Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Of Things Gone Astray cover imageOf Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson, The Friday Project (Harper Collins NZ)

A highly original debut novel from a New Zealand writer, Of Things Gone Astray is witty, moving and thoughtful. On a normal morning in London things start disappearing for a small group of characters. Things like a sense of direction, a workplace and the front of a house. In the midst of this the relationship between a young boy and his father slowly starts to disappear. Referencing the Christchurch earthquakes, Matthewson creates a magical world with some stunning writing. A book that lives in the reader’s mind long after it’s finished.

The above review first appeared in the NZ Herald on Sunday, 31 August 2014.

Image of the NZ Herald on Sunday review

Disclaimer: I am a total sucker for books like this. Literary, quirky, pulling at your heartstrings, making you laugh books. I mean, if you don’t like books like this WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU, DO YOU HAVE LITERALLY NO HEART???? And I couldn’t leave it at just my small Herald on Sunday review above – I want people to read this book SO BAD YOU GUYS.

I knew right from the first page that Of Things Gone Astray was going to be something special and magical.

Mrs Featherby had been having pleasant dreams until she woke to discover the front of her house had vanished overnight.

They had been dreams of when she was younger and more energetic, dreams of a time when she had full use of her knees.

And now I have to tell you, so far, it is my best read of 2014. The story is like nothing you’ve read before, the writing is intense and incredibly satisfying, and the ideas explored are thought-provoking. It’s also wonderfully hilarious.

She sighed, and resolved, not for the first time, to be less judgemental of how stupid all the young people were.

Matthewson uses her cast of characters to explore modern life, in all its glory and goriness, exposing those thoughts we all keep private, because we think no one else has them.

There are no wrong or right choices, necessarily, just those you make or don’t make and the consequences. And by extension, how you deal with the consequences.

I loved how many feelings Of Things Gone Astray brought out in me, the reader: sadness and laughter and enjoyment and contemplation. I wish I could quote all of it at you but that would be silly: go out, buy it, and read it over and over.

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.

An Interview with Stephen Minchin from Steam Press

The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse cover imageFor those of you who don’t know, Steam Press is a local (Wellington, but don’t hold that against them) speculative fiction publisher that is, in the words of yours truly, “the kiwi publishers to watch now“.

They’ve already published some truly fantastic titles including The Factory World, Mansfield with Monsters and The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse. I’m not alone in my praise with Steam Press winning several prizes at this year’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards.

I thought it was about time to find out from Steam Press publisher Stephen Minchin a little bit more about how we came to be graced with such treasures from the windy city…

The Factory World cover imageSo, Steam Press. How did it happen? How did it come about?
In 2011 I was studying publishing at Whitireia – their diploma in publishing is the only publishing course in New Zealand, and it’s the main way of breaking into the industry – and we had lots of people from the major publishers coming in to talk to us about publishing here and internationally. It really struck me that while a number of those publishers import science fiction and fantasy from their international divisions, none (if any) publish it locally. This means that New Zealand’s speculative fiction authors all find themselves in the strange situation of sending their work to agents and publishers in New York and London, and when it’s published it’s imported back into New Zealand and much of the time you’d never know that the author was a kiwi.

I figured that there might be a bit of a niche there so while I was still studying I established Steam Press and put up a website. I thought it’d probably be a while before anyone sent me anything, and even longer before I found a novel I was keen to publish. That didn’t end up being the case, and within a few weeks I had three books underway. Which was a little bit terrifying, actually…

The Wind City cover imageHow are you finding such amazing new talent?
Honestly, I don’t know. Luck?

I think the thing is that there are a lot of really talented authors here but not many publishers who are interested in books that are outside of the mainstream, while sending your work overseas is really time-consuming, it’s hard work, and it’s a bit of a miserable, demoralising job. Those two factors combine to create a situation that’s really good for someone looking for talent. It probably also helps that I used to write so I know what it’s like to approach publishers and try to get them to look at your work – I do my best to make this easier for authors by being more than a black hole into which you throw your manuscript and hope to hear back at some stage. When people email me they actually get a response.

Particularly when I first started, it was amazing to find authors who had faith in me. They gave me their babies. That’s a big thing!

Mansfield with monsters coverWhat’s been the highlight in the life of Steam Press so far?
I’d have to say that the highlight has always been cracking open a box of books fresh from the printer and seeing all that work turned into something tangible. A book is probably a couple of years’ work by the author, plus the months that I’ve put in, the work of a cover designer, and everything else. Seeing all of that brought together and made into something gorgeous is just fantastic. I can’t imagine that ever getting old. And most of the authors I’ve worked with haven’t had a book published before so this is huge for them, a culmination of what they’ve been working on for years, maybe dreaming of since they were kids. Seriously – wow. How cool is that?!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also say that having all three of the books we released last year shortlisted for Sir Julius Vogel Awards was pretty amazing, and having two of them go on to win was just spectacular.

