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
6.30pm

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.

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.

Book Watch 090214 image

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.