review : great

It was pretty Great.

I only got around to reading The Great Gatsby earlier this year (or late last year, either way), after starting it many a time and always finding it too dull. In the end, I think it was only Tom Hiddleston’s Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris that for whatever reason persuaded me to really attempt to read the a actual F Scott’s work. 

This did mean that the storyline was still fairly fresh in my head when I read Great, which was both good and bad, I suppose – when something is based in some way on a book that you have read, it is hard not to constantly be pulling comparisons between the two – not in terms of quality, necessarily, but in terms of ‘so when is THIS part going to happen?’.

book and wine
the combination of moscato & YA lit – perfection.

Full disclosure – my strange time spent in NYC in 2009 intersected with Sara’s world a couple of times, so I can admit slight bias and excitement about the release of this title. However, this intersection was mostly limited to seeing her stand up (comedy, not the action of standing up) and having tequila brunch at her apartment with many other folks. 

So, onwards with the reviewishness, then.

I actually did really enjoy it (as my super witty first line would have you believe). It reads as Gossip Girl but smarter. There is a little more time dedicated to intricate descriptions of characters’ appearances, which seems a little at odds with the personality that the protagonist, Naomi, otherwise portrays. At times, I really blanched at her ‘hey, this Marc Jacobs Dress #33208 actually is pretty okay. My mother isn’t the worst person in the world, okay, I admit it’ act – but in saying that, she’s a teenage girl. When I was seventeen, I may have revered The White Stripes (and The Cure, actually, so Naomi and I had that in common), but I also had moments where I was guilty of flicking through glossy magazines lusting over the latest fancy outfit of the week. In that sense, perhaps the sentiments would ring more true with the teen audience that this is aimed at than my ever-so-slightly more mature twenty-something self.

I know some people have been quick to go ‘ugh, LGBT gimmick’, but I appreciated it – and here goes full confession time – having lived and experienced the mutual obsessive girl-on-girl relationship that Jacinta and Delilah experience. 

Does that count as a spoiler? For the book, not my life, I mean. Even before I read Gatsby, I knew the gist of what happened. Anyway.

I appreciated that one of the few voices of reason was Naomi’s Chicagoan best mate Skags, described by Naomi as butch but evidently having a self-described ‘boi’ style. I kind of love that she calls herself Skags – and let’s be honest, if your name was Tiffani, wouldn’t you ditch that name as soon as you started discovering your badass boi self? I’m going to go out on a assumptive limb here and say that the most widely read YA author of the moment with explicitly queer main characters is probably David Levithan (of Will Grayson, Will Grayson co-authorship fame as well as his own titles including Boy Meets Boy) – it’s nice to have female queer characters in the spotlight, even if Naomi herself is an ally rather than gay herself (as she makes explicitly clear on a few occasions… we get it, okay?).

dat quarter case, tho.
dat quarter case, tho.

The whole plot arc of the book does actually seem better fitted to teens than the adults of the original. The shenanigans and devil-may-care attitudes of Fitzgerald’s characters are noteworthy for their excess and awfulness – but in when put in the perspective of teenagers, you suddenly have a group of young people still learning the ways of the world, forcing (some) of the actions into a slightly more ambiguous moral area. Because we all do stupid things as teenagers. 

Overall? From a bookseller perspective, I would definitely recommend it to kids and/or parents. It’s Gatsby but palatable, and somewhat socially aware, in some ways, anyway. It’s not necessarily a must-read for older fans of YA among us, but it’s a quick and easy read, so definitely worth the time put into it (time perspective – it had arrived during the day yesterday, I read a fair bit last night and then finished it this morning). And from a publishing geek perspective, it is a BEAUTIFUL hardback, which I’m not used to as an antipodean (NZ/AU releases are often in trade paperback, not hardback) – I imagine that if it does get a release beyond North America, that we will probably get a TP or PB, so I’m glad that I got in early and grabbed a hardback. For a first novel, it is a valiant effort. I’m Team Benincasa for life.

So go hit up your local indie bookseller and buy it, okay?

review : mermaid in chelsea creek

ON MICHELLE TEA.

Part I– Where I Get Sad.

I think I first heard of Michelle Tea via Becca Rosenthal – probably her Twitter, or her blog. We only ever had a few conversations, she and I – I think at least two of them revolved around my changing hair colour, too – but even that was enough to lodge her permanently in mind, especially when she was a fixture in the lives of some of my friends. Becca was the arbiter of hip – not my words, possibly her own, possibly someone else’s – so I felt that I was doing something right when the first time I met her wound up being at a St Vincent show. To my eighteen year old self, she was everything I wanted to be, clove cigarettes on a Brooklyn stoop and a bandana around her boot.

But Becca’s story ended before it should have – when she died at 27, in late 2012. Friends who loved her dearly were in shock, and I, for whom she was just a brief flash in my strange brief NYC life, felt like I had no right to mourn, not really. But every loss is tragic, and it did leave me a little numb.

Jessica Allyn, my beautiful friend who counted Becca as one of her closest friends, wrote a song for her after her death, and subsequently donated all of her musical takings for a month to Sister Spit. Michelle Tea pops up again.

Part II – Where I Get A Bit Proud.

A momentary internal monologue.

Hey, she’s a contributor on xoJane.com too! And we both write on health-related topics! Sure, she has an ongoing series (‘Getting Pregnant With Michelle Tea’) and I have one piece on my munted guts, but still! We both have author pages, we’re totally alike in some nonsensical way!

ON THE BOOK.

