Madwomen and attics – WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View

It was a dark, but not a stormy, night at the Arts Centre last Wednesday, when four mysterious black-clad ladies entered the room. With flickering candles held aloft, they took their places on the stage for an evening of great hair, literary tropes and another chapter in the ongoing battle between Team Rochester and Team Heathcliff (*).

There was no attempt at cool professionalism, as our panellists to a man woman unashamedly confessed their enduring love for that most passionate of genres, the Gothic novel. And the audience was right there with them – many of us had been present earlier in the evening for an outstanding performance of Jane Eyre by Rebecca Vaughan of Dyad Productions.

Rachael King, Rebecca Vaughan, Karen Healey, and Moata Tamaira

With chair Rachael King guiding the discussion, we heard from an actor, a novelist and a librarian as they each confessed to teenage years spent wafting about in nighties and imagining themselves in the arms of a dark and brooding hero of uncertain temperament. Rebecca Vaughan had of course literally just come from her performance as Jane Eyre, while Karen Healey and Rachael King have both written novels with a strong Gothic flavour themselves (if you have not read Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead, or Rachael King’s Magpie Hall, I beseech you most strongly to do so at once). And our very own Moata Tamaira has never been afraid to profess herself as a fan of all things Gothic.

Rachael King, Rebecca Vaughan, Karen Healey, and Moata Tamaira

The evening’s discussion ranged from the literary – Gothic tropes in literature and film; to the awesomely ridiculous – a slideshow quiz where every answer was Wuthering Heights. We contemplated the various forms of Heathcliff in multiple movie castings (Tom Hardy a clear winner here, although this possibly was rigged by chair Rachael); and slipped sideways into a robust conversation about whether Wide Sargasso Sea had altered anyone’s perceptions of Mr Rochester (is it a true prequel? an early form of fan-fic homage? a completely separate stand-alone story?). I was waiting for someone to mention my own personal fave Jane Eyre “character” Thursday Next, from the Eyre Affair series, but perhaps that’s making things a little too tangled even for this panel and audience.

Rachael King, Rebecca Vaughan, Karen Healey

Finishing with a glorious set of illustrations from pulp fiction novels of the ’60s and ’70s, featuring women with great hair running from Gothic houses (credit to this magnificent blog), we were then sent out into the moonlit surrounds of the oh-so-Gothic Arts Centre, I think each with a new commitment to go back and re-read ALL our favourite Gothic novels. Possibly while dressed in wafty white nighties and floating about on the nearest moor.

Christchurch Arts Centre

(* Of COURSE it’s Team Rochester, all the way)


Posh songs and mood lighting

Last night I sat in a beautiful room and listened to a fabulously sung tale about serial killers.

It was a brilliant night out and Sweeney Todd: demon barber of Fleet Street was every bit as awesome as I’d hoped it would be. My companion, The Opera Newbie, was also very impressed, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. We laughed in all the right places, jumped (embarrassingly) at unexpected loud noises, and clapped enthusiastically whenever terrible things happened (he’s in the chair! he’s just had his throat cut! he’s sliding from the chair through a trapdoor and into the basement!)

The Sweeney Todd set
Not the chair! Sweeney Todd set (image supplied)

I was a bit nervous that the live opera performance wouldn’t measure up against the recent Tim Burton movie, which was visually stunning and starred the always-brilliant Helena B-C, as well as badly-behaved Johnny Depp.

Sometimes when you’re watching a live show and there’s lots of singing, it can be hard for people who don’t know the story (or the songs), but Opera Newbie reported that he pretty much followed the lot. And the set was gorgeous. Deceptively simple, but with lots of different clever bits that moved in mysterious ways. The lighting was almost a star in its own right, too, with atmospheric fog and really effective spotlights making things look darn scary quite often.

My favourite character in any of the different versions I’ve seen is always Mrs Lovett, and last night was no exception – Antoinette Halloran’s voice, acting, costume were all fabulous, and I totally have a fangirl crush on her. I’m also finding myself humming bits of her songs, and vaguely thinking that this weekend I might try making some pies.

Joel Granger and Antoniette Halloran in Sweeney Todd
Joel Granger and Antoniette Halloran in Sweeney Todd (image supplied)

If you’re thinking about going along, maybe don’t take the kids – it’s sweary, and bloody, and has some naughty bits too. But if you have the opportunity to grab some last-minute tickets for the show for yourself and your grown-up friends you absolutely should do that (it’s on til Saturday, and there’s even a matinee performance, so there’s really no excuse!)

