An interview with Rhys Darby: The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty (Book 1)

Funnyman Rhys Darby has teamed up with Scholastic in a fun new fiction series for kids. He talked to Christchurch City Libraries about his debut children’s book and reading interests, his passion for cryptozoology and his connections to Christchurch.

Rhys Darby. Photo credit: Dean B. Cornish
Rhys Darby. Photo credit: Dean B. Cornish

You may know Rhys Darby as a comedian and as an actor from Flight of the Conchords or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and much more — and now he’s become a children’s author as well. Rhys generously gave his time to chat on the phone about his foray into children’s books with the October publication of The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty (Book 1), which he’s also illustrated.

The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty

Darby joins other comedians like David Walliams and Australian Peter Helliar who have written children’s books. By Darby’s own admission, he has childlike sensibilities and this lends itself well to his writing.

“My comedy is very childlike.”

First, a little bit about the book…
The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty is a mystery comedy adventure in the format of a journal. Rhys describes his book as a cross between Indiana Jones and Spike Milligan.

“Loaded with unmistakably quirky and random Rhys humour, 12-year-old Buttons McGinty pens top secret scribbles in a collection of extraordinary notebooks, as he and his friends enter a universe unlike any they’ve seen before. Buttons has been shipped off to Ranktwerp Island Education Fortress for Gifted Lame Unruly Minors, a.k.a. R.I.E.F.G.L.U.M., a boarding school on a remote island, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica. His parents are missing under strange circumstances and there are bogus baddies and a burly bigfoot on the prowl.” (Scholastic press release)

Darby says the main character, a flame-haired 12-year-old, is a young spirited version of himself and that he used to dream about going on adventures as a kid but back then he could only go on such adventures in his head – lucky he had a big imagination. Darby’s three years spent in the army from the age of 17 also comes through in his children’s book with his use of Morse code and the military-like operations going on in the story. Darby describes the setting as like “an Alcatraz for kids.”

Who is the book for?

Darby kept his two young sons in mind (ages 8 and 12) when writing his book. He says he wrote it for anyone with a sense of humour. “It’s for reluctant readers or for fans of my work” and what’s more, he adds, “I wrote it to amuse myself – it had to be fun for me to do it.” It’s hard not to read the book without hearing his distinctive comedic voice in your head, making it feel as if he were reading it to you.

Aside from a bit of Morse code, the book is full of funny asides, drawings, lists, maps and speech bubbles. Darby says that breaking up writing like this makes reading easier and more appealing. The story is written with a sense of immediacy. Button’s journal writing addresses the reader and makes you feel as if you are there figuring out the mystery alongside him.

Rhys Darby’s interest in cryptozoology is evident in the book when a mysterious caged creature is snuck onto the island. He describes cryptozoology as “things unclassified by science that people don’t think exists – a pseudoscience.” “I’m a fan of the unknown,” he says and he co-hosts a long-running podcast on cryptozoology called The Cryptid Factor with the likes of wry Kiwi documentarian David Farrier.

Rhys, why cryptozoology? What sparked your interest and do you have any favourite creatures?

“You’re opening a can of worms asking about my interest in this but yes, ‘hairy humanoids’ like the Yeti, the Sasquatch and other upright walking things that seem to be human which aren’t human, like the Australian Yowie and also including human reptilian creatures and sea serpents like the Loch Ness monster.”

(Check out his recent podcast on the Yowie)

Abominable Science!BigfootyetiBigfoot

“I remember reading when I was a kid an Usborne book called Monsters, seeing that in the library – Pakuranga Library – and one of my favourites featured all the creatures that may exist and sparked my interest in the unknown. We haven’t solved all the things on the planet that need to be solved.”

What role did libraries play in your life?

“I was a big library goer, mum would let me choose 5 books – it was a ritual. It was a safe quiet place. I remember going to my school library at Elm Park Primary and getting obsessed with car magazines.”

When we spoke Rhys was planning to visit his old primary school to read to the kids there.

The Buttons character in your book is named after your mate Leon ‘Buttons’ Kirckbeck (from your projects the Cryptid Factor and Short Poppies)? Tell us more about the name ‘Buttons’ you chose?

“‘Buttons’ sort of alludes to someone who is very good at knowing how to push the buttons, being a bit of a tech whiz or having a knack for machinery – like in the movie Gravity when Sandra Bullock is trapped but just knows how to go in and tinker with things to save herself.”

Meet Buttons…

Meet Buttons McGinty, from Rhys Darby’s debut children’s book.

Rhys, your children’s book is mainly available through Australasian distribution and there are a number of ‘down under’ references and slang in the book. You’ve got a great line in your book about Buttons trusting someone “as much as you trust a cheap pair of jandals.” What made you choose to ‘keep it local’ in your book?

“Since I have international pull I am in a position to keep and draw attention to our unique Kiwi ‘voice’ – like Taika Waititi does. Wouldn’t it be great if like, in the same way we accept the English world of Harry Potter, that we just accept things and it became like that on the other side of the world?”

Rhys has even managed to retain his kiwiness in the recent Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as the voice of a villain called Hypno-Potamus).

“I trust him about as much as I trust a cheap pair of jandals” – quote from Buttons McGinty.

