Book Watch, New Zealand Herald on Sunday – 13 July 2014

The Martian

By Andy Weir, Random House

This science-fiction adventure thriller is up there with the best in edge-of-your-seat reads, combining imagination, science and a healthy dose of humour. Mark Watney is a botanist and astronaut stranded on Mars, left alone to survive on the Red Planet because of a mixture of bad luck and catastrophe. Will he make it back to Earth? It’s no surprise that a movie adaptation is already in the works.


By Hugh Howey, Random House

A new world and a new story from Howey, the best-selling writer of the Wool trilogy. The author’s strength is his prodigious imagination and he makes use of it again with Sand, combining apocalyptic vision with a story of family and survival. Like Wool this is a highly enjoyable read; I became so immersed I could practically feel the grit and wind.


By Rosetta Allen, Penguin

A fantastic new book from a talented New Zealand author, Purgatory is based on the 1865 Otahuhu murders. Exploring ideas of spirituality, colonial dispossession and the dehumanising effects of poverty and alcohol, the story moves between Ireland and New Zealand, and between bereavement and redemption. Allen’s expressive story-telling will appeal to readers looking for the best home-grown narratives.

At War with Satan

By Steff Metal,  Grymm & Epic Publishing

Another homegrown author but with a completely different focus, At War with Satan is a fantasy tale in the best tradition of Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin, with a lot of heavy metal thrown in. Plenty of puns and gentle jokes at the expense of various musical genres keep this a fast and furious read. The author’s love of the subject matter is infectious, making the war between heaven and hell anything but grim.

My Book Watch column for 13 July 2014, courtesy of the New Zealand Herald on Sunday.

scan of printed Book Watch column

Three Quick Reviews

Here’s some quick looks at other books which have passed before my eyes recently.

 WellywoodStyling Wellywood by Kate O’Keefe, available on Amazon

Jess has returned home to Wellington from her big OE in London, and is going into business as a personal stylist with her best friend Morgan. Throw in a bit of snobbery, two good looking men and a sad back story, and some “hi-jinks with a message” should ensue.

Styling Wellywood has a promising premise but it just doesn’t deliver. The main character is seriously unlikeable, and the overall storyline is too predictable to really deliver any punch. Do young NZers really suffer this level of cultural cringe anymore? Unfortunately this book just wasn’t to my liking.

Dating Westerners cover imageDating Westerners: tips for the new rich of the developing by Richard Meros, Lawrence and Gibson

A dating guide for the nouveau riche of the developing world, looking to “break into” the West via love. Truly. Dating Westerners is alternately hilarious and completely weird, which pretty much sums up the entirety so far of Richard Meros’ publishing portfolio.

Dating Westerners is the book rejected for funding by Reactive/Creative New Zealand (both the application and rejection letter can be seen in $30 Meat Pack). Put air quotes wherever you see fit in that sentence.

Seriously, I don’t know what more to say!

The Possession of Silver cover imageThe Possession of Silver by Corey Leigh, available on Amazon

A hybrid fantasy/pirate novel for kids and young adults, The Possession of Silver follows our eponymous hero and budding pirate, Silver, in a hunt for treasure on a very strange island.

The tone of this book is a little odd, not always hitting the mark and jumping around a little too often to be entirely convincing to its target audience. However it’s pulled along by a quick and original plot, with enough surprises to keep me reading to the end.

Book Review: Ad Lib by Thomasin Sleigh

Ad Lib cover imageAd Lib by Thomasin Sleigh, Lawrence and Gibson, ISBN 9780473274849, RRP$23

Right from the epigraph I had an idea of where Ad Lib is going, with two quotes: one from TS Eliot and one from Kim Kardashian. As I got further into the story it became clearer and clearer how these two, seemingly juxtaposed people, were perfect roles for the deeply thought out journey that Sleigh was taking me on.

Ad Lib follows Kyla Crane, daughter of celebrity Carmen Crane who has died suddenly. Carmen was supposed to have been starting to film a reality TV show and her manager and the networks are now keen to have the show follow Kyla. And so a camera crew appears in her house, “friends” she doesn’t quite remember start calling, and a status of celebrity is suddenly conferred upon her.

To say Ad Lib is lyrical and literary is almost beside the point – it is both of those things while being imbued with a strong sense of exactly how low-brow celebrity and reality television works in our wider culture. There are strange touches such as a camera crew that acts as a Greek chorus, and Carmen Crane’s sordid tale of celebrity à la Judy Garland. This overwhelming sense of culture clash kept me unsettled as a reader while drawing me further and further into Kyla’s story.

Her mother was beautiful in these printed photographs. Before anybody had looked at her, she was still beautiful.

What is celebrity and how does it change those who feel its sticky fingers? What about those who seek it out? Sleigh moves dreamily between these questions, sometimes giving the reader clear clues and sometimes keeping us in the dark. Kyla’s grief becomes submerged in the “story” of her show.

Ad Lib is a surreal read, intriguing and beautiful, leaving more questions behind than answers.

Book review: At War With Satan by Steff Metal

At War With Satan book cover image At War With Satan by Steff Metal, ISBN 9781496030887available from Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords – see author’s website for details.

You know what’s awesome right now? (Amongst a raft of other things.) Self-published books are getting WAY better. In the last couple of months I’ve been sent a number of self-published books and, without exception, they’ve all been good reads, well-written and, in my opinion, worth the admission (retail price, that is). At War With Satan was one of these and I am thrilled I got the chance to read it. Gavin is a drummer*, lives in a small English village and dreams of being in a heavy metal band with a heavy metal girlfriend. Next thing you know he’s playing in a great heavy metal band, has a great heavy metal girlfriend… and is caught up in the war between heaven and hell. Because you can’t have everything.

