International Children’s Book Day

Since 1967 people all over the world have celebrated International Children’s Book Day. Timed to coincide with Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday, it takes place on 2 April. Its aim is to promote books and reading to young people.

The perfect way to celebrate this event is to introduce a youngster to a fab new story. Here’s some places to get reading ideas:

To make it easy to choose we have written a blurb for each author or book so you know how to choose just the right one.
Search catalogue for Fairy talesSearch catatalogue for Wheels on the busCover of The Girl of the wish garden

That troublesome king

Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England and great villain (or not) of English history, is still causing trouble.

The recent discovery of his remains under a car park in Leicester, made headlines around the English speaking world. Arrangements were duly made to inter him in a suitable tomb in the local cathedral. Enter Richard’s (collateral) descendants in the form of the Plantagenet Alliance, who pointed out that he had very little connection to Leicester and wanted him buried in York. Legal battles ensued which are yet to be settled.

cover of Richard  III the maligned kingArguments have raged around him before. For centuries most accepted Henry VII’s version of him, which depicted him as the deformed, ruthless murderer as portrayed in Shakespeare. He always had his supporters though and eventually doubts began to emerge, first among historians and eventually in popular culture. History had indeed been written by the victor.

Novels had an important role in convincing the rest of us that the princes in the tower story may not be true. The first one to come to my attention was The Daughter of Time (1951) by Josephine Tey in which a detective confined to bed investigates and concludes Richard is innocent. The second was  Elizabeth Peters mystery novel The Murders of Richard III published in 1974. Cynthia Harrod Eagles The Founding and A rose for the Crown by Anne Easter Smith also come to mind.

Richard has also been the subject of numerous other interesting fiction and non- fiction works including a recent one on the search for his remains.  The various stories are well worth exploring.

Do you have any favourite novels about historical figures that we really must read?

Particle science for dummies

cover for The particle at the end of the universeWe don’t notice our scientists all that much, especially women scientists. So it was encouraging to see the not so shy and retiring Dr Siouxsie Wiles (of the long pink hair) recently receiving the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize. It’s great that there are prizes for communication in science.

Here in Christchurch we’ve learnt to value scientists who can explain their field in plain language. Where would we have been without Mark Quigley when we all suddenly developed an intense interest in earthquakes?

The ability to communicate science can be the foundation of a successful career. Stephen Hawking became world famous for explaining the difficult bits of cosmology to us. Now  Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist has tackled the Higgs Boson (or God) particle, one of the most esoteric of scientific concepts, in his book  The Particle at the End of the Universe.

The book won him the Royal Society’s Winton prize, always a useful in guide to the best in science writing each year. If he can make particle physics into something I can make sense of, he will have certainly have earned it.  The chair of the judging panel says

Carroll writes with an energy that propels readers along and fills them with his own passion. He understands their minds and anticipates their questions. There’s no doubt that this is an important, enduring piece of literature.”

Here in New Zealand we have the Callaghan medal and the Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing, as well as The Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize. The latter was won this year by the absorbing Moa . The society also provides an inspiring list of previous winners on its website to guide your reading.

If you prefer to just dip into something  Compendiums of the best in science writing are also published every year and they’re  a great way of keeping up with what is happening in the scientific world. Science journals like  New Scientist  are also great to browse and you’ll find plenty of them at the library.

So if you someone who likes to settle into the Christmas break with something to stretch your scientific knowledge (and I know that a lot of you do because our science books race out the door over the holidays) you should have plenty to keep you entertained.

A glimpse of the exotic

Cover of The CrocodileI’ve been feeling like a bit of travel lately. Alas my wallet is empty. So instead I decided to travel virtually by reading detective novels set in other countries. I find it a particularly interesting way of travelling because of the glimpses I get into another society.

I went to Italy via The  Crocodile by Maurizio de Giovanni, a bestselling whodunnit recently translated from Italian. A Sicilian detective finds himself exiled to Naples after being named as a Mafia informer. He is of course innocent. He’s supposed to spend the day pretending to work but gets himself involved in the investigation of a series of murders. It’s a book full of very Italian preoccupations and attitudes.