(Rhys obviously loves jandals – so much so he wrote a song about them!)

What did you learn from writing your first children’s book?

“To keep the humour coming in and not so much fantasy or action and also to keep it light so it’s not too dark, like the territory that Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll get into.”

Obviously Book 2 is underway since Book 1 ends on a cliff-hanger and loose ends – and you hope to write up to 4-5 in the series once you see how this goes. What about a film adaptation?

“My dream would be that maybe the book series would get made into a movie and when I’m writing it I imagine it and am visualising it all.”

You’re so multi-talented… What drives you and motivates you?

“I have a creative brain and get bored easily if I’m not doing something creative and I enjoy entertaining.”

Is there nothing you won’t take up or try out? Conversely, what’s something you want to try your hand at – if you could wave a magic wand and just do it, what might it be?

“Nothing too dangerous like jumping out of a plane since I’ve got kids now and I don’t know when my luck will run out. I’ve had the opportunity to climb Mt Kilimanjaro – for charity – and ‘nearly died’. I was so sick so although I’ve since been asked to Everest, I’ve turned it down. But if I could wave a wand, I’d like to go back in time and be an explorer – like being in Cairo exploring tombs in the 1920s, just doing archaeological digs. And also I’d like to visit the Victorian days in England – like the gloomy time period of Jack the Ripper and perhaps solve the riddle of what happened.”

You’re already really interesting and diverse, but can you tell us something about yourself that we might not know?

Rhys (age 44): “Well, I like to skateboard. I have eight skateboards and got Tony Hawk to sign my son’s skateboard when I was working with him.”


Reading Pleasures

The Explorers GuildWhat are you currently reading?

“I’m the sort of person with a stack of books on the bedside and read bits here and there but currently The Explorer’s Guild by Kevin Costner the actor (and Jon Baird) – it’s part novel/part graphic novel. It’s set around WWI and it’s a bit of a tome – it’s not an easy read but I like the idea of it. (A worthy but challenging read).

We know you like Spike Milligan and, as well as the non-fiction you’ve mentioned, what else did you read as a kid?

“I wasn’t a great reader when I was a kid but I did enjoy graphic novels like TinTin (because he was an adventurer) and Asterix – funny and involved time and I learnt about Romans ruling.”

Cigars of the Pharaoh - Hergé, pseud., 1907-1983Asterix and the Laurel Wreath - Goscinny, 1926-1977

You must be a fun dad! What are your children’s current favourite reads or things you like to read to them?

They are enjoying Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney and David Walliams.

Dog ManOld SchoolThe World's Worst Children

 


Canterbury Connections

This Way to Spaceship

Rhys Darby spent some formative years living and studying in Christchurch. He attended the University of Canterbury, trained at Burnham Military Camp and did his early performances as a comedy duo in Lyttelton.

In your earlier autobiographical book This Way to Spaceship, you tell a funny story about being in the 1996 Christchurch Christmas Parade dressed as Mr. Blubby, a mascot to help advertise some sickly jelly concoction, but kids threw the jelly drinks at you and tipped you over. What other memories do you have from your time here?

“Christchurch was a time of awakening for me. I had my first girlfriend there, I had my first comedy gig there and went to Burnham Military Camp. I like going back to the places I remember and finding new places, visiting the park and visiting Canterbury University and also Lyttelton where I started with my friend Grant (Lobban) and my performing began (Rhysently Granted).”


Talking to Rhys Darby is a delight and a volley of conversation that can go in any direction. One thing that struck me was his way of thinking. “Just imagine” he says often or “I could imagine…” As you can imagine, he’s effusive and full of spark and creativity and his enthusiasm is refreshing and contagious. Rhys Darby certainly has cross-generational appeal. I have been looking forward to this book being published for a while, as both a children’s librarian and a parent of children in the target age group. I was already a fan of his comedy since his Flight of the Conchords days, but now I have children who enjoy his work too, in projects like Jumanji and Thunderbirds Are Go! With a children’s book in the mix, he’s growing a new fan base.

Darby’s first book is a winner! Borrow it, buy it, gift it! We look forward to finding out what happens next in Darby’s daring adventures in Book 2! 

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Murderbots, spaceships and other planets

It’s been a good year for science fiction, with some great series wrapping up. Don’t worry about cliffhangers or long waits between sequels with these recommendations, you can read the whole lot back-to-back if you feel like it!

All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Cover of All Systems RedCover of Artificial ConditionCover of Rogue Protocol

You might think a book series about a being who call themselves “Murderbot” would make for grim reading, but you’d be wrong. An AI SecUnit (security consultant) for a research party on a newly discovered planet, Murderbot just wants to watch their favourite media show rather than having to interact with humans. But when they’re attacked by unregistered indigenous fauna it starts to look like their research mission has been sabotaged, and Murderbot finds themselves caring more about the humans than they’d like to admit.

The sequels all feature Murderbot trying and failing to stop protecting humans from themselves, as well as a sarcastic AI ship and some of Murderbot’s back story. The final novella in the series came out at the start of this month, so if you feel like some comforting, slightly snarky science fiction then I’d highly recommend giving the series a go, starting with All Systems Red.

Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Cover of Ninefox GambitCover of Raven StratagemCover of Revenant Gun

If Murderbot is the literary equivalent of chocolate pudding then Ninefox Gambit and its sequels are like kimchi — delicious but not to everyone’s taste. It took me a while to get into but once I did they were compulsive reading. Ninefox Gambit begins with disgraced captain Kel Cheris being given a second chance in order to recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles. The catch? To do so she must ally with undead tactician Shuos Jedao, a man who went mad before murdering his own troops as well as the enemy. Cheris must decide whether she can trust his tactical ability, or whether he’s leading her to her own grave.

Planetfall, After Atlas and Before Mars by Emma Newman

Cover of PlanetfallCover of After AtlasCover of Before Mars

The Planetfall series is technically not closed to future sequels, but there are now three books out and they all stand alone (although there are some common threads). I find each of them very odd — Newman doesn’t go in for satisfying conclusions, but at the same time there’s something compelling about them that keeps me reading. They all grapple with mental illness in different ways, from hoarding in Planetfall to postnatal depression in Before Mars. For that reason the experience of reading each book is very unsettling, Before Mars especially so as it begins with that classic trope of arriving in a new place (Mars) only to discover a note in your own handwriting warning you not to trust the others. My favourite of the three is probably After Atlas — detective (and indentured slave) Carlos Moreno is tasked with finding the murderer of the leader of the same religious cult Carlos escaped as a teenager.

Bonus: Semiosis by Sue Burke, an entertaining but odd book about coexisting with intelligent plantlife on an alien planet.

Some books I haven’t read yet but are on my list:

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: I liked the novella that inspired this novel (The Lady Astronaut of Mars) so I’m keen to read more about how Elma York got to Mars.

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White: A treasure hunter and a racing driver framed for murder and trying to clear her name both meet on a smuggler’s ship in search of riches and justice. From the reviews it sounds fun and pacy!

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers: I enjoyed the two previous books in this series (beginning with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet) and look forward to another quiet read about found family in space.

Cover of SemiosisCover of The Calculating StarsCover of A Big Ship at the Edge of the UniverseCover of Record of a Spaceborn Few

Further reading

Gavin Bishop: Cook’s Cook book launch

Gavin Bishop, along with Gecko Press and Scorpio Books, launched his latest illustrated book at Tūranga, Cook’s Cook: The cook who cooked for Captain Cook. 2019 will be the 250th anniversary of the visit of the H.M. Endeavour to Aotearoa New Zealand and Bishop’s book offers a fresh perspective on their journey.

dav
Gavin Bishop at the launch of his new book Cook’s Cook, October 2018, Tūranga

A large audience heard how Bishop spent several years researching for the book, which he says he really enjoyed, but was overwhelmed by the information he found.

One thing that struck him was the number of books that contradicted each other.

His challenge was how to find his own unique angle on the Endeavour story. As he looked through the names of the crew on the boat and their occupations, he began to wonder about the lesser-known members on board and was particularly struck by their curiously one-handed cook, John Thompson.

The story of the crew’s journey is told through food “as a point of context,” explains Bishop, with the cook as narrator. And, as his publisher Julia Marshall from Gecko Press notes “you can tell so many different stories through food—everything is here: culture, class, adventure, humour and much more.”

Cook's CookThe Endeavour was originally the collier Earl of Pembroke and was designed for a crew of just 16 but when it sailed as the Endeavour it had 94 crew on board, packed in like sardines. And the meals were prepared on the mess deck where 74 men slept!

The cooking process on the Endeavour seemed to involve throwing everything together in a pot or bag and boiling it. Bishop says the meat became so rank that it was towed in a net behind the boat to soften it up and every second day was a vegetarian day consisting of Pease Porridge. To avoid scurvy, the cook served up stinky German cabbage. But all was not awful for the men, as it was noted how much booze was aboard the ship.

The book contains a little story about each of the countries the Endeavour visited and explains some of the names of the recipes featured such as Poor Knights Pudding, Stingray Soup, Kangaroo Stew, Dog and Breadfruit Stew and Albatross Stew “which you wouldn’t get away with today.” There were goats, dogs, pigs, sheep, cats and chickens on board. And when the ship crossed the equator everyone aboard, including the cats, were apparently tied to a chair and dipped into the water 3 times in an equator crossing ritual.

Bishop told his audience that there are two stories about the Endeavour that you won’t find anywhere else except in his book. One was told by Pete Beech, whose family was there in Picton when the Endeavour came with Cook, and tells the story of how a Māori woman was tricked into giving her taonga away for a bag of sugar. And the second story comes from an obscure poem that mentions a slave named Dalton on board who was a servant of botanist Joseph Banks. Like the Endeavour, not a centimetre of space in Bishop’s book was wasted, he says, and even the endpapers are full of illustrated facts.

Cover of Aotearoa: The New Zealand story by Gavin BishopAt the book launch, Gecko Press were also celebrating 10 years of working with Bishop, starting with his collaboration for Joy Cowley in illustrating their successful Snake & Lizard. Marshall  said what a treat it is working with Bishop: “Gavin is a true artist and very knowledgeable.” Gavin’s other book published in the past year is the illustratively stunning Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story.

