Being a modest sort of outfit, Christchurch City Libraries blog has recently only been asking our readers for the best and worst books of 2009.

Not so the Guardian. This cultural behemoth has been taxing its readers with the vexatious question: what were your worst books of the decade? With 878 blog comments so far, this has clearly struck a chord and some of the responses are hilarious in a book-geeky kind of way. Several well-known authors and titles have been turning up with almost monotonous  regularity: Ian McEwan’s Saturday has quite rightly taken a good kickin’, as has Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, John Updike’s Terrorist, Don DeLillo’s The falling man, David Mitchell’s Cloud atlas and anything published by Martin Amis, Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer.

I too felt compelled to put my ten cents worth in and poured scorn on The divine secrets of the Ya-Ya sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. It was actually published in 1996 but I have never been able to shake off my absolute and profound hatred for this book. Anyway, have a chuckle at the sight of high-brow, prize-winning authors being shredded and roundly abused by the good readers of the Guardian.

And remember to get your Best and Worst reads of 2009 into us before December 16th and be in to win a lovely $50 book voucher.

The annual UK Q magazine awards, held last week, are guaranteed to provide some juicy rock-in-roll controversy and this year did not disappoint.  It was Amy Winehouse‘s magnificently re-configured bosom that grabbed all the headlines when her bad girls, determined to get their time in the spotlight, leapt out of the hanky Amy called a dress. But the music though over-shadowed was not entirely forgotten. In no particular order and missing out the boring bits, the reader voted Q Awards went to:

  • White Lies for best new act (think Echo and the Bunnymen meet Interpol)
  • Spandau Ballet, of frills and hair flicks fame, scooped a Q Idol award. They’ve reformed and announced a series of UK tour dates for 2010.
  • Kasabian triumphed with a best album award for West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum.
  • Muse proved they are more than a Radiohead tribute band and scored the Best Act In the World today.
  • Robert Plant not only got a good eyeful of Amy’s assets but also won the Q Outstanding Contribution To Music Award. Robert we salute you.
  • Lily Allen got Best Track Award for The Fear from her album It’s not me, it’s you. Lily is always threatening to retire so this could be the pinnacle of her pop career. 

Arctic Monkeys, Yusef a.k.a Cat Stevens, Edwyn Collins, U2, Marianne Faithful, Sonic Youth, Frankie goes to Hollywood, Mr Hudson, Lady Gaga and The Specials all also felt the Q-love and received congratulatory trinkets. Well done chaps.

This year, so far,  we’ve had two of the promised four Doctor Who special episodes and while they’ve been sufficiently Who-ish; Planet of the Dead featured a BBC budget Lara Croft-esque character called Lady Christina and The Next Doctor with an anatomically ambivalent CyberKing, the knowledge that this is  the delicious David Tennant’s protracted swan-song has made it a miserable experience so far.

Oh yes, Mr Tennant I’d climb into your TARDIS any day of the week  but I’m not so sure about this new chap Matt Smith, there is something vaguely unnerving about an actor born in 1982-the Peter Davidson era- playing a 900 year old time-lord. There is also a new assistant in the pipeline and with almost unimaginable self-restraint the new ginger –haired, Scottish lassie has been named Amy rather than the infinitely more obvious Heather or Agnes, this may yet prove a mistake as no-one likes a stereotype better than your average telly viewer and Scottish stereotypes are just so much fun, usually corrupt coppers or whiney, malnourished druggie/ crims.

We won’t be able to enjoy the next series for some considerable time here in far-flung NZ so in the meantime the library has oodles of Dr Who DVDs, audio-books, novels and magazines featuring the Doctor in his many guises. Yes, the vintage TV series sets do wobble and every second story-line was filmed in a quarry in the Cotswolds but for sheer nostalgia and a chance to hide in terror behind the couch again, they are well worth another watch. And although I must confess to having become a little fatigued by story editor Russell T Davies’s plots, the latest Doctor Who series have lots of famous acting faces, racey plots and fantastic CGI.  The empty child and The doctor dances with Chrstopher Eccleston are two of my favourite episodes and won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic presentation.

Beeb drama at its very best!

I’m in the midst of an obsession.. with a fictional 73 year old Laotian, the star of Colin Cotterill’s mystery series set in post-1975 revolution Laos. Dr Siri Paiboun is the national coroner, kind but cynical, dedicated but often disillusioned. With no budget or lab equipment and no previous experience either in forensics or detecting, Siri and his loyal assistants Nurse Dtui (Fatty) and Mr Geung have prevailed in a number of tricky cases featuring murderous evil spirits, corrupt Communist officials and a virgin-slaying serial killer. 

These titles have been marketed in America as being in a similar vein to Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana based Mma Ramotswe novels. Like Smith, Cotterill’s tone is humorous and his characters warm and engaging; Siri however is clearer eyed than Precious Ramotswe. He recognises the deficiencies in the new Laos and being a natural-born rebel and risk-taker he delights in subverting the system. These titles are also less static; Siri and his cronies spend lots of time bouncing about in rustbucket trucks and death-trap motorbikes on the sub-standard roads of Laos tracking down dirty, rotten criminal-types.