Part III – Discovery & Aesthetics

Shelving books, as one does at a bookstore, can prove most fruitful. I had heard of Mermaid in Chelsea Creek in passing, as a theoretical future release, at some point last year, and neglected to follow it up. But last week, among other treasures in a stack of new children’s and young adult books destined for the shelves, I picked up a couple of beautiful hardbacks (fairly unusual, for novels distributed in the Australasia reason) and examined them closely.

mermaid in chelsea creek

It was Michelle Tea’s book, in all its glory – and I had completely forgotten about it. But now, here it was – exquisite and present and mine for the reading. I took it home, and opened it up. I had a momentary pang of disappointment – stark white paper is never my favourite, I prefer the more ‘standard’ creamy beigey colour. I think it’s a sort of perceived accessibility of white paper – like pages could have been churned through on a home printer, rather than in some mysterious book bindery. In reality, it’s a ridiculous differentiation to make, but so be it. I like the allure of tradition.

But the cover made up for my interior colour misgivings.

Part IV – First Impressions

My initial feeling was one of familiarity. It became clear very quickly that the book felt, to me, at least, like a more gritty or grungey version of Francesca Lia Block’s writing – the same urban fantasy, but with less sparkle. And by sparkle, I mean literal sparkle, of course, as anyone who has read FLB would realise – but in Tea’s work, the glitz and glam of bizarro Los Angeles is replaced by the down-and-out streets of Chelsea, Massachusetts. The extensive tracts of description are there, though, and elements of fairy tale escapism.

I have a fondness for FLB’s Weetzie Bat books, so all of this was a good sign. I went on eagerly.

Part V – In Progress, And A Screeching Halt

I had some serious excitement when I found, not too far into the book, not one but TWO interrobangs. INTERROBANGS! I have a fascination with unusual punctuation, and I’ve never actually seen one used in real life. If you aren’t familiar with the term, an interrobang is a combined exclamation mark and question mark – like this ‽. So unusual, and so exciting.

So I continued muddling along happily, typographically content for a brief time. And then, the mistakes started popping up in my vision. It started with “the birds’ stomach”, and my fledgling editor alarm bells went off. The pigeons don’t share a stomach, yo. Unfortunately, it was one of many issues that weren’t picked up anywhere along the editing/typesetting/proofreading process. Plurals where there shouldn’t have been, inconsistencies with the italicising of foreign language words, even misspelling “poison” as “poison” at one point. Not good form. A couple of errors I could perhaps let slip, but there was a significant enough number that they really did jump out enough to pull me out of the story on several occasions.

Part VI – The Good Stuff

But proofreading issues aside, there was much good to be said about the book. Michelle Tea’s writing is lyrical and lovely, and her memoirs are certainly on my to-do list. In a world where the trends are for post-apocalyptic worlds and hospital wards, a story set in the mean streets of the greater Boston area (I have to admit, until I read the afterword, I assumed that the city of Chelsea was invented for the story – turns out it’s completely real) was refreshing, in many ways. It was also rather fascinating reading about a mythology I previously knew nothing about – the mermaids and witches of Polish tradition – and to learn a few new words too, even if I couldn’t pronounce them or spell them to save my life.

Part VII – The Not So Great Stuff

I’ve already gone over the editorial issues – and they were the thing that really burned in my brain – but at the same time, I wasn’t 100% sold on the story as a whole. Some of the characters were painted as far too black or white, rather than any kind of in-between in terms of motives and actions. Aren’t we all generally more interested in people who fall somewhat between the gaps of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ these days, rather than people who are purely one of the other? Maybe I’ve just read too much George R.R. Martin. The plot was a bit loopy as well – not in concept, I’m all for a bit of fantastical madness – but it just seemed like it could have unfolded better – I may need to re-read in order to establish exactly why I feel that way, but judging from other reviews on Goodreads, I wasn’t alone in my feeling.

Part VIII – Conclusion?

It’s beautiful on the surface – gorgeous cover, gorgeous writing – but at a deeper level, with closer inspection, it leaves a little to be desired. If McSweeney’s run a more thorough check before they go to paperback, and the proofreading issues are fixed, I would bump my current 3/5 to a 4/5. And who knows – there is a sequel in the works, perhaps the pacing will work better across the two books. Regardless of my mixed feelings, I will be picking it up, and I would still recommend people who like the sound of the book to give it a go. Take a chance – and may your eyes not be as critical as mine.

the teenage dream?

Eventually, in this article/mess, I will talk about Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts. But you have been warned, it seems that it took me a LONG time to get there. Ah well. Enjoy my brand of literary ranting and raving.

In early 2010, I went to Wellington for an Amanda Palmer concert. As was tradition.* Part of my excuse for trekking down country for a musician I had seen more than a couple of times was a) I had a free ticket and b) Neil Gaiman was also in town, hurrah! I had finally actually read some Gaiman by this point, having shamefully not actually touched any of his work when I met him eight-ish months earlier.**

So I dutifully purchased a ticket to the ‘An Evening With…’ type event that was going on at the Town Hall the day after the Amanda show (if memory serves), but I still had time to burn before the gig, and discovered that Neil was doing a session with Australian author Margo Lanagan on YA fiction, chaired by Kate de Goldi. What’s not to like? I bought a ticket, and headed to The Embassy***. And it was thoroughly illuminating.****

There was a sense of agreement among the authors that kids are really good at self-censoring – that’s to say, even when reading things above their intended age, oftentimes the things that are ‘inappropriate’ will just go over their heads. I thoroughly agree with this – I can’t come up with an book-related examples off-hand, but when I look back at all the dirty jokes and suggestive lyrics in films and songs that I watched and listened to without a care in the world as a kid, it does make me think that there’s something to it.

Related to this, both authors seemed to say that despite writing for a range of ages, they don’t go into a story thinking ‘this is something that I’m writing for teenagers’  – rather it is something that is the product of publisher and editorial decisions made on something that has grown of its own accord, without working to fill some sort of age-genre niche. It makes me wonder how things would work if other authors worked in a similar system, how it would (or wouldn’t) affect the way that trends work.