A meaty night out at the opera

I have a friend who’s never been to the opera. Never been to a musical. Actually, possibly never even been to a live theatre performance before.

How exciting for him, then, that his very first outing to all of the above will be to Sweeney Todd: the demon barber of Fleet Street.

He looked a little concerned when I told him where we were going (the oh-so-beautiful Isaac Theatre Royal), and for what purpose.

Things got worse when I tried to give a brief plot outline. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with a line about hairdressers.

How though, does one cover all the important bits, without spoiling the plot twists? Do I talk about wives and daughters, justice and revenge, haircuts and close shaves, meat pies and unrequited love?

Cover of Sweeney Todd: The demon barber of Fleet StreetDo I mention that Mr Todd first made his appearance over 150 years ago, in the pages of a “penny-dreadful” publication? That there have been more than a dozen different stage and screen adaptations, including the most well-known current movie version starring the now infamous Johnny? Or that Christchurch is the third of the major centres to have the privilege of showing us what a close shave really means?

Perhaps I should just send him to the library to read/watch/discover all our Mr Todd-related resources?

Or perhaps I should tell him nothing. Let him enter the theatre unsuspecting and unprepared in any way for the delicious horrors that are to come …

Perhaps that last one, yes.

Warm patrons of literature

It seems that in the early days of our city’s European history, it was very much the fashion for visiting luminaries to make a progression through the country, stopping at every town to meet the locals and be wined and dined.

NPG Ax18230; Anthony Trollope by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company
Anthony Trollope by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, albumen carte-de-visite, 1870s NPG Ax18230 © National Portrait Gallery, London CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Anthony Trollope, who turns 200 this year, was one such celebrity, and passed through New Zealand in August 1872. He notes in a book about his travels that he visited every county and province except Hawke’s Bay. You can trace his journey through the country in Papers Past, a treasure-trove of archived newspapers dating from 1839 to 1948, although there is surprisingly little in the press about his visit to Christchurch – he seems to have arrived and left our city without much fuss at all. This is in contrast to some of his other appearances: he “and wife” attended the Queen’s Birthday Ball in Wellington; was the subject of a great deal of heated discussion around who was paying for his visit, and whether this payment was impacting politically on his writing; and disappointed Dunedinites by failing to attend a celebration of the anniversary of Sir Walter Scott, at which he had promised to speak.

The disappointment seems to have gone both ways, however. The book he wrote while here (rather creatively named Australia and New Zealand) is tucked away in our archives, but we have a copy of AH Reed’s book about Mr Trollope’s visit in the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre at Central Library Manchester. It’s full of pronouncements on our wee country, mostly political, and some quite scathing. Trollope described the trip from Waimate to Christchurch as being “an uninteresting journey as far as scenery is concerned”; advised “no young lady to go out to any colony either to get a husband, or to be a governess, or to win her bread after any so-called lady-like fashion”; and noted that the greatest fault of New Zealanders was that they were excessively keen on blowing their own trumpets, and that if the New Zealander “would blow his own trumpet somewhat less loudly, the music would gain in its effect upon the world at large”. Despite this, he did manage to redeem himself somewhat by complimenting us on our reading – while speaking at a banquet in his honour at the Northern Club he noted that ” … his own works, and those of other leading writers, were in every house he entered ..” and that there were “… more warm patrons of literature in the colonies in proportion to population, than in Great Britain.”

Reed’s book is well worth a read, if only to find a reason to feel self-defensively patriotic. And if you don’t feel like a bit of flag-waving, there’s always Trollope’s fabulous works of fiction to pick up and enjoy.

Cover of The Warden Cover of Barchester Towers Cover of Phineas Finn Cover of The Way We Live Now

“I have read all your books” – A farewell to PTerry

I met Sir PTerry the same year I met my future husband. It was 1985 and I was 18 years old. I have, it seems, spent my entire adult life with him. Which may explain why I am very thankful that I have today off, and am sitting in a darkened room and erratically weeping-while-laughing.

