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.

Blue

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.

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Book review: Wake by Elizabeth Knox

Cover image of WakeWake by Elizabeth Knox, Victoria University Press, ISBN9780864737700, RRP $35

I have to confess: I have a huge reader and blogger crush on Elizabeth Knox. Not only has she given me some amazing and mind-blowing reads (Black Oxen, The Vintner’s Luck, the Dreamhunter series), she’s accomplished at that literary/genre/audience hopping trick AND she’s amazingly accessible and generous on social media.

Do I sound starstruck? I can’t help it. Elizabeth Knox is awesome. When I grow up I want to be exactly like her.

Anyway: Wake. Wake follows a small group of characters – people who survive a mysterious and sudden affliction that descends on their very localised area of Tasman Bay. The affliction turns the bulk of the population into crazed killers, singlemindedly and relentlessly focussed on harming themselves and others. The afflicted who survive this initial violence then also die suddenly. The unafflicted survivors find themselves locked in to the town by something entirely unexplainable. Locked in with literally hundreds of dead bodies, other people who they don’t know (and maybe can’t trust), and with no way of contacting or being contacted by the outside world.

The reader’s journey mirrors the characters’; the immediate and shocking horror of the story’s beginning followed by the slightly numb “come down” and then the dawning reality of the practicalities of the situation they find themselves in.

The beauty of Knox’s novel is not only is the story absolutely compelling from a plot point of view (zombies! gore! blood! love! mystery! childhood trauma! mental imbalance!) but the writing is absolutely bloody gorgeous.

It wasn’t his thought. It was malicious and perverted and savage and clever, and had come as a soundless whisper from the centre of his skull as if there was something inside him, something that wasn’t him, stirring like a hatchling in an egg.

Knox’s world is full of language, full of beautiful words, even when describing the most basest and hideous circumstances.

In a nearby house a window shattered. An old man slumped through it, skewering his throat on the shards left in the frame. He moved only feebly while his blood unfolded like a concertinaed red banner down the weatherboard wall.

In Wake, Knox takes us from inhuman all the way back to human. It’s not fun or easy but it is very, very exceptional.

I think I saved the best read of 2013 for the end.

Book Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam coverRaising Steam by Terry Pratchett, Doubleday, ISBN9780857522276, RRP $49.99

It is by turns amazing and fortunate (for us readers) that Discworld is now 40; Raising Steam is the 40th novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Look, you all know how I feel about Pratchett, and if this is your first time visiting (Aloha!) then look around! It won’t take long for you to find out. :)

But back to Raising Steam. We’re back in Ankh-Morpork and back with Moist von Lipwig, raconteur extraordinaire and puppet on a string to Lord Vetinari (aren’t we all, in a way?). After saving the Ankh-Morpork postal service, the Ankh-Morpork bank and the Ankh-Morpork mint, Moist is now charged with taking control of the new steam train service. We’ve got goblins again (they are great characters, incidentally), we’ve got Harry King, we’ve got Moist and Spike, we’ve got dwarves… all the elements are there for a great book.

And it is a great book. I’m damning with strong praise but that’s the Pratchett’s problem: his best books are AMAZING. His not-best books are great.

For new and well-read Pratchett fans Raising Steam will be a good read. The one quibble is it needs a firmer editorial hand, the story is slower than Pratchett’s usual and would have benefited from the odd slash through the longer deflections.

But the good news is Pratchett’s deflections cover the best and most thoughtful parts of the whole Discworld series. He considers racism, how technology changes social interactions, politics, terrorism, religion, gender and identity politics.

Discworld is a mirror to our world, a mirror that shows us as we truly are, shows us our history, and doesn’t let us turn away from the worst and the best parts of ourselves. I should learn not to quibble.

That’s the trouble, you see. When you’ve had hatred on your tongue for such a long time, you don’t know how to spit it out.

Book Review: Maia and What Matters by Tine Mortier and Kaatje Vermeire

Maia and What Matters cover imageMaia and What Matters by Tine Mortier & Kaatje Vermeire, Book Island, ISBN9780987669667, RRP $29.99.

The most beautiful picture book I’ve seen this year, Maia and What Matters is the latest from Kapiti Coast publisher Book Island – further proving that the best New Zealand publishers are congregating around Wellington.