Are your titles being stocked widely? (Dear readers – take note and go and buy them!)
Yes! They’re stocked by all New Zealand booksellers, and ebooks are available too. I also sell books directly from the Steam Press website.

Tropic of Skorpeo coverWhat’s the future? Are you feeling optimistic?
It’s definitely tough to make this work, and I’m far from making my fortune – I work full-time on top of this, and it’s all supported by my lovely wife. :D That said, it’s great fun and, I think, a really good thing to be doing. So yes, I am planning to keep Steam Press going for as long as I can.

Frankly, I have plans to take over the world. There’s a lot of potential in selling the books we produce into foreign markets. Working with agents overseas and having Steam Press books represented at the major international book fairs means that the books we’re publishing in New Zealand have a very real chance of being sold into much larger markets (something that we’ve managed to do already for a couple of titles). It’s a tough nut to crack, but my strategy beyond simply selling locally written sci fi and fantasy in New Zealand is to present these brilliantly written and beautifully produced books to publishers in the UK and US. I want the authors I’m publishing here to be huge internationally.

My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach

My Planet cover imageMy Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach, Reader’s Digest Association, ISBN 9781621450719, RRP $27.95, Available now.

Mary Roach is a fantastic author, covering some of the most basic non-fiction subjects in an informative, funny and intelligent way. So I’m happy to read anything that comes my way that she’s written, even if it does come with the words “Reader’s Digest” attached.

It turns out she’s been writing a column for Reader’s Digest and they make quite the enjoyable read (heck, even I write the occasional review column for a paper that publishes this crap). They’re gentle and engender an almost constant desire to laugh loudly and longly*.

There are three kinds of people in this world: 1) People who make lists, 2) People who don’t make lists, and 3) People who carve tiny Nativity scenes out of pecan hulls.

Even the most pointless and short columns have at least one smart and funny moment.

I called the Help woman back, demanding to know how to get rid of the blank stations. She asked if I’d looked in my User’s Guide. I didn’t like where this was heading. If I wanted to read and exercise comprehension skills, I wouldn’t be watching television.

While not having the depth of Bonk or Stiff, My Planet is a highly enjoyable read, one that would be perfect for a lazy Sunday or a quiet holiday.

So Ed and I were eating a lot of vegetables. Vegetables on pasta, vegetables on rice. This was extremely healthy, until you go to the part where Ed and I are found in the kitchen at 10pm, feeding on Froot Loops and tubes of cookie dough.

*Not a word but required for alliteration purposes.

 

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life after Life cover imageLife After Life by Kate Atkinson, Random House NZ, RRP $36.99, ISBN 9780385618687, Available now.

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

11 February 1910, a baby girl is born dead with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, the doctor stuck in snow.

11 February 1910, a baby girl is born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, the doctor has made it through the snow to ensure she breaths her first. And so we meet Ursula (“little bear”), whose life after life we will follow. Ursula is a soul afloat in life, beholden to the dangers of one small choice, one small change that can spell her end. She is born dead, she drowns, she falls out a window, she gets influenza – there are a myriad ways to die but each time she does it’s 11 February 1910 again and it’s snowing.

Oh, how I loved this book! At first thought the premise didn’t seem like one I would enjoy but Kate Atkinson handles it so incredibly deftly that I found myself completely drawn in to Ursula’s lives, shocked each time she died, waiting to see how she would get through the next life, the choice she would make that would see her navigate the danger.

Atkinson is also a master of characters, hers are so beautifully drawn. She makes sure her characters are human, likeable, dislikeable and capable of so many emotions.

“To war? You are going to war?” she had shouted at him when he enlisted and it struck her that she had never shouted at him before. Perhaps she should have.

If there was to be a war, Hugh explained to her, he didn’t want to look back and know that he had missed it, that others had stepped forward for their country’s honour and he had not. “It may be the only adventure I ever have,” he said.

“Adventure?” she echoed in disbelief. “What about your children, what about your wife?”

“But it’s for you that I am doing this,” he said, looking exquisitely pained, a misunderstood Theseus. Sylvie disliked him intensely in that moment.

There’s also a generous amount of humour throughout Life After Life. Ursula struggles through the Influenza epidemic following WW1, dying several times before she finally finds a way to avoid contagion, and it becomes almost slapstick.

Darkness, and so on.

Then Atkinson hits you between the eyes with a moment so touching, so human you just thinking about weeping.

“We cannot turn away,” Miss Woolf told her, “we must get on with our job and we must bear witness.” What did that mean, Ursula wondered. “It means,” Miss Woolf said, “that we must remember these people when we are safely in the future.”

“And if we are killed?”

“Then others must remember us.”

Such a tour de force.