How we met: The ways great love begins by Michele A’Court

How We Met has a pretty simple concept – Michele A’Court (feminist-comedian-badass) interviews a bunch of enduring Kiwi couples about how they met. There’s all sorts in there, lots of missed opportunities and first date mishaps, disapproving parents and friends, coincidences and romance.

The stories themselves are, of course, wonderful – Michele captures them on paper in a way that makes you feel that you’re sitting across from the couple with a cuppa – but what makes the book so special is the larger idea behind these stories. The ‘how we met’ story, Michele reckons, serves a greater purpose than just letting someone know the juicy details of how it all went down. Recalling that story provides an opportunity to really engage in the feeling, the same connection, spark, joy, that they felt way back when. Further, it seems that revisiting these feelings in tangible ways helps to keep a long-lasting, enduring relationship fresh and exciting.

So How We Met is a collection of glorious, real-life stories from Kiwi couples, but it’s also a reflection on relationships in general – the common and also totally unique experiences, difficult and glorious, of living life with your ‘one in particular’.

The thing I liked most about this book was how accessible and relatable it felt. Many of these stories are so intimate, so personal, so full of ‘in-jokes’ and ‘you had to be there’ moments, that it would be easy for the reader to feel a little removed from the action. But Michele tells them in such a comfortable way – I could tell because, as I was reading, I was finding something on nearly every page that I wanted to read aloud to my partner.

CoverMany of these relationships started at a similar time, although there are exceptions to that, of course. A happy and perhaps unintentional result of this means that the book reads a little bit like a snapshot of life for young people in New Zealand in the 70s and 80s. I loved this aspect of the book – it made me think of my parents, the stories I have heard from them (over and over) about how they met. And of course, New Zealand being very small, there were places and even people described in the book that, by a degree or two of separation, I had a connection to.

I also enjoyed the practical elements weaved through the book – the science behind the way our brains make memories, made accessible to non-science-brained folks like me. The list of relationship advice from these couples towards the end, too, felt totally sensible and not at all far-fetched (as those kinds of lists can sometimes be).

Michele is in Ōtautahi next Tuesday 15 May, interviewing the magnificent Robert Webb (of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look fame), with thanks to WORD Christchurch and the Auckland Writers Festival. Robert Webb’s book How Not To Be A Boy was in my top 3 reads last year. It’s remarkable and funny and challenging, and this event will be really special.

TL;DR: This is a sweet, generous and intelligent book. I recommend it – especially if you’re looking for something cozy, curled up on a winter afternoon.

How we met
by Michèle A’Court
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781775540939

Ray
Upper Riccarton Library

Pax: searching for peace

A recent addition to the children’s fiction shelves, Pax by Sara Pennypacker is a deeply emotional story that explores the special connection between a boy and his fox. The narratives of the two main characters, Peter and his fox Pax, are beautifully entwined in the tale of an epic journey through a world threatened by war.

Peter and Pax have both faced difficult family challenges early in their lives. When Peter finds and rescues Pax, an important relationship begins to develop that proves mutually supportive and healing. When Peter and Pax are separated by forces beyond their control (the decisions of their human elders and the destructive forces of war) the strength of their bond calls each of them back to one another. Their journey to be reunited turns into a voyage of self discovery. Along the way, both characters encounter two- and four-legged companions that hesitantly, yet expertly, guide them. But will they ever manage to find each other and will their respective experiences have changed the bond between them?

CoverThis is a story that presents a realistic view of life from the perspective of both children and animals. As hinted at in the naming of the fox Pax, it explores the journey taken to find an inner peace. The novel addresses mature topics such as war, grief and anger. These are treated sensitively, and balanced with discussion of ideas such as acceptance, the peace and freedom that comes from knowing oneself, what it really means to be home – and the importance of letting go.

