Thursday, February 27, 2014

February influx / Young Turks etc / February flatline

Last week the book world came back from their summer break. At least, it seemed that way after things had been awful quiet (for me) since November. But then, BLAM: a translation deal for The Mannequin Makers, an invitation to an Aussie writers festival in August and a request to review a novel all arrived in my inbox in the space of 48 hours.

The translation thing is the coolest (being my first book-length translation deal) and the oddest, since the language is Romanian. Not to be sniffed at (24 million speakers), but not the first language you think of when someone says, ‘Hey, a foreign publisher asked for a copy of your book...’

Romanian mannequins, via Reddit

According to Google Translate (!) the novel's title could be rendered: ‘Factorii de decizie manechin’ and (because I can’t help myself on Google Translate) my name becomes Craig Stâncă in Romanian. Stâncă! Makes me think of a bi-polar (sad-mouth “a”, happy-mouth “a”) narcoleptic.

Last week I also came across a new review of The Mannequin Makers, though it was published earlier (8 February) in The Southland Times. It’s only 228 words, and there’s not a lot anyone can do in that space without resorting to sweeping comments / sounding dangerously like a press release.

But I found the final paragraph odd:

I guess we see the age-old themes of love, loss and redemption. The cover and blurb of this novel did not appeal to me but I was hooked in the first chapter and found it extremely difficult to put down. Cliff lives in Wellington but is in Iowa on a writing residency working on a second short-story collection. His writing reminded me of the likes of Jack Lazenby or Doris Lessing. May he be as prolific.

“I guess”? I can’t read further without picturing the reviewer’s elbow on the table, her head weighing heavily on her hand. 

Question: have Jack Lazenby and Doris Lessing ever been mentioned in the same sentence before? Not on the internet they haven’t.

And this talk about covers and blurbs in limited space is a disturbing trend. This review a couple of days ago on the Booksellers NZ website, for example, devotes 23% of its space (63 of 276 words) to the cover.

I know writers are supposed to be grateful for every outlet talking about books, but when a review (I feel tempted to put that word in scare quotes for anything with a wordcount under 500) piffles about things almost entirely out of the author’s control... well, it seems a lost opportunity.

One reason I agreed to review this other book is that I get 1,250 words to do it.

I know reviewing is poorly remunerated and largely thankless. If you get the space to demonstrate critical and/or original thought, you’re doing so for pennies in the dollar. The only people the system currently works for seems to be academics, who’re expected to publish (*another temptation to use scare quotes narrowly defeated*) and have a salary to fall back on.

I’m going to talk more about reviewing in a few days, so I'll stop. Take it away Rod!



There is no February reading summary because The Recognitions is really long and I’m still listening it. The Luminaries is really long and I finished re-reading it but it deserves a separate post. The Flamethrowers isn’t that long, but it defeated my enthusiasm for it after a while and Rachel Kushner isn’t coming to Wellington next month anymore so it all seemed less urgent.

Conclusion: I was a slack reader in February 2014, but an obsessive cricket fan, a present and willing father, an amazing chief policy analyst / shaky acting policy manager, an inexperienced IHC volunteer, a threadbare columnist, a deliberate cyclist and a ready sleeper.

Monday, February 3, 2014

January reading / playlist

I dropped the ball with these monthly reading summaries early last year, but it was never intentional. So here I am, picking the ball back up..

(As a bonus: some songs I liked this month:


Case Histories – Kate Atkinson (audiobook)
Case HistoriesFar be it from me to criticise a book that blurs genre boundaries, but Case Histories never really got going for me, I think because it used aspects of Crime Fiction (crimes!, a private detective) and Literary Fiction (multiple perspectives, lot’s of non-detective characters, lots of time spent on characterisation) that don’t gel. Rather than letting the crimes drive the plot, they seemed to pull it apart, making for a slow read.
When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery)
When you reach me – Rebecca Stead (audiobook)
My wife and I listened to this on two separate car trips up to the Kapiti Coast over the summer. Haven’t done much in-car listening before., but found it an enjoyable experience. Probably helps that this YA novel about time travel is simply told…

Somewhere in time – Richard Matheson (audiobook)
Somewhere in TimeContinuing the time travel theme, this novel opens with a note from the narrator’s brother, disclaiming some of the zany stuff that’ll follow, and apologising for the slow start to the tale. An apologia – just the sort of thing to put you in a good frame of mind… In all, it felt like a padded out short story. This is true of many of the early greats of this sort of spec-fic, like HG Wells and Verne. So much padding and plodding in order to veil the premise a little longer. Such coyness wears on me (right now).
At the Mountains of Madness
At the Mountains of Madness – HP Lovecraft (audiobook)
My first ever Lovecraft. May be my last. Early on it has some nice resonance with Shackleton’s South, which I read in 2011, but it moves slowly to the reveal (Cthulu mythos stuff) and wasn’t very horrifying to me. Oh well.

And books in progress (in case I forget something this time next month)...

The Recognitions – William Gaddis (audiobook)
The RecognitionsThis'll take a while. I listened to the first two hours while driving, and you can't get much further from the straight-forwardness of When You Reach Me. But The Recognitions is amazing, once you get your ears tuned in to Gaddis's flow. It's like listening to Shakespeare. In more ways than one. But it is 38+ hours long, or Hamlet + Othello + Lear + MacBeth + As You Like It + Much Ado + Midsummer Night's Dream + Henry V + Winter's Tale. Okay, that's totally unfair. I wish I never did that. As you were.
The Flamethrowers
The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
I'm reading this ahead of Kushner's appearance at Wellington Writers and Readers Week next month. Digging it so far... (reading it makes me use terms like 'digging it').

Aside: the UK cover (right), which is the paperback cover we get here in NZ is one of the ugliest, least appealing covers I've encountered in a long time, down to the embossed silver foil flame in the upper left. Ugh. Wonder what RK thinks of it?

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
The LuminariesI didn't explain in my Best of 2013 list, but I read The Luminaries the first time on fast forward. I'd left my copy in NZ when I went to the States (luggage space was at a premium) and instead borrowed a friend's US edition for three days in late October, always intending to go back and give it a more considered read. Which is what's happening now. I'm 300 pages in and those 3/4 page chunks of character exposition I skipped over on my first reading have been dutifully scrutinised (though I still feel like skipping as soon as I realise it'll be one of those paragraphs).

My first-time impressions remain the strongest: (1) There are some cracking scenes (like Jo Pritchard w/ Anna Wetherall in the Gridiron - the first time we see Anna up close - then Gascoigne arrives...) that help you hoover up the pages. (2) Every page has one or two moments where I go: 'Gee, that must have taken multiple days/drafts to get right. Respect.' (3) 'This is so Deadwood set in Hokitika' (a compliment).