Because that’s what this is basically meant to be about, before that introductory tangent happened. Young adult genre trends, and how strange they are. Really. It really does open your eyes as to just how swayed by current interests the teenage/young person mindset is when you see just how overwhelmingly trend-driven YA fiction is. There are obviously ebbs and flows in terms of what is most popular in the world of regular adult fiction, with occasional strange outliers like Fifty Shades of Grey, but as a whole, people can have specific interests in any genre, and there’s going to be new stuff being churned out on a regular basis, be it thriller, sci-fi, ‘literary fiction’ (borrowing Ellie Catton’s quote marks there), or what-have-you.

But teenagers! My goodness. At this moment, it’s perhaps not so mad as it has been at some points in recent years – it seems to be a bit of a transitional period at present – but having worked in a kids’ department in the height of Meyer-mania, the proliferation of vampire (and later Insert-Paranormal-Creature-of-the-Month – did anyone else read Switched by Amanda Hocking? Or as my former workmate Rosie and I referred to it “that troll book”?) fiction was INSANE. I mean, everyone knows that. If it’s not Twilight, it’s Vampire Academy or Vampire Diaries, or Blue Bloods, or The Mortal Instruments. Money spinners, every one – and I won’t claim to judge them for quality, because I haven’t read most of them. I did read all four Twilight books (and the companion novella The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner) and the first book of The Mortal Instruments, but, in case you’re interested, here are my excuses/reasons.
1. Twilight – I found an abandoned copy at O’Hare Airport on my way to Montreal. Made for good plane reading.
2. New Moon – I forgot to bring a book with my on the plane to Florida, and it was the cheapest English language book in the Montreal airport bookstore.3. Eclipse – I had confessed that I’d read them to a friend, and when she came to visit me she brought a copy of Eclipse with her that she’d found while cleaning out a flat or some such.
4. Breaking Dawn – By this stage, I have to admit, I did actively borrow it from a friend (thanks, Mel!), just so that I could say I’d seen it through to the end.
5. The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner – Off-site sale store, just myself and much less-than-riveting stock for company. So over the course of a few shifts I stealthily worked by way through the book (as well as a re-read of The Bad Beginning. Miss you, Botany Town Centre (not).
6. City of Bones. I don’t know if Cassandra Clare is quite in the same ‘really?!’ league as Stephenie Meyer, but still. I read this because it was on my Kobo when I was in hospital after my op last year, and it managed to make more sense than Atwood or Asimov in my morphine haze.

I’m just all about the tangents today, aren’t I? It has been a long day.

Anyway. We were talking about trends! So, as most people will be aware, the next major Young Adult Fiction Trend after paranormal romance was/is Dystopia. Which is very much more up my alley. You all of know my Atwood obsession – and more specifically my Atwood speculative fiction obsession. A good dystopia is just brilliant, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. The cautionary tale element, perhaps, or maybe I just have no faith in the future of the human race? Depends on the day. Regardless, The Handmaid’s Tale and the Maddaddam trilogy are some of my favourite books of all time. And suddenly, there were going to be new dystopic books written in such a way as to be consumed swiftly and easily. Frabjous day!

The Hunger Games was excellent, to a point. I’m not unique in my opinion that the second two books suffered because of the assumed timing/publisher pressure following the huge popularity of the first. Divergent had a similar fate, as did the Uglies books (though neither were quite on the same level as The Hunger Games) – great first book to hook you, but everything rather gets a little too big too fast, and the writing quality drops as a consequence. I tend to think that the ideas are better than the execution in some of these YA dystopias, which isn’t the end of the world, I suppose – I’m sure it fuels the imagination of fledgling writers finding their feet through fanfic.

But even the day of Dystopic Dominance seems to be drawing to an end, and John Green is perhaps the main man behind this transition. Real life is cool again – and in particular, the brand of ‘sick lit’ as it is sometimes uncomfortably known, that he seems to have kicked off with The Fault in Our Stars (correct me if I’m wrong – and obviously I know that books in this vein have existed forever, but none have had quite the same following). I really loved the book, when I read it last year while in the throes of being desperately unwell. One of his other books was one of my other post-op reads (Paper Towns, I think?) along with the aforementioned Cassandra Clare title. Now, kids with cancer are having their stories shared more passionately than ever. I just finished reading Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts, and I thoroughly enjoyed it – but at the same time, it felt a little like I was reading the Aussie version of TFiOS, with less pretentious protagonists and a shuffle of specific cancer-locations. Love on the oncology ward, the new Love in Post-Apocalyptic Appalachia, or Love & Fangs in the Pacific Northwest.

It seems like such a strange niche to have such prominence. Is it the sparkly strands of hope beyond all odds? Is it the fact that many a child will have seen a classmate or relative suffer through the pain of cancer (or another serious illness, though these genre books don’t seem to have stepped out of that box yet)? I’m not a cancer patient, obviously, but my health background meant that there were a fair few moments while reading Zac & Mia that I felt uncomfortable with how familiar these things sounded – the bruises and scars on arms from needles, that constant whir/drip of IVs, the way in which such intensive drugs just sap your life force entirely. I’ve sat in haemotology, with my IV attached, surrounded by patients undergoing chemo. I’ve been put under, not knowing exactly what’s going to happen when I wake up, I’ve had a puffy steroid face, I’ve had slight fond reminisces of a catheter.

Basically, I can relate to some of the goings on of these characters more than I’d like to. I suppose it’s not helped by the fact that I’m currently in a bit of a flap about my health going forward, but I felt constantly on edge while reading hospital scenes in Zac & Mia, even as I felt compelled to read on, felt compassion, empathy. What does a healthy reader take from these stories? Do they zone in on the love stories, with the cancer simply part of the love story? Do they read on, knowing that one of the bright young things could relapse and deteriorate at any moment, so that they the reader can then cry along with the protagonist left alive? Is it glamourising illness, despite painting a pretty damn unhappy and unpleasant image of it?

I don’t know. I’m probably overthinking it.

Trends are strange things, guys.

Perhaps there will be a part two tomorrow when I’ve had more time to digest the book, and I’m less exhausted (funny, right? because when am I ever not exhausted?). All this being said, I would still recommend it.

