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Monday, May 31, 2010

SLICING THE GORDIAN KNOT: Freeing Grace by Charity Norman

Freeing Grace by Charity Norman

An English-born African teenager gives birth and then flees, terrified by what is happening to her body, to be almost instantly killed by a drug-crazed driver. Her beautiful mixed-race baby, Grace Serenity, is all set to be adopted by clergyman David Edmunds and his beautiful English-born African wife, Leila, both desperately in love with each other, but equally desperate for a child.

It seems the sensible solution. The baby’s father, Matt, a pot-smoking seventeen-year-old school dropout, is terminally depressed because an accident has banned him from rugby—“the game they play in heaven.” On his weekly parental visits to the social welfare home, however, he becomes besotted with Grace. This is where the crazy rules of government Social Welfare come into play—as the parent, he has the right to keep her, if his mother can be persuaded to leave her lover and their idyll in Africa, rejoin her deeply dysfunctional family, and take on the role of caring grandmother.

Jake Kelly, a rugby-playing New Zealander who has just quit a London job that made him pots of money, is co-opted to fly out to Nigeria to fetch the errant mother, Deborah. Stunned by sun and scenery, bemused by the obvious devotion of the lovers, he is unconditionally amazed when she agrees. So he flies back to foggy England with Deborah, and the comedy begins.

And it is a comedy. Most of the vividly drawn characters who swarm through this rich book, from the feckless Jake to Imogen, the well-intentioned social worker who is terrified of her boss and tied up with constricting rules, are tragic to some degree, and yet I often found myself laughing out loud.

This is an astounding novel, completely engrossing, so confident, adept and assured that it is hard to believe it is a debut. It is a story about communication, and about rules that beg to be broken, but most of all it is a story about people—readily identifiable people, people you come to care about, people who live on after the last page is read. Allen & Unwin are the publishers, and it hits the New Zealand bookstores at the end of next month. Grab it, even if you have to queue.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Every now and then the day is enlivened by the addition of a catchy new word or phrase.  A letter in this week's New Zealand Listener provided this, as part of a discussion of heating and insulating houses, and ways of keeping them warm and dry.  (Timely reminder:  it is winter down here.)

Well, says Terry Broadbridge of Te Awamutu, heat pumps are fine, but thermal drapes don't deserve their reputation.  The term "thermal drape" was coined by marketers to describe a curtain product "that coated cheap fabric to give it more body."  Rather wonderfully, it is known in the trade as "junk covered with gunk."  It was merely meant as a built-in lining, but the name caught on, with connotations of insulating qualities.

Coated fabrics, he said, are fine in their way.  They have developed and improved since the first ones came out, and perhaps don't really merit that word "junk," but insulate from the cold (or heat), they do not.

To achieve good insultation, he reommends adding a separate lining, which effectively provides a pocket of air between the cold (or heat) and the room inside.  

Good advice, interesting information, and a great new phrase.  What more could one want?


Giles Whittell reviews the nonfiction master's latest in The Sunday Times.

A number of years ago, I met Sebastian Junger -- not that he would know me from a bar of soap, as the saying goes.  It was a very brief encounter in a bookstore in Maine.  He was on the way out of the store after promoting his book, and I was on the way in, to promote mine.  A mutual friend introduced us.  Mr. Junger looked haggard and exhausted, as if he had trudged away from a war zone (rather like his picture, above).  That, I learned, is what intensive book tours do to you.  "I have to give it my best shot," he said (or words to that effect).  "It will never happen again."

The book, of course, was The Perfect Storm.  Not only did he introduce the phrase "perfect storm" to the wider language, but his sales created a perfect storm on the bestseller lists. Junger is a very nice person.  With money from the book, he created a foundation to give educational opportunities to the children of those who make their living on the sea:  The Perfect Storm Foundation.

Junger is also a man who enjoys taking risks.  His specialty is hunting out the men who make their living in dangerous ways, sharing their hazardous existence for a while, and then writing in honour of their work.  His epic story of the ordeal of a Gloucester fishing schooner was supposed to be just one of several chapters in a collection of these tales, but his agent was shrewd enough to see it as a book in itself.   The rest of the stories were published as Fire, which is a nail-biting series of adventures, including fighting forest fires, witnessing the horrors of Kosovo, investigating the blood diamond business, and escaping guerrillas in Kashmir. The final chapter is a 2001 interview with Ahmad Shah Massoud, legendary fighter during the Russian occupation in Afghanistan.  In many ways it is a prequel to Junger's latest book, War.

"Sebastian Junger spent a year with US troops in the most violent valley in Afghanistan," begins the Sunday Times review.  This cleft in the heart of inhospitable terrain was Restrepo, a fifteen-man outpost named after a platoon medic who was killed in action.  Until the troops pulled out in April, it was one of the most dangerous postings in the US military.  What is inspiring about this blood-drenched, compelling book is the fierce camaraderie of the young soldiers -- fifteen men from Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who depended on each other every second of every day to stay alive.

Characteristically, Junger has set up a web site in honor of these men and the film, Restrepo, that has been made about them.  Take a look.  Whatever your feelings about the war in Afghanistan, you come way feeling humble.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


A letter from great illustrator John Tenniel to new author Lewis Carroll has shed new light on Through the Looking Glass and the relationship between two great Victorians.

The letter, held for many years by an American collector, and to be auctioned today, reveals that Lewis Carroll turned to Tenniel for advice -- and paid attention to the answer.

