Dan recommends: The best of fiction

Another year is coming to a close and it gives me pause to think about what an amazing year it has been for fiction! We’ve been bestowed with such a wealth of quality new releases, from longstanding authors continuing to deliver, debuts of such genius it boggles the mind, sequels that have been waiting more than a century, and a bold author new takes on an old classic.

Catalogue link to Flames by Robbie ArnottMy highlights for this year start with not only the best book I’ve read this year but possibly the best I will ever read, ever!

I’m talking it up, I know but here’s some of the reasons why… Flames is a tribute to nature, the environment, our place in it, the unseen elements, the powers that rule, and the lives of all things. It weaves myths and small gods into the fabric of the environment, masters of unseen systems which shape lives unbeknownst to the humans inhabiting their land. This is an astonishingly good book. It’s elemental, blurs the lines between reality and mythology, sweeps you up in atmosphere and the sense of place, and the use of language is sublime. The story is set in Tasmania and centres around a family with deep connections to the land and environment. A young woman sets out south, alone to the wilderness of ancient Tasmania, while her brother sets out to build her a coffin and sends a private detective to track down his sister and bring her home.Through the course we discover an ageless world, gods of nature, young people coming of age, and what it is to engage with your world. Superb effort and the best thing I’ve read this year – quite an effort given the next titles I’ll share with you!

Catalogue link to Macbeth by Jo NesboWhen Hogarth Shakespeare set out to create modern retellings of the great works of Shakespeare, they were inspired by their choice of Jo Nesbo to retell Macbeth. Macbeth The master of noir violence and mystery has done an absolutely brilliant job of turning Macbeth (the man) into a Scottish police officer, wracked with guilt of the past, plagued with addiction, and hungry for power. It’s so obvious to me now that Macbeth was MADE for the Scandi-Noir genre treatment. It’s gritty, dark, violent. Full of power, betrayal, and characters walking the fine line between sanity and madness. For this story Macbeth is head of SWAT in a dangerous and corrupt town and together with his mistress, Lady, the rags-to-riches casino entrepreneur, they embark on a powerplay to seize control of the city. But Macbeth has a sketchy past full of drug abuse and violence and as he relapses things get out of control, people get killed, lines get blurred… A great read and a must if you like Scandi Crime!

Catalogue record for The shepherd's hut by Tim WintonThe next two I’d like to share are by two of the most important authors of our contemporary world right now – in my humble opinion. The first is the Australian writer Tim Winton and his newest book The Shepherd’s Hut. It’s the very colourful and memorable account of a young man forced by circumstance to take to the outback roads of rural Western Australia. Such brilliant descriptive writing will have you smelling the eucalyptus in the air, and hearing the crispy arid saltlands crunching underfoot. Jaxie is running and he’s got a vague destination in mind – north. And he’s got to survive the perils of rural Australia, criminals, and the very land that seems to want to kill him from heat, thirst or animal attack. An outstanding book from a great Australian author and written in vernacular language too, strengthening characters and adding some lightness!

Catalogue record for Don't skip out on me by Willy VlautinThe other amazing offering comes from an American author; Don’t Skip Out on Me

Willy Vlautin is one of my favourite authors writing today and his works just keep getting better and better. He writes of contemporary everyday life and he tells the stories of working class Americans and the very real struggles faced by ordinary people in the America of today. This one is concerning a young American Indian man who passionately desires to be a champion boxer. He begins his journey on a ranch in Nevada where an ageing couple has adopted him, and follows him to Arizona as he sets his mind to a life of pugilism. Beautifully written and full of the heart and pathos that Willy Vlautin is famous for. A stellar effort and worthy of much praise.

Catalogue record for Only killers and thieves by Paul HowarthAnd now for the fans of gritty Historical Fiction and WesternsOnly Killers and Thieves

Another great debut from Australia that really captures the Australian Gothic story. It’s the story of two young men, not boys but barely men, after a traumatic family event that sees them on a journey not of their choosing. The book describes the brutality of life in 1800’s Australia, the treatment of the indigenous population, and the rigourous adherence to the ‘old ways’ in this vastly alien and seemingly lawless world. If you like your reading to be vivid, violent, confronting, and troublesome then you’ll sure like this one!

