No reviews since April?! Shameful. But don’t worry. I’m working on it. I’ve been reading up a storm lately (throwing back a YA novel a night, at times) so there are words to come. In the meantime, here is a VIDEO review (exciting, right?) that I concocted for Booksellers NZ (with the help of Sarah from Booksellers) after our manager at Unity, the ever-wonderful Tilly, suggested that I might be an appropriate person to represent the clan in video form.
You can be the judge as to whether I help up my workplace’s reputation. I’m going to be doing some more written reviews for Booksellers – and possibly videos, who knows? This one was specifically for the New Zealand Post Book Awards finalists, though. Along with The Luminaries (heard of that one, huh?) by Ellie Catton, The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy and The Bright Side of My Condition by Charlotte Randall, Max Gate by Damien Wilkins is a finalist in the fiction category. How exciting!
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.
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.
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?
***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.
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.
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.