Three BWB Texts from Bridget Williams Books

With the prospect of a stormy weekend ahead of me I decided it was the perfect time to delve into three delightfully short books I recently received from Bridget Williams Books. The predicted storm never really materialised but it still provided me with the perfect excuse to read these small gems from the BWB Texts series.

Creeks and Kitchens cover imageCreeks and Kitchens: A Childhood Memoir by Maurice Gee, ISBN 9781927277430, RRP $14.99

A wonderfully evocative short exploration of Gee’s West Auckland childhood and family, as well as the inspiration behind much of his writing. Being a child of the “Under the Mountain” generation I particularly liked that he talks about where the ideas for Under the Mountain came from, and about children’s books and writing being truthful and hopeful but also containing “hard things”. Creeks and Kitchens also reads as a slice of social history, an elegy to 1930′s and 40′s New Zealand where life was necessarily rooted in the land and the water, and at once shiningly bright and disturbingly dark. The creek and the kitchen.

Luminous Moments cover imagePaul Callaghan: Luminous Moments, Foreword by Catherine Callaghan, ISBN 9781927277492, RRP $14.99

A collection of speeches, essays and interviews with Paul Callaghan, one of New Zealand’s best scientists, who passed away in 2012. His gift was being able to communicate what he knew in a human and truly inspirational way, and Luminous Moments is both genuinely enlightening and personally moving.

But science is not ultimately about the individuals; it’s about the methodology. It’s about the requirement of evidence and consisstency, a process in which the chaff is spearated from the wheat. Through the winnowing process, truth gradually emerges.

Thorndon cover imageThorndon: Wellington and Home, My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn, ISBN 9781927277447, RRP $14.99

In 2009 New Zealand (and English and Scottish?) writer Kirsty Gunn returned home to Wellington to be the Randell Cottage New Zealand Writer in Residence in 2009. This text is her project from that experience, a mix of essay, memoir, fiction, history and meditation. It has a wonderful cyclical feeling about it, especially when you consider this “notebook” strongly echo the notebooks of Gunn’s subject, Katherine Mansfield. What better place to explore the nature of “home” and Mansfield’s relationship to it than Wellington? As New Zealanders we often have this extremely complex relationship with our own country and the rest of the world, at one and the same time we want to bring it all closer and push it away. Mansfield’s writing was always about the microcosm vs the macrocosm (she wrote a story called The Doll’s House for goodness sakes), which is what New Zealand does to us, and Gunn delves into similar territory.

Hamilton Book Month 2014 – Good Reads Panel

March is Hamilton Book Month for 2014! And this year I’m taking part in the Good Reads Panel. Here’s a bit about what that is going to entail:

A lively panel chaired by award winning breakfast radio presenter Mark Bunting will speak on “What have you been reading lately? What’s new and coming to us in the next six months?”

Whare Tapere Iti
Academy of Performing Arts (via Gate 1 or 2B)
Waikato University
Thursday 13 March

So I, along with others, will be blathering on about books. Come along, it’s free and will be fun. This is my first time being part of a panel discussion, so be gentle with me! :)


The Luminaries, or How Much I Hate Victorian Literature

Before starting it’s important to be clear that this is not a review of The Luminaries. The Luminaries is extremely well written and I can have no criticism of it in that respect that would be worth a jot. Just re-read that last sentence and it’s clear why.

But here’s the thing: I got no enjoyment reading it. I so wanted to love it and I so wanted to be all OH EM GEE RAVY DAVY GRAVY about it but OH EM GEE the reading was a chore. Seriously, I do NOT expect to feel about my reading the same way I feel about vacuuming, and I do not mean like I feel when I see that video of the cat on the Roomba.

It was like vacuuming a house of infinite rooms, every time I thought I’d got to the end of the hallway there’s another room! And another! And another! Ad infinitum.

It’s my own fault. Despite it being a Booker Prize winner (almost guaranteeing my undying devotion because I AM SNOB), despite it being a New Zealand author (Kiwis represent!), there are two words associated with The Luminaries that should have instantly seen me politely clapping from the sidelines but not actually getting involved.

Victorian. Literature.

It’s enough to send a chill down one’s spine.

18th century literature? Love it. Regency lit (Austen, et al)? A measured fan. Victorian erotica? Hilariously tacky, juvenile and often disturbing. Serious Victorian lit, a la Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, Gaskell… sorry, I snoozed off for a moment there.

Basically I find it tedious and way too self-important, and, ironically, verbose. As with everything, there are exceptions – Thackeray and Stoker – but in general what you find is the literary equivalent of the Mona Lisa reduced to a paint-by-numbers version. Greatness, ruined.

William Makepeace Thackeray photo

This man is a comic genius.

The mysteries are the worst because the “ghostly vision” always turns out to be someone sleep walking and the bad guys are naughty foreigners trying to steal the treasure. They’re like every plot EVER of Scooby Doo.