Then I was off to China with Don’t Cry, Lake Tai part of an excellent and evocative series written by a former resident of Shanghai. They feature Inspector Chen, poet and policeman. Being a police officer in China it seems, is as much a political job as a police job. Guessing how much of the truth your superiors will tolerate you finding and who you can arrest without losing you job, is as big a part of the investigation as finding the culprit.

Cover of DeadlineFurther west I alighted in Istanbul with Deadline by Barbara Nadel. I always enjoy my visits to Istanbul with Nadel, feeling convinced I have just gotten off the plane when I finish the book. In this case she sets her story in the historic Pera Palas Hotel. This sumptuously decorated hotel really exists and was built in 1892 to host passengers from the Orient Express. The narrative unfolds during a charity fundraising banquet in the newly renovated building.

Then 1222 by Anne Holt took me to an old hotel in the wintery high mountains of Norway. Stranded after a train crash and huge snow storm, the train passengers make the perfect “country house murder” participants. In a very Scandinavian way of course.

Can city planners make us happy?

Cover of Cycle spaceThere’s speculation out there that city planners can make a happy city. As a citizen of a city about to be rebuilt it would great to think so. On the other hand I was around in the 60s and 70s when similar claims led to developments that are now a byword for social failure (think high rise housing estates and Milton Keynes in Britain)

However, recent research looking at ten international cities suggests it can certainly contribute to it. According to The Sustainable Cities Collective:

A Gallup study examined a number of questions directly related to the built environment, including the convenience of public transportation, the ease of access to shops, the presence of parks and sports facilities, the ease of access to cultural and entertainment facilities, and the presence of libraries.

All were found to correlate significantly with happiness, with convenient public transportation and easy access to cultural and leisure facilities showing the strongest correlation.

Other studies have shown the need for social connectedness and suggested that long commutes and

car‑dependent neighbourhoods outside urban centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services and places to work.

They have suggested this may explain the decrease in happiness in some western countries despite an increase in income.

Other exciting ideas relate to the use of green spaces. The BBC recently featured a wonderful range of suggestions as to how green spaces may contribute to our wellbeing in future – in ways you’ve never imagined.

It’s all food for thought and I find myself hungry for some more detail as to how these principles might be put into place in Christchurch.

Good onya SCIRT

Cover of BrunelLike many other people this morning I had to find a new way to work because of roadworks. It took me twice as long as usual to get there. It is all a bit stressful and frustrating. However, its also quite impressive. An enormous amount of work is being done on our earthquake stricken streets and SCIRT – the organisation in charge of it – has just received recognition of its excellent work from the Institution of Civil Engineers in London. It has been awarded the Brunel Medal which:

recognises valuable service or achievement, which has been rendered to or within the civil engineering industry.

Having watched people in hard hats spend months staring down a large and recalcitrant hole in Edgeware Road  – a problem that took a couple of years to solve – I feel quite certain that our hard-working roading engineers deserve all the recognition they can get.

It seems entirely appropriate that they should receive a medal named after the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designer of so many other important transport engineering like railways, bridges and ships.

  • Find out more about Brunel at your library.

Star Wars is back

You probably already know that Disney has announced a release date for the next Star Wars movie. Apparently there at least three more to come. I have to admit that “Oh goodie” was not my first reaction. I was however interested to note that John Williams will be composing the music for the next release.

He composed the music for all the previous films and won a fistful of awards including an Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe for his score to the first one.

His original soundtrack took  film music out of the doldrums at the time, reviving it after a less than glittering period during the 60s and 70s. Williams deliberately set out to reflect late 19th century orchestral music, apparently because Lucas wanted a soundtrack that grounded the

otherwise strange and fantastic setting in a well-known, audience accessible music.

Indeed it was often credited with creating a resurgence in interest in that music.

Curious to have another listen, I decided to try out some of it in Naxos Music Online which has quite a range. I’m not sure I would like to sit down and listen to the soundtracks in their entirety, but many of the themes seem to me to have stood the test of time and who could forget the original title theme? Have a listen and see what you think.

