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.

Review: The Mime Order

Briar Lawry reviews The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon on Newstalk ZB with Tim Fookesthe mime order

I’m currently working on a few long-ish form book reviews for a couple of places – and when those are complete, I will link to them here – but in the meantime, here is a link I meant to post a few weeks back. My first radio review – simultaneously nerve-wracking and fun. These will be cropping up every six-ish weeks, as Tilly and I swap from session to session. Since I’ve previously reviewed The Bone Season here, it only made sense to make sure my review for its sequel ended up on here too, regardless of the different format!

on we shall go

Here’s a little book related denouement, to follow up the emotionally-fraught time that was last night. Since we all know that books are what I do best.

What am I reading at the moment, you may wonder? Well, it’s never as simple as answering with a one-title response. I am in the process of working my way through :

  • Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan*
  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green**
  • The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec Vol. 2 by Jacques Tardi
  • Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card***

There are also a fair few books on my shelves/piles that have bookmarks at a partway point, but that I am not currently actively engaging in, so to speak. They are the next tier to work my way through.

*Ought to finish it before I start my work placement at VUP. Really good, just a little slow going.
** Re-reading. Because, you know, movie. And also I just need a little John Green in my life every now and then.
*** I have a lot of feelings about OSC & his books, and I will write a post about them at some point.

I’m on a real graphic novel kick at the moment, after finishing reading the first Sandman bind-up… but I decided to branch out from pure Gaiman, and test the waters of other areas. Since I thoroughly enjoyed the Adele Blanc-Sec movie, I figured that the graphic novels would be a fine choice – and so far, so good. I have been meaning to re-read Scott Pilgrim, but since that has a very specific connection to That Which I Am Moving On From In All Ways, I’m not sure if that would be sensible to do right now. The last thing I need is good books/movies/memories being ruined by my current feelings regarding the person in question. So maybe the Bryan Lee O’Malley material is off the cards for a while.

Per the John Green mention, you can probably gather that I’m not entirely removed from my YA phase of late – and after spending a fair while today trotting around the kids and teen sections at work, shelving and book-lookin’,  it seems unlikely to change any time soon – there’s always something new that I notice and leaf through and want to devour. Relating back to yesterday’s post somewhat, I really do wish that I had a bit of Olive-style company for many reasons, but one of which is certainly to be able to have someone to read gorgeous beautiful books with.

That’s probably a combination of specific child missing, and general mid-20s cluckiness.

Anyway.

I hope you are all reading wonderful things as well. If you aren’t, rectify this immediately. Go to your local indie bookshop and get a recommendation.  Buy a book. Make the publishing world turn.

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?

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.

literary transgressions

It is telling that the one poem that I can always remember from my first year of primary school is as follows –

Read, read, read.
The more you read
The more you knowThe more you know
The more you grow
So read, read, read!

Surprise surprise, right? I didn’t choose the book life, the book life chose me, yadda yadda. I acknowledge that I had a privileged childhood in that regard, growing up in houses full of books, walking past a library every day in my formative years. And though, it’s not exactly a requirement of such an upbringing that you end up with books on the brain every waking moment… here I am. Even as I carry my Kobo with me everywhere, there is almost always at least one physical book in my bag with me too (Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts, for any interested parties – a ‘sick-lit’ YA piece is probably forthcoming) – it’s just a way of life. Wallet, phone, keys, Kobo, notebook, real book. Life’s essentials.

But what I thought would be interesting to mention is a few moments in my personal back catalogue where I have been Anti-Book. By which I mean Anti-Specific-Book, of course – but still, they are noteworthy enough events that I still remember them vividly. And I will leave out most of the ‘ehhh, can I be bothered?’ moments that occurred during my English degree, because I was ill and tired and depressed and many other things that weren’t conducive to reading beyond my own specific selection of titles.

Here we go.

2001, my first year at intermediate – more importantly, I suppose, my first year at a very posh, very proper, very high achieving private school. None of this was too terrible – I was a high achiever myself, back in the day – but it meant that sometimes there were moments of more… traditional books than I was perhaps interested in. My primary school days were filled with Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley and every other glorious NZ writer for children and young people – I was never a fan of books that I saw as ‘old-fashioned’, like Enid Blyton. I also had a ten year old’s resolve that war was idiotic and there was no reason for it and anyone who wrote or said anything about it was stupid.

And so it was that I launched my first act of academic rebellion, when we were set The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. Which, if you haven’t read it, is about children fleeing Warsaw in WWII (if memory serves). So it was about war, and it was OLD. It was basically everything I theoretically despised in a book, and I was having none of it. So I didn’t read it. We were supposed to be doing an on-going project – double page spreads for each chapter, illustrations – the whole shebang. I refused. I stood my ground. I… eventually relented, after getting in trouble with both my teacher and my mum – but I wasn’t happy about it. I skimmed the book, made faces while working on my intentionally subpar assignment.  Such was my First Act Of Waywardness.

The Second Act Of Waywardness was less my own fault and more the fault of a teacher who just didn’t have an inspirational bone in her body. But still, it’s shameful to reflect on. You see, in Year 11 (that’s about the equivalent of a high school sophomore, for you Americans who occasionally pop up here), I had my first brush with Katherine Mansfield.

And I HATED it.

see what i mean?
see what i mean?

In hindsight, it really taught me a lot about how important the role of the teacher is, and how some people just… shouldn’t. Katherine Mansfield is one of my favourite authors these days. She is a literary a role model, not to mention a sassy lady, and she rocked a great bob. I realised the error of my ways two years later, in Year 13 English when we studied some of her other stories, under the guidance of a better equipped teacher – and to my amazement, suddenly the words were beautiful, and I no longer hated the name Kezia with a burning passion. Revisiting The Doll’s House  was a revelation, and I haven’t looked back – my most recent tattoo idea currently brewing is actually a Mansfield reference. I get happy every time I walk past the KM statue on Lambton Quay, even if it does remind a little of the Other Mother in Coraline.

Those are the two memories that stand out, in terms of Briar Against The World. I suppose you could add to that the fact that I have an English degree, seven years working in bookstores and exactly zero experience reading Jane Austen, apart from the first chapter or two of Pride & Prejudice many a time. There was also the time in my first year of university when I took a second year Shakespearean tragedy course and never quite got around to reading any of the plays at the right time – and still managing to pull a B on the exam with my four essays encompassing King Lear (which I’d fortunately studied the year before), Othello (which I’d studied the year before that – so quotes were a little thinner on the ground), Hamlet (which I hadn’t actually ever read, and pretty much based my points on general knowledge and The Simpsons episode “Tales From The Public Domain”, featuring their retelling of the story), Anthony & Cleopatra (which I based entirely on actual historical knowledge, not the play at all), and, perhaps most impressively, managed to eke out a page and a bit on The Duchess of Malfi (this was an ‘Age of Shakespeare’ course rather than exclusively the Bard himself), with my only knowledge of anything to do with the play being societal context and a Helen Mirren quote stating It is essentially a feminist play”.

I confess it – I’m a bad book brat, at times.

But we all have our moments, right? And if our bad moments are slightly salvaged by Helen Mirren quotes, so much the better.

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?

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.