Dated July 1, 1870, the letter refers to what is now known as "the lost chapter" of Through the Looking Glass. This little episode was an encounter between Alice and a grumpy "wasp in a wig," and was probably a play on the saying "a bee in his bonnet." 

When he read it, Tenniel was less than impressed.  The writing did not have the same sparkle as the rest.  "Don't think me brutal," he wrote, "but I am bound to say the 'Wasp' chapter doesn't interest me in the least.  I can't see my way to a picture.  If you want to shorten the book, I can't help thinking - with all submission - that there is your opportunity.  In an agony of haste.  Yours sincerely, Tenniel."

Carroll paid heed, and removed the chapter.  Galley proofs that surfaced in the 1970s revealed that it was a near-run thing, as it was included up to the last moment.  Now the letter confirms why it was removed.

The letter is expected to fetch between fifteen and twenty thousand pounds.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Lose the details attached to your banking or share-trading, and you could lose all your money.

And that applies to your social security number or your birth date, too, according to Brian Freemantle's rather odd thriller, The Namedropper.  The protagonist, Harvey Jordan, specializes in stealing rich people's identities by acquiring details of their lives, including addresses and bank numbers, and then raiding their piggy-banks.

Once an honest, hardworking chap with a computer business, he reinvented himself into a goldplated crook after being cheated of everything, and is so successful at this that he can afford posh holidays in expensive seaside places in Europe.  Indulging himself in this fashion, he picks up a lovely lady (who just happens to be the wife of one of those infamous share-traders who have cost ordinary folks so much money and peace of mind).  They enjoy a brief fling before parting at the airport without exchanging addresses.  Imagine his horror, then, when he finds himself cited (under his real name) as the co-respondent in a divorce case.  In a word, he has been set up -- by a financier who does not know about his special talents.  Faced with costs that could reach millions, he wreaks revenge in the way that he knows best.

It is an appealing scenario, which is the reason I picked it up in the first place.  The characters are not particularly well drawn or likeable, and the editing is about the worst I have ever seen, with awkward sentences and inconsistencies galore, but the plot is tantalizing enough to keep the pages turning.  It is also fascinating (and perhaps a bit dangerous) to learn the details of how identity theft is carried out, and how the money can be laundered later.

A feature in today's paper reminded me that the book is based on brutal reality.  CASE EXPOSES SHOCKING SECURITY FLAWS runs the headline.  Just by a fluke, a local sharetrader found that two crucial numbers -- his CSN, or common shareholder number, and his FIN, or faster identification number -- had been purloined, and he was about to lose three million dollars. Except for one stray impulse, he would now be as broke as the rest of us.


Ian McEwan comic novel has a pig named in its honour.
It is even better than the Booker!  McEwan's "brilliantly funny" novel, Solar, has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize, which honours novels in the PG Wodehouse genre.

As part of the prize, a Gloucestershire Old Spot pig will be named "Solar" at the Hay Literary Festival. 

McEwan, whose book tells the comic tale of a Nobel prize-winning physicist who gets the chance to save the world from environmental disaster, will also scoop a jeroboam of champagne and a set of PG Wodehouse books.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


A US bestseller charting the financial crisis, by firsttime author Andrew Ross Sorkin (pictured) is one of the list of six.  The others include a treatise on North Korea, a maths-made-simple book, a description of the life of King Charles II, a fishing and coming of age book, and a look at cooking and cavemen.

The list:

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, but Barbara Demick
Blood Knots, by Luke Jennings
A Gambling Man, by Jenny Uglow
Alex's Adventures in Numberland, by Alex Bellos
Too Big to Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, by Richard Wrangham

Evan Davis, chairman of the judges, said that the shortlist was "an extraordinarily eclectic" collection.  "Perhaps the only common feature of these books is the passion and sheer enthusiasm of the authors for their subjects."
In my experience, that can be said of all good nonfiction writers.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Well, lo and behold, the Sunday Times continues the New Zealand theme that I picked up in the TV review (see post below).  I found a blog by Serena Kutchinsky, with a post on "Writer's Rituals" that features our own Karl Stead.  Reason?  He won the Sunday Times short story award.  Many congratulations, Professor S. -- who, according to his remarkably sunny responses, writes 1,000 words a day, depending on the circumstances.

He is even smiling in his photograph!  And confides a self-deprecating story.  He once was struck by writer's block, so took the practical path out by writing a novel -- about a novelist with writer's block. 

It was called Secret History of Modernism, and "got some of the best reviews I ever had and sold hardly at all."


Immersing myself luxuriously in the the online London Times newspaper for the first time, I was intrigued and very amused to read the review of a new sandals-and-toga epic series that is about to hit British TV screens.  This is SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND, which, apparently, is guaranteed to be banned in America.

By sheer coincidence, a couple of nights ago we hauled out our old DVD of the mumbling Russell Crowe version of the Roman arena, Gladiator.  I had forgotten the actual amount of gore, though the tigers did strike a chord of memory.  Crowe's gladiator, Maximus, had a great motive for being a great gladiator -- revenge on the suitably effete and ghastly Commidus, who looked more Italian than the rest of the cast put together.  And Spartacus had an equally heart-touching reason for slaughtering on the sand -- to save his wife from slavery.

This TV extravaganza features the early life of the hero, which, being almost completely undocumented, is supremely eligible for conversion to the flat screen TV.  And gladiators had the same sexual appeal as All Blacks rugby players (though they might not have had the haka, they had the same commitment to photogenic muscles), which gives a great excuse for plenty of nakedness and sex.  Hence the likelihood that it will be banned in the US. 