Our Painted Stories

You can see more of Bishop’s work in the Our Painted Stories exhibition at about the presence and importance of local Canterbury settings in children’s literature. Original artworks in the exhibition are from Bishop’s Mr. Fox and Mrs. McGinty and the Bizarre Plant as well as Margaret Mahy’s Summery Saturday Morning.

Mr FoxMrs McGinty and the Bizarre PlantA Summery Saturday Morning

The books and exhibition feature scenes from around Christchurch such as the Edmonds Factory with its ‘Sure to Rise’ signage as well as further afield on Banks Peninsula.

The Importance of Identity

Join international award-winning writer and illustrator Gavin Bishop and invited guests as we explore the Our Painted Stories exhibition and have a conversation about how seeing ourselves and our city in children’s literature helps grow a sense of identity.
Wednesday 24th October 5:30-6:30pm 
Tūranga
Free, no bookings required
Created in partnership with the Painted Stories Trust. 

While visiting Tūranga, Gavin was delighted to discover a picture of his family on our Discovery Wall that even he didn’t have a copy of.

Gavin Bishop, with his youngest daughter Alexandra and his book “Chicken Licken”, 8 June 1984, Reference ID: CCL-StarP-00740A

It is auspicious that just as Gavin Bishop was the first author to have a book launched at the old central library, he is also the first author to launch a book in the new library, Tūranga, 36 years later.

Gavin Bishop at the Mr Fox book launch
18 September 1982 Gavin Bishop, with his book “Mr Fox” which was the first book to be launched at the Canterbury Public Library on the corner of Gloucester Street and Oxford Terrace. Reference ID: CCL-StarP-00739A

More about Gavin Bishop

Ted Chiang – Arrival: WORD Christchurch

American science fiction writer Ted Chiang has a very particular way of speaking. He pauses a lot to gather his thoughts, and the intonation, or melody, of his voice doesn’t vary much. This can have the effect of making it feel that he is taking a very long time to get to the point. Fortunately, Arrival is the third WORD Christchurch session of his that I’m attending so I’ve become somewhat accustomed to it. Because once you get past the quality of his voice, he actually does have some interesting things to say.

It also helps that Arrival (the only sci-fi movie I’ve every watched with a middle-aged female linguist as its hero – feel free to recommend others if you know of any) is a recent favourite of mine, and that I’m part way through reading The story of your life, the novella on which the movie is based.

Arrival

Local sci-fi and fantasy author, Karen Healey happily lets Chiang talk about the things that interest him about the genre he writes in. You get the impression from Ted Chiang that he spends a lot of time thinking generally, and about science fiction especially, so his thoughts, when he does finally express them are fully-formed. His lines are not throwaway ones. He’s considered these things from a variety of angles.

For instance, he rejects the notion that his writing “transcends genre”, as, in his opinion, this is the kind of thing that people who don’t usually like science fiction say – the implication being that the rest of the genre isn’t very good, and that this thing that they somehow like is some kind of aberration.

Hollywood sci-fi vs literary sci-fi

Ted Chiang - Science Fiction Triple Feature
Ted Chiang reads one of his short stories at New Regent Street Pop-up Festival. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Thursday 30 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-30-IMG_0120

I especially enjoy hearing about his views on the nature of science fiction storytelling in movies versus in fiction because, as a fan of sci-fi cinema, I recognise that his observations have the unerring ring of truth to them and I may never watch an MCU movie in the same way again.

In Hollywood sci-fi, he says, there’s very often a good vs. evil scenario in which the world is in a good/peaceful/stable state then something evil/monstrous/destructive comes along and there is a struggle to overcome this force of evil and return the world to a state of goodness, peace, and harmony. It’s a very conservative formula in that it’s looking to restore the status quo. This immediately makes me think of Make America Great Again (MAGA) and just how powerful narratives that resonate with people can be. Human beings love stories and we like to use the same patterns of story over and over again.

The kind of science fiction that Chiang is interested in is entirely different. In these kinds of stories the world is changed by some kind of disruption or discovery and the change is irrevocable. There is no going back to the way things were before. At the end of the story the world is a very different place from what it was at the beginning, and more than that it’s not necessarily a better place, just a different one. This is a much more progressive storyline and one that you don’t get much in Hollywood movies, if for no other reason than that they are not easy to make a sequel to.

For instance, all the Jurassic Park franchise (currently on its 5th film – a 6th is planned) needs for there to be another dinosaurs-cause-chaos story is for some scientists to make the same errors of judgement the first lot did and the “oh no, who could have foreseen this dinosaur-related catastrophe happening again?” scenario can and will happen again.

Compare this with Chiang’s favourite science fiction film, The Matrix. In many ways it looks like a battle between good vs. evil story but it’s not. The world is a radically different place at the end of the movie. “Neo’s monologue at the very end of the film,” says Chiang “has really stuck with me”. And just in case we didn’t believe him, he quotes it, word for word:

 I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

To Chiang this quote perfectly captures what it is to be a radical or a revolutionary. It is not the status quo and it is not comforting, which good vs. evil stories often are. Ted Chiang is not interested in writing “comforting” fiction.

Humanity, curiosity and evidence

What he is interested in is what it means to be human and for him a sense of curiosity, which Healey points out is often present in his characters, is essential.