Catalogue record for Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. BarkerI was originally going to keep this list of highlights to five titles but there’s another one that came to my attention recently. It’s the sequel (a prequel to be more precise) that’s taken over a century to come into existence. Dracul

The official prequel to the great work, this one penned by none other than Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew and authorised by his estate. It’s told in the familiar form of diary entries and personal notes, and tells the story of Bram himself who along with his siblings encounter some serious evil and a creature so powerful and unknowable that it threatens their very souls. So well written and very readable, good pace (bit of a page turner), and language that would please the original author. A great read for fans of horror, mystery/suspense, or the classics. Definitely one of my best picks for 2018 and a worthy inclusion to this highlights package (and my colleague Fee loved it too)!

Now I look at the titles that missed out on inclusion to this list with some sadness – like I say, it was a remarkable year for quality fiction! Here at least you have a selection for your holiday reading this summer. Grab one at your local library, settle in with a cup o’tea (or something else), and get some amazing stories in for the hols.

Happy reading,

^DevilStateDan

UpLit – something positive to look forward to

CoverAt a time of political upheaval, where nothing seems to stay the same, and calamity and craziness is our daily news … there does seem to be an appetite for books about human connection, optimism and love (but not necessarily romance). The publishing community has declared that “UpLit” is a new trend – books about likeable characters on the margins of society who through sheer determination, a good dose of positivity mixed with some luck, empathy and kindness become the gentle heroes and heroines of the ordinary. With the publication of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, ‘UpLit’ went into overdrive and this new genre has become incredibly popular. Find out more in The Guardian: UpLit has become a ‘thing’.

Eleanor Oliphant is a great example of the genre, and another title I really enjoyed was The Cactus, about a prickly character who finds herself pregnant and surprisingly vulnerable, something she is not at all accustomed to feeling!

There are some great books being published and this is a trend that may well last a while given the daily amount of fear, negativity and trauma that comes streaming onto our TVs and phones. Take a break and enjoy some of these titles.

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A Place to Stand – WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

What distinguishes a great festival session from a good one? I think I can answer that after my session to-day: A Place to Stand.

Karin Altenberg and Amy Head. Image supplied.
Karin Altenberg and Amy Head. Image supplied.

A small, sell-out session with Swedish author Karin Altenberg and New Zealand writer Amy Head, this exploration of the importance of Place punched way above its weight, and reminded me what a great event should be like:

  • First up a great session needs a really good interviewer, and Liz Grant was the best interviewer of this festival for me. With extensive knowledge about the books of both the authors (teetering perilously on very high chairs on either side of her), she was very good. Well done Liz.
  • A great session should engage you, there should be no mind wandering and fidgeting. We were all riveted.
  • You can judge a good session on the quality of the questions it provokes at the end, and this session came up trumps there as well.
  • You are sorry when a great session ends.
  • Hours later you are still thinking about it, wishing there had been more time. Mulling over questions you would have liked to ask.
  • You want to buy both the books!

Both Karin and Amy revealed their Turangawaewae (Place to stand). Karin’s is a small rocky outcrop off the West Coast of Sweden (it’s not even on a map) where her parents own a simple hut. Near there is a footprint shape in the rocks where, when Karin places her foot in it, she feels absolutely connected. Amy’s place is on the West Coast of New Zealand just outside Westport, a place of isolation and risk, it is “not a passive place” according to Amy.

CoverThey both always wanted to be writers but came at it from very different directions – Karin through landscape architecture (because writing wasn’t considered the done thing to do where she grew up). She never did any creative writing courses and tends to start all her writing from the landscape which she then peoples with characters and lets their story unfold. This is how her novel Island of Wings, which is set on St Kilda’s near the Outer Hebrides, unfolded. Karin also did the best reading from a book in the entire festival. A powerful passage beautifully read.

