Not that we haven’t been doing just that for the last few months, but there’s so much to say. America fascinates and repulses me. I couldn’t live there – not just because I would eat all the food – but it is a fascinating place to observe, and we are fortunate to generally be able to enjoy its cultural output, both high and lowbrow. So naturally I was intrigued when I spied Claudia Roth Pierpont’s American Rhapsody in a bookshop in Auckland. I immediately went to the nearest library, hopped on the wifi and requested a copy (btw – aren’t libraries great?).
It’s a funny book, endeavouring to “present the the kaleidoscopic story of the creation of a culture.” Lofty intentions indeed! However, it is more of a collection of biographical and critical essays about a range of major players in American culture. The first two-thirds of the essays – which include Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hepburn and Gershwin are perfectly okay, but it’s the final third where, for me, the book truly comes alive. Orson Welles‘ and Laurence Olivier‘s (not from the US but that’s not the point) approaches to acting and Shakespeare are compared and contrasted. What is naturalism, how – and should – America tackle Shakespeare? These themes of naturalism and an American theatrical tradition are continued in an essay on Marlon Brando.
We are reminded that Brando was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement, and the last two essays cover novelist James Baldwin and singer Nina Simone who – to my shame – I didn’t know much about at all. Reading about these two African-Americans and learning more about the the nuances and iterations of the wider Civil Rights movement is inspiring me – to read their words and listen to their music and make an effort to further understand America’s painful history.
So, I’ve come away from this book thinking about acting and how we express our country through our cultural creations, and also with some new inspirational figures to look to. We need them.
I have been a fan of Star Wars for as long as I can remember and a large part of that reason was Princess Leia. Growing up in the 70s and 80s she was, along with Charlies’ Angels, the kind of cute but fearless hero that I longed to be like.
Later in life I came to appreciate Carrie Fisher for her other roles in films like When Harry met Sally, and more recently her brilliantly comic turn as the mother-in-law from Hell in sitcom Catastrophe, but most especially for her writing.
Having been equal parts amused and horrified by her earlier memoir Wishful Drinking*, late last year I placed a hold on her most recent effort, The Princess Diarist. I couldn’t possibly have imagined that by the time the book became available that she would be dead. How could I have? And even worse, that her family would suffer a double tragedy when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, would follow just a couple of days later. I wept unapologetically and over the Christmas period I watched song and dance numbers from Singin’ in the rain on YouTube and moped.
So it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I finally picked up The Princess Diarist and, after steeling myself and making sure a box of tissues was handy, started to read it.
But I barely needed them because, and this is the magic of writing and the author’s voice, Carrie Fisher was alive again on every page. Dripping with acerbic, self-deprecating wit and wordplay, The Princess Diarist was this amazingly comforting fan experience for me.
In case you didn’t know, the book is based on Fisher’s diaries from 1976 during the making of the first Star Wars film. The book is a mix of explanatory set-up of how she came to even been in the movie (or showbiz for that matter) and her observations on that time from a distance of some 40 years, as well as some really fascinating musings on the nature of fame, or at least her very specific version of it. And throughout runs her brutally honest humour and no BS attitude. The main revelation of the book is her on set affair, at the age of nineteen, with her married-with-kids co-star Harrison Ford. She dedicates a whole chapter to it which is, rather delightfully, titled “Carrison”.
You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.
(Harrison Ford “breaking character” by saying something heartfelt to Fisher, as they parted company)
The book also includes a section of verbatim entries from the aforementioned diary. In some ways this was my least favourite part, only because it’s written by a rather tortured teenager about her less than satisfying love life and I have unfond memories of writing similarly tortured diary entries when I was the same age. I can immediately understand why it took her 40 years to publish any of it (There is poetry. About Harrison Ford being distant. It’s wonderful/terrible).
Having said that, Fisher’s diaries are much better written than those of the average teenager. She admits to having been rather precocious and the sly humour and clever use of language would read as being written but someone much older… if not for the This Is So Very Important And Deep style of diarying that teenagers of a certain sort are prone to.
So skim through that section, casting grains of salt as you go, would be my advice. But the rest of it is great – an absolute must-read for Princess Leia fans, or just fans of Fisher’s signature snappy rejoinders.
Having got through pretty much the whole book with nary more than a slight moistening of eye, I admit to some small amount of tearfulness upon reading the acknowledgments, primarily due to this passage –
For my mother – for being too stubborn and thoughtful to die. I love you, but that whole emergency, almost dying thing, wasn’t funny. Don’t even THINK about doing it again in any form.