Perhaps more suitable for readers 8 years and older, it may still suit those in the younger age bracket if time is allowed for discussion around some of the heavier themes involved. It is also a fantastic read for teenagers and adults! I particularly enjoyed the way in which Pennypacker’s extensive research of red fox behaviour lent credibility to the story of Pax. The portrayal of Pax’s thoughts and feelings is realistic and offers the kind of insight not often seen in more idealised animal characters of children’s fiction.

With both dystopian and fairytale undertones, the world of Peter and Pax is brought to life in the book with the aid of the moody illustrations of Jon Klassen. The author Sara Pennypacker also wrote the acclaimed Clementine series as well as many other popular children’s stories.

If you are interested in this book you may also wish to take a look at…

Pax
by Sara Pennypacker and Jon Klassen
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008158286

The Crime Scene – The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

There’s a new crime fiction author at work!

I’ve recently had the opportunity to read the debut novel from a new Irish-Australian author by the name of Dervla McTiernan. She’s from County Cork originally, but she’s a West Australian nowadays and has produced her first book. The Ruin is set in Galway and sits nicely in the noir crime genre.

It’s a great read! Entitled The Ruin, we see a Dublin city detective Cormac Reilly returning to his rural home town to take up a post in the local Galway Gardaí. He’s got some emotional baggage (of course, this is noir crime!) and is drawn back into a case from when he was first on the force – the death of an alcoholic drug addicted mother, and the institutionalisation of her two young children. It shifts to 2013 and the now-adult son has been found dead in the city river, but there are suspicions around what exactly happened. His sister (who has been working in the Australian outback) has returned to Ireland and slowly builds a case that the gardai refuse to engage with. With the help of her brother’s recently pregnant girlfriend and Detective Reilly searching from the other end of the investigation, they seek the truth, uncovering scandal, corruption, and small town parochial mindsets.

McTiernan writes with good pace, interesting character development, and a very strong sense of place – you may find yourself shivering as she describes the sideways sleeting of winter Galway! It’s a good blend between a police procedural and a whodunnit, all the ingredients are there, and she delivers a good read.

CoverThe Rúin sees a new addition to the noir crime genre, a genre that is ever-expanding and increasing in its quality as it incorporates new cultures and inspirations. It contains all the ingredients for good crime fiction; an unsteady detective, darkness and winter, a who-can-you-trust sense of uncertainty, and an intricate plot of twists and turns – everyone is under suspicion! And it got me thinking about countries outside of Scandinavia who are producing quality noir crime literature. We know the depth of Scandi Crime and there seems to be an endless source of sinister criminal imagination coming out of that region, but what about the rest of the world?

So if you like books like the ones listed, there’s a big chance you’ll like this new author and will soon be awaiting her next… and her next… and her next book!

CoverThere’s Scotland’s Ian Rankin; his Rebus novels have grown to unimaginable heights for crime fiction. They’re dark and disturbed, and feature a flawed detective barely holding on to his own sense of worth. A twisting plot line and some harrowing criminal acts

CoverAustralia has the recently deceased Peter Temple; The Jack Irish books (and films!) are first class crime fiction, offering a look at the dark underbelly of Melbourne, Australia. His use of language in particular make his characters very deep and believable, and his plots are twisting and his characters are never quite out of danger – exciting and full of regional levity. As the blurb says; “Melbourne in winter. Rain. Wind. Pubs. Beer. Sex. Corruption. Murder.” What’s not to love about that sentence!?

CoverHow about our own Paul Cleave? Who knew Christchurch could be such a hotbed for underworld sinister occurrences! His police procedural novels featuring detective Theodore Tate are gripping, dark, and give the reader a look into the fictionalised seedy side of Christchurch, New Zealand. He has written other stand-alone novels too and continues to produce dark and sinister stories to revel in from the comfort of your armchair.

There’s plenty of dark mystery set in and around our own region and for a first book The Ruin is a solid start, and should create a great foundation for the author to build on. I’m looking forward to more from her! Give it a go…

Slāinte!