Now on title six in this series, The merry misogynist, Cotterill’s book jacket author photos have also been an evolving delight. The Coroner’s lunch featured Cotterill in what look like Thai silk pjs and a highly dubious moustache. The tashe remained in varied forms through the next few titles but his latest photo shows him clean shaven and clad in non-silky garments…whew. Rubbish author photos aside, these novels are a delight. Fast and funny, and with a novel locale they are well worth a read.

The “misery memoir” genre has been failing in health for some time, but has now, hopefully, bitten the proverbial with the demise last month of Frank McCourt.

McCourt, lovely chap that he was, kick-started the whole “if you think you had it bad get a load of this” childhood neglect/abuse/addiction/illness memoir with the Pulitzer prize winning Angela’s Ashes published in 1996. Little did he know the monster he’d unleashed.  Appalling childhood stories of deprivation have subsequently become de rigueur, each one trying to “out-mis” the last.

This need to marvel at others ability to triumph over adversity may be a deeply fixed facet of human nature. Let’s face it Bible stories are pretty gruelling. Perhaps digesting woeful tales of abandonment, hardship and horror  allow us to reflect on our own lives and think “it ain’t so bad”.

All well and good  but several notorious mis-memoir scandals have revealed both publisher and reader gullibility in the quest for a tragic tale.

  • James Frey’s 2003 memoir A million little pieces about his battle with crack was exposed as “fiction addiction” by The Smoking Gun website and he was, horror-of-horrors, subsequently spurned by Oprah, dropped by his agent and lost his book deal.
  • The veracity of Love and consequences by Margaret B Jones, detailing her poor, druggie  LA childhood, was queried by the author’s sister and whoops, indeed her story turned out to be fiction.  So not a half-white, half native American Indian? No foster family? No drugs and drug couriering? All fibs unfortunately, in fact a white, middle-class, private school educated single Mom. Tricky indeed.
  • Kathy O’Beirne, the author of Kathy’s Story: A True Tale of a Childhood Destroyed by Neglect and Fear has similarly faced questions about the authenticity of her time in an Irish Magdalene Asylum. Her publishers declined to publish a planned follow-up and her family have had a right good stoush about it.

So in place of misery we can probably anticipate more celebrity cook-books, self-help titles and paranormal romances to keep our library shelves full. Hurrah!

After an intense, enjoyable, fast-paced last day of the festival fever, we present our last audio wrap up. We have been proud to represent the library and hope you have enjoyed the coverage, which we have tried to make entertaining and informative.

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize added so much to the festival. It brought variations of eloquence to our ears and eyes from around the world, and impressing all the audiences, I am certain, with the breadth and depth of the all to uncommon wealth of writers which we were lucky enough to see.

Our final report is a touch under 14 minutes long.

Keep an eye on the blog for more interviews with Commonwealth Writers’ prize best book winner Christos Tsiolkas, Rod Oram, Don McGlashan, and for a slightly different take, Patricia Kay, one of the volunteers who has been with the festival since day one. We also hope to have follow-up interviews with authors in the near future, and more photos will be added to the library flickr soon. If you have questions or comments about any aspect of the festival or the coverage, leave a comment – we would love to hear from you.

Now get thee to a library :)

An hour with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Chaired by Paula Morris this session provided another full-house and an insightful look at the issues of interest to this relatively new and exciting author. The thing around your neck, Chimamanda’s first collection of short stories, explores cultural clash and the migrant experience, building on the success of her earlier prize-winning novels Half of a yellow sun and Purple hibiscus

Paula Morris opened her questions by asking Chimamanda whether she was conscious of an African and Nigerian identity while growing up in a middle-class home in Nsukka. Chimamanda answered that she had no real sense of being anything other than Ebu, a Nigerian tribe, and that it was only when she left Nigeria to attend John Hopkins University in the US that she was viewed as African and suddenly expected by her teachers and fellow student to be an authority on all things African. She added that while to some extent she had to accept the label of Nigerian and African writer, she felt uncomfortable representing a whole continent. She also talked of having the authenticity of her first novel Purple hibiscus questioned by a white, male American university professor because her African characters drove cars and weren’t starving!

Spending half her time in the US, Chimamanda believes allows her to look at Nigeria from the outside, making her clearer eyed. This sentiment was also echoed in a later session by Tash Aw who also finds his voluntary exile in London affords him more clarity in analysing his home country of Malaysia. But Nigeria was she said “where her heart is” and while her country often infuriates her she belongs there and “loves it very deeply”.

Chimamanda was outed as an Enid Blyton fan, she joked she was reading the Famous Five back in her hotel room, and that her teenage years were spent in the quest for lashings of ginger beer. The fact she had never actually managed to taste ginger beer was remedied by one of the ARWF crew who brought her a Bundaberg, how topping! When questions were opened to the floor one gentleman complimented her on her modest demeanour while waiting to come on stage and called her a traditional “shy African woman”, a compliment Chimamanda was not having a bar of. Talented, beautiful, intelligent and not shy, an hour with Chimamanda was a real delight.

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