CoverAmy came to writing through her research on addiction, using the resources of the Salvation Army to find out more about the Rotoroa Home for Inebriates. Amy never thought she could be a writer, she had to go through a slow personal transition from reading to writing. She is a thoughtful young woman who considered all her answers very carefully. In the writing of Rotoroa she took the unusual step of combining a real-life person with fictionalised characters, and setting the whole story in the 1950s – a period of time long before she was born.

This was a very meaningful session for me, as I myself have a strong sense of place. I shall be thinking about it for some time to come.

And that is the highest praise I can give any festival event.

Find works in our collection by:

Follow our coverage of WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Charlotte Grimshaw: I and I and existentialism: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is a way of life for Charlotte Grimshaw. Growing up in father C.K. Stead’s orbit, Charlotte’s world was one where every facet of life could be fictionalised.

Cover of MazarineCharlotte spoke at WORD Christchurch Festival 2018 with Kate de Goldi about her latest novel, Mazarine, in which she explores the evolution of the shattered self; through the story of a woman trying to find her adult daughter, missing in Europe, ultimately finding her own sense of being.

There is a large element of psychoanalysis in Mazarine, a sense of personal experience within the narrative. The character of Francis is ethereal, almost non-existent in her family unit: adopted, ignored, her feelings unvalidated.

Francis keeps asking for validation of her existence throughout the book, her character lacking a sense of reality as her past has no narrative. This is a common human condition, asserts Grimshaw.

Mazarine, the ‘other mother’ whose son has gone missing with Francis’ daughter, is the blue butterfly to Francis’ brown female. (The male Mazarine gets the colour.)

Yet Charlotte was determined to avoid ‘selfie fiction” – meandering existentialism with no plot – writing instead a page-turner; successful in hooking this reader with “what happens next?” Grimshaw writes a compelling mystery that crosses the world, with an essential motif – a tattoo.

When asked of her inspiration for the story, Charlotte remembers an incident that drove the beginning (a suicide at West Ham railway station – Julian Assange’s lawyer) but not how circumstance took her there. Is she visited by a Muse? Charlotte suggests it might be aliens…

At the time of writing, the U.S. appeared to be on the brink of electing a female President (Hilary Clinton). Charlotte saw this as a possible zeitgeist. (Instead, the U.S elected a ‘narcissist gorilla’, she says; in whose world women exist only as handmaidens, plastic effigies of themselves; beautiful, young and never fat.)

Accordingly, the characters in Mazarine are strong females; Inez, the adoptive mother who will not speak to Francis, always refusing to acknowledge her feelings is ‘a towering black hole.’ Mazarine, significantly the first female friend Francis has found outside her family, is the Yin to Inez’ Yan. Francis’ father is the handmaiden, cowtowing to Inez’ dominant emotions and perception.

A wonderful session made all the more interesting by Kate de Goldi’s eloquent questioning and deep analysis.

“Therapy is a truth excavator” – Kate de G.

Kate de Goldi talks macro vs microcosm with Charlotte Grimshaw at WORD Christchurch

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Quick Questions with Catherine Chidgey – WORD Christchurch

CoverWe are asking quick questions of writers and thinkers coming to the WORD Christchurch Festival 2018 (Wednesday 29 August to Sunday 2 September).

Catherine Chidgey’s novels have been published to international acclaim. The Wish Child won the 2016 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize and Golden Deeds was a  Los Angeles Times book of the year. Chidgey was awarded the 2017 Janet Frame Fiction Prize.

Catherine Chidgey. Photo credit: Helen Mayall
Catherine Chidgey. Photo credit: Helen Mayall

What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?

Catching up with the Chidgey cousins.

What do you think about libraries?

They are adventure playgrounds, churches, sweet shops, universities, cruise ships, refuges, time machines…

CoverWhat would be your desert island book?

Wuthering Heights.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

My second and third toes are ever-so-slightly webbed.

