Are we not witty and intelligent?

Making books go beep this afternoon in my wee library, I happened to catch a few lines of a back cover publisher’s blurb.  I had a bit of a rant a few weeks ago about blurbs, and Jane’s recent post about New Zealand writing has also occasioned lots of comments.  This one has really left me scratching my head, so I’m sharing with you.

Thing is, I’m not actually going to tell you the name of the book, or the author, but I AM going to copy out the offending sentence from the back cover.  Because I think I kind of feel insulted – on behalf of New Zealand authors, at least.  I think.  Unless I should feel proud that we DO produce good writers.  I’m confused.

Note that I am not in any way questioning the quality of the book itself, and in fact when I was waving it around another librarian said that it WAS in fact a beautifully written and fabulous book – so good that she went and bought her own copy after reading it in the library.

Read the blurb yourself, and let me know what you think.  And for an extra challenge, identify the book and the author.

These are glimpses from the memoir of a distinguished senior civil servant written in a tradition of wit, elegance, learning and intelligence more familiar in Europe than in New Zealand’s own literary history …

Exotic and mysterious New Zealand

CoverIf you ask most Kiwis to describe New Zealand, exotic and mysterious possibly wouldn’t be the first two words that spring to mind (and if you live in Christchurch, words like cold, grey and shaky are far higher up the list right now). Yet in a significant number of books I’ve read recently, funny old EnZed is frequently used as a sort of mystical faraway destination to represent something far removed from the humdrum routine of life in wherever the novel is set: an escape, a foreign country so different from home where, clearly, anything is possible.

In Dawn French’s A Tiny Bit Marvellous, for example, the pivotal catalyst character who arrives and throws everything into chaos is none other than Noel from New Zealand, oh so attractive partly because of his exotic foreign allure. In Natasha Cooper’s A Poisoned Mind a character flees to New Zealand to hide from the police (clearly these people have no idea that we are quite a SMALL country …). And in Susan Wittig Albert’s mystery series featuring a problem-solving Beatrix Potter, one character’s father “had refused to become an English gentleman, and do the things Grandmama had wanted him to do, so he had run away to New Zealand to be a sheep farmer …” (The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood).

For those who know Kate Atkinson’s gorgeous Jackson Brodie, or who saw the Prime TV show on Wednesday night, you will know that part of his backstory is that his ex-wife wants to take his daughter to New Zealand – obviously symbolically as well as literally representing the ends of the earth.

This is not a new development, however: a rather glorious article from the June 12th 1921 New York Times profiles author Jane Mander, and makes this statement about New Zealand  as being:

… a country rich in fictional material, dowered by nature with scenic backgrounds of surpassing loveliness and fascination and peopled by men and women of varied and interesting types, where personality is prone to make its own way regardless of conventions, and problems of life and conduct take on new shapes and colours.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be so startled (and amused) when I am turning the pages of a perfectly believable thriller or romance-mystery or urban fantasy novel, and come across some character who daydreams of running away to the ends of the earth, to far-away and mysterious and above all exotic New Zealand.

My favourite NZ books – Mandy Hager

photoIt’s always incredibly hard trying to tease out only one or two authors when we are blessed with so many amazing writers in this beautiful small country of ours but, if I think about it, all the writers I really admire have one very important thing in common: they all write books with a warm humanity at their core.

What do I mean by this? I guess I mean that whatever they write – even if the actual story is scary or funny or violent or heart-breakingly sad – the underlying message is about the need to champion and protect everyone’s basic human rights – and to act from a place of love, not greed, or fear, or ignorance, or hate. Maurice Gee does this, as do Sherryl Jordan, Anna Mackenzie and Fleur Beale (just to name a few!)

I like books that have something to say about the world we live in – books that aren’t afraid to have an opinion, even if it’s one I don’t agree with! How about the next time you pick up a YA novel you read it with these thoughts in mind: what is the author really trying to say? How does the theme reflect what’s going on today? What ideas could I take away from this and action in my own world? Give it a go!

Mandy Hager

Celebrate NZ Book Month with some great children’s books

We have some amazing children’s and young adult’s authors and illustrators in New Zealand.  There are the legends like Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, Pamela Allen and Gavin Bishop as well as some authors and illustrators that not so well known but will soon become household names.  For New Zealand Book Month I want to highlight some of my favourite New Zealand authors and illustrators, and shout about some brilliant new books that have been published recently.

A hilarious new picture book was launched at The Children’s Bookshop in Victoria St on Saturday, called The Wonky Donkey, with words and music by Craig Smith and illustrations by Katz Cowley.  Craig Smith is well known around Christchurch as a fantastic musician who performs a variety of popular music and writes and performs his own unique children’s songs.  We have his first CD Not Just for Kids in the library and I suggest you check it out.  As the title suggests, the songs aren’t just for kids, adults find them hilarious (myself included).  The Wonky Donkey is one of the best tracks on the CD and won the Children’s Song of the Year 2008 in the APRA Music Awards.  Craig, with the help of up-and-coming illustrator, Katz Cowley, has now turned this song into a picture book.  As you read through the book or listen to the song, you find out more about the Wonky Donkey, such as how he only has three legs and one eye, making him a winky wonky donkey.  Both the story and the illustrations are absolutely hilarious and are perfectly matched.  I’m sure it will be enjoyed by everyone.  It is also good to hear that Craig Smith is bringing out another children’s album next year with a new bunch of great songs and Craig and Katz will be collaborating again on another picture book of Craig’s song Wilby the Bumblebee.