Good poet (at least I think so after attending a reading last year – perhaps I’ll know how to tell for sure after this event), Harvard Professor of Poetry and an engaging speaker, Burt will be in conversation with Fergus Barrowman from Victoria University Press.
I love poetry events – people are passionate about it so the questions tend to be on the intense side, and even better can spin out into wildly inappropriate statements of opinion. Somehow opinions on poetry are so much more interesting than opinions on non-fiction, which mostly centre on how much more the ‘questioner’ knows than the author.
“A lively discussion” is promised, but I’m hoping for a bit more than that.
I confess I didn’t read all of the books in my eyewateringly large pile of holiday reads. But I accidentally went all #AotearoaReads and it was ACE.
First up, I finished Can you tolerate this? Personal essays by Ashleigh Young. She tells stories about her family and relationships, but also little histories that have captured her imagination – a boy with a rare skeletal disease, a French postman and his project with stones. This combination of the personal and something more expansive (in both space and time) is a winner. I gave this book to my little sister at Christmas time, and she has whisked it away to London (where today it is snowing). She’s going to love it.
Editors Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew have again created a brilliant buffet of thoughts and words. You can dip in anywhere and read something that’ll grip you to the last full stop. It’s joyously diverse in topic – kererū, Rugby World Cups, tikanga, Hudson and Halls. It is also geographically varied. The stories are not just set in Aotearoa but range from London to Iceland as well as Kiwi locales like Poplar Avenue and Ashdown Place.
Tell you what reminds me of listening to Radio New Zealand. You’ll find yourself deeply immersed in something you never knew about, and didn’t know you were interested in. That’s magic.
The School for Young Writers in Christchurch is holding a Summer Writing School and Workshops, 16-20 January 2017. The Summer Writing School comprises a week’s worth of writing for teenagers, with special guest tutors alongside some of our regulars. On the final day students will get an opportunity for 1:1 mentoring as they complete a piece for the special magazine that they will produce.
Why go to The School for Young Writers throughout the year? Who is it for and what will they get out of it?
The School for Young Writers is for Years 3 to Year 13. Young writers get the pleasure of working with skilled teachers in groups of like-minded children. Regular tuition produces results. We also have a correspondence programme for those who can’t make the class times.
What kind of writing activities and exercises do you do?
Heather: Stories, poetry in all its forms, creative non-fiction, jokes, flash fiction, memoir, song lyric, play script, monologue, twists on genre, fantasy, slam poetry, whatever the children ask for and whatever our creative tutors can come up with.
Tell us about some of the tutors at the school.
Glyn: James Norcliffe is one of New Zealand’s most admired writers of poetry (Burns Fellowship and many other awards) and fiction for young readers. Heather is also an award-winning writer of fiction for young people as well as poetry, short story and flash fiction ( She is the current National “champ” in Flash fiction). Gail Ingram is New Zealand’s best poet for 2016 (New Zealand Poetry Society). Greg O’Connell is renowned for his interactive poetry shows and poems published in the School Journal. Stephanie Frewen is an award-winning scriptwriter. The plays her students write are broadcast on Plains FM and many are preserved for all time in Radio New Zealand Sound Archives.
Can you share some top tips for youth who want to write?
Join the School for Young Writers (of course). And enter the competitions in our Write On magazine. Teenagers submit to Re Draft – an annual anthology of the best teenage writing in New Zealand.
What about young people who think “I’m no good at writing…”
Glyn: Some of our best writers said that when they joined us. We are not there only for the gifted and talented. People don’t know they have a talent until they try it.
Heather: Sometimes young people have not had the opportunity to express their own creativity through writing. Our programmes are “low stakes.” We don’t use rubrics, mark or judge writing. Our goal is to help a young writer develop a piece to be the best expression of their ideas. This is a joyful process.
What changes do you see in the students over the course of the year?
Glyn says the changes are “immense” and Heather agrees: “For some it takes a few sessions to warm up and let their ideas free. Once they do then amazing things happen. Learning that all writers redraft is often key to the breakthrough.”
Can you share some highlights from the School for Young Writers this year?
Glyn: The greatest kick for me was to see the change in a young writer who came to us writing very dark stuff. By the end of the year, eligible to enter our annual Re-Draft competition for teenagers, this person won a place in the 2016 book The Dog Upstairs. This nationwide competition is for writers up to university level, so it’s a great achievement for such a young writer to win a place.