To be fully human is to be actively engaged with the world around us…

Trying to learn more about the universe is a really noble pursuit and “profoundly meaningful”. And though a lot of his stories have a theoretical question or “though experiment” at their core he feels that science fiction, by tying these ideas to a character with an emotional storyline, can make them more accessible to people.

Philosophy doesn’t have to be so radically removed from our lived experience. I think it’s interesting because it does apply to our lived experience.

Chiang is an Atheist but has an interest in religion. In one of his stories he imagines a world in which there is irrefutable evidence of the existence of God and explores whether that would make it easier or harder to have faith. In some ways, he thinks it would be harder.

In response to a question from Healey about how you approach people from the past as a topic for science fiction, Chiang is magnanimous – people in the past had a different way of viewing the world. Given the observations they had at the time, their interpretations often make sense. Subsequent observations can change this view, of course. They were engaged in the same general practise as modern scientists are engaged in.

It was perhaps this train of conversation that prompted the first of the audience questions, as a very forthright arm shot up a couple of rows in front of me, and an older gentleman asked what Chiang’s thoughts were on the question of “settled science”, a phrase that he felt was being used to shut down debate in such areas as Climate Change (a topic, it should be noted, on which the vast majority of the scientific community is in agreement).

Chiang, as is his habit, takes a while to get to the point of his answer but to summarise it is basically this: Science is practised by human beings who have biases, but scientists are far more aware of their biases than other people (in particular, politicians, who are the worst at recognising their own vested interests). Science fiction in general aligns with scientists. And science by its nature doesn’t really get to an end point.

This is so successfully diplomatic a response that the questioner, judging by the nodding of his head, felt he was being agreed with. Sir, you were not being agreed with. You were being disagreed with in a slow, patient manner.

Movies again

The only other audience question was, shockingly, about science fiction and picked up on Chiang’s earlier discussion of The Matrix, which the audience member wondering what he made of the sequels. Like most of us, he found them disappointing calling them “the prime example of the harmful effects” of Hollywood’s demand for sequels, when “commerce runs counter to artistic goals”.

Which led nicely into a discussion of how the film Arrival got made.

Arrival

The movie’s genesis was rather different route than what’s usual, as the screenwriter Eric Heisserer had read Chiang’s story and wanted to adapt it, but then had to find someone to produce it. Chiang is at pains to point out that Heisserer deserves all the credit for making The Story of your life work as a movie, as Chiang himself considered it “unfilmable” due to its very “internal” nature. And Chiang himself offered a few comments on the screenplay but mostly stayed out of it.

The movie-making business is so, so weird and it’s not something I want to be closely involved in.

Diversity in science fiction

Chiang is happy about the shift in science fiction that has seen increasing diversity in its authors and writing, though this hasn’t been without its conflicts, Chiang describing sci-fi’s “own version of the Alt-Right” laying seige to the Hugo Awards for a number of years. These efforts, in his opinion, have ultimately proved unsuccessful. N. K. Jemisin, a queer, African-American woman winning the Hugo for best novel for an unprecedented three years running.

Chiang also points out that the popularity of The three body problem by Cixin Liu, a work translated into English from Chinese, is another example of a growning openness in science fiction.

I think it’s great because for a long time science fiction, despite it being very forward looking – in practice it’s been very conservative.

Not to mention the tropes. So. Many. Tropes. And conventions and little in-jokes. Science fiction, Chiang seems to be saying, in some quarters has become unchallenging and… comfortable.

I very much want [science fiction] to be filled with surprising reading experiences. I think science fiction should be about questioning your assumptions… It should make you wonder about things you took for granted, things you assumed to be true but actually are just a societal convention.

The more different science fiction writers there are, he says, the more likely it is that you get that experience.

And there he goes again, advocating against the status quo. Ted Chiang: the slow-spoken, thoughtful revolutionary.

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Why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps (or can they?)

Why Men Don't Listen and Women can't Read Maps.There’s a book Called Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps. I’ve never read it. That’s because not only can I read maps, I love them! Here’s why:

When I was fourteen at my co-ed high school I was forced by limited subject choices to do Domestic Science (that’s what the girls got, only  boys did Geography). I was miserable in Domestic Science, and lippy with it too. Finally I got thrown out of class. By the next day I became notorious as the only girl in the school permitted to study Geography. And that was one of my very early life-defining moments. Because maps have shaped my life.

And map books themselves have changed in ways I could not have foreseen all those years ago. Cartography has come a long way from colouring-in maps of the Natural Regions of the world.

For example: Plotted – A Literary Atlas by  Andrew deGraff (his official title is Pop Cartographer, how cool is that?) provides us with beautiful maps, plans and landscapes for nineteen great books. (At last you can see what the literary insides of Jonah’s whale might have looked like!). I could kick myself that I never had this idea.

Spiritual PlacesOther recently published map/site books include Unfathomable City (an Arty New Orleans Atlas) and the perfectly charming Spiritual Places by travel writer Sarah Baxter.

Move on to The Art of Map Illustration – in which four contemporary artists (called Visual Storytellers – another great job description that I regret I have missed) explain how they include maps in their art.

There’s also the beautiful children’s book City Atlas with a search-and-find game on every page and the weirdly compelling Atlas of Lost Cities which will make you want to travel to places that no longer exist.