“Army? I wasn’t aware we had an army.” “We don’t. Amassing a legion of loyal and blood-hungry soldiers of the Lord wasn’t high on the church charter this year.” “What do you suggest we do?” The Deacon sighed. “We’d better start with the youth group. They’re an enthusiastic bunch.”

I really enjoyed reading this story. Steff Metal’s writing is enthusiastic, wry and, on the whole, pleasingly polished. And there is a laugh out loud moment around every corner (or turn of the page).

Lucy slammed her legal pad down on the table. Somewhere in the universe, a kitten died.

I did have a few small quibbles, namely: the section in hell probably goes on a bit long and needs tightening up, plot-wise; the location of “small village England” feels chosen for the wider appeal rather than the familiarity of the author – I would have been happy with “small village New Zealand” to be honest; the Goth/Emo vs Heavy Metal was a little too stereotype-happy; and a slightly more ironical framing of the classic “metal sexism” would have been welcomed by this reader. These are small though, none of these seriously detracted from my enjoyment. At War With Satan has a definite Terry Pratchett/Robert Rankin/Neil Gaiman vibe and that’s a high compliment. Needless to say, I recommend this book to fantasy lovers, heavy metal fans (you’ll love it, you know you will), anyone who was a teenager in the early 90′s, and anyone who wants to see what good reads are out there beyond the traditional publishing model. Steff Metal is a writer I’ll be keeping an eye on.

*As the good Terry Pratchett put it: ” ‘I hits ‘em with de hammers,” said Lias, one of nature’s drummers.’ “

Review: Glory Days magazine

Glory Days magazine coverGlory Days vintage lifestyle magazine, issue 6, $16.90

One of the things I love about Twitter is the random way I meet interesting people and find out about interesting things, such as Glory Days magazine. A retweet led me to their Twitter account, I asked if they’d be interested in being reviewed on my blog.. and here we are!

Glory Days is a vintage lifestyle magazine, in this particular issue (6) sixties style. It has a great aesthetic, enhanced by the art design, the choice of paper (a satisfying weight and with a fair amount of recycled content, if I’m not mistaken), and the advertising (I kid you not, every vintage shop in the country must be in there).

The articles are eclectic which is real strength, covering art, society, fashion, music, cars, militaria, crafting and more, and I really like that – I like that the editors aren’t just picking the bits of nostalgia they like but they’re actually exploring an era and what it meant to the New Zealanders who lived in that era. That’s the other thing I really liked about Glory Days, it has a strong New Zealand focus. Too often our impression of vintage and history is through an American or English lens, and the experience of our own country comes a distant third.

If you’re interested in vintage, design, nostalgia and New Zealand in general then you’re sure to enjoy Glory Days and I’d highly recommend you take the time to seek it out or grab a copy online.

Why I agree you should be embarrassed to read YA books

So, this article from Slate, entitled Against YA: Adults should be embarrassed to read children’s books has caused something of a wild storm throughout the book community. But, with (insincere) apologies to the many commentators who hated it, I really agreed with it. Basically it’s a call to those who persist with the “I only read YA. I even have a t-shirt” line to perhaps think about it in a different way.

(I want this t-shirt though:

…anyway, as I was saying.)

Our reading habits will and should change over a lifetime. Reading is so personal and so communal we almost inevitably make the personal political (or at least extrapolate the personal opinion into the wider opinion). The serious literary types pooh-pooh the YA types. The paranormal romance types laugh at the serious literary types who can’t afford to eat. The YA types accuse others of being literary snobs, Dan Brown readers have no idea we’re looking down on them, and everyone laughs at those who read nothing but Mills & Boon.

It’s the nature of opinion.

And opinion changes.

For example as a kid I absolutely loved Roald Dahl, I read most of his books over and over. I still adore him and thoroughly enjoy reading his books. But the profundity of them has changed. To read them is enjoyable, and doing so reminds me why my 10 year old self related to the lovely characters, but my present self does not.

In my 20′s I was enamoured with “serious literature”: prize winners, difficult reads, often quite avant-garde stuff. I read it, not because I necessarily enjoyed doing so but because I was an English student and I wanted to have the experience of reading it, I wanted to push myself, to read for more than enjoyment and satisfaction and fun. I was, and in many ways still am, a literary snob.

Now, in my 30s, I still read a lot of those types of books – mostly prize winners – but I do so with one eye on my enjoyment levels. My time is becoming more limited, I don’t have hours to spend reading so I try to balance it more. So I read (and love) a bit of YA, I laugh and marvel at really good children’s picture books, I delve into the odd piece of easy reading… I’ve even discovered the joys of speculative fiction. And I still go head over heels for serious adult literature.

So what I took from this article was not the headline (which is obvious click bait, and dammit, why don’t I do that with my blog and stop being so high and mighty, on that note, see above), what I took was don’t let YA literature be all you read. Books for kids and teens are for kids and teens and we should be honest about that, and acknowledge that that’s what makes them good books. If I wanted to write a YA book but I didn’t write it for YAs then I would not be doing my job well, at all. If you’re not the target audience then of course those books can still speak to some part of your soul, my 15 year old soul was thrilled by The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood but in very different ways from my 25 year old soul and my 36 year old soul. And I imagine my 72 year old soul will again view it in a completely different way.

Also, just to really make you all mad, I didn’t think The Fault in Our Stars was all that great. It was fine but, jesus, it was so written for teenagers and, bless them, they are invariably annoying. We all were. That’s why we can relate.