The Ruin
by Dervla McTiernan
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781460754214

Where sci-fi and fantasy collide: Carve the Mark

When looking for a book to read, there are a few boxes that I prefer to be ticked: strong female protagonist, sassy side characters, fantasy dystopian futures with rebellions and creative interpretation of both sides being morally grey (hey, I didn’t say that the check list was realistic).

Carve the Mark, upon first glance, appears to fulfil this perfectly. There are bad guys, there are good guys. Both think they’re good, both have morally corrupt aspects. And in the middle of it all, there’s Cyra and Akos, diametrically opposed foes, bound together by fate.

My personal thoughts:

I have not read the Divergent series (gasp), and I tend to avoid authors who have copious amounts of fan service behind them, worrying that their next book will fall flat as a pancake. My initial hesitation was correct. It took more effort to get past the first fifty pages of exposition than reading all of Brisingr by Christopher Paolini.

CoverThings happened. Characters that I was supposed to somehow be attached to died. The main character’s gift was hurting her. That’s it. You can now skip the first fifty pages and get into the actual story. You’re welcome.

Once it actually got into the story, I was pleased to find it improved. Relationships and conflicts felt real, there were a few twists that I didn’t quite expect. However, what I truly found great about this book was its main character Cyra.

My best friend from high school suffered from chronic pain, and I found the description of Cyra’s curse to be relatable and realistic, not shying away from the ever-present pain. It wasn’t something that could simply be lifted by magic. It was something that had bad days and worse days, and through therapy and self-reflection could be managed.

TL;DR 7/10, but skip the first bit

Carve the Mark
by Veronica Roth
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008159498

Five cool things about The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

The Woman in the Window is a stone cold blockbuster. Even Mr Sir Stephen King has been singing its praises. In Library Land, holds/reserves are a good indicator of how popular a book is. 164 people are waiting to read the book, and 27 are waiting for the eBook. That is POPULAR.

I don’t read many thrillers or crime books, but this had me glued to the couch with nowt but copious cups of teas and Easter eggs to sustain me. Here are five things that make it cool.

It is Classic Noir

The story of The Woman in the Window is classic film noir.  Anna is a child psychologist suffering from agoraphobia, and she takes photos of her neighbours and noseys at them. So far, so Hitchcock. But it isn’t just the premise that is noir-ish. Old movies are part of the story, and Anna is often watching one, remembering previous viewings, or encouraging other people to enjoy them.

Incidentally, there is a 1944 movie called The Woman in the Window, directed by Fritz Lang.

It has a believable female lead

A recent thread on Twitter asked women to ‘Describe yourself like a male author would’. I doubt you will see A.J. Finn quoted in this thread, because he has managed that rare thing – made a convincing female lead character. Anna Fox is a compelling, nuanced character. You don’t hear much about her looks, because women don’t tend to go around thinking about how big their boobs are, or lustrous their locks. Oh, and she is a woman. Not a girl.

The Woman in the Window

It has oodles of atmosphere

Anna Fox’s world is a lonely one. She is stuck in her apartment, dosed up on medication, and drinks a lot of wine. This creates a sense of woozy uncertainty which plays with your mind, like it does with Anna’s.

It’s Twisty

So many. So good. This is the Nürburgring of thrillers! More twists than you find in a pack of Twisties!

There is a New Zealand Connection!

Daniel Mallory is a book editor and he has written his first novel under the nom de plume A.J. Finn. In NZ interviews, he has revealed as a big Ngaio Marsh fan!

“I absolutely love Ngaio Marsh!” he says. “She’s probably my favourite golden age doyenne, which is taking nothing away from Agatha Christie.