The Consolation of mapsAnd right here in a local Christchurch mall I spotted a novel I’d not heard of before: The Consolation of Maps. What a wonderful title. The library hadn’t purchased it, but I used the online form to Request an Item for our Collection and we now have five copies. It’s a wonderful story about the love of antique maps and the contrasts between life in Japan and the States. Okay, so the cover does make you feel that the only consolation one might gain from maps would be if a ton of them dropped on your head and put you out of your misery, but aside from that, it is a worthwhile read.

Back to my fourteen year old self: Geography is the reason I can talk at some boring length about Magnetic Declination. Why I have a good grasp of Adiabatic Lapse Rates and Great Circles. Why every home I have ever lived in has a globe of the world, several atlases and a box full of topographic maps. It is also responsible for my having only ever dated bearded men and why I always make good friends with ladies who bake delicious cupcakes!

The map of my life seemed to start from that point where I was thrown out of class. What a blessing that turned out to be!

More about maps

Paraweta, Poo Bum, and stories in te reo

Like most kids my son enjoys stories before bedtime (which is just as well because his mum is a librarian and he was going to be getting them regardless).

Like a lot of Kiwi parents I do my best to add some te reo Māori into the mix where I can, but my own Māori language knowledge is a bit patchy in places – I’m a work in progress. So how to expose my 4 year old to some te reo, but also read a story so we’ll both understand it and enjoy the experience?

I’ve found that reading te reo Māori versions of books we already know really well in English has been a fun way to do it. It helps if it’s a book that you’ve read so many times, you’ve practically got it memorised. That way you can “read” the English language version (out loud from memory), and then read the te reo version from the page.

Our latest success with this method has been with Stephanie Blake’s Poo Bum aka Paraweta, which has just come out in te reo.

Mother and son read Poo bum and Paraweta together

I let my tamaiti hold the original version and turn the pages of that one, while I hold the Māori language version, and he yells out “Paraweta!” at the appropriate points in the story.

Here are some other te reo Māori versions of children’s classics we’ve enjoyed that you might like to try:

   

Or try something from our Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori modern classic picture books list

If you’re a te reo beginner then start with simple stories like The very hungry caterpillar, Where’s Spot or even Kei te pehea koe? / How do you feel? (which is in both English and Māori and is really easy to follow).

Or try stories in English that incorporate some te reo Māori words like The kuia and the spider (because it’s never to early to learn words like “hōha“), or Row, kiwi, row your boat, which you can sing together and includes simple Māori greetings (and a full te reo version for more confident speakers/singers).

Even if I trip up on a word here and there I’ve found that as long as I’m doing the silly voices and engaging with the story, my son is pretty happy to have a te reo Māori story at bedtime, in fact… Paraweta is his new favourite.

Find out more

Throughout Te Wiki o te Reo Māori we’ll be blogging about ways you can help strengthen the reo.

In the library collection

Interview with Laurence Fearnley – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

During the chaos of dashing between WORD sessions, writer and co-editor Laurence Fearnley kindly agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about her new anthology To the Mountains and other works.

What brought you to writing about mountaineering?

My parents used to do a lot of climbing in Scotland and Wales after the war [before moving to Christchurch]. We spent a lot of weekends tramping — dad went on a couple of expeditions to the Himalayas, my brother was a keen climber… When I was doing research for my novel The Hut Builder I read a lot of Alpine Club articles and ended up with boxes and boxes of material, so I thought it would be quite nice to do something with that. There hadn’t been an anthology of mountain writing since Ray Knox’s A Thousand Mountains Shining in the 80s, so it seemed a good time. I hadn’t really kept up to date with modern mountaineering writing but [co-editor] Paul Hersey edited the Alpine Journal and is a climber, so he had that sort of knowledge.

You researched a lot in the Hocken Collection. What was that like?

They have full archives from the Alpine Club, which was established in 1891. It’s interesting because they allowed women to join as members right from the start, compared to others like the Canterbury Mountaineering Club which didn’t allow women in until the 1980s. I got material from those archives and also from notebooks, journals, and letters that individuals have donated to the collection. It’s an amazing archival record, it’s incredible. It does taper off from the 1970s/80s onwards so it would be great if people continued to donate to the collection, if this could be our central repository of mountain writing.

A lot of voices chosen for this anthology aren’t those most people would associate with alpine writing — usually we only hear from those at the cutting edge of mountaineering.

That’s the sad thing because that’s how you get the same old voices coming through, if they’re not disrupted by allowing different voices. Mountains are a big part of our sporting identity, it would be nice if it was seen as something families do, not just rugged individuals. There are so many reasons why people go into the mountains — photography, art, for somewhere quiet and restful, to admire the beauty… The public perception of conquest [of the Alps] doesn’t really hold true, it’s not necessarily a motivation for most people.

At the same time a lot of the 1930s Canterbury Mountaineering Club articles are of trips in the Port Hills because it was difficult to get good transport to the Alps — they might only be able to get into the mountains once or twice a year but they were very fit. It was a class orientated sport, particularly in the early days. It’s interesting when the boundaries start breaking down between the upper middle class mountaineers and the working class mountain guides. Guides weren’t allowed in the Alpine Club because they were professionals.

Laurence Fearnley. Image supplied.
Laurence Fearnley. Image supplied.