*The tradition being that I had a compulsion to travel far and wide in pursuit of as many AFP concerts as possible. Last tally was fifteen, I think, including one Coachella slot, one Dresden Dolls show, one performance/reading with her and Neil at a bookstore and one performance of “Delilah” in her lounge. But I digress.

** This was the time that AFP and Neil were performing together at the Housingworks Bookstore, when I came in early with the gang, as it was in those NY-y days, and I was sitting pretty in a corner keeping out of the way when Neil walked past, then stopped and came towards me, saying “You must be the other barely legal lesbian (cf. @thebarelylegals, an on-going Twitter joke circa May 2009), from New Zealand! I’m Neil.” And he stuck his hand out to shake, and apologised for having forgotten my actual name. He had met Kayla, the other part of the boisterous Bed-Stuy  duo the day before, hence the ‘otherness’. It was possibly the most surreal moment of my life. Gods bless my bright pink hair.

***Where, in hindsight, I probably interacted with some of my now-colleagues at the Unity satellite store.

****Keep in mind that everything is being jotted down by memory, now, and this was four years ago, and those four years have been full of illness and drugs and surgery and depression and many other things which may have slightly tinkered with my memory.

2014 in review. prematurely. sort of.

books gotta get read…

Well, it’s the first day in a year that I don’t have to post on here, and yet here I am! You haven’t gotten rid of me yet, internet.

I will at some stage compile a bit of a collection of my favourite picks from the 365 pieces project – though if any of you have any particular favourites from them, do let me know! I’m definitely interested to know what readers have to say, rather than just my highfalutin feelings.

On the subject of readers, though, that leads me onto my new ‘project’, though less official than my previous one, since I’m planning on giving myself a little more creative flexibility this year, in terms of specific output. However, I’m still a reader, a listener, a consumer of art and media and entertainment. And I feel like I have not paid proper attention to these areas on this blog, especially considering that was what I originally intended this to be.

So each week, for the most part, there will be at least one review posted here. The emphasis will be on books, but if I am in the middle of something and don’t wish to distract myself – or if something amazing comes into my ears and/or eyes , it may well be interposed with music and film and even TV reviews, because why limit myself, am I right?

As a bookseller/buyer/soon-to-be-publisher-in-training/writer/generally bibliophile, I always have a ridiculous number of books either on the go, or on my to-do list. One only need check out my GoodReads account for that – and that doesn’t even contain all of the madness, since I don’t keep it totally up-to-date with my Kobo readings too. And most of my books are still boxed up from my move, so the only ones I have around are more recent acquisitions/ones that were shelved in strange places.

But here’s a cursory list of what I’m in the middle of, or have at least started (excluding re-reads… Suzanne Collins and Tamora Pierce are like comfort food, okay?)

The Great Gatsby – F. S. Fitzgerald (I know, I know, most people read this when they’re 15 in high school, but we didn’t, sorry ’bout it).
Allegiant – Veronica Roth (already finished Divergent and Insurgent, but will review them all together)
The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling (way overdue)
Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood (I have started this book SO MANY times. I don’t know what it is about it. But I’m determined to persevere)
The Sandman – Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman (also way overdue. I feel like a fake Gaiman-fiend, but I’m remedying it!)
The Gift Lewis Hyde (the only NF title on this list – Eleanor Catton referred to it in her Booker acceptance speech, and then I saw that Margaret Atwood wrote the introduction… sold!)
Snake Ropes – Jess Richards (a publisher rep or a review or something recommended this book as excellent for people who like Margaret Atwood. So I bought it, obviously.)
The Twelve – Justin Cronin (so far taking longer for me to power through than The Passage did, but still proving worthwhile, bit by bit)
Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley – Danyl McLauchlan (NZ author, really good so far, just need to push distractions aside!

And here’s the vague to-read list, as it stands (see the photo at the top for appearances of a fair few of these…) The links are becoming a bit draining, so I will leave you to do your own searches on them, should you wish to investigate further.
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (actually, I should really review The Secret History, since I read that recently, hmm)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (I was a 18 y.o. semi-hipster lit student working in a chain bookstore when this was at peak popularity, so naturally I avoided it at all costs. Having enjoyed both adaptations, I’m going to give it a go)
Speaker for the Dead – Orson Scott Card (even though OSC’s a pretty awful person, I did really enjoy Ender’s Game, so I kind of want to pursue the series further)
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (just because)
– Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (sounds a bit trippy and fairly good)
On The Road – Jack Kerouac (left my original Popular Penguin somewhere in Brooklyn, I think, so am starting from square one, only, err, four and a half years later?)
Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems – Allen Ginsberg (been on my to-do list for ages, thanks Book Depository sale!)
The Flood – Maggie Gee (#2 book acquired via the Book Depository 25 hour sale – looks cool, will expand later, naturally)
The Best of H.P. Lovecraft – um, H.P. Lovecraft (lucky last book purchased in the Book Depository sale. Never read any Lovecraft, thought I should fix it. This fairly weighty tome should do the trick!)
The String Diaries – Stephen Lloyd Jones (advanced reading copy from work that our gen. buyer thought I might like, and still haven’t gotten around to it, but it does sound interesting, so on the list before the move!)
Persuasion – Jane Austen (because I’m the worst English major ever and have never read any Austen. Several people have told be Persuasion is her best work, so I bought a lovely leather bound copy and hope that aesthetic allure will encourage me.)
The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Tales – Edgar Allan Poe (ridiculously, I’ve never really read any Poe, despite taking a ‘Theory and the Gothic’ course in my final undergrad semester – but then, I was pretty much in max-sickness situation then, so my reading list had more than a few holes in it.
– 1984 – George Orwell (another classic lit hole to fill)

Yeah. I’m a bit all over the place. Any recommendations are more than welcome – I love love love making new discoveries, so bring a little joy to my life!