Ngaio Marsh photographed during the 1940s : "Ngaio in the spotlight" [194-] CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0038
Ngaio Marsh photographed during the 1940s : “Ngaio in the spotlight” [194-] CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0038

More about A.J. Finn

The Woman in the Window
By A.J. Finn
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008234164

Three Things About Elsie

In Three Things about Elsie, we join Florence Claybourne (‘Flo’ only to a select few) mulling over the various scenarios that could occur once some kind soul at the Cherry Tree Nursing Home realises they haven’t seen her for a few hours. She is lying on the floor of her apartment where she has recently fallen

Florence is a mentally fragile (inferred by other inhabitants and members of staff at the Nursing Home) octogenarian, worried that her inability to summon both the right words and behaviour at the right time is influencing the ‘Powers that Be’ (namely Misses Ambrose and Bissell) that she is a suitable candidate for Greenbank where there is a far higher staff-to-resident ratio.

The thinly veiled threat of a probationary period just to see if Florence can rein in her unpredictable behaviour doesn’t help matters much.

Thank goodness she has an ally in her old and very dear friend Elsie to whom she can unburden her thoughts and fears. Especially so, when a new, unwelcome arrival at the Nursing Home is someone Florence and Elsie remember all too clearly from their past – and whom they both believed long dead. Why is he is now masquerading under an assumed name? Who will believe her when her current lapses in memory are causing concern to both herself and others?

CoverWhat evolves during the novel is both a murder/mystery needing to be solved, but more importantly an awareness of how people can disappear into old age and no longer be counted.

Florence is a delightful and very droll character – the very realistic everyday conversations that go off at various tangents evolve whilst trying to navigate and understand the different world that she, Elsie and other occupants of Cherry Tree find themselves in today.

It was a gardening programme.  Someone was standing on a patio in clean wellington boots, explaining how to plant seeds.  Jack pointed at the screen with his walking stick.  ‘At our age, it’s an act of optimism, planting seeds.’

Hats off to Joanna Cannon who in Three Things about Elsie has vividly captured the vulnerability and flawed natures of so many credible characters, and imbued them with the wit, courage and strength to battle yet another day.
Three Things About Elsie

by Joanna Cannon

Published by HarperCollins New Zealand

ISBN: 9780008196929

Love, loss, and Las Vegas glitter: All the beautiful girls

Fresh out of the box this week is All the Beautiful Girls. This great story is the second novel from Elizabeth J. Church, author of The Atomic Weight of Love.

Lily Dekker has had a difficult start to life. Wrenched from idyllic surroundings by a cataclysmic car crash, her family “dissolve(d) like sugar in iced tea”.

She is forced, at eight years old, to start life again with her aunt and uncle; one of whom is less than affectionate, the other overly so.

Dance, and an unexpected ally provide her means of escape to Las Vegas, where she reinvents herself; becoming gorgeous Ruby Wilde, a Las Vegas showgirl.

All the Beautiful Girls addresses difficult themes of loss, abuse, self-harm, love and friendship. Around these ideas, Church creates a contemplation of life, sprinkled with deep understanding and philosophy:

A soft rain began to fall, dotting the windshield with drops that ran until they randomly joined each other. Is that what people did too? Lily wondered. Fall and drift until they collided with one another, the way the Aviator had collided with her ten years ago? p.56.

Set in the 1960s, the story exists in a whimsical time when everyone smoked, colour TV was a novelty (in-room phones!), and we had TV dinners before we had microwaves.

A  star-studded sixties cast from Sammy Davis Jnr, Dylan to Dinah Shore, parade through the pages of Ruby’s colourful and often disastrous life. Filled with thrills, spills and glitter, Church uses the setting of Las Vegas to dig deeper into the politics of the time – racial equality, women’s rights, wealth and Vietnam to name a few.

Las Vegas is a fantasy world; a plastic bubble protected from world issues, trapped in time:

“For the first time, she realised that Vietnam cast no shadows beneath the lights of Vegas; there were no flag-shrouded caskets, no hollowed, haunted eyes of returning soldiers anywhere near the casinos. How efficiently Las Vegas seemed to be able to keep hippies away from the Strip, where they might hurt business. … She’d been living in la-la land for too long.”  p.174.