Which doesn’t give credit to the fact that the guides were doing a lot of the work putting up tents, cutting steps, carrying the equipment…

Yes, you get someone like Dora De Beer on an expedition overseas in China, they walked 400 miles before they even got to the mountain, it was a real Victorian expedition. They would expect shelter from whatever was available, from monasteries to embassies, just take over their house. She was an amazing woman — during the 30s just before the war she would drive from London through Holland, Germany and Switzerland to get to Italy, on her own a lot of the time. Her diaries are from 1936-37, a lot of her entries are things like “Very inconvenienced getting across the border,” such a sense of imperious entitlement with no mention of the political climate. People like her were so curious and enthusiastic, in New Zealand they’d set off on horseback across Otira to the West Coast, just loving the absolute freedom of being out of that rigid society. They thought it was a great hoot.

Some of my favourite parts of the book are letters from the 1800s, there were some really funny excerpts. You must have had a lot of fun finding these in the Hocken collection. Do you have any favourites?

The ones I liked were the quieter, reflective pieces, people going back later in life and just enjoying being in the outdoors with their friends. I guess Jill Tremain had a big impact on me as a kid when she did the [1971 traverse of the Southern Alps] with Graeme Dingle — I can remember it being on the radio, there was a lot of controversy about them sharing a tent as she wasn’t married. From her letters she seemed to have such a generous outlook on life.

Voices I like least would be the 1970s slightly macho hard men stuff, that’s not a voice that appeals to me but quite a big part of the literature of the time. When you compare those writers with Aat Vervoorn, so reflective and spiritual, learning from the landscape… The ones who enjoy being in the space rather than needing to prove themselves or get a reputation, those would be the voices I like.

To the Mountains. Image supplied.
To the Mountains. Image supplied.

What are you currently working on?

I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel looking at landscape through scent and identity, under the umbrella narrative of a woman who loses her job when the university Humanities department is done away with. That one will be coming out next year. I’m also looking at doing an anthology of New Zealand women mountaineers. This will be more historical, it will be worthwhile to have a chronology of women mountaineers as there are so many of them.

What are you reading at the moment?

Just read a couple of books that I reviewed for Landfall, one called Oxygen by [New Zealand freediver) William Trubridge — not a book I’d necessarily be drawn to but interesting to see just how determined and focussed he has to be. The other is a beautiful book about hunting called Dark Forest Deep Water by Richard Fall, which would normally be something that turns me off but hearing him reflecting on why he hunts and the emotional journeys of hunting… It’s a great book, I’d really recommend it.

Thanks Laurence for a lovely interview, and I look forward to reading your next books!

The City of Brass: A complex but fun epic fantasy

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty is first in the Daevabad trilogy, set partly in 18th century Egypt. It comprises of two storylines, one featuring Nahri (orphaned Cairo con woman and thief) who accidentally calls down a warrior djinn named Dara and a whole lot of danger; the other featuring devout Ali, prince of the djinn city of Daevabad, who has been inadvertently been funding a potential rebellion against his own ruling family.

Cover of City of Brass

Part of this story is magic and flying carpets and fiery swords, and part is a more nuanced look at what happens when the people of one religion and culture take over the city of another, and how they deal with that over the generations. It’s not an uncommon scenario to be in — the aggrieved Daeva are still seeking reparations for the loss of their sovereignty, and the other djinn are all resentful of what they perceive to be the special treatment given to the Daeva (sound familiar?). At the bottom of the heap are the half-blood djinn, the shafit, resented and mistreated by everybody.

Then there’s Nahri, dealing with the discovery that she has some djinn blood as well as the appearance of a temperamental Daeva who’s determined to carry her off to Daevabad. Oh, and if they stay too long in one place the undead rise up and come after them, so there’s that. Much of the book (possibly a bit too much) is spent on their journey and a slow reveal of Daevabad’s history and Nahri’s lost family connections, plus a hint of a developing romance between Nahri and Dara. I preferred the conflict of their eventual arrival in Daevabad, where religious and racial tensions rise to a peak and Ali has to finally choose between his morals and his family loyalty.

My only spoiler-free criticisms are that the book is a little slow to get going, and that the many names and relationships between the different types of djinn could be confusing to some readers. Neither of these put me off anticipating the next book in the series (The Kingdom of Copper, hopefully published next year). If you enjoy complex but fun epic fantasy then I would encourage you to give this series a try.

The City of Brass
by S. A. Chakraborty
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008239404

NZIFF Survivalist

The Christchurch leg of the New Zealand International Film Festival is in full swing and there’s been some brilliant films on show thus far!

A particular favourite of mine has been ‘Arctic’ – a one-man powerhouse performance by Mads Mikkelsen. He’s a pilot that has crash-landed somewhere in the vast emptiness of the Arctic and from the beginning of the film it’s obvious that he’s already been there for some time. He has developed a routine and a set of behaviours that centres around:

a) keeping himself fed (luckily there’s fish right under his feet ready for the catching), and

b) giving himself the best possible chance of being rescued.

Without giving anything away, events occur that lead him to the decision to make a long trek to a possible permanent habitat due North. It’s a road movie, a survival piece, and a celebration of the resilience of humans in the face of insurmountable odds. Mads needs some serious recognition for this performance!