The reviewer, though I suspect with tongue in cheek, recommends it -- well, he reckons it is better than all the other Romanesque stuff that is hitting the screen.  It was low budget but spectacular, so naturally was shot in New Zealand.  This, says he very thoughtfully, "might explain the surprisingly large number of Maori gladiators to be found in this version of Italy in the 1st century BC."

It's bound to be a huge hit, here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Yesterday, I received an email from a fellow blogger (a stranger by the name of Todd Jensen), who runs his blog from a site intriguingly called "forensic colleges".  A poison analysis lab?  The imagination runs riot.

Anyway, what Todd said was: "We would love to share with you an article that we just posted on our own blog 25 Best True Crime Books." 

Todd confidently believes that it "would be an interesting story for your readers to check out and discuss on
your blog."

Well, we shall see.  I have to admit that apart from Truman Capote and Mr Whicher, I haven't read any of them.  And the best true crime book I have ever read -- by many a country mile -- is The Ability to Kill by Eric Ambler    But these opinions are so personal, and don't really bear arguing about unless both parties have read all the books, plus several hundred more in the same genre.  By sheer coincidence I have just been loaned a book by a friend who is true-crime addict. It is called The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, the real Moriarty and is by Ben Macintyre. My friend says it is the best true-crime book he has ever read. So you see how idiosyncratic these things are. They are only the top 25 in the mind of the writer.

Tongue in cheek, I wrote to Todd, "I can't resist it -- I wrote a well received true crime book myself, and it is not on your list!!!"

The book is called IN THE WAKE OF MADNESS and is the true story of a whaling voyage where the captain was a serial killer. The ship was the sister ship of the whaleship Melville sailed on, Acushnet, and was in the Pacific at the same time. The story of this terrible voyage was a prime inspiration for Moby-Dick.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


That seance for the anniversary of Mark Twain's death (see earlier post) must have worked: Mark Twain's humungous memoir is going to hit the printed page.
Guy Adams, writing for The Independent & The Independent on Sunday, confides that the great American satirist and humorist wrote an autobiography, complete with instructions to keep it quiet for a whole centrury . . . which us up!

The words which are finally going to be published, he assures us, are "extensive, outspoken and revelatory."

The Great Man left behind 5,000 uneditedpages of memoirs when he died in 1910, together with handwritten notes. In November the University ofCalifornia, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume. The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words.

So why the 100-year-old secret?  What did he say that needed such discretion?

Perhaps he wanted to talk about politics and religion without anyone getting insulted or arguing with him.  Perhaps there were friends he preferred not to insult . . . until they were dead.

Adams knows at least some of the gossip.  A section of the memoir, according to him, "will detail his little-known but scandalous relationship with Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who became his secretary after the death of his wife Olivia in 1904. Twain was so close to Lyon that she once bought him an electric vibrating sex toy." Four hundred pages are devoted to the heart-throbbing affair.

"Most people think Mark Twain was a sort of genteel Victorian. Well, in this document he calls her a slut and says she tried to seduce him. It's completely at odds with the impression most people have of him," says the historian Laura Trombley, who this year published a book about Lyon called Mark Twain's Other Woman. This bit of the manuscript, she asserts, "really is 400 pages of bile."

Oh dear.  In retrospect, it is a pity the poor man did not destroy his pen.
Michael Shelden, who this year published Man in White, an account of Twain's final years, says that some of his privately held views could have hurt his public image. Judging by this revelation, that puts it mildly.

November's publication is authorised by his estate, which in the absence of surviving descendants (a daughter, Clara, died in 1962, and a granddaughter Nina committed suicide in 1966) funds museums and libraries that preserve his legacy.


I haven't read this book.  I haven't even seen this book.  When typing out the list of top twenty reserves, below, I just happened to be intrigued by the title of the book by Kiki Swinson (not to mention the author's name).  And there was a note in the Library Journal list, nudging the reader to have a look at their review.

The review was written by Rollie Welch, of Cleveland Public Library.  Apparently Wifey 4 Life belongs to a genre known as "Street Lit," which I freely confess I have never heard of before.  Seemingly, these street lit books are published by either Urban Books or Melodrama Publishers, which is an indicator, I guess, of their content.  Unsurprisingly, they are paperbacks.

The theme is murder and mayhem in the CBD (downunder-ese for "central business district").  The protagonists are female, but otherwise belong to the hardboiled mystery club. Indeed, the review makes Swinson's heroine, Kira Walters, sound rather like JD Macdonald's Travis McGee, with bosoms.  Vacationing in Anguilla with a sexy boyfriend, Walters is summoned back to Norfolk, Virginia, by some sort of rum deal to do with real estate.  Norfolk (a perfectly charming town, in my experience) was the scene of the demise of her husband, a drug dealer, so she goes reluctantly.  She is kidnapped, outwits a gang of thugs, and then goes about wreaking her personal revenge.

Says Welch, Swinson is at the top of her game with this fifth in a series.  Buy the lot, says he.  Apparently his readers prefer to put it on hold.


The Library Journal runs a very interesting feature on the top twenty library holds (what we call "reserves" down under), arguing that this is as good a gauge of popularity as the bestseller lists.  In fact, I suspect the reserve list could be more accurate -- as I have pointed out in previous posts, bestseller lists can be skewed by the methods of collecting the data.

The library chosen to supply the reserve list is in Gary, Indiana, and their readers (listeners, viewers) are an eclectic lot indeed, their choices ranging from empty-headed fiction to challenging political commentary.

