions in that we inhabit one spot and the rest stretches out away from us, both backward and forward. This rather flies in the face of what Gleick says we know “in our guts” about Time i.e. that the past has happened and the future hasn’t.

It seems an oddly obvious statement to have to make, and Gleick says it’s not a scientific one but a religious one.

Some of the audience questions delve into this idea of religious thought versus Time Travel and at this point I get lost, draw a spiral in my notebook and label it “loop of confusion”. Questions like “is God in Time with us?” and “doesn’t an interventionist God imply that the future isn’t set?” do somewhat “screw my noodle”. Given the heady topic, it seems inevitable that I lose the thread of the discussion at some point in proceedings. Perhaps it always has, and always did happen?

Other questions posed include one from my colleague Fee (who wrote her own post about James Gleick) and wonders if the future is set, then what about premonition? Which Gleick says (gently) that he does not believe in, though it’s a powerful idea.

Another question asks how it is that Gleick can explain such scientifically complex stuff in ways that non-scientist folk can understand. He says simply that he’s a journalist so he asks lots of questions and that a big part of it is just getting scientists to talk you as they sometimes “live in their own abstruse world”.

I am lucky enough to get the last mic grab of the night and ask my own question (which if I could have a Time Travel do-over for, I would make slightly less waffley). It’s with reference to the way we think about Time in terms of spatial metaphor. In the Western world we conceive of the past as being behind us and the future in front of us but in Māori culture this is flipped around – the past is known and therefore visible before you and it’s the future that approaches you from behind. In the course of researching had he found any other cultures that view Time this way? Gleick replies that the language we use, the words that we use to describe Time really shape how we think about it and that in some Asian languages Time travels on an “up and down” axis or “right to left”.

And if I thought my noodle was screwed before it definitely is now. As I exit the theatre along with the rest of the audience I concentrate on travelling forward through space and backwards/forwards/vertically through time.

More information

Five Forget Mother’s Day

If you’d told me when I was ten years old that I’d still enjoy a Famous Five tale 30 years later I’d have been thrilled. If you’d told me that at 15 I’d have been mortified. Such is the inextricable (and uncool) bond that Enid Blyton’s youthful sleuths have with childhood, innocence, and jolly good fun.

But things have changed and so have George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy. Get ready for “Enid Blyton for Grown-ups”.

Cover of Five Forget Mothers Day

The former Dorset-based cousins now flat together in London, have office jobs, mobile phones, and drinking problems (Julian). It’s now less “lashings of ginger beer” and more “out on the lash at the local”. Author Bruno Vincent’s reworking of Blyton’s much beloved characters incorporates humorous observations on modern life, knowing nods, and is positively soaked in irony.

Take, for example, George’s response to Anne’s suggestion that they all chip in for a Mother’s Day gift for Aunt Fanny, since she was practically a second mother to them all during their summers in Kirrin.

…My memory is that we were nearly killed about two dozen times. I think Mummy should count herself lucky to have escaped a custodial sentence for neglect…

Five Forget Mother’s Day sees the now young professionals grappling with mysteries of the “what do we get Aunt Fanny for Mother’s Day?” variety.

It’s a fun, quick read that somehow manages to be witty and modern whilst still retaining that “don’t worry, old bean, we’ll all muck in together and get through this sticky wicket” attitude that typified the original Famous Five.

An unexpected benefit of this particular title in the series (others on my “to read” list include “Five Go Parenting” and “Five on Brexit Island“), is that if you leave it lying around, your co-parent might take this as a passive-aggressive hint that Mother’s Day is Not To Be Forgotten. In my case this effect was unintentional, but it could perhaps be strategically deployed in families where forgetfulness is rife?

Five Forget Mother’s Day; conspicuously visible on a couch arm near you?

Five Forget Mother’s Day
by Bruno Vincent
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781786486868

 

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

Emily Writes talks

Emily Writes is a Wellington-based writer whose blog posts have a habit of going viral. She is mother to two year-old Ronnie and four year-old Eddie and over the last couple of years I have chatted with her online quite a bit.

With a three year-old myself our online conversations have covered the full range of parental indignities from pregnancy and childbirth to toddler tantrums and terrible things that have happened to our soft furnishings. But also moments of delight… and Alexander Skarsgård gifs.

Emily’s new book, Rants in the dark, is proving a hit with parents across the country. Ahead of the Christchurch launch event at Scorpio Books next week, Emily chatted to me about her book, how she writes, and shared some favourite reads of her own.

Emily Writes
Emily Writes. Image credit: Christopher Tse.

So you started out blogging about parenting stuff, segued into somewhat tipsy movie reviews, have become the parenting editor at The Spinoff and now you have a book out. The next inevitable step is the biopic of your life, so the real question is… who will play you?

Oh my gosh, that is so hilarious. Alexander Skarsgård would need to be my husband in a movie and we would need to have many off-camera dress rehearsals and practice runs.

Cover of I Am Sasha Fierce
Emily’s twin and future bestie, Beyoncé.

I would really like it if Beyoncé could be me… I love her… My inspiration is Beyoncé so I would like to meet her. Because if she played me in a movie I could meet her and then maybe we would become best friends.

I’m now thinking about this a lot. Because it would probably be like a Shortland Street actor, right? Or someone who could do a believeable Kiwi accent, so maybe it could be… Nicole Kidman in a fat suit or something? Or… Cate Blanchett’s very good at accents.

What were you aiming for in writing “Rants in the dark”?