The survival-against-the-odds theme is not something new to us in storytelling and film making however. I myself am particularly drawn to those stories that pit an individual – often the survivor of some calamitous event, against the wilderness in whatever shape that takes. There are examples set in jungles, deserts, mountains and polar regions, there are even some set in space. Often the entire story is reliant on a single actor to shoulder the whole burden and when there’s nature involved it opens the way for cinematographers, costume designers, and music composers to help set the scene and drive the suspense. A good recent example is ‘All is Lost’ which sees Robert Redford give a riveting performance as a man lost at sea, adrift and endangered.

And here’s nine more, in a list…

The art of survival

List created by DevilStateDan

Films that showcase the stranded loner pitted against nature and against all the odds of surviving at all… From the jungle to the Arctic, from space, the open ocean, and the desert; all these environments are out to kill you! Could you do what it takes to survive…?!?

Into the Wild – The story of a young American man who sells up and hits the road heading all the way north into Alaska. He’s desiring to be closer to nature and to get away from humanity. He has only his wits and some very limited survival skills to negotiate the harsh and unpredictable environment. A great journey and a decent telling in this movie and a great performance from Emile Hirsch.

Cast Away – The classic tale of the “shipwrecked”. The sole survivor of a FedEx plane crash ends up on an isolated island and has to fend for himself. He’s there quite a long time and we get to see his transition from inept city-dweller to experienced survivalist. Great solo performance from Tom Hanks.

Gravity – Survival in space! A single astronaut survives a disaster in orbit around Earth. She’s got to use all her guile, instinct, and training to get back to the surface. Gripping story and amazing cinematography and a stellar performance from Sandra Bullock (and George Clooney for a bit too!).

Jungle – Based on real events, a young Israeli adventurer finds himself lost and alone in the jungle of South America. It’s a hostile environment and we follow his descent into desperation and madness. Another standout performance from Daniel Radcliffe.

127 Hours – Everyone knows the story – a mountain climber gets stuck and spends 127 hours locked in place when his arm becomes caught in a climbing mishap. He’s driven to some dark places in his mind and the most desperate option quickly becomes the only option. James Franco is very good in this!

The Martian – The movie of the super-popular novel of the same name. An astronaut is left behind on Mars after a minor disaster spoils the plans for the mission. The “castaway” is a biologist and he soon gets to work farming potatoes, and making plans for his rescue. Big budget, big names, big topic! Matt Damon delivers a pretty decent representation of the main character but this does get very “Hollywood” at times…. but then it’s set on Mars and it’s a survivalist story so what’s not to like!!

Life of Pi – An oceanic wilderness survival tale with a difference. Young Indian man Pi is adrift in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat. Along for the ride are various wild animals from his family’s zoo business – one of them is a Bengal Tiger! Can he reach safety before he becomes lunch?? Good story told in retrospect and great work from the special effects department.

The Revenant – Not so much a sole-survivor tale but a good story of desperation, survival, and revenge! A member of a trapping party in the 1800’s is mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his party. With a little help along the way he manages to recover enough to navigate his way back to civilisation and onto avenge his betrayal. Dark and bloody and there’s a graphic bear attack. Leonardo DiCaprio does pretty well with what is a difficult role and the support cast are very good. I’d read the book by Michael Punke first though, it goes better than the film.

The Shallows – A tense thriller involving a young surfer and a homicidal shark! The girl is stranded annoyingly close to shore, but she’s in the Great White’s feeding ground and he’s got a taste for blood. The ocean is a scary place!

View Full List

Many of these stories are based on books and some are true life tales of hardship and exposure, but for today we’re talking movies…

Happy viewing,

^DevilStateDan

No coward soul…

I am the only being whose doom
No tongue would ask, no eye would mourn;
I never caused a thought of gloom,
A smile of joy, since I was born.

Oh Emily Brontë – how wrong you are! I don’t know if this poem of yours is autobiographical or not, but you really have caused many smiles of joy and thoughts of gloom, and all sorts of other feelings, since you were born 200 years ago on 30 July 1818 in West Yorkshire.

image_proxyThink how many people have swooned over Heathcliff – surely the ultimate Byronic hero – and been captivated by the passion and strangeness of Wuthering Heights, Emily’s only published novel. It is in many ways a brutal and nasty book, considered shocking when it was first published in 1847, but has stood the test of time to be considered one of the greatest novels in the English language.

Emily is also known for her intense, intellectual poetry, although reading ‘I am the only being whose doom‘ has made feel a tad bit gloomy. In her isolated, seemingly lonely life, did she really feel that she had to keep her emotions under control because they were corrupting her? Or has she created a narrator to explore her thoughts around emotions and the need to be loved? We’ll never know, for Emily Brontë is so very elusive, perhaps the most mysterious of her incredible family.

She is also a canvas on which other authors have speculated – both about her life and about some of the gaps in Wuthering Heights.

I don’t really know how comfortable Emily would be with all this continued attention, but I hope she knows that she’s appreciated the world over. We’ll certainly be remembering her on her birthday and her wonderful way with words. I’ll leave you with this quote I love from Chapter 9 of Wuthering Heights:

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

Do you have any favourite Emily Brontë poems or quotes or Heathcliffs?

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