If you’re keen on sci fi film music Naxos and Music Online cover Stargate SG1, Star Trek (films) and Star Wars as well as the odd film like Dune.

The end of Poirot is nigh

Cover of CurtainBoth David Suchet and I are mourning the end of the immaculate DVD series of Poirot novels on which he has been working for 25 years. Not that we’re quite there in New Zealand yet– it has just screened in Britain to an audience of 5.2 million, but the DVDs are yet to arrive here.

Suchet’s depiction of Poirot has eclipsed all who came before and the stunning 1930s settings are models of architectural and design excellence. Beautifully directed and superbly acted, the production of this series could probably sell any mystery writer’s output. The fact that it is the writings of the queen of golden age crime is just the icing on the cake.

Its easy to dismiss Agatha Christie now, but despite some dated attitudes and the development of much more sophisticated crime novels in recent times, her work still stands up.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd topped a recent Crime Writers Association poll of crime writers to find the best crime novel of the last 60 years. Like all her books it confuses and bamboozles the reader to the very end, just as a mystery novel is meant to.

The thing that trips me up is the shocking anti-Semitism which frequently crops up in the books, making me realise how widespread and acceptable it was in British society before World War Two. I’m pretty sure you won’t see it rearing its ugly head in the DVDs – which is another thing in their favour.

So keep your eagle eyes open. The last – and possibly the best – if the reviews can be believed, will be arriving just as soon as we can get hold of it.

The JFK assassination

It is 50 years since the day President Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963 (23 November in New Zealand.)

You’d think we would all be clear about what happened by now. Instead the waters have been muddied by an official investigation with too many loose ends and endless versions of the truth postulated or imagined in films and books. A recent article to mark the 50th anniversary lists a bewildering array of films and plays which have dealt with the theme, giving it all sorts of twists.

Even our own library has had to publish an explanation of why the Christchurch Star newspaper was able to publish the story so fast, because theorists took it as proof of a CIA plot.

It’s no wonder we’re so confused. I’m not sure if I should consider this as a reflection of the awe in which Kennedy was held, or a sad distraction from his legacy. Either way it has fed the creative imagination of a generation film makers and authors.

Will we ever know the truth? Or will we have to settle with whichever investigation or conspiracy theory that suits us?

A composer with his own voice

cover for Atchangeli Michaelis interventioneJohn Tavener died aged 69 on 12 November 2013.

Without mentioning his music I find a great deal to admire in John Tavener. He suffered a lifetime of ill health – including a stroke in 1980, a heart attack in 2007 and Marfan syndrome. Diagnosed in 1990 this resulted in an operation, after which he was critically ill and it effected him all his life. Despite this he managed to produce a large body of work and become a significant voice in classical music.

He started out as a radical, coming out with a flourish by being noticed by the Beatles and having two works released on the Apple label in the 1970s, thereby giving himself a burst of fame.

Yet the 80s found him swimming against the tide in many ways. Deeply spiritual (itself unfashionable unless you’re into eastern religion) he became interested in Roman Catholicism and later converted to the Greek Orthodox Church, He wrote a work called The Beautiful Names a mediation on the 99 names of Allah on 2007 and was known for his universalist approach to religion.

He abhorred what he called subjectivity, which I interpret as the cult of the self on which we have all be fed since birth and

his ideal relationship with his spirituality as it’s expressed in his music is that he should be a channel through which the music flows, with as little impediment from the predilections of his own personality as possible. “I wanted to produce music that was the sound of God”.

Could you get less fashionable? This got him labelled as a “holy minimalist” a category which one obituary thought

condemned some of his more accessible works to choral music collections of Relaxing Classics

Clearly he was a man who marched to his own drum. Personally I’m not worried whether I agree with his philosophy and beliefs. Music is visceral for me and if it speaks to me then that’s all I need to know. Tavener’s work does just that and I am grateful for it.

Try listening to The Protecting Veil on Music online.