1.   Push by Sapphire.  Vintage: Random House
2.   The 9th Judgment by James Patterson. Little, Brown.
3.   Alex Cross's Trial by James Patterson. Little, Brown.
4.   Deliver us from Evil by James Baldacci.  Grand Central.
5.   Wifey 4 Life by Kiki Swinson.  Melodrama Pub.
6.   Black Diamond by Brittani Williams.  Q-Boro
7.   Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer.  Little, Brown Young Readers (Twilight Saga)
8.   Payback by Paul Langan. Scholastic.
9.   16 on the Block by Babygirl Daniels. Urgan Books.
10. Diary of  a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days by Jeff McKinney.  Amulet: Abrams.
11. Miles to Go by Miley Cyrus.  Disney.
12. Too Many Toys by David Shannon.  Scholastic.
13. Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann & Mark Halperin.  HarperCollings.
14. The Politician: An Insider's Account of John Edwards's Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down by Andrew Young.  Thomas Dunne: St. Martins's.
15. 2012 DVD Sony Pictures
16. The Princess and the Frog. DVD Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.
17. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. DVD 20th Century Fox.
18. The Blind Side. DVD Warner Home Video.
19. This is it by Michael Jackson.  Sony. (Music).
20. Raymond vs Raymond by Usher.  La face (music).

I think this is a neat idea, and tried trawling through the Wellington City Library site to see if I could find the top twenty reserves, but came up with zilch.  Perhaps a letter to the librarian ....

Saturday, May 22, 2010


What fun!  Action, tension, and love-all.  According to the BBC, Matt Harvey will write a poem every day during the annunal two-week All England Lawn Tennis Championship.

The poetry will be published online and in podcasts, and Harvey will also keep a blog, tweet, and recite his poems to queueing spectators.

"It's an honour," he said; "I'm acutely conscious it's the only time I'll come first in anything at Wimbledon, unless you count the queue for strawberries."

His first poem as Championships Poet 2010 is called "Grandest of Slams."


As so often happens, Jason Boog of GalleyCat is the man to break the news.  Corporate raider Bennett S. LeBow, chairman of the Vector Group, among a number of other bodies (pictured right), has invested twenty-five million in the struggling bookseller, purchasing just over eleven million shares.  Naturally, he was invited to join the Board of Directors, and was immediately elected Chairman, the current man, Richard MCGuire, stepping down.

LeBow's career is worthy of a book.  Back in the 1960s he started a computer company, which designed and installed data systems for the Pentagon.  He sold out in 1971 to move into the high-tension life of a fulltime investor/trader, becoming heavily involved in the cigarette industry.  This led to some controversy, as the was the first "tobacco man" to break ranks and acknowledge the harmful effects of smoking.

Perhaps he will bring the same fresh breath of revolutionary thinking to the bookselling trade.

Friday, May 21, 2010


No, I'm joking.  Kiwi crime-buff Craig Sisterson, who manages a really great blog featuring crime and mystery writing from all over the world, with a focus on New Zealand, has a feature called "9mm" where he poses nine murder mystery questions to murder mystery writers.

This week, the interviewee is yours truly.  Read it here.  (Or follow his blog, "Crime Watch," on the permanent link on the righthand side of this page.)

I don't know if Craig had fun, but I did.  I confidently expect sales of Cuddlepot and Snuggle Pie to soar.

(H'm!  That should be Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Invitation from Nicola Frean, Special Materials Librarian at the JC Beaglehole Library, Victoria University, Wellington:

Kia ora,

I hope you will be able to come and hear our two speakers next Tuesday 25 June 2010, at noon:

Dr. Ian Welch, Senior Lecturer in the School of Computer Science and Engineering, talking about the NZTronix collection of New Zealand software and computer games from the 1970s and 1980s (further information at, and
Joan Druett, author of 18 books, talking about a Pacific Islands map drawn by Tupaia (the Polynesian navigator who sailed with Cook on the Endeavour).
Quite different topics, but each a golden opportunity to glimpse the Library's Special Collections and their research community.

I look forward to seeing you, whether in person or via an Access Grid node .

In 1769, Tupaia, with his "own hands," made this chart for Captain Cook.  A remarkable testament to the breadth of Polynesian knowledge of the Pacific, it covers about 4,000 kilometres of the Pacific, extending from Rotuma to the Marquesas.  Two copies of the chart was made, and two were lost.  Is this surviving map the original?  I believe that a book called Charts and Coastal Views held by the library, answers this interesting question.

Intriguing NZ-related publishing news from Spymouse

1st July sees the publication by Allen & Unwin NZ of FREEING GRACE by the charmingly-named Charity Norman.
Inner-city curate David and his Nigerian-born wife, Leila, are overjoyed at the
prospect of adopting a baby daughter. There's just one problem - little Grace's birth family have changed their minds and won't let her go without a fight.

Everyone only wants what's best for Grace - but who can say exactly what that is?


Charity Norman was born in Uganda and brought up in a succession of draughty vicarages in Yorkshire and Birmingham. After several years' travel she became a barrister, specialising in crime and family law in the northeast of England. Also a mediator, she is passionate about the power of communication to slice through the knots. In 2002, realising that her three children had barely met her, she took a break from the law, and moved with her family to New Zealand.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


The Globe theatre is resurrecting Shakespeares' Henry VIII, and nerves, it seems, could be at stretching point.