I hope that it is kind of a friend in the night to mums and new mums. If they’re awake at 3am or something like that – I wrote it at 3am. So I hope that it feels like somewhere they can turn in the night when they’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. Or during the day, or any time. I hope that it’s a different kind of parenting book.

It’s not a place for advice, or judgment or “I know what I’m doing” because I definitely don’t know what I’m doing. I hope that it just makes mums feel good about themselves but not in a “yoga” way.

Do you feel like there is a niche that parenting books weren’t quite hitting and that that’s where “Rants in the dark” sits?

I guess, yeah. I got What to expect when you’re expecting when I was pregnant and it kind of terrified me, and it’s also a bit like reading a dictionary. It’s quite a full-on book and I looked but I couldn’t find anything that properly prepared me – and I know that you can’t properly be prepared [for parenthood] – but I guess I wanted something like “hey, this might not be every single second of incredible delight. It will be amazing and the best thing ever but there will also be some really hard times”. That’s a really hard message to get across and maybe that’s why there aren’t books like that.

I just really felt like because we had tried so hard [to have a baby] that I would be ecstatic every second. And it’s that whole thing where, any parent talking about the hard times, you feel like you have to justify straight away – I am really happy…  And that’s why it’s such a difficult thing to talk about but I think we really do need to talk about… the realness of parenting, I guess.

I felt, with Eddie’s illness… how did this ever happen? And that’s a really hard thing when you start motherhood with something that you never expected that turns your whole life upside down. So I wanted to write something that maybe resonated with those mums that didn’t have this super smooth run into motherhood.

Sometimes I felt, when Eddie was really sick, that all these mums around me just had these perfect lives, and I know that that’s not true… but I felt very weird, alone and kind of “othered”… And I know that a lot of mums who have babies that have health conditions or are prem or that type of thing, they feel that too. So I hope that in that way it serves the community.

Emily Writes is not your real name, is it? Why did you feel the need to work under a pseudonym?

I guess the pseudonym is about the fact that I want to protect the privacy of my children. Every step of the way I’ve had boundaries and wanted to respect their privacy, and not only privacy but for me it’s about respecting them as people. …We talk a lot about what I’m writing, in terms of respecting the boys, but there’s a lot of trust there that I’m never going to do something that hurts them.

But I guess I don’t want them to spend their lives with people saying things like “oh, is your mum blah, blah, blah”. And I don’t want them to be Google-able, if that’s a word. I don’t want them to feel like they are characters or anything like that and I want to respect my husband’s privacy. He’s a really shy person.

… It also allows me a little bit of separation… I want to be able to come home and I walk through the door and I’m with my kids. …I find this is sort of a way to remind myself that I am a mum first to my kids and a wife and that is really important to me that I prioritise that and this allows me to not get too far up my own a*** or something.

With two small kids, it must be a struggle to write sometimes.

It’s hard to get it good. I write heaps. My drafts folder is like a phonebook… but it’s all s***. It’s easy to write lots but trying to find something good enough to publish is hard.

What I did was all at 3am, 4am because my kid is just intense. Every time he woke up, if I had an idea, I would note it down during the night and the book is like lots of little blog posts in a book. So I didn’t have to change my way of writing or anything [from blogging]. So I feel like I was pretty lucky. I think writers who write actual books are amazing.

Cover of Rants in the dark[I remind Emily that she has written an actual book]

Oh yeah, I have written an actual book. I forgot.

You just feel so lucky to have a book that you just feel very weird, and lucky and how did this happen? And it just doesn’t feel like it was hard because it’s so exciting. And also I didn’t do the grind like other writers did. I feel like I’ve been shot up the a*** with a rainbow, basically. I’ve just been very lucky.

What authors or writers do you yourself enjoy reading?

That’s a great question. I love Bunmi Laditan. I discovered her after I had started writing because someone said “you remind me of Bunmi” and then I went on her Facebook page and she’s just amazing in the way she talks about anxiety and mental health –  just so powerful. I love Bunmi.

I love Clementine Ford. I just read Fight like a girl. I think that was really brave. It’s kind of like Feminism 101, a really nice sort of entry into intersectional feminism…

I really love Emma Neale whose book Billy Bird – I just cried the whole way through it – it was such a powerful metaphor for parenting.

Cover of Mansfield and MeI love Sarah Laing’s Katherine Mansfield book, Mansfield and Me. I love that book. It’s amazing. I wanted to read it because I really like her as a person. She seems super nice and lovely. I don’t know her but that’s how she seems. So I thought “I’ll just buy it because she seems really nice and I want to support New Zealand authors” and then I loved it. You know when you just don’t know if you’re going to like a book or not, and then it’s everything? And I never thought I’d be into a Katherine Mansfield book but I loved it.

You’re coming down to Christchurch and doing a book launch event at Scorpio Books soon.

Yes, I’m so excited to come to Christchurch and that Scorpio Books wants to host me. And I think someone is running around trying to organise a day event so that we don’t exclude mums who can’t go out during the “witching hour” because their children are tyrants. Which is my children. I don’t mean that to insult anybody’s children.

I’m quite nervous about the Unity launch in Wellington because my kids will be there but I feel like if they absolutely crack it, I’ll just be like “See? I told you. Everything in the book is true”.

Hear Emily Writes talk at Scorpio Books BNZ Centre, 120 Hereford Street, Thursday, 6-7.30pm, 16 March.

The New Zealand Book Council are giving away one copy of Rants in the dark. To enter the draw, email reception@bookcouncil.org.nz with “Rants” in the subject line by Thurs 16 March. (Remember to include your postal address!)