Will Ruby find her way back to the real world? Would it bore her if she did?

I loved Lily/Ruby’s wee tips on makeup and fashion, and really warmed to her as a character. Elizabeth J. Church writes beautifully (I also found myself dancing in the stacks).

If you have never been to Las Vegas, let this book will take you there. Or maybe these ones…

All the Beautiful Girls
by Elizabeth J. Church
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008267940

The World’s Best David Walliams

David Walliams came into the Christchurch Boys High auditorium through the crowd – a real rock star entrance.  And in kid books circles (and tv entertainment ones) he really is that level of famous. There were about 700 kids and 400 adults here to see Mr Walliams.

Rachael King, WORD Christchurch literary director asked him about the 20 million books he has sold – “All bought and burnt by Simon Cowell”, he said. David had the audience in the palm of his hand from the get go, with stories, heaps of audience participation, and his trademark naughty wit. Even the obligatory Australia diss – The World’s Worst Children?:

Well, I’ve just been in Australia and met a lot of the children …

He read us the tragic tale of Windy Mindy whose farting into wind instruments leads to a galactic end.

The kids in the audience served up stories about why their siblings are so bad. One answer had the crowd in stitches (beautifully conveyed in this tweet):

CoverBad Dad is his latest bestseller, and tells the story of Frank, whose Dad is a banger driver who ends up in jail after being a getaway driver. David read for us a rather splendid excerpt about how one might get the dreadful medical condition Bottom Freeze (including cryogenically freezing your bottom for posterity). 

CoverDavid’s favourite of his own books is Gangsta Granny (my kid’s fave too), and it came from listening to his own Gran’s stories about the Blitz:

Every old person has a story to tell.

He read Gangsta Granny’s famous naked yoga scene (and see Tony Ross’s brilliant illustration came up on the big screen). David gave a big shoutout to his illustrators Tony Ross and Quentin Blake – both in their 80s.

Walliams explained a bit about why he loves a villain:

Without Voldemort, Harry Potter would just be having a lovely day at school.

Burt, the Ratburger villain, was inspired by a contestant in Britain’s got talent who ate cockroaches. Ergh. Miss Trunchbull (from Roald Dahl’s Matilda) is one of his fave villains. It’s that combo of funny and evil,  and who wouldn’t want to be a villain (for a day).

We got to see sneak preview clips of Ratburger (Walliams himself is unrecognisable as the grotty villain), and Grandpa’s Great Escape (Jennifer Saunders is the Matron in that, and veteran actor Tom Courtenay is Grandpa.) He is that rarest of beasts – an author who gets to see his creations come to life first hand, because he stars in the adaptations.

David admits he was a reluctant reader. He went to the library with his family every couple of weeks, and would pick books on the solar system, space travel, and dinosaurs. And then he discovered Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It got him into reading, and to writing.

Roald Dahl is his “gold standard”. When he visited Dahl’s Gypsy Cottage and met his widow, she said kids still ring the doorbell and ask to meet the author. David has visited the Roald Dahl Story Museum and looked at the handwritten manuscripts. He clearly loved the writing set up of Roald Dahl – sitting in armchair, a picture of his much-missed daughter nearby, with a big ball of rolled up choccie wrappers to add to, and a telephone (to put a sly bet on the gee gees).

And David loves his fan mail, and who wouldn’t when kids are so honest:

Little Britain fans – he thinks the funniest thing he’s ever written is this:

10 lucky kids got to ask a question, and got a fab box set of Walliams’ books. A ripper of a prize I reckon. Thanks to David Walliams, WORD Christchurch, HarperCollins New Zealand, Merivale Paper Plus, and the crew involved in the event – and to everyone who came along, you rocked and made it a fun whānau night. It was especially awesome to get to get your book signed and a picture taken. Ka rawe!