So my problem with The Luminaries is no matter how well it is written, no matter how much of a “pastiche” it is, no matter how brilliantly it managed to take the Vic Lit format and turn it on its head, by the time it got to that point I was staring at nothing and nodding slightly.

The Luminaries cover picture

It does have a fantastic cover though.

Do I think people should read it? Absolutely, if only to make up your own mind. Do I think it’s an important contribution to books in general and New Zealand books in specific? Yes, there is NO doubt. Did it deserve The Booker Prize? Yes, because they don’t judge it on my taste. Am I going to read other books by Eleanor Catton? Yes, absolutely, and keen to get my hands on a copy of The Rehearsal actually.

But The Luminaries will always remain a big, black hole in my reading life.

Book Watch – NZ Herald on Sunday, 9 February 2014

Maia and What Matters

By Tine Mortier, Illustrated by Kaatje Vermeire, Book Island

A stunning and deeply moving picture book, Maia and What Matters is the story of Maia and her beloved grandma. Dealing compassionately and appropriately with issues of loss and grieving, as well as old age, this is a wonderful book to share with children and to treasure for years to come.

Raising Steam

By Terry Pratchett, Doubleday

Amazingly, Raising Steam is the 40th Discworld novel and Terry Pratchett remains as fresh as ever. The book takes us back to Ankh Morpork and raconteur Moist von Lipwig, now in charge of bringing the steam train to the varied population of Discworld. With his characteristic dry wit and a plot that races along, Pratchett delivers another highly enjoyable read.


By Brandy Wehinger, Random House

Zombies may be so last year but fun and romantic stories are timeless. Blue is the debut teen novel from New Zealand author Brandy Wehinger and it’s an enjoyable, fun read, and the perfect antidote for teens hung up on Twilight or Stephen King. Summer may be over for kids but they can still enjoy a beach read.

The Kept

By James Scott, Random House

Another debut novel, this one has an authentic horror voice. The Kept takes us to rural New York State in the late 19th century, examining long-held family secrets and the deep desire for revenge. Genuinely literary prose combined with a darkly haunting story make The Kept a satisfying and troubling read.

Book Watch 090214 image

Book Review: Brainiac by Ken Jennings

Brainiac cover imageBrainiac by Ken Jennings 

I have a similar attitude towards game shows and Mormons, i.e. what you get up to in the privacy of your own home is your business, just don’t expect me to watch.

So I didn’t have high hopes for my enjoyment of a book written by the holder of the longest winning streak on Jeopardy! who also happens to be a Mormon!*.

How wrong I was. It turns out I have quite a lot in common with Ken Jennings, not the least of which is watching Gilmore Girls, using too many Simpsons references, a deep enjoyment of trivia, a slight attention problem, a bit brainy, a bit of a lost soul when it comes to “career aspirations”… and then there’s this:

Am I the only one who turns straight to the Acknowledgements page of a book as soon as I buy it?

Brainiac is the story of Jennings journey to Jeopardy! as well trivia in general. Jennings, despite being a self-professed “trivia nerd” and never having gotten drunk in his life (that Mormon thing), is tremendously funny, combining self-deprecation with a deep appreciation for the absurdities of life.

Up until now, when I read about Mike’s Jeopardy! preparation, it always struck me as a trifle overzealous, or, to put it another way, “bat-shit insane.”

His Jeopardy! winning streak lasted a quite stunningly ridiculous 75 games so this is a man who has brains and a knowledge of popular culture that made me feel at home.

I give us about ten minutes before the Monty Python sketch-quoting begins.

And then he includes a quote from my favourite movie ever!

To quote Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, on a slightly more statutory subject: “I get older; they stay the same age.”

Along the way Jennings takes a journey through the history of trivia and our society’s fascination with it, and gives some insider knowledge of where the serious trivia happens, i.e. College Quiz Bowls, pub quizzes and game shows. He also spends time giving some serious thought to what trivia means, and especially what it means who share in the fascination.

…the more facts you accumulate, the easier it becomes to learn new things, because you have a web of knowledge to fit those new facts into. Facts and intelligence form a vicious circle.

This kind of writing is so enjoyable, combining personal experience, journalistic enquiry, history, and a smattering of philosophy.

My parents were also very patient with the litany of trivia these gifts produced during long car trips.

“Hey, Mom! Do you know what color a polar bear’s skin is? No, black! Hey, Mom! Three-quarters of the dust in our house is from dead human skin cells, ewww! Hey, Mom! Guess how big the world’s biggest pumpkin pie was. Not even close, 418 pounds!

Surprisingly I survived many of these car trips without being beaten mercilessly.

Above all Brainiac contains two of the best trivia facts I’ve ever heard, ones which will stay with me forever.

  1. Opossums have thirteen nipples.
  2. René Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women.

*Ungrammatical exclamation marks would just make any religion more fun. The Exclusive Brethren! Or, better yet The Exclusive! Brethren. This doesn’t, however, work for question marks. The Exclusive Brethren?