Heather: This year we held a poetry reading event in association with WORD Christchurch and New Zealand Poetry Day. It was a thrill to see usually shy young people stand up and read their pieces with confidence. I also love working in schools and a seeing the transformation over two days as reticent, vulnerable writers realise that they have something worthwhile to write, something that others want to read. Standouts have to be a group of Year 7/8 country boys (never laughed so much in a workshop) and a gorgeous group of teenagers in Queenstown who were open, enthusiastic and extremely talented. They even gave up their Saturday to attend.
Your favourite authors writing for children and young adults?
Of course we love James Norcliffe! Most of our young writers are also avid readers and they recommend writers to us!
Some of YOUR Top picks of books for youth in 2016?
Heather: Being Magdalene by Fleur Beale. I went back and reread her others. Anything Patrick Ness has written. I’m a bit behind on my YA reading having been a University student this year and reading the modernists. I’m looking forward to some holiday immersion in YA books.
What drives you to commit so much passion for this work?
Glyn: All of our tutors do it for the love of writing and with a passion for ensuring the future of New Zealand literature.
The School for Young Writers is based at Hagley College. What’s the association?
Glyn: Hagley College offered to support us and we gratefully accepted. We are a separate organisation and a registered charity. Hagley is our venue.
Tell us about the publications the writing school is associated with.
Glyn: The School for Young Writers has always emphasised the importance of publication. Without it, writing is like a house without a roof. Write On magazine gives everyone a chance to strive for the pleasure of seeing their name in print and encourages them to lift their game as far as possible. The Re-Draft competition began when we had developed teenage groups whose work was good enough to publish in book form. Re-Draft challenges our senior students to pit their skills against the best in the country. The results are amazingly good. New Zealand literature is alive and well and has a good future. Your blog should include this.
What are some things you’ve heard the students say about their experiences at the writing school?
Glyn: You should see the smiles on their faces when they emerge after two hours of fun learning. They don’t need to say anything. It shows. The younger ones often excitedly share their work with Mum on the way home.
Heather: They keep coming back and stay for years. For some of the students The School for Young Writers is their safe place, they make special friends and can be themselves. We love quirky. We value individuality.
Check out what is on offer for youth at the Summer Writing School this January.
What books have you loved this year? The following lists bring together the cream of the crop of 2016’s books – from the picks of our staff and customers, to the lists published by magazines, newspapers and booksellers. Have your say!
All of these were highly readable with characterisation and sense of time and place uppermost. I know we are doing “best of the year” so we don’t want negativity but I’d love to see these domestic unease thrillers that dominate the mystery genre now start to fade away. That Girl on the train is responsible for huge numbers of imitations.
There are several books which were my favourites of the year. In no particular order they are:
Rivers Of London Ben Aaronovitch
It turned me from being a rigid non-fantasy reader into a fan of Mr Aaronovitch at least. I like the British humour permeating and ridiculously he makes all the magic seem quite natural.
Bone Clocks David Mitchell
Again fantasy! Very clever writing that hung together well and kept me to the end.
The Invoice Jonas Karlsson
I loved the quirkiness but the slight hint of “is this our new reality”.
Shades of Grey Jasper Fforde
Futuristic with delightful humour and a great storyline. Mr Fforde has kept fans of this book waiting for several years but is promising the sequel in 2017. I do hope he delivers.
We are the ants Shaun David Hutchinson
It’s raw, emotional, harrowing, and very funny. Henry Denton has been given the power to stop the end of the world by aliens who casually and randomly abduct him. But is the world worth saving? His boyfriend committed suicide last year, his dad left with no reason, his brother has dropped out of college after knocking up his girlfriend, and his grandmother is losing her mind to Alzheimer’s. The he meets Diego, but is 144 days long enough to decide if the world deserves to be saved? Perfect for fans of Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Henry’s voice is real and relatable and very in your face from the start; and there’s just the right amount of weird for entertainment.
Buzz D’s pick
The Peculiar life of a lonely postman Denis Theriault
Book written almost entirely in haiku, both the modern shorter version and the ancient 7 line format. A beautiful translation from the French, easy to read and inspired me to write a few haiku of my own.
I loved all her books I have read so far – I couldn’t put any of them down. My Brilliant Friend, the first in the Neapolitan trilogy, weaves the stories of two women, best friends but with very different destinies. Her voice is so direct and compelling, often violent, making her stories strange but insightful. I’m totally obsessed by Elena Ferrante.