The BBC entertainment page is running an interesting story by Tim Masters, pointing out the dangers.  A cannon fired as a special effect during a production of the play in June 1613 ignited the thatched roof of the original Globe theatre.  The playhouse burned to the ground.  Since then, theatrical groups have been reluctant to test their luck, and the play has been very rarely staged.

The jinx is the usual reason given for this, but Prof. Grace Ioppolo, lecturer in Shakespeare at the University of Reading, says genre is a problem, too.  A lot of what Shakespearean audiences had come to expect was not written into the script.  It is "a history play about celebration," without melodramatic confrontations.  It's as if Sir Peter Jackson produced a Lord of the Ring films with no battles or duels.

There is also the nagging feeling that Shakespeare might not have been the author of a lot of it.  A somewhat lesser playwright, John Fletcher, is thought to be responsibile for the creakier scenes.

Which could lead to interesting opportunities for audience interreaction.  "There are certain scenes," says the director of this new version, Mark Rosenblatt, "when you suddenly think 'this is Shakespeare' - the writing is richer."  Perhaps the applause could be louder, too.

Meantime, the jinx lurks.  The cannon shot (Act I, scene IV) has been retained, which could be asking for trouble.  During a technical rehearsal it set off a small explosion in the roof.  Hearts stopped.  Then, undoubtedly with much relieved laughter, everyone remembered that this new Globe has a 21st century sprinkler system.

Monday, May 17, 2010


It is quite some time since I first reported the advent of the Stephanie Meyer phenomenon.  At the time I really did mean to read the book that triggered the Bella-and-the-Vampires mania, Twilight, but other things got in the way.  Then I was reminded of it, by a remarkably silly human-interest story in the New York Times about the popularity of Twilight-inspired names, which was repeated by just about every literary blog in sight.  It wasn't even a story with substance, as "Jacob" has been popular for years already, and the others have scarcely moved up the list of babies' names.  Personally, I hope the name of Bella's baby -- Renesmee, for heaven's sake! -- will be used by absolutely no one at all.

The story, plus a cold, plus unusual free time, sent me down to the library and the Young Adults section.  At the counter, a middle-aged patron said rather shyly, "You'll find it's a real page-turner," - so I headed home full of optimisim.  And Twilight surely is a page-turner.  Despite cardboard characters and poorly described settings, the pages flip by.  The secret, of course, is the steamy aura of forbidden sex.  Edward, the unbelievably handsome, marble-faced vampire, has to steel himself to control his urges after falling for human Bella, as seduction would inevitably lead to a blood-drained corpse. 

It is an admirable lesson in the virtue of self-control (though I doubt many teenaged readers will pay attention), and also a lesson on how an old genre, for years the virtual property of Harlequin and Mills & Boon, can be given a new twist.  My major quibble is that the "good" ("vegetarian") vampires drink animal blood instead of the human variety. Draining endangered animals like mountain lions and grizzly bears seems improvident in the extreme, when it is so easy to compile a list of human candidates.

I turned to the second book, New Moon.  Edward and his family, horrified when a member comes close to succumbing to his urges after Bella has a blood-spouting accident, withdraw from the scene, leaving Bella (but not this reader) bereft.  After living some months as a zombie, she builds a friendship with a local Indian boy, Jacob (Jake), and -- guess what! -- he turns into a werewolf.  Actually, this is a better story than the first, with the appearance of a good character.  The friendship between Jake and Bella is convincing enough to make the reader care about what is happening to the young man.  Being a teenager in love is hard enough, without growing fur and baying at the moon.

What is interesting is how little editing went into this book.  Did the publishers decide that it would be a waste of time, as it was going to sell squillions anyway?  Awkward sentences, redundancies, and grammatical lapses abound, which was not the case with the first book.  On the bright side, Jake was allowed to develop in most ungenre-like fashion.  An interfering editor could well have made him as wooden as Edward the vampire, to keep to the romantic stereotype.  Instead, I emerged a definite Jacob fan.

I couldn't get hold of the third book, Eclipse, so looked up the synopsis on Wikipedia, and moved on to the last in the series, New Moon.  To put the story in a nutshell, Bella and Edward marry, but she asks that the marriage be consummated before he turns her into a vampire, with the secret wish that she falls pregnant, as once she is a vampire, she will be barren.  Her wish is fulfilled, with unforeseen consequences.  Surprisingly brutally, the teenaged reader is introduced to the complications of an extremely abnormal preganancy and birth, seasoned with the queasy possibility that the child will be a monster.

This is where the lack of developmental editing input became a serious issue, as in my candid opinion, the author was not ready for the challenge.  The whole appeal of the series had been the forbidden nature of sex, but now she had to describe the act in acceptable form, then the horrendous natural consequences, and then Bella's awakening as a vampire after two days of agony, to face not just the psychological challenge of being immortal in the company of other immortals (some of whom are hundreds of years old), but the oncoming revenge of the Italian vampires who had forbidden any such birth, too.  It was as if a Mills & Boon author was suddenly faced with the complexity of literary science fiction, and Meyer is no Anthony Burgess or Brian Aldiss.  Instead of feeling the requisite sympathy for Bella, I was sorry for the author, who seemed so unsupported here.

As it is, Meyer ends up with a Lord of the Rings-style stand-off, "good" vampires and those likeable werewolves on one side of the battlefield, and "bad" vampires slavering for blood and guts on the other.  Various reviewers have pointed out that the result is disappointing -- blood and guts is what was called for, it seems.  Undubitably, a sympathetic editor would have prodded the writer in the right direction for a LOTR battle, designed for the best of Weta workshop ingenuity in the move-production line.  Instead, the author breaks the golden rule of plot development by introducing new characters -- important characters, right at the end! -- who provide a cozy denouement.

