Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Punch / Splat / Bark; an update

Recent writing

As I mentioned last month, I quit writing my Dom Post column to "free up four 5am-7am slots a fortnight for fiction. For writing books. Because that’s what I really want to be doing."

I then proceeded to spend three weeks writing an essay about writing a column in the age of the internet for The Pantograph Punch.

And a week judging a couple of categories for the first round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge (with more to come).

And sleeping through my 5am alarm because my daughter doesn't like sleeping between 1am and 4am.

And now, finally, I'm working on a short story. Well, actually, I've got the scalpel out and I'm attacking one of the stories I wrote in Iowa last year. But it's all good. I don't regret a thing.

Recent writing music

Is it just me or has 2014 been a really good year for music? 

I guess any year you have Electric Light Orchestra, Bailter Space and Wild Beasts at your fingertips is a good year. 

So there it is: great music forever and ever, amen. Except on my phone (for some reason Spotify's broken on that).

Recent reading...

The Bright Side of my Condition by Charlotte Randall (novel, NZ)

The Bright Side of My Condition
This was the book my friend chose for the inaugural meeting of our book club.

I was like, 'You're aware you picked an historical novel by a New Zealander that prominently features castaways on a subantarctic island that, unlike my historical novel that prominently features a castaway on a subantarctic island, was nominated for the 2014 NZ Post Book Awards, right?'

She was all, 'Yeah, I didn't twig when I picked the book, but as soon as I started reading I saw what I'd done.'

It wouldn't be right of me to speak on behalf of the rest of the book club here (despite only a moderate amount of wine being drunk... a clear area for improvement next month).

Let's just say they had issues with the book, especially the end (those that made it that far - the problem with having couples in a book club is they have to share a copy).

I admired parts of the novel. I got into all the observations about the life of a penguin colony on the Snares, and treating seal skin to make leather boots, because that's like catnip for me (see my castaway novel for an indication).

But that bit on the first page that tells you the novel is based on the true story of escaped convicts from Norfolk Island who were set down on the Snares and weren't picked up for almost a decade... Why do we need to know how long they stayed in real life? It totally sucks any mystery out of the novel (at least until we get to know the characters, an effort hampered by this same 'Reading the Titanic' feeling).

[A moment of reflection: one reason The Mannequin Makers jarred some readers is because it wasn't based on a true story. It used elements of history (Sandow's visit to New Zealand, department stores in the early 20th Century, clipper ships in the late 19th, etc), but the bits that stretched belief? I made those up. That was what I wanted to do. To take books set in the past somewhere different. But as a marketing exercise, or a mass reader satisfaction exercise, it left something to be desired.]

And the ending. No one in our club of early thirty professional types liked the ending. I'm not going to come its defense. I'm not sure how one would start such a thing...

The Knife of Never Letting GoThe Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (novel, audiobook)

A bold conceit: settlers on a new planet are able to hear the thoughts of other creatures. And it was well executed. Todd's dog, Manchee, is one of the greatest comedic wingmen in literature.

The plot drives forward, at first outward, away from Prenticetown, and then onward, inexorably, towards Haven.  But I felt the pattern of impossible situation > violence > sudden reversal of fortune was overused. It started to feel a little 'shouty' in plot terms.

And I didn't like the ending, which was basically: 'Buy Book 2 in the Chaos Walking series to find out what Todd and Viola do next!'

But Knife is packed with more ideas than almost any novel I've read this year. It has better characterisation, is funnier and braver and is the sort of book I'd give a Milton Bradley 'Ages 12 and up' label to (coz everyone should read it) rather than 'YA'.

Bark: StoriesBark by Lorrie Moore (short stories, audiobook)

Lorrie Moore actually narrated her own audiobook here. Which was interesting. She didn't put on different voices for different characters, so it felt very much like a 6 hour reading at Prairie Lights, with a few toilet breaks and without the inane Q&A afterwards.

I don't know how much of my reaction to the stories was down to how I received them, but I felt the collection was uneven. The stories themselves shifted between classic Moore sardonics and a kind of creative writing student's knock-off version of Moore sardonics.

Moore takes a few steps into new territory. There's a ghost story. And the title story is a kind of extended romantic comedy (or tragi-comedy) from a male perspective. But there's also oncologists, death, dinner parties, (too many) bumper stickers, witty zingers and espirit d'escalier.

It felt like the last three Tragically Hip albums. It's close enough to being what you remember and loved, but infuriating for falling short.

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti (novel, NZ)

Where the Rekohu Bone SingsI didn't write about this novel when I first read it earlier this year because a) I forgot and b) I probably wanted to be coy because I was appearing in a session at Te Papa with Tina in August. To prep for this session I re-read WtRBS, so it's probably time I captured a couple of thoughts, eh?

Like many novels, it features intertwined historical and contemporary narratives, though it mixes things up by having a third, supernatural strand (the singing bone of the title) that observes the other two narratives and also gets us back to the slaughter of the Moriori.

I found parts of the purely historical narrative intriguing (the young Maori lovers running away to Victorian Wellington and trying to make do) but the novel seems weighted in subtle ways (page-count, structure) in favour of the contemporary story of 'identity'. Like Randall's historical note at the start of Bright Side, Makereti uses prolepsis to answer questions about the historical strand before they're posed (like when we learn about Mere's second husband while we're still invested in the story of her escape to Wellington with her first love).

The extended sequence on the Chatham Islands/Rekohu in the present felt the most alive to me, and I couldn't help wondering if the historical strand was even necessary?

In one sense: of course it is. It would be an entirely different book, would require an entirely different kind of narrator, and a different plot, to achieve anything like the scope and depth the actual novel does. But its lopsidedness, and the occasional thematic cliche, should also be acknowledged.

Where the Rekohu Bone Sings is the work of a brave and intelligent writer, grappling with fearsome and complex subject matter. May her future work be as bold.