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland is set in an ‘up ended’ land that’s evergreen, with birds that fly at night and the unimaginable around every river bend. This is a tapestry of five different groups, in five different times across 237 years of Lake Illawarra’s existence. A mere drop in time for this ancient Australian landscape, but with monumental consequences for both the land and its people.

From the moment the small boat Tom Thumb is pushed away from the ship Reliance, we are immersed in the hearts and minds of the people who chose to make this part of Australia home. We begin with a Huck Finn-esque adventure up river following the fates of men with ideals in their heads and claims to stake; where anything is still possible.

As you tumble and sometimes pass gently through time, the common threads of what makes a home; survival, suspicion and competition for resources become apparent. What does the future hold for these characters and most of all our land?

Storyland
by Catherine McKinnon
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781460752326

The Little Library Cookbook

You know that a book is a wonder when you stomp around the house muttering ‘I should have written this’. The wonderful new cookbook by Kate Young The little library cookbook really is one such SATHM (stomp around the house muttering) book.

Fiction and food are one of life’s irresistible combinations, and ‘literary’ cookbooks have always been a weakness of mine. I’m thinking of Cherry cake and ginger beer, The unofficial Harry Potter cookbook, and Dinner With Mr Darcy, the list goes on. However, there is something particularly appealing about Kate Young’s contribution to this unique foodie genre. Not only are the recipes seriously good- (if a cookbook contains a bread recipe that enables me to produce a loaf of crusty goodness rather than a forlorn looking dough worthy of papier mache, then I know that the cook knows their stuff), but also, the narrative is simply gorgeous. Young takes us on not only a culinary and literary journey, but also an engagingly personal one that had me wanting to reminisce, cook and read simultaneously.

Young includes the essential recipes that any respectable ‘library cookbook’ should have (I am of course thinking of Proust’s madeleine in particular here), but she also includes recipes from books that are simply dear to her heart. These include crab and avocado salad from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, chicken casserole from Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, and gin martini and chicken sandwich from JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

Young is not limited in her literary taste either, with ‘hunny’ and rosemary cakes’ worthy of Winnie the Pooh getting a deserved mention, and even vanilla layer cake as Anne of Green Gables originally intended getting its full due.

This was perhaps what I loved best about this gorgeous book — the lovely surprises when I turned page after page to also see one of my own beloved authors getting their recipe out there, such as mince pies from Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, curried chicken from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes, and eclairs from Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. Young’s taste in both food and literature is so close to my own; I was busy lapping up every word and nodding profusely in agreement.

Observations really do make Young’s narrative a joy, see du Maurier’s Rebecca:

the sinister Mrs, Danvers, surely one of the most insidious and manipulative villains in literature, turns a story that could be romantic into one where even the crumpets seem to be a threat.

and E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View:

the thing is, I think meringues and coffee get a raw deal here. They’re meant to be emblematic of the comfortable, predictable life that Lucy lives as a young woman, but I think they deserve better… And so I am here to advocate for meringues and coffee.

I very much enjoyed her bookish reminiscences along the way, such as her passage on first reading The book thief:

I have a vivid memory of being reduced to tears by the ending, trapped in a window seat on a flight to Italy. Perhaps inevitably for a story narrated by death and set in Germany during the second world war, it’s devastating.

I also enjoyed the stories of family and friends along the way, in fact, as the youngest of three sisters, her dedication of Shirley Jackson’s ‘spice cookies’ to her own sister bought a bit of a lump to my throat (also, as my sisters would heartily concur, greater love hath no sister than this that she should lay down her cookie recipe…).

There is nothing not to love about this gorgeous book — engaging, beautifully presented, and full of scrumptious recipes, this really is a must read for all book loving foodies.

The Little Library Cookbook
by Kate Young
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9781784977672

See also: Moata’s booklist  Pop culture will eat itself for themed cookbooks for movies, TV shows, literature and art.