Not that I am complaining.  The LOTR battlescenes fixed me for life; the fewer guts and less blood, the better.  An unusual ending is a nice change -- but couldn't someone have helped Stephanie Meyer out, by recommending that the characters could have been introduced very easily near the start of the book?  During the honeymoon, in fact.   It would have been so easy, and the ending so much more satisfying.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


The Saturday Guardian ran an interesting discussion, where eleven prominent writers recommended "essential" reading for the new British PM's reading, with well-meant advice.

Historian David Reynolds recommended books suitable for the dark economic days, including Anthony J. Badger's FDR, The First Hundred Days, and also pointed out the immense difference between the media then and now.

Novelist Will Self introduced me to a word neither I nor my dictionaries have ever heard of before: IMMISERATE.  "Obviously the most important duty of our new prime minister is to acquaint himself with the cirumstances of those whom he is about to immiserate," he says.  Make miserable?  Perhaps so, in view of the books he recommends -- accounts of what it is like for the working class, with F Scott Fizgerald's The Great Gatsby as a nice contrast.  An interesting suggestion is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887, in which the hero slept for over 100 years after being accidentally over-hypnotized: "we seem to have slept for the past 30 years due to an accident in mass hypnosis," he comments.

Classicist Mary Beard recommends Dante, Proust, and Goethe, plus Marjorie Caygill's Treasures of the British Museum, just in case Mr. C. has visions of cutting the budgets of museums.

Economist Robert Skidelsky, predictably, recommends books such as Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land (which warns that the "heedless rush" to dismember social protection threatens a destructive political backlash) and Nouriel Roubini's Crisis Economics.

Novelist Jeanette Winterson recommends Susan Sontag, Susia Orbach, and The Alchemist by Ben Jonson.  Why?  To quote her rather memorable comment: "The dream of the alchemists was to turn base metal into gold.  for those who believe in enlightenment and progress, please note that alchemy is alive and well but has changed its name and address."  How else can one explain the selling on of toxic debts as assets?  Or, for that matter, worthless companies being sold to a hedge fund, with the resultant bill sent to the tax payer.

Biographer Michael Holroyd focuses his choices and comments on that buzz word "change."  Included is Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys The Unequalled Self -- personally, I would have recommended Pepys' own journals.  Added to his choice of Lytton Strachey's biography Eminent Victorians is the interesting comment that Victorian materialism led to readers turning to darkly escapist fiction, such as that written by RL Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Conan Doyle, and HG. Wells, while today the same trend is evident in the huge popularity of dark fantasy, often written for children (think JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer).

Novelist Pankaj Mishra focuses on British-US relations (which he classes as a bad case of unrequited love), and recommends books about the political situation in the Middle East, such as Gideon Levy's The Punishment of Gaza.

Historian David Kynaston makes an eloquent plea for honesty and forthrightness in politics, pointing out the cynicism that marks the arena today.  He lays much of the blame on the private school system (misleadingly called "public" in the UK).  "There are no prizes for guessing where many of the current villains of the piece went to school," he says.  John Gray, political philosopher, makes only one choice, John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty, which he calls "punchy, little understood and rarely heeded," and writes about the current "mix of free markets with the knee-jerk authoritarianism that has dominsated British politics for so long".

Rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti writes a "Dear Prime Minister" letter that is redolent with despair, and makes a plea for the inviolability of the Human Rights Act, then recommends books such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird and Robert Harris's cautionary tale for prime ministers, Ghost.  Science writer Fred Pearce makes a case for wising up on environmental science, and says that "real policy wonks" would turn to Nicholas Stern's A Blueprint for a Safe Planet.

So what would you choose?  And what would I recommend?  I was amused by the choice of Harris's Ghost, and while I would recommend it as an excellent read (and can't wait for the movie), I would offer, instead, his novelized biographies of Cicero, Imperium and Lustrum.  Until I read those two books, I had no idea just how devious, double-dealing, and opportunistic politicians can be.  Morality tales, truly.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Short story writer Mary Robison wins Rea Prize


The Rea Award is not only one of the most prestigious, but also very generous -- Mary Robison will receive $30,000 for her "significant contribution to the discipline of the short story form."

Robison is a leader in the so-called "minimalist" school of short fiction writing, but is a lot more readable than this might make her sound.  She chooses small, apparently mundane events, and illuminates them with laconic humor and brilliant dialogue.  Her collections include Days, and Believe Them.

Previous winners include Amy Hempel, John Updike, Eudora Welty, and Joyce Carol Oates.  Hempel was one of the three judges, the others being Jayne Anne Phillips and Andrea Barrett.  They praised Robison's stories for "their lean, cool ferocity and their wry takes on people in pivotal moments."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Literary figures to rule Britain?

Well, it's a thought.  I particularly like the notion of Dickens being in charge of housing ...

Observer list of ideal political appointments.