‘the fall of light’ and other things by sarah laing

As per my earlier The Luminaries review, this review was catalysed by my writing a review for our work website. It’s still in the works (I’m not so good at the concise two paragraph type set-up that our space constraints require) so here is my more verbose, more ‘just keep typing, it’ll make sense in the end’ review of Sarah Laing’s fantastic The Fall of Light.

the fall of light

I can’t decide if it’s a fantastic or tough year to be a New Zealand writer. I suspect it’s a bit of both, for many – the Eleanor Catton effect has to be a tricky beast. There’s got to be an afterglow on the entire book industry locally – but it also has to be a bit daunting, being shelved alongside the newly christened Booker winner.

That being said, as a book industry person and writer of words myself, I feel very much compelled to call attention to other fantastic kiwi releases of the last few months. Sarah Laing’s The Fall of Light is among my favourite reads of the year, and generally I like to think that’s fairly high praise coming from a bookseller. Laing initially entered the spotlight the same way that Eleanor Catton did – winning the Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition (one of the two biggest short story competitions in the country, certainly the one with the highest circulation of the winning stories).

Laing won in 2006, and at the 2007 award ceremony (where Catton took away top honours and yours truly came second in the secondary schools division), everyone took home a copy of her debut publication, Coming up Roses, a short story collection full of delicious tidbits. I won’t say too much on that title, since it’s been a while since I’ve read it and I don’t want to do it a disservice by being unable to pinpoint the exact bits of magic, but it’s an excellent collection, that much I can say confidently.

2009, and her first novel was released. Dead People’s Music was my favourite book of 2009, I think, and that’s some stiff competition – The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood came out that year too, but the pages of Dead People’s Music are far more well-thumbed. The book is the story of Rebecca, a Wellingtonian avant-garde cellist and her exploits as a newly arrived New Yorker – along with two other parallel storylines of Rebecca’s earlier teenage years, and the Germany-to-New York-to-the Wairarapa saga of her late grandmother, fellow cellist Klara. I adore the book. Coloured perhaps by timing – I’d only recently returned from my North American adventures when it came out, capped off by nearly three months in New York – but even upon re-reads, when the experience and parallels aren’t so fresh in my mind, it’s a wonderful read, beautifully written and constantly engaging, with the changes between main characters and temporal periods keeping things fresh chapter to chapter.

But I’m getting off topic here. Earlier in the year, I discovered that Laing had a new novel coming out. Regular blog readers may recall that I’ve mentioned it on my ‘Magnificent Winter of Books’ posts – it was the last one I discovered, and the first one that I had the pleasure of reading, with the Random House reps being particularly wonderful with the AR copies for booksellers. So it was with great delight that I read The Fall of Light over Queens Birthday weekend (this review is SO overdue), AKA Briar’s birthday weekend – and what a wonderful present it was.

Rudy is the protagonist, and I have to say always impressed when an author gets in the head of the other gender in a convincing fashion. Obviously I’m speaking with feminine bias here, but I thought that his portrayal was top-notch. According to Laing herself, she did get her husband to consult on occasion, with him confirmed that yep, this sounds like a male voice, so evidently the approval comes from across the board. With the setting being Auckland, there was even more familiarity in the settings than in Dead People’s Music – quite jarring at times, when you read about someone going for coffee at Dizengoff, when you’re sitting just down the road! Not to mention the family home itself, location never explicitly specified, but I always sort of superimposed my dad’s house over the top (big, somewhat architectural, immersed in Waitakere bush), and with Sarah herself telling the gathered fans (yours truly included) at an authorly interaction/wine/nibbles evening last week that she’d based the location on Huia, I felt somewhat justified in my imaginings. Apologies to all non-Aucklanders, the past couple of sentences probably meant absolutely nothing. Suffice it to say, there are shades of home all over the book.

As with all of her writing, the conjuring of people and places is wonderful, and she is one of those wonderful authors who makes the somewhat ordinary (in this case, in the vein of suburban tragedy, a man nearing middle age losing his job, with his wife having left him, taking their daughters with her) – which is one of my favourite writerly talents. Don’t get me wrong, I love a well-executed plot-driven masterwork as much as the next person (haven’t I waxed lyrical about The Luminaries and Margaret Atwood enough?) but I also love stories that come to me relatively simple and perfectly formed, like a continuation of what makes a good short story. Some authors make the transition with varying degrees of success – I have many feelings about certain authors’ novels as versus their short stories, but that’s another post for another occasion – but she does it perfectly.

image originally at http://booknotes-unbound.org.nz/sarah-laings-the-fall-of-light/
image originally at http://booknotes-unbound.org.nz/sarah-laings-the-fall-of-light/

One particularly magical thing about Sarah Laing is that in addition to being a fabulous writer, she is also a graphic artist, and is behind the design of all three of her books’ covers (don’t quote me on that, but I believe that it’s true?). But TFoL is even more special – the book also contains gorgeous black and white ink-wash illustrations throughout, which add a whole other layer to the story and the reading experience, portraying Rudy’s near-death-experience influenced dream sequences. When I first read the book, I was so plot-hungry that I did somewhat skim over the images, apart from appreciating their gorgeous execution – but having had a more in-depth explanation from Sarah herself the aforementioned writer evening thing, I feel compelled to go back and examine the pictures more thoroughly in the context of both the book and what she’s described

I’ll probably post a link to my ‘official’ review when it goes up, but in the meantime, I urge all you folk to go get your hands on a copy now – it’s a lurverly trade/C format (unlike her earlier two which were released straight to B format but beautifully designed nonetheless), with pretty foldy bits and all that jazz. I generally far prefer a nice TPB to a HB, and this is no exception (can you see my book nerd showing?) – get it! And more than any other novel I’ve read recently, I seriously do beseech you to get a real copy rather than the ebook, because your Kindle/Kobo/Sony/whatever just won’t do the illustrations justice.