I’m not sure I can do justice to the man – there are people all over the world who write much more betterer than me, and who cared just as passionately about him. You can (and should) read all of these things on the interwebs. You also can (and should) read all of his books. All I can do is say, thank you – you made me laugh, and cry, and fall in love, and feel brave, and learn things, and re-evaluate the way I thought about things, and champion books that (at least in those early days) no-one else thought were worth a damn. I almost preferred it that way – I think I didn’t want to have to share, and it felt so very special when I met those few others who felt the same.

When you came to Christchurch and I got to ACTUALLY meet you, you were every bit as scary and amazing and inspiring as I’d hoped you would be.

I fell in love with Vimes. I wanted to be like Granny Weatherwax (but always knew I was probably a lot more like Agnes Nitt). I adore the Patrician (One Man One Vote). We temporarily borrowed a cat called Greebo. I will ALWAYS want to own a dragon called Errol.

I have read all of your books; even the slightly less-outstanding very early ones (and those ones by you and Mr Baxter that I didn’t like so much but read anyway, because YOU’d written them). I’ve read them on planes and trains and boats, and in the garden and the lounge and in bed and at work. I’ve read them out loud to my family, and to my friends, and occasionally to random strangers.

I think my life would have been an emptier, colder place without you, Terry Pratchett. I probably wouldn’t have been a librarian, and I certainly wouldn’t have been a writer of small silly things.
You have made me a better person, and I can’t believe I have to carry on in a universe where you no longer are.
Cover of Going Postal Cover of The colour of magic Cover of Wintersmith Cover of The last hero

Kathy Reichs really does know everything

Cover of Bones of the lostWith a capacity crowd at the aptly-named Legends Lounge on Monday night, the amazingly over-talented Kathy Reichs kept the audience at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival event  well entertained. Missy T and I arrived early, and it was just as well, as the room filled rapidly with adoring fans both young and old.

Most of what she said should have come as no surprise to fans. The questions from both QC Chris McVeigh and the audience were good and she graciously took every lead and followed it well. I’d not heard her speak before, and she looks like one of those frighteningly well-put-together women who manages everything and everyone into submission.  She is, however, warm and witty, charming and very easy to listen to.

She told stories of life both real and fictional, and I have to say sometimes I forgot whether it was Kathy Reichs or Tempe Brennan we were talking about, which was a bit disconcerting. For those who aren’t as familiar with her work, Dr Reichs is as fully qualified in real life as her main character is in the books, and she always uses a real-life case as the basis for each one of her books (albeit changing all details on the way). She explained that in real life her job is always about answering the same two questions – identity (who is this person?); and cause of death; and for both of these questions, it’s always about the bones.

So what can we tell you that might be new?

  • Contracted to write 19 Tempe Brennan and 5 Virals books, she is currently working on numbers 17 and 5 respectively.
  • The Bones TV series is now in its 9th season, with no sign of slowing down, but as with all TV there are no guarantees.
  • There’s an episode coming up called The Dude and the Dam, which will contain easter eggs – 5 clues from the book Bones of the Lost. Those who watch the episode and read the book will be able to enter an online competition to win stuff.
  • She knows the TV series has a different feel from the books, and gracefully accepted criticism from the audience suggesting that sometimes the show can seem a little flippant and Hollywood-y. She said everyone can see that the two storylines (book and TV) are different, and for those who are worried by this, it might help to see TV Tempe as being a younger, less polished version of Book Tempe – like a prequel.
  • She really loves working with her kids. She co-authors the Virals series with her son (who has been known to proclaim after a particularly brutal editing by Kathy “Mom, you’re murdering my art!”; and works on the TV series with one of her daughters.
  • Kathy often finds character names by reading local obituaries – if the book is set in a specific town or city, she will read past newspapers from that town and gather names from there.
  • The idea to do the Virals series came about after a conversation with one of her children, who suggested that teens would also love to read about forensics. The more unusual aspects of the books (what Kathy calls ‘elements of grounded fantasy’) were added because her publisher noted that teens nowadays seem to be obsessed with the supernatural, and she really didn’t want to do vampires. Or werewolves.

So a good night all round, really, with dozens lined up afterwards for what looked like it might be a long wait for book signing. And as always, a great big thank you to the The Press Christchurch Writers Festival team for another sterling event!

Get more Kathy Reichs in your life

do it

Cover of do itOh, the serendipitous finds of the new books shelf!

The best thing I’ve found this week (actually, this month; maybe even this year) is a book called do it.