An impossible decision – so I simply have to nominate two titles as they both warrant being my absolute favourites of the year so far.
Best selling author, Elizabeth Strout is an old favourite – who couldn’t adore Olive Kitteridge – so I took My Name Is Lucy Barton out with some trepidation and a slight expectancy of being disappointed. But I wasn’t. Her latest novel is what I call ‘one of those little big books.’ it’s A5 size and only 191 pages long, but boy, does it ever pack a punch.
Lucy’s very ill in hospital and her estranged, no-nonsense, mother comes to visit … in the hushed room of the hospital the family’s past comes tumbling out. Little by little, we discover how the past has affected the whole family and particularly Lucy – who is now married and a mother of two daughters.
As a reader, I felt I should have been somewhat distressed by some of the revelations but, quite amazingly, I wasn’t. Somehow this wonderful author draws everything together with compassion, empathy and understanding.
And right at the other end of the scale – a huge rollicking rollercoaster of a read. Mount! by Jilly Cooper sees this author totally back on form. This latest novel is equal to the hilarious delight of the very first title in the series – Riders – with all the old favourites back between the pages. The dialogue is supremely funny and the plot rollicks along.
It’s totally audacious, raucous and quite simply a hugely great read about the upper crust horsey world in England. This is a book that you can totally wallow in. Five Stars for sure (and I defy any woman not to instantly fall in lust with Rupert Campbell Black).
The Black Widow Daniel Silva
I enjoyed this book because although it is a fiction it really hits the mark on what has happened recently in Paris and other parts of Europe. Israel comes into the picture with the wonderful mysterious character Gabriel Allon. This book is an easy read, clips along at a good pace I couldn’t put it down. Thoroughly recommend.
The Atomic Weight of Love is the debut novel of Elizabeth J. Church and I hope we see a lot more books from her. This book is an ideal Christmas present. It appeals to a wide audience and will make a great holiday read and is not without a little racy love interest.
Meridian has won a place at the University of Chicago where she studies ornithology working towards a graduate degree and eventual doctorate. Just as her wings are opening and she starts to glimpse new horizons she falls in love with a college professor two decades older than herself and her wings are clipped.
It is written in a memoir style following Meridian as a woman growing up in the 1940s through the fifties and sixties into the seventies and the emergence of women’s liberation. You will find yourself reflecting at times how so much has changed yet still remains the same.
Meri marries Alden and follows him to Los Alamos where she attempts to fit into the group of ex-academic wives she meets there. It is the era when a wife is expected to follow their husband and make the best of it. She struggles to be a good wife while salvaging something of her studies by continuing to study Crows, having left her graduate study dreams behind her.
The novel’s dual strands, the place of women with the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, and the atomic bomb with its resulting anti-war Vietnam and Korean war movements, almost splits it characters by gender over its two themes.
Some of the characters could do with more development – they feel a little clichéd. It seems women have little to say on war in this novel and men little say on the home front. Even for the times this feels a little stretched. She skims over the women who Meridian meets in Los Alamos except her best friend Belle, a strong woman who urges her not to minimise herself yet when it comes to the crunch still tells her to stay in her marriage and try to make it work.
That being said bird studies draw amusing parallels between human and bird society. Each section of the novel starts with an ornithological reference “A Parliament of Owls”, “A Deceit of Lapwings, “A Murder of Crows”. When Meridian meets Clay, a young hippie ex-marine about two decades younger than her, it seems they are about to repeat past mistakes. Her husband seems not to understand her sacrifice while her lover urges her to soar again.
For a story with a lot of loud sound effects, David Walliams latest literary romp The Midnight Gang seems to have quietly tiptoed into publication, with this children’s chapter book sneaking up just in time for Christmas.
Shhhh! Here we are on the 44th floor of the Lord Funt Hospital in the Children’s Ward. Be quiet, it’s bedtime. This is not so much a home for peculiar children as it is for physically-impaired children. There’s a big cast of characters to get to know…some actually in casts! Meet 13-year old… Tommy? Tommy! (even he wasn’t sure of his own name after a bad knock on the head from a cricket ball), who finds himself stuck in the ward with his new and equally recovering friends like young Sally (bald from her ‘treatment’), wheelchair-bound Amber, tonsil-free George and temporarily blind Robin. They are overseen by a matron who despite running a children’s ward hates children, a young doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood and support staff that includes an unsightly Porter, Mr. Dead Squirrel on his Head, Mrs. Google-Eyes and Professor Comb-over, all delightfully illustrated by the illustrious Tony Ross.