Catherine Chidgey’s sessions at WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Catherine Chidgey: Transformations Friday 31 August 10am

Catherine Chidgey: Through the senses workshop Friday 31 August 12.30pm

Quick Questions with Nicky Pellegrino – WORD Christchurch

CoverWe are asking quick questions of writers and thinkers coming to the WORD Christchurch Festival 2018 (Wednesday 29 August to Sunday 2 September).

Nicky Pellegrino is the author of 10 best-selling novels. She juggles writing fiction with a career as a journalist, regularly contributing to magazines including the Listener and the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly.

Nicky Pellegrino. Image supplied.
Nicky Pellegrino. Image supplied.

What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?

I’m hoping I’ll find time for a walk in the Botanic Gardens. And to eat a lot of delicious things.

What do you think about libraries?

They were my lifeline when I was a kid and my best friends were books.

What would be your desert island book?

To The Bright Edge Of The World by Eowyn Ivey because it would remind me how it felt to be cold.

To the Bright Edge of the World

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

I can touch my nose with my tongue.

Nicky Pellegrino’s sessions at WORD Christchurch Festival 2018:

High tea and Tales Thursday 30 August 2pm

Dead Men’s WORDs

WORD Christchurch is back for 2018 and once again we have a programme chock full of amazing opportunities to revel in the goodness of the creative use of words.

There’s such a wide array of interesting stuff to highlight too…

Perhaps the biggest for me is the conversation with Irvine Welsh on Friday 31 August at the Isaac Theatre Royal (6pm-7pm). Welsh debuted in 1993 with the now-modern-classic Trainspotting, the story of a group of heroin users negotiating life in Leith, Scotland in the early 1990s.

He’s revisited these characters often with his 2016 book The Blade Artist focusing on Francis Begbie and his new life as a contemporary artist in California – a great read! And his new book, Dead Men’s Trousers, brings the whole crew back together in a more substantial way. There’s betrayal and payback, drug use and abuse, and of course a high level of coarse language and violence.

And with mixed feelings I realise that there’s some events in Dead Men’s Trousers too that, without giving any spoilers, makes me think that this might be the last we’ll see of these characters. There’s some loose ends tied off and some revelations about the future for some of them, and if it is to be the last then it’s a great way to send them off – here’s hoping that they will come back as ageing and maladjusted senior citizens at some point though, that’d be a hoot!

Scottish author Irvine Welsh (image supplied).

It will be great to hear Irvine Welsh’s take on the happenings of Britain recently; he has strong opinions and regularly shares them through his twitter account @IrvineWelsh

His 2018 WORD Christchurch talk does have a cost of $34/32 and it is only for an hour but I’m dead keen!

^DevilStateDan

Find out more

WORD things to get excited about: Mark’s picks of the 2018 festival

The WORD Festival is arriving in Christchurch (29 August to 2 September) in a celebration of all things literary. There will be something for everyone with events ranging from the silly to the profound with over 120 authors, and close to 100 events across 30 venues. Below is just a tantalising taste of what this wonderful event has to offer, so feel free to explore the WORD Christchurch Festival programme in full.

So pull up a chair, get yourself a drink, and get ready to explore the wonderful world of the WORD.

Picks of WORD Christchurch 2018

The Politics of fiction (Saturday 1 September 4-5pm, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū)

Brannavan Gnanalingam, Pip Adam, and Rajorshi Chakraborti. Image supplied.

There will be certain pieces of fiction that hold special places in the hearts of literature fans, and one of the reasons could be for political reasons. Join Ockham award winning author Pip Adam, with fellow authors Rajorshi Chakraborti, and Brannavan Gnanalingam in conversation with Julie Hill as they discuss the very topic of the politics of fiction looking at the way fiction can be more than mere entertainment, but can serve a role in helping create empathy and change perspectives.