According to the editor’s introduction, this is a ‘collage of beginnings’. The book itself is a collection of works by artists from 1993 to the present, and grew out of a project exploring instructional procedures as an art form. The publisher’s blurb makes reference to “the question of whether a show could take “scores” or written instructions by artists as a point of departure, which could be interpreted anew each time they were enacted”.

That’s all a bit arty for me, so I will just describe how I see it:  this is a book of instructions by artists on how to Make Art.  It’s a bit like paint-by-numbers (and we all remember how cool THAT was when we were kids), but in a grown-up, arty-farty kind of way.

For example, Dimitar Sasselov’s A Walk in Our Cosmic Neightborhood (2012) begins “Walk out on a clear evening in November to a dark spot where you can see the stars”, then carries on to detail what stars you should look for, how to sketch them, and what they are called, and ends with the instruction to “Imagine the possibilities”.

Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Sculpture for Strolling (1995) is a recipe for creating a metre-wide sphere from daily newspapers (adding one paper a day after reading it).  On completion, you are invited to roll the newspaper sphere outside in the streets and the squares as a “sculpture for strolling”.

Jonathan Horowitz (Untitled, 2002) offers this:  Choose two things that are similar and or different; while David Askevold lays out quite detailed instructions on how to prepare a shrunken head (titled, of course, On Shrinking a Head (2004)).  He even helpfully suggests possible clients: “a deceased relative, friend, lover or oneself”.

There ‘s a project that begins with  satellite TV channels, the Fibonacci sequence, and a digital recording device; and ends with a mosaic that is “… a simplistic representation of one edge of the multifaceted media matrix.” There’s a recipe for making cocaine, one for a cubic metre of bird feed, and one for fried cellular phones.

Obviously some of these projects or artworks are a little more achievable than others, and I’m kind of hoping that some of them aren’t really designed to be ‘made’ at all, but it’s an astonishing book, and I am mesmerised by it! There’s often discussion in mainstream media about art installations, and what actually constitutes an artwork (and we’ve got some great books here in the library about this), so while you’re thinking about all of that, why not have a go at one or two of the projects yourself?  And then let us know how it went …

The Displaced Reader gets arty

Cover of FacebooksSometimes, if we’ve been good, librarians are allowed out to go visit other libraries. And sometimes, when we’ve been particularly amazing, we get to go to special places – places that may not be open to the public in the same way that, say, the Central Library Peterborough or the Linwood Library at Eastgate or Upper Riccarton libraries are.

The Christchurch Art Gallery library is one of those places, and recently a group of us went there for a visit. Located in the middle of the Art Gallery building, it’s a bit like the Gallery itself: closed but open. You can’t just wander in and poke around, but you CAN call the Gallery and make an appointment.

Fernbank Studio: away past elsewhereSo why would you do this?  People who visit here are looking for a deeper level of information than you might find on the shelf at your local library. If you are interested in art (and by interested, I mean you’ve looked at all the fantastic art books that the public library have, and still want more; or you are researching local artists both past and present, or want to know the background to the story behind the latest Court Theatre production), it’s THE place to go. There are specialist books and magazines, archives full of ephemera relating to artists and exhibitions, folders of press clippings and more.

The collection itself is primarily focused, naturally, on areas related to the Art Gallery, so you probably won’t find heaps of information on, say, the Italian Renaissance, but you WILL find, for example, things related to Picasso’s lithographs, because the Gallery owns one of them.

So for anyone with a deeper interest in all things arty, or a need for specialist help in specific areas, you could do no better than to arrange a visit – the librarian is warm and welcoming, and not at all scary, and there are treasures untold waiting to be discovered!

What’s in a name?

Cover of Traditional Molvanian baby namesWhen I eventually quit my day job and become an internationally-recognised award-winning author, one of the first things I think I will struggle with is what to name my characters. After all, much like when you name your own children, or pets, this is a decision you will be living with for a very long time. Not only does a name have to fit the character, it has to be memorable (but not in a bad way), believable, spellable (for all the glowing reviews), not have hidden meanings or unfortunate initials; and perhaps most importantly (and unlike real life where you really can name your first-born after great-great-uncle Ethelred), NOT belong to (or sound even vaguely like) any of your friends or relations.