But surely hospital has to be better than the boarding school his absent parents practically abandoned him at? It wasn’t less miserable for long! The hospital matron and his school headmaster are soulmates it seems. Lunch was awful offal… and boiled eel, roasted badger, pigeon soup, boiled cabbage and toads on toast – hilariously pictured. And in what might be a reference to Walliams’ own The Boy in the Dress, Tommy suffers his worse humiliation ever when the matron makes him wear a Pink-Frilly-Nightdress to bed. Midnight is the time when all children are meant to be fast asleep, except for the secret Midnight Gang! That is the time when their adventures are just beginning… Cue 12 chimes and we all know what happens in children’s stories at the stroke of midnight – magical and dangerous things of course.
Scrawly graffiti in the hospital basement announces: The Midnight gang woz ere
“…the Midnight Gang is nothing more than an idea really,” mused Robin. “One that’s passed on from child to child.”
“Like nits?” asked George unhelpfully.
“Yes, exactly like nits, George!”
Their ‘idea’ and secret aim is to bring children’s dreams to life. So it’s a shame Tommy can’t think of a dream he might have that’s worthy of coming true. And with their collective impediments, how can they possibly achieve their dreams? And who is the real leader of this gang anyway? George’s dream to fly goes awry in the gang’s biggest adventure and challenge thus far. First they have to work out how many balloons it takes to lift an elephant (97,282 apparently). And can you imagine a naked 99 year-old flying over the rooftops of London? You don’t have to, that’s in here too.
Walliams is the Dr. of Fun and even his fonts are having a good time – the louder it gets, the bigger the type. There’s plenty of indirect messages broadcast here too: Don’t judge someone by their looks, life is precious and oh, it’s no big deal that girls can marry girls. When Sally’s condition takes a turn for the worse her dream “to live a big, beautiful life” inspires them all, leading Tommy to finally find himself by caring about others.
Walliams, of Little Britain fame, turned his comedic talents to children’s novels including Mr. Stink, Awful Auntie, Grandpa’s Great Escape, Gangsta Granny, Demon Dentist, Billionaire Boy, The Boy in The Dress, Ratburger … whew, I’m exhausted just listing them – how does he do it? And there’s The World’s Worst Children also released this year. His stellar output is nearly annoying when my son tries to bring all his favourite books into bed with him. The Midnight Gang (perfect for ages 8 to 12) may be his biggest book yet – 416 pages.
Walliams has been compared to the irreverent Roald Dahl, one of his own favourite authors when he was growing up. A new generation of young children (like mine) are now growing up with both authors amongst their favourites. And now that he has a young child of his own, Walliams has branched out into picture books with his third one There’s a snake in my school recently published and reviewed on our site.
According to Walliams, New Zealand is one of the countries with the highest readership of his books. We were lucky to see Walliams when he visited Christchurch in 2015 at a WORD Christchurch event and he spoke to a sold-out audience of 700. There he gave advice on how to write a good story (have a good villain, write what you love…) and talked about the inspiration for some of his characters based on real people, such as Raj his neighbourhood dairy owner and his ramshackle shop. So the burning question is: Is Raj in this new book? Nobody likes a spoiler. All I can say is: Poppadoms anyone?
The art of typewriting
Our Selector has always found creating a picture using type to be rather appealing so has enjoyed the 570 illustrations ordered into letters and numbers, punctuation pictures, interlocking words, animals, household objects, maps and texts.
The Fall of the House of Wilde
A new and interesting slant on the many times subject of biography Oscar Wilde which puts him as a member of one of the most dazzling Anglo-Irish families of Victorian times, and also how the family were involved in the broader social, political and religious context of the times.
Black DollsFrom the Collection of Deborah Neff
Keeping with the doll theme, but from a totally differnt angle this book presents over 100 unique handmade African American dolls made between 1850 and 1930 from the collection of Deborah Neff, a Connecticut-based collector and champion of vernacular art. It is believed that African Americans created these dolls for the children in their lives, including members of their own families and respective communities as well as white children in their charge. Stunning photography.
Outlander Kitchen You’ve read the books, watched the TV series, now it’s time to cook Mrs. FitGibbon’s Overnight Parritch; Geilli’s Cullen Skink; Murtagh’s Gift to Ellen; Sarah Woolam’s Scotch Pies and Atholl Brose for the Bonnie Prince.