I also feel the need to mention her comics – I thoroughly recommend checking out her Let Me Be Frank quartet, which you can (I think) find out more about over at her wordpress blog – also entitled Let Me Be Frank. I picked up #3 and #4 at the soiree thing last week, and they are both fantastic. Enough to make me seriously think about buying Metro magazine a lot more often, in part just for the comics… hop to it, and investigate it yourselves. Her next publication is, all going to plan, a graphic novel about Katherine Mansfield and herself, and having seen a few initial sketches and draft panels, I’m very excited. I mean, it’s basically a law to be a Mansfield fan as a Kiwi writer, so I’m just living up to my expectations, right? Right?

‘the luminaries’ by eleanor catton

***UPDATE! As those of you with your fingers on the literary pulse will likely already know, Eleanor Catton has taken home this year’s Man Booker Prize, which is a ridiculously huge honour, and all of the NZ literary community is pretty much on cloud nine. Either way, if you’re unsure about whether you want to undertake the massive read that is The Luminaries, then hopefully my review below may sway you.***

Front page review of The Luminaries by yours truly on the University Bookshop Ltd (aka the biggest academic bookshop presence in New Zealand) website! AKA my workplace, but still… We’ve only just instated these online staff pick reviews, and I was first pick, so that’s quite satisfying! Read on – and seriously consider buying a copy. The trade paperback is lovely, but the hardback is absolutely gorgeous, and worthy of the splurge, I feel. I’ve mentioned this book a couple of times before, so some points may sound familiar.

Anyway, it reads as follows –

The word Dickensian has been thrown around with regard to Eleanor Catton’s sophomore release, The Luminaries, and it’s certainly got the Victorian grittiness – and impressive page count – that one would expect from any decent Dickens novel. But it’s so much more than that. Catton may only be in her late twenties, but her ability to enter into the minds of the multitude of key characters – almost all male, from all kinds of ethnic, social and moral backgrounds – is staggering. The descriptions of Hokitika and the surrounding lands are beautifully evocative, the constant presence at the beginning of chapters of an omniscient narrator feels like a reassuring indicator that the mysteries will all unfold. And Catton’s ability to stick to period style writing and editing in a completely believable fashion is ‘d—ned’ impressive.

Despite the book’s length, you are drawn into the various mysteries at hand almost immediately, and between the evocative writing and the constant unraveling of the mysterious strands of stories, it’s thoroughly unputdownable. It’s a historical novel, a mystery, with a touch of the fantastical (the omnipresent references to the zodiac) – all by a young contemporary New Zealand author, whose future works will have the world’s attention. Highly, highly recommended.

The best historical mystery about Hokitika that there ever was or will be.
The best historical mystery about Hokitika that there ever was or will be.

To further elaborate – I was constrained by word/space requirements, naturally – I was overall a big fan of the book. That being said, I do think that I preferred The Rehearsal to The Luminaries – and perhaps that’s just my genre preferences coming through, not to mention 300 and something pages verses over 800 – but given that The Rehearsal is possibly my favourite conventional ‘contemporary fiction’ book, that’s a difficult honour to top. So many authors these days are either good story makers or good writers (especially the former) – but not necessarily both. Eleanor Catton is, most assuredly, both of these things. There’s always a storyline to weave the beautiful language around, rather than just to exist for beautiful language’s sake (for which there is a time and a place, but I’d argue that’s something that should generally be reserved for poetry and short prose rather than a fully fledged novel).

Back to the story itself though – one of my favourite aspects of the novel, beyond the overarching story and the writing, was the character development. No character was truly left unexplored – and virtually every man and woman had some varied shades of morality in them – except, perhaps, for the villainous Francis Carver, who was pretty much straight up nasty.

Having visited the West Coast – though not for at least a decade (being able to write that makes me feel so very old) – I am somewhat familiar with the environment being written about, particularly since we had a family jaunt to ‘Shantytown’, a West Coast tourist attraction that is set up like a 19th century gold mining town that’s about half an hour up the coast from Hokitika. But even without that experience, I love the way Catton conjures up the ramshackle, wild environment that these people were living in. It’s known as a bit of a grim, rainy place, rough of weather and of sea, and there’s certainly no lack of that feeling in the book.

The integration of astrology into the book is an interesting element that I feel is reason enough alone for a re-read – I sort of want to work my way through it slowly with some sort of reference book or Wikipedia open to sort out what all the references mean – and I know I’m not alone with that sentiment. As with many books of its girth, the initial read through is all too skimmed through in parts, as there’s just so much to get through – particularly when there is mystery involved. To explicitly have something like the astrological connections fuels the desire to reread and absorb more to an even greater extent than usual, because it does feel as if a whole other layer of meaning may have been lost to the layperson reader.
Overall, it’s truly a triumph – so get your greedy book-fiend paws on a copy now. I really do recommend getting a physical copy, it’s so satisfying and gorgeous (did I mention the beauty of the end papers in the hardback?? they are stunning – at least in the NZ version by Victoria University Press, I’ve no idea what the Granta or Little, Brown ones are like I’m afraid) but it is available in ebook format too – meBooks is a great source for NZ ebooks, with both epub and Kindle formats available. Physical copies are available through all regular retailers – UBS, obviously, as linked at the beginning, but if you’re overseas, try below at Indie Bound to support independent bookshops! Or, if you’re super attached to Amazon, then you can get it there too.


The Luminaries

At the time of writing this, we are two days out from the final Booker prize announcement, and Catton is the favourite of some sources. I’ll be sure to update with the details – even if she doesn’t take home the prize this year, to be nominated at such a young age (born in 1985!) is a coup in itself. And there will hopefully be many more thought-provoking and superbly executed books where this one came from.

on book releases, colds, and surgery

I was extraordinarily excited for The Luminaries to be released. Eleanor Catton is among my favourite NZ authors around at the moment – I love love loved The Rehearsal (pretty sure that I’ve waxed lyrical about it at some point on here), and the thought of not only a new release from her, but a veritable tome of a new release… well, I can’t quite come up with the words, which is part of the problem.