I have been known to throw a book down in disgust if a character’s name is too annoying. This mainly happens when reading old-style fantasy or science-fiction novels, but can strike at any time. It can also extend to names of places, imaginary animals, food-type things …  the list of possible naming offences goes on and on. If a name is too hard to pronounce (because we all say them out loud at least once while reading a book), or looks odd on the page, or is just too similar to something familiar, it becomes distracting rather than enhancing, and as mentioned above, can lead to book-throwing tantys.

I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to pick names and know you’ve got them right. There are lots of helpful (and not so helpful) books and websites out there, but they are a slippery slope to time-wasting, so if you ARE searching for that perfect name for your dashing and romantic male lead, be careful – in just 2 minutes on one name generator site I came up with:

  • Jeb Deneau – mysterious romantic cowboy with slightly foreign past.  I’m thinking dark hair, slightly too long, blowing in the prairie breezes, and a pair of piercing green eyes that have seen things I cannot imagine.
  • Morris Weems – nervous accountant who never leaves the house/office, except to buy expensive medication for his ailing and elderly pet dog Mr Wuffles.
  • Bernie Rub – a mob enforcer with a dark and violent history, but also with a heart of gold.  And an ex-stripper girlfriend.
  • Johnathan Holiday – a dapper gentleman, lean in stature, with a propensity for linen suits and cigarillos. I’m unsure whether Johnathan will turn out to be a bad guy or a good guy.

A fantasy novel name generator offered a table of 119 names, all of which ended in ‘TH’, and made me feel like my front teeth had been knocked out.  I’m thinking QuehonathUhonyfth and Cheendoith may have to wait a while for their story to be told.

A Dungeons and Dragons page offered me Brawler Ricdak Dragonskin the Bloodblade, which sounds great, but would be a real bugger to use when filling out forms.  And this great blog post led to all sorts of other time-wasting too.

If you want to go the traditional route and use an actual book, check out our wide range of naming books in the library.  And if you want to read about what real authors do, have a look at some of the author interviews we’ve done over the years – heaps of them talk about how they name their characters and places.

What’s your perfect character name? Have you actually changed your own name? And if you’re a real author, share your character-naming secrets with us, please!  Elvira Nawnart, Xyratis Firestomp and I would be more than grateful.

Thanks, Mr Dewey! (I think …)

Bookshelf, by Alex JohnsonAs you know, librarians live to create order from chaos.

Over the years (centuries) that libraries have been in existence, librarians have developed and tested dozens of different ways to organise books and information on shelves.  Different libraries use different systems, and for different reasons. Here at Christchurch City Libraries, and at many other public libraries and school libraries, we use the Dewey Decimal System for our nonfiction books.

Not in fact named for the middle of the three nephews of Donald Duck, but designed by Melvil Dewey of Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1870s. It was initially published in 1876, with the second edition of his by-now-copyrighted system arriving in 1885, under the eye-watering title Decimal Classification and Relativ Index for arranging, cataloging, and indexing public and private libraries and for pamflets, clippings, notes, scrap books, index rerums, etc.  (Note Mr Dewey’s somewhat unusual approach to spelling – another of his passions!)

I love people who are passionate about things, and use that passion to create something new.  And I do love Mr Dewey and his system. I also LOVE that apparently before Melvil started his masterwork, many libraries had a shelving system based on the height of the books, and the date they were acquired. This would have been very handy for the customers who frequently arrive at the desk here in the library, saying things like, “I can’t remember what it was called, but it was a really big book, and I read it about 5 years ago.”

In my madder moments (and yes, there are a few), I think about how I would go about rearranging the library shelves if given the opportunity.  There was a trend last year for arranging your home bookshelves by colour, which led to some amazing rainbow-type displays.  I have friends who organise by personal ranking, or how many times read, or completely (but purposefully) randomly.

And I think about how Mr Dewey would cope with today’s subjects – things he may never have dreamed of having to choose a number for, like one of my personal non-fiction faves: the Zombie Survival Guide, and the always-contentious sections on religions, self-help and how sugar (or carbohydrates, or CFCs, or coffee) is the enemy. It always makes me glad I am not the person who decides which books end up in the Fiction (made-up) versus the Non-Fiction (true stuff) sections of the library.

How about you? How are your bookcases organised at home? Do you separate paperbacks from hardbacks? True stories from made-up ones? Award-winners from pulp fiction? How would you go about reorganising the library if you had absolute power over the shelves?  And what “non-fiction” subject or title have you been surprised by recently?