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.

Sand

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.

Purgatory

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: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian cover imageThe Martian by Andy Weir, Del Rey (Random House), ISBN 9780091956448, RRP $36.99, Available now.

The most unsurprising thing about The Martian is that Ridley Scott is currently in negotiation to direct a movie adaptation starring Matt Damon (MATT DAMON). The most surprising thing is that while this is indeed ripe for a movie adaptation starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, it’s also a white knuckle read that manages to combine science with a large dose of humour.

The story in The Martian centres around Mark Watney, botanist, astronaut, a modern-day MacGyver, and man alone on Mars. Due to a combination of technological breakdown, bad weather and being hit by an antenna Watney is left behind on Mars when the rest of his crew has to escape a massive windstorm. Will he stay alive? Will he have enough food to last until the next mission? Will he make contact with earth? Look, I’m making it sound quite melodramatic but actually I really enjoyed The Martian!

Weir wins over his reader (me) with the above-mentioned solid combination of hardcore science and good, old-fashioned laughs.

That means I’ll have to transport 9.2 cubic meters of Martian soil into the Hab. I can get maybe one-tenth of a cubic meter in through the airlock at a time, and it’ll be backbreaking work to collect it. But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil.

Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!

Our main character is hugely likeable and it’s easy to become completely vested in Watney’s story and his trials and tribulations. Weir’s strength is the science stuff on Mars and the amazing problem-solving abilities of his main character, and I did wish he’d just concentrated on that story and not felt the need to move focus around. Though he does take some well-aimed shots at NASA and government organisations in general.

Mark, some answers to your earlier questions:

No, we will not tell our Botany Team to “Go fuck themselves.” …

The Cubs finished the season at the bottom of the NL Central.

The data transfer rate just isn’t good enough for the size of music files, even in compressed formats. So your request for “Anything, oh God, ANYTHING but Disco” is denied. Enjoy your boogie fever.

I have to admit, it was hard not to read The Martian and think this is just made to be a movie. But this is solid sci-fi and it would be damn interesting (for the first 10 minutes) to find out if the science holds up. Weir certainly writes with authority and complete believability in that regard. On the other hand when he tries to get more into the characters heads it’s pretty once over lightly. All I’m saying is, don’t read it for the deep character analysis.

Do read it for the fun.

It’s true, you know. In space, no one can hear you scream like a little girl.

Book Watch, New Zealand Herald on Sunday – 18 May 2014

Engines of Empathy

By Paul Mannering, Paper Road Press

Is New Zealand the speculative fiction capital of the world? This book from new independent publisher Paper Road Press is evidence that we might just be. Witty and fun, with a highly original premise, the author takes us on a journey with Charlotte Pudding, in a world that might be our future or a parallel universe. Charlotte has secrets even she doesn’t know about and now she needs to find out what they are before the dark corporate forces shadowing her do.

Eeny Meeny

By MJ Arlidge, Penguin

The thriller genre is fairly well-worn so it’s nice to come across a new twist, such as the one in Eeny Meeny. Someone is kidnapping pairs of people and forcing them to make a choice: kill or be killed. Detective Inspector Helen Grace is investigating but is she also a target? A suitably macabre and gripping writer, MJ Arlidge knows how to hold a reader’s attention.

Creeks and Kitchens: A Memoir

By Maurice Gee, Bridget Williams Books

Newly released in paperback, this delightful short piece of Gee’s takes us back to the West Auckland of his childhood. It’s a world that will be familiar to many New Zealanders and completely foreign to some. Gee also reveals many of his influences and the connections between his memories and some of his more well-known books. An absolute delight to read.

Boy, Snow, Bird

By Helen Oyeyemi, Picador

Boy, Snow, Bird opens with Boy, a neglected and abused young woman who runs away from big city New York to smalltown Massachusetts, eventually becoming stepmother to the angelic Snow. The birth of her own child, Bird, brings a surprising secret into the open, one that leads to Snow’s banishment from her family home. Oyeyemi weaves elements of both myth and fairytale with stark social American reality in a book that is in equal measures sad and beautiful.

Scan of Book Watch column 18 May 2014

Mr Miniscule and the Whale by Julian Tuwim

Mr Miniscule and the Whale cover imageMr Miniscule and the Whale by Julian Tuwim, illustrated by Bohdan Butenko, Book Island, ISBN 9780987669681, RRP $18

There’s something in stories about teeny tiny things meeting big giant things that always appeals to children and in that vein they will thoroughly enjoy Mr Miniscule and the Whale. Mr Miniscule is a wee little explorer who goes off in search of a big blue whale… what will he find? Where will he go? What is that giant blue thing?

I won’t ruin it, of course, because this is another delightful children’s book from Book Island, who are really producing absolutely fantastic book treasures at the moment. Mr Miniscule and the Whale is actually a classic Polish book and that’s what I love about Book Island; they’re bringing us gorgeous and unknown (to those of use who don’t have any additional language skills!) books in English translation. And everyone loves finding hidden treasure.

As with all Book Island books Mr Miniscule and the Whale is beautifully illustrated with high production values. I’m seriously thinking of setting up a shelf just for displaying Book Island books.

The story is rhyming which makes it good for reading out loud and it’s detailed without being too long – perfect for slightly older toddlers. I highly recommend you search this out – along with any other Book Island titles – you won’t be disappointed!

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.