My head (and general person) is a snuffly, almost-flu-y mess right now, and concentrating on beautiful and expansive prose is unfortunately not really meshing well with this undesired state of being. I got about 150 pages in by Saturday evening, and since then, I’ve been in a sad state of nose-blowing, whimpering and spluttering affairs. Still at work, of course – we’re all plague-ish at the moment, so for any particular one of us to actually go home sick, we’d have to pull out some pretty spectacular malady-related action.

So instead of absorbing the splendor of my fourth (or third, depending on your reckoning – third technical release, but fourth one I’ve read – thanks advance reading copies!) book of ‘the winter of magnificent book releases‘, I have been furthering my YA book ‘research’ with my third John Green book in two/three months (who’s counting?), which are enjoyable without requiring as much in-depth attention as The Luminaries is demanding.

So it sits beside my bed in all of its hardback-beautiful-end-paper-beribboned glory, while I knock back Codral (occasionally with Tramadol, when UC symptoms require it – my, what a combination) and tap at my Kobo screen, unravelling the mysteries of many Katherines and Alabaman boarding schools and teenagers with cancer. My bedside (well, within reaching distance of my bed) bookshelf bears many treasures which I need to get around to reading, as well as a couple of additions which I have read but hadn’t owned until recently (The Forrests, by Emily Perkins (for which I should really write a post about, in terms of the not entirely pleasant feelings I always manage to get from her books lately – not a bad thing, just unsettling) – and The Fall of Light, by Sarah Laing (one of the other three Magnificent Winter Releases (TM) (not actually TM). I have a squillion books around me that I need to read (curse of the bookseller-come-writer-come-English graduate), and yet here I am, on the e-reader, reading books that, whilst enjoyable, aren’t the ones that have been sitting on my to-do list for 5+ years (hint: I still haven’t read any Jane Austen).

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with all this. Maybe it’s still the codeine/paracetamol/tramadol cocktail coursing through some of my various veins.

Anyway.

I think the moral of that story was that, if you aren’t wracked with illness like I am, you should poke your nose into The Luminaries, for I recommend it wholeheartedly, or as much as one can recommend a book one is only 18% of the way through. I can also more thoroughly recommend The Fall Of Light, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Maddaddam, now that I have actually read all of them.

The other thing is that surgery is creeping closer, and I now have two possible dates of These Will Probably Be Your Options But It Is MoH Policy To Not Book Surgery Until All Outstanding Tests Are Completed nature. So after my MRI next Friday, hopefully things can be more properly booked. By which stage it will be less than a month til either of those dates. Yikes.

Hopefully I’ll be sufficiently snuffle-free over the coming weeks to finish the damn book. If I can’t manage it now, I can’t imagine that post-surgery-brain-fog me will be up to the task either.

2013 and the winter of the magnificent book releases

Interrupting the regular poetic and health related programming to bring you a bit of what this blog was originally intended for – BOOKS. Today I realised that yet another of my various favourite authors has a book coming out this year, just to add to my literary excitement of the months ahead. So, in chronological order, here are the upcoming releases that I am most excited about – the four new releases (one for each of the four coming months!) that are making 2013 my favourite publishing year in, well, years. And if there are any upcoming releases that you’re excited for, let me know in the comments!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman. June 18th.

Well, if you’re at all switched into the online literary world, you’re probably aware that Neil Gaiman has a new release that is so close I can almost taste it. His first marketed-at-adults book since Anansi Boys, no less. I haven’t managed to get my hands on a reading copy yet, sadly, but will be devouring it as soon as it arrives. Soon, soon… watch this space for an actual review. Initial thoughts – the title is wonderfully whimsical. When I first heard it, I was a combination of jealous and inspired. Page count looks to be quite short, which could mean two things, for the most part – it will either be small and perfectly formed, or it may leave me wanting more. Or both, I suppose. Only time will tell.

The Fall of Light. Sarah Laing. July 5th.

This is the release I only found out about today. Her first novel, Dead People’s Music, was possibly my favourite release of 2009 (reliving the kiwi experience of New York after getting back home through her words rather than mine… bittersweet). And I may or may not have one of those opportunities that booksellers do have, from time to time, to get my nose into it before the actual book hits shelves. It’s like Random knew it was my birthday this weekend (which it is, feel free to buy me books!)…

The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton. August 2nd.

I think this is probably the one I’m most excited about. Eleanor Catton is probably my favourite NZ writer of the moment (which is a tough call, especially with the Sarah Laing book on my plate at the moment, but still…) – and by moment, I mean ever since I read her first novel The Rehearsalwhich was released in 2008, and is absolutely brilliant. If you haven’t read it, fix this immediately. She is not to be trifled with, and if VUP do get a reading copy to the store soon, I will be so many different kinds of grateful, I don’t even know what I’ll do. Except, you know, read it, and squeal, and all that.

Maddaddam. Margaret Atwood. September 3rd.

And to wrap up my Amazing Book Winter, there is the new book from none other than the titan of the word, the mistress of my literary heart, the incomparable Margaret Atwood. She is, without doubt, my favourite, favourite author. Maddaddam is the third and final installment what is now the Maddaddam trilogy, which kicked off with Oryx and Crake in 2003. And which is, incidentally, probably my favourite book ever. Oryx and Crake and the follow-up The Year of the Flood were intertwined, but at the same time stand-alone novels, occurring over the same – or at least similar – time-frame, whereas it sounds as though Maddaddam is set after both of the other novels – so whether it will feel more like a sequel than its own entity remains to be seen, but you can bet your sweet bippy that I will let you know what I think. SO. EXCITED.

So that’s my four big releases, the books that’ll make this year worth wading through – what about you, o fine readers?

the summer book et al

A couple of years ago my lovely lovely Welsh penpal sent me a copy of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson in a package of things. What this means for this moment is a) I’m a terrible correspondent via snail mail and should be imprisoned for crimes against Pen Pal Do-Goodery and b) I have finally read it.