Prime Minister: Benjamin Disraeli (he's done it once already)

Home Secretary: Charles Dickens

Foreign & Commonwealth Office: Rudyard Kipling

Chancellor of the Exchequer: Martin Amis (money)

Education Secretary: Muriel Spark (the Prime of Miss Brodie)

Environmental Secretary: Graham Greene (its in the name)

Defence Secretary: Evelyn Waugh (it's in the name)

Minister for Europe: Julian Brnes (Sarkozy's Parrot)

Minister of Innovation: HG Wells

Health Secretary: Dylan Thomas (he deserves a second chance)

Children's Secretary: William Golding

Transport Secretary: JG Ballard (crash)

Minister of Housing: Virginia Woolf (A room of One's Own)

Minister of Universities: Malcolm Bradbury

Minister for Diversity: Anthony Powell

Minister for rural affairs: Ted Hughes

Minister for sport and leisured classes: Jane Austen

Attorney General: Franz Kafka

Postmaster General: Anthony Trollope

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mark Mills vs Stephen King

The Information Officer by Mark Mills
Cell by Stephen King

I picked up Mark Mills' first book, Amagansett (The Whaleboat House in the UK) because I knew Amagansett -- a hamlet on Long Island -- and was curious to find out how well a British writer would capture the unique "feel" of the area, including the intense territoriality of the fishing community.   Mills did it superbly, with even more remarkably pictured flashbacks to WW2.  This was followed by Savage Garden, which had a most intriguing double mystery, one set in the past, where the clues lay in the statues and their siting in an old Italian garden.  So, when Mills' latest appeared on the shelves of Whitcoulls store here in Wellington, I bought it at once, and read it immediately.

The Information Officer is set in Malta, during the most intensive bombardments of the Second World War, 1942.  The Maltese people, placing what trust they can in the small British force defending the island, cower under daily bombardments from both the Italians and the Germans.  Max Chadwick, the British information officer, tries to keep up morale by choosing the right topic and tone for his bulletins to the local paper.  Then he learns that Maltese dance hostesses are being murdered, apparently by a British submarine officer, and despite advice and good sense, pursues the mystery.

It is an amazing setting, though the Maltese hang around the periphery of the story, which seems odd.  More distracting still, I could not keep track of most of the characters, and had to keep on turning back the pages to remember who was who -- very annoying, especially when I knew that one of them was the killer.  Most interesting for me was the insight into the murderer's mind, a flashback being appended to each segment, detailing the tortuous route that led to serial killing of women.  The denouement was disappointing, because the little I knew of the character of the man revealed to be the murderer did not seem to match the killer's profile that had been so carefully drawn.   While the book is well worth reading for its dramatic background, I felt that the characters let the reader down.  I just could not feel much interest in what happened to them.

While I was still wondering where the author had failed me (or I had failed the author), I picked up Stephen King's Cell.    I gave up on Stephen King some years ago, when his books became too convoluted and psychedelic for my taste, but I had been told that this is vintage King, evidently because he has "retired."  And boy, never was a truer word said -- it smacks you between the eyes from page one.

A virus known as "The Pulse" is broadcast to every cellphone in use, and the zombies who walk the streets with their mobiles pinned to their ears become just that -- zombies, with the difference that they are vicious and violent. The world as we know it lurches bloodily to a stop.  A small group of non-cellphone users known as the "normies" flees from the "phone-crazies," heading for the safety of cellphone dead zones, while the crazies evolve into something even scarier that involves telepathy and "flocking." 

As the blurb says, this book is utterly gripping.  After about ten pages it begins to sound a lot like a rewrite of Richard Matheson's classic, I am legend, but who cares?  As a page-turner, it is compulsive, and never feels like a waste of time, even if a little voice deep inside your head keeps on saying, "This is rubbish."  A long time ago, I read a review -- in the NYT, I think -- where it was observed that somewhere in Stephen King's computer is a great writer screaming to be let out, and Cell is an excellent demonstration of this. It is brilliantly written, so vividly described that one can hear the explosions, and smell the rot and gore, with readily identifiable characters who immediately command the reader's sympathy.

How did King manage this last, when Mills did not?  "Signposting" -- repeating a character's name, with a little reminder of his character -- helps.  A cute trick at the start was that the protagonist, Clay Riddell, had to keep correcting someone who insisted on calling him "Riddle."  Another was to give minor characters nicknames according to their appearance -- "the Power Suit woman."  Particularly evocative and clever is a detail that demonstrates vulnerability -- a "normie" girl, Alice, picks up a baby's sneaker, which becomes her talisman, her grip on reality.  Her panic when she mislays it is vivid and very comprehensible.

Has anyone ever analyzed Stephen King's writing for character delineation?  As an exercise for aspiring -- or even established -- writers, it could be most worthwhile.

Saturday, May 8, 2010



Columbia University today announced the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes,

Public Service -- Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier
Breaking News Reporting -- The Seattle Times Staff
Investigative Reporting -- Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News
and Sheri Fink of ProPublica, in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine

Explanatory Reporting -- Michael Moss and members of The New York Times Staff
Local Reporting -- Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
National Reporting -- Matt Richtel and members of The New York Times Staff
International Reporting - Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post
Feature Writing -- Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post

Commentary -- Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post
Criticism -- Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post
Editorial Writing --Tod Robberson, Colleen McCain Nelson and William McKenzie of The Dallas Morning News
Editorial Cartooning -- Mark Fiore, self syndicated, appearing on
Breaking News Photography -- Mary Chind of The Des Moines Register
Feature Photography -- Craig F. Walker of The Denver Post

Fiction --
Tinkers by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press)
Drama --
Next to Normal, music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
History --
Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed
(The Penguin Press)

Biography --

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles
(Alfred A. Knopf)

Poetry --

Versed by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press)
General Nonfiction --
The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its
Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman (Doubleday)
Violin Concerto by Jennifer Higdon, premiered February 6, 2009 in Indianapolis, IN (Lawdon Press).
Hank Williams

A Stamp for NZ-born Russell Crowe

This is news to have any publicist licking his lips:  the big buzz today is that the Australian postal service is releasing a set of stamps featuring actor Russell Crowe in his latest role as Robin Hood.

