Shouts from the void…

I’ve been so dreadful at maintaining this lately. Life is busy, and it’s winter. Combine those two things with an eternally uncooperative immune system and chronic blah-blah-blah and I’ve been pretty exhausted when I’ve been in a position to write things. Which is a pain, both for my disposable income and my general creative juices.

So, an update:

In curly health news! I have written a thing for the Crohn’s & Colitis NZ website about my experience living with IBD. I also spoke last week at a meeting of Inner Wheel (a women’s branch of Rotary), along with Brian Poole, the chairman of CCNZ, about my experiences with Crohn’s and associated shenanigans. It was rather lovely, actually – and I won the raffle, which was a bonus.

In book news! I have been reading SO MUCH GOOD STUFF. The Man Booker Longlist has some excellent heft to it this year. I adored The Chimes, by very lovely kiwi Anna Smaill , and hope like hell that it wins – but at the same time, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is astounding. I haven’t felt that torn apart by a book in a long time – possibly ever. Part of me thinks that Yanagihara might be the first person to take the Booker, Pulitzer and the Bailey’s (formerly Orange) prizes. It’s only the second year that a person could really be eligible for all three. Maybe we should have a draw for the Booker and Bailey’s? Could we do that?

Of the ‘Booker dozen’ I have also read Lila by Marilynne Robinson, which was also excellent. I’ve also got Anne Enright’s The Green Road on my bedside stack, but after I’ve wrangled that one, I might wait until the shortlist is announced, just to pare down my list a little.

I’ve been continuing my radio reviews, still primarily on Newstalk ZB, but I’ve nipped over to Radio NZ once, and will hopefully do so again. So far, I’ve talked about The Mime Order (as previously mentioned), Aquarium by David Vann, The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire by Fiona Farrell, The Age of Earthquakes by Douglas Coupland and, most recently, Mislaid by Nell Zink. All have been excellent, and have provoked interesting discussion in the studio. I’ll try to do some written bits and pieces on at least some of them at some point.

I’m also trying to stay on top of NZ books, naturally, and am about to get back into The Pale North by Hamish Clayton, after putting it on a brief hiatus while getting on top of things needing review or other immediate attention. I’ve also recently gotten through New Hokkaido by James McNaughton and The Predictions by Bianca Zander – and the previously mentioned The Chimes and The Villa at the Edge of the Empire are both NZ books too.

The second Rat Queens trade is out, and I’m verrrry slowly working my way through it, so as to make it last as long as possible.

And, most recently, I’ve just finished Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming novel The Heart Goes Last. Which I have mixed feelings on. I enjoyed it – I just didn’t adore it as much as I’d hoped I would. Again, I’ll try to write something of more substance soon. I think I was – we all were – spoiled with the expansive world and characters created in the Maddaddam trilogy – but The Heart Goes Last is standalone and tops out at just over 300 pages, and is accordingly much more limited in its scope.

My to-do list is full of exciting things. The Enright, I’ve already mentioned. I also have an ARC of the new Jonathan Franzen, which will be interesting as I’ve never actually done any Franzen before. But I’ve been hearing immensely good things. I still need to get around to reading my work-birthday-present book, Between You & Me by Mary Norris, which promises to be delightful. I also still need to bash through The Art of Asking out of a sense of curiosity and nostalgia. And there are a million other things on my to-do pile, but to try to note them all would be a waste of everyone’s time. Suffice it to say that I’ll get there, one day.

Also, in book/writing news, I wrote the content for the latest Unity newsletter, which was deeply satisfying to see come to fruition (I’d managed to forget the joys of the print production process already, but it was good to be reminded of how things operate). It’s all online in PDF form now, but you can also grab a print copy if you’re in Wellington or Auckland.

That ‘update’ turned much more in-depth than I’d intended. Ah, well. Consider yourselves informed.

a toast to ellie catton – darling of the writing world, NZ literary superhero

I originally posted this on my Raw Library FB page (go like it now, you crazy cats!), but the sentiment must be shared over the whole internet! The rejoicing in NZ bookstores today was ridiculous.

In super exciting book world news (and if you’ve been living in a news media free world for the past 11 hours), Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries! This is super exciting, for several reasons beyond the fact that it’s one of the biggest deals in the literary world – she’s a) the youngest author EVER to win b) it’s the longest novel ever to win, and c) she’s only the second Kiwi to win. And combining points a) and c), last time it was won by a NZer, it was Keri Hulme (The Bone People) – in 1985, the same year Catton was born.

It’s really a spectacular book – my review obviously supports my opinion – but I’d also recommend checking out her earlier work. The Rehearsal, her first novel, is among my favourite books of all time – I would say that it’s probably my overall favourite ‘contemporary fiction’ book. But even further back then that, her short stories are all fabulous. And here’s where Briar connections come in! Catton’s story Necropolis won the 2007 Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition (for non-lit-obsessed types/non-Kiwis, it’s one of the two biggest short story competitions in the country) – coincidentally the same year that I can second in the secondary schools division. I congratulated her, and she me, and it was a splendid evening. Here’s hoping I can yet emulate but a fraction of her success. Go read Necropolis!

‘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.