Tove Jansson was an author I was vaguely aware of from a reasonably young age – my mother acquired one of the Finn Family Moomintroll books and it sat on my bookshelf forever. I felt it was beneath my eight-year-old dignity to read a book with illustrations of little white hippo-y creatures not only on the cover but throughout the pages. Shock horror.

So it went unread. And regrettably continues to remain in such a stasis because I have no idea where it has gone. BUT, said penpal was a longtime fan of Jansson’s books, and so I was gifted with a copy of one of her adult novels – The Summer Book, as I’ve already said. It took me a while to get into, as it’s quite a floaty narrative style that I have to be in a certain mindset to read for a long period of time, but I decided a couple of weeks ago that I had to Just Do It, as Nike would bid me do. It is summer, after all, and I’m trying to get through all my unread books, so mid-January was ideal The Summer Book reading time. And conveniently, for this matter anyway, I’ve been spending much time on public transport of late, which proved most fruitful in this reading venture.

As much as the book is a novel – or novella, perhaps, when length is properly considered – I found it read more like a series of individual short stories, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to have made this observation. The two key characters of Sophia and her grandmother remain the pivotal part of every chapter, as does the island setting, but each any one chapter’s story could happily exist in its own right, without the chapters on either side to hold it up – there’s really no overarching plot. So it felt more like reading a short story collection which happened to have the same familiar characters recycled than a ‘novel’ in the traditional sense of the word.

As for the actual writing and whatnot, Tove Jansson has a magical way with words – and I’d imagine this comes through to an even greater extent in the original Swedish, but super kudos to whoever the translator was (I can’t be bothered checking right now) because whatever that spark is like in the mother tongue, it still shines through in English. Sophia and her grandmother are both fascinating characters – the grandmother arguably more so, with Sophia being somewhat a quintessential creative-spirited question-asking young girl. The grandmother is SASSY.

Anyway. I recommend it. Go read it, and breathe in the landscape of a Scandinavian island world in summertime.

To keep up the summer theme, here I do suggest a few excellent tracks with ‘Summer’ in the title, to keep you in an appropriately sunshiney mood if you’re a fellow Southern Hemisphere dweller, or to lift your wintery spirits if you’re stuck in northern climes. Go youtube ’em and maybe even download them on iTunes.

SummertimeBeck (or alternatively the Sex Bob-Omb version, obviously)
Summer Love – The Brunettes
The Sweet Sounds of Summer – The Shangri-Las
Cruel Summer – Karen Elson
Summer House – Gold Motel
Summer Girl – Family of the Year
Summerboy – Lady Gaga
Summer in the City – Regina Spektor

Big Day Out related update to follow, y’all. Summer festivals fit in with summery updates, obviously.

Ciao, knives.

Mr Nancy, I presume.

Today I finally finished Anansi Boyss.

I have a weird relationship with Neil Gaiman books. Probably it’s because I have a weird relationship with the entity that is Neil himself (spot the Twitter reference) – he was an author I knew of, and I’d watched and enjoyed Stardust (but hadn’t read the book) when suddenly he was a focal point in the Amanda Palmer world that I was somewhat involving myself in.

(By somewhat, I mean going to shows in Florida whilst living in Montreal, and the like. You know, the usual.)

I had vowed that I would read at least one of his books before meeting him, but alas, it did not happen in time. I’d started Neverwhere, and read a few stories from Smoke and Mirrors, but nothing more, when I met him at a show/reading he and Amanda were doing at the Housingworks Bookstore in NYC. I shook his hand, he introduced himself and knew who I was (I was at that time part of an apartment dwelling duo known to Teh AFP Internetz as ‘The Barely Legal Lesbians’, partly identifiable by our unnaturally coloured hair) and he signed a setlist for me after the show. Badass? I think so.

But I still didn’t get around to properly reading any of his books until I returned from the Great North American Adventure of 2009 and found myself back in Kiwiland. I read Stardust soon after,  and thoroughly enjoyed it. And then I eventually got around to reading The Graveyard Book, a topic which has already been broached here. I love the way he writes, the way he creates characters and places and manipulates words. He would certainly rank highly among my ‘favourite’ authors. But every time I read something he’s written – Stardust excluded – I take a bizarrely long time to power through the pages. In one respect, this means I’m absorbing the story more, I suppose, but it’s also frustrating as I tend to be more of the zap-pow variety when it comes to reading speed. American Gods was glorious, but again, took me quite some time to get into, and even then, the actual time taken to complete the novel, even once I was immersed in it, was pretty damn long.

Anansi Boys has been the bane of my life for the last couple of months. I started it. And then forgot I was reading it. And then had to start again, got about 100 pages in, and then stopped again. I would try to hack back at it, but would wind up only reading a few pages at a time. I suppose it didn’t help that I was also in the middle of exams/December work whilst trying to do this, but still. Then, yesterday, I decided to put in a proper effort, choose only appropriate reading-supportive (rather than distracting) music to play, and get into it. And I finally finished it.

It was definitely a book that kept building and building and building as it went along, with a pleasantly short dénouement, rather than trying to drag it all out after the main action had occurred. I spent the first half of the book enjoying it, but being disappointed when comparing it back to American Gods, but by the time I finished it, I was much more satisfied with it. I still preferred American Gods, certainly, but Anansi Boys proved itself a thoroughly excellent read, in the end. I think the more constant presence of creeping supernatural themes in American Gods kept me a little more engaged, but that was really the whole point of Fat Charlie Nancy, I suppose, his supposed distance from the godlike.

And now that I’ve finished this spiel, I must go be A Helpful Daughter and clean and tidy things, as my mother’s cousin from the US is coming to visit. Maybe some of my Amurkin friends should stow away in her luggage? DC’s not that far from NYC, after all…

(And appropriately, her name is Nancy.)