Amusingly, every newpaper points out that Crowe was born in New Zealand.  Well, the Australians have stolen just about everything else kiwi that could be labelled "iconic", from pavlova to racehorses to rugby league players. Additionally, Crowe became an official Aussie in 2006, which makes one wonder what happened that year.  But never mind, he mumbled his way through Master and Commander marvellously enough for the nation to forgive him.  And he has two cousins who have played cricket for New Zealand.

More pertinently, one also wonders how the Ridley Scott-directed movie snared this enviable publicity.  Could the same be done for books?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Art of the ENDEAVOUR

Caron Dann, in her comment on the jacket of Tupaia, Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator (which she liked a lot), asked about Tupaia's artwork.  Now held by the British Library in a magnificent guard book (shelfmarked 15508), Tupaia's art was unrecognized for over 200 years.  Though some of it was often reproduced, because of its spontaneous, lively, and compelling nature, the name of the artist was a mystery.  In a wonderful book about the art of the Endeavour, edited by Bernard Smith and Rudiger Joppien, it was catalogued as the work of the "Artist of the Chief Mourner," because of the painter's evocative sketch of a Tahitian in mourning costume.

Then Harold Carter, the biographer of Joseph Banks, scientist on the Endeavour expedition, found a letter in the Banks collection, describing Tupaia as the man who had made a caricature of Banks himself, in a battle of wills with a Maori.  Banks holds a piece of tapa cloth in his hand, and is reaching out for a great crayfish that Maori dangles from a string.  Both are determined not to let go of the article he has to trade, until he has a firm grip on what the other is offering.  As a humorous comment on mutual lack of trust, it is hilarious.

Along with other sketches by Tupaia, it can be seen on the British Library website, images online.

And yes, I have negotiated with the British Library for permission to reproduce six of Tupaia's watercolors in the book.


The Library Journal  has released its list of 37 books that have earned starred reviews for great writing and good reading.  Reference books feature largely, as do sports books, with a surprising focus on soccer. In this last category, Filip Bondy's Chasing the Game: America and the Quest for the World Cup (Da Capo Press) is highly recommended, while The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need To Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event by David Hirshey and Roger Bennett (Ballantine) is rated as an "affordable purchase" with "enduring value."

The fiction list is also a surprise, being dominated by spy books, including that long-neglected form, a collection of short stories -- Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage).  Predictably familiar names are there, too --Richard North Patterson, Clive Cussler, Scott Turow, Peter Temple, and Gregg Hurwitz. Oddly, too, mystery is a separate category.  Even stranger is that the book with the jacket I like the most -- Recipes from an Italian Summer (Phaidon) -- is in the science and technology section. 

But it is a list well worth trawling through for summer reading, though readers in New Zealand are more likely to be curled up by a fire.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


A tourist experience that has given the English-speaking traveller a lot of innocent fun is to end.

Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times reports that Shanghai is trying to untangle the mangled English of Chinglish

Expo 2010 is to blame.  No longer will we read "The Little Grass is Sleeping, Don't hurt Me I am Afraid of Pain" on little posts stuck into lawns. Instead, we will be admonished to "Keep Off the Grass."  No longer will there be machines at banks for "Cash Recycling."  Instead, they will lurk under the letters "ATM."  No longer will labels on outsize clothing say "Fatso" or "Lard Bucket."  Instead we will get the tactful XXL.

"The purpose of signage is to be useful, not to be amusing," admonished Zhao Huimin, former Chinese Ambassador in Washington, DC, and now the leader in the fight for sobriety in signs.

A team of experts, led by Jeffrey Yao, an English translator and teacher at the Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation at Shanghai International Studies University, is carrying out the exorcism.  "Some Chinglish expressions are nice, but we are not translating literature here," said he sternly.  "I want to see people nodding that they understand the message on these signs.  I don't want to see them laughing."

Oliver Lutz Radtke, former German radio reporter and perhaps the world authority on Chinglish, declares it is a shame.  Chinglish, he reckons, should be allowed to grow into an Official Language. It is an endangered species, and he is lobbying for its preservation.  It is a window, he says, into the Chinese mind.

The fact that he is the author of a couple of amusing picture books featuring Chinglish signs could well be a factor.  Mr Radtke is also working toward a PhD in Chinglish at the University of Heidelberg.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Politicians on the compaign trail are not asked often enough about arts and culture, writes Nick Clegg in The Stage.

According to the numbers, people would rather go to museums, art galleries, stage shows, and concerts, than line up at the ballot box -- or so goes his argument, which is nicely calculated to appeal to a town hall-style audience.  The creative sector is predicted to emply 1.3 million people by 2013, he says -- more than the financial industry.  Why confine the country's fortunes to one square mile of London, when a hundred thousand square miles of British countryside hold such artistic and creative promise?

"Now is the moment to harness the potential in that burgeoning creative industry!" he cries.

Amen to that.  One banker's bonus could provide art classes, drama classes, and writing classes in a whole slew of schools, with a potentially much greater boost to the economy.  Right now, thousands are descending on Wall Street protesting about greed and obstructionism -- and, what's more, the spelling on the signs is right!  I hope those financial wizards who think of the "market" as a faceless object, not a mass of people with families, mortgages, and jobs, are watching and taking note.