Maia is “an impatient scamp”, lucky enough to have a Grandma just the same. They romp delightfully through Kaatje Vermeire’s absolutely stunning illustrations, capturing your heart with Tine Mortier’s equally delightful text.

Age does come for us all, however… and Grandma falls ill and suddenly she doesn’t romp (or talk) like she used too. Then tragedy strikes that little bit deeper.

I want to frame every page of this book. The pictures are beautiful and the story is gentle, heartfelt and honest in its depiction of the relationship between generations.

A book to make you wish you told your grandparents how much you loved them while they were with you. Or to remind you to romp with your grandchildren.

Book Review: Juno & Hannah by Beryl Fletcher

Juno and Hannah cover image

Juno & Hannah by Beryl Fletcher, Spinifex Press, ISBN 9781742198750

Juno & Hannah is the new novel from acclaimed New Zealand author Beryl Fletcher. It’s officially called a “novella” but to be honest I think it’s of a respectable enough length to qualify as a novel.

Set in post-WW1, it certainly has more than a flavour of Kiwi gothic to it. Fletcher wastes no time getting into the story, with our protagonists,Juno and Hannah, propelled throw events right from the first page. The book starts with Hannah saving the life of a man in a river, and we quickly realise three pertinent facts: a) the two girls live in a religious colony, b) are sisters and, c) Juno is different, possibly autistic. Hannah has learnt to calm and reason with Juno, and in turn Juno trusts Hannah over anyone.

But saving a man’s life changes everything for these sisters, with Hannah accused of witchcraft and isolated for a month. Before the isolation ends Hannah realises she has to leave and she must take Juno with her. This turns out to be just the beginning of a journey that takes in their past and parentage, as well as bushcraft, religion, exploitation, abuse, eugenics and crime.

Fletcher is always a fantastic writer and I did enjoy Juno & Hannah. I did have trouble connecting with the story but I often find that with Fletcher’s writing – people aren’t always honest and Fletcher makes the reader decide for themselves. This is a challenge though, not a criticism.

The story moves along at a fast pace and as quickly as we are dropped into this story, we are dropped out. Perhaps that’s another tick in the novella column. The characters are memorable, especially Hannah, the sister who holds it all together and in many ways mirrors our own confusion at a world we aren’t familiar with and don’t really understand.

Juno & Hannah is published by Spinifex Press – an independent and highly productive Australian feminist publishing company. You might not know them well, but I highly recommend taking a look at their current and back catalogue.

The Factory World by Joseph Edward Ryan

The Factory World cover imageThe Factory World by Joseph Edward Ryan, Steam Press, ISBN9780992251109, RRP $30, Available now.

The Factory World is unlike anything you’ve read. Well, that’s not entirely true, it does encompass references to many diverse sources such as The Road, The Illiad and The Wizard of Oz, but delve underneath the surface and we’re dealing with an entirely new fish here, people.

Simon wakes up in a world he doesn’t know, in a rusty pipe behind bars. He’s freed with the help of an older man who becomes his travelling companion, and is given the name The Tin Man. The Tin Man can shoot guns, has the demeanour of a cowboy and can speak Russian. Together they travel this factory world – a world of decrepit, abandoned factories, purple flashes in the night, craters in the ground, pipes under the feet and mysterious, silent mannequins. (Yes, mannequins. No, I don’t know how this all works together, just trust me, it does). They start journeying towards the center, where they hope to find answers, and find their way back home.

The dangers are many and the friends are few. During their journey we get few explanations and even fewer solutions to the mystery of the factory world. Building towards an action-packed climax Ryan doesn’t lose sight of what really makes The Factory World standout – its atmosphere and tone of hidden menace, and its central relationship of Simon and The Tin Man. This story draws you in almost immediately and Ryan’s deft handling of his central characters and the ever-changing landscape around them was crucial to keeping me riveted.

Perhaps I’m just a speculative fiction n00b but I found The Factory World so new and so fresh that it had a real impact on me. I thought a lot about it while reading and after I finished, and at some point I’ll definitely go back and re-read it to pick up more of the layers.

I really, really recommend reading The Factory World. I am stoked to see what Joseph Edward Ryan produces next and even more stoked to see what Steam Press produces next (okay, I already know because I’m lucky but you guys!). Seek this out and read.