Yaba Badoe: Fire, Stars and Witches (Saturday 1 September 2.30-3.30pm, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū)

Magical Realism is a beautiful genre of literature with narratives that can displace time and space or use magic as a metaphorical device through which to tell fantastic story rich in cultural relevance. A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars author Yaba Badoe is a great international author of the genre of magical realism in addition to being an accomplished filmmaker and will be in discussion with University of Canterbury PhD candidate Sionainn Byrnes. This talk promises to explore issues surrounding women in Africa in addition to magical realist fiction itself.

Laurie Winkless: Science and the City (Saturday 1 September 4-5pm, Phillip Carter Family Concert Hall)

A topic that should be at the heart of all Christchurch locals. Following the tragedy that was the Christchurch Earthquakes, everyone – bar none – has had an opinion on how the rebuild has progressed and what should have been done. Laurie Winkless, author of Science and the City, will provide specialised knowledge on the subject that is well informed through studies of cities from all over the world and explore the scientific considerations of cities.

New Regent Street Pop-Up Festival (Thursday 30 August, 6-7.20pm, New Regent Street)

A glorious event for young and old. The New Regent Street Pop-Up Festival is my favourite event from Word Festival’s prior, and it’s free! This event will bring world class talent to New Regent Street in multiple pop-up events as the street is turned into a festival celebrating the literary form. The New Regent Street Pop-Up Festival will make you wish New Regent street was like this everyday.

David Neiwert: Alt-America (Thursday 30 August 6-7pm, Philip Carter Family Concert Hall)

David Neiwert. Image supplied.

American journalist David Neiwert will be talking about his book Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Time of Trump, in an attempt to explain what is actually happening in the American political landscape at present. What promises to be a great and informative event, David Neiwert will historicise the rise of this seemingly overnight political phenomena to the 1990s as he discusses his work in tracking and following the far-right in American politics for multiple decades.

Ted Chiang: Arrival (Sunday 2 September 2.45-3.45pm. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū)

The Science Fiction Author of Story of Your Life, which was adapted into the film Arrival, Ted Chiang will be in conversation with science fiction and fantasy author Karen Healey. Expect and interesting and philosophical conversation from this thought provoking and awarding winning author.

Find out more

Parents, romance, and friendship drama: New contemporary teen fiction

Here are three romance-driven YA novels from different (American) perspectives, all recently published:

American Panda by Gloria Chao

Cover of American PandaGermaphobe Mei is a liar — lying about dropping dance, lying about being in contact with her disowned brother, and lying about dating someone who is Japanese. But most of all she’s lying about intending to become a doctor. As her secrets pile up, Mei has to find a way to confront her parents with her own needs instead of conforming to all of their strict Taiwanese traditions.

Overbearing Asian parents can be a bit of a trope in YA novels but Chao portrays Taiwanese families of varying levels of attachment to tradition, helping Mei to see that some rules might need to be broken. While Mei really struggles with her family there is also a lot of humour (especially in the phone messages left by relatives) and her developing relationship with Darren is very sweet. I’d recommend it to fans of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I Loved Before as it has a similar cosy hot chocolate vibe even when it’s dealing with serious issues.

Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

Cover of Let's Talk About LoveAfter being dumped by her girlfriend for being asexual, Alice throws all her energy into her part-time job at the library and ignoring parental pressure to study law — but when Takumi starts working there too she finds herself somewhat distracted by his good looks. With friendship drama, therapy, and a million missed phone calls from her family, will Alice ever get her act together enough to articulate her own feelings?

I have to confess that I found this a frustrating read — no one behaves well, but especially not Alice, who totally ignores anything that isn’t movies and crappy food and things that score highly on her Cute Chart. Half the time she complains about her wealthy family paying for her rent and education, and the other half she’s surprised and upset when they don’t. Having said that, asexual main characters are still rare enough for this book to be valuable, and others may enjoy Alice’s burgeoning romance with Takumi more than I did.

Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi

Cover of Emergency ContactPenny and Sam are both looking for escape — Penny fleeing her mother to go to university, and Sam fleeing pretty much everything. When Penny discovers Sam having what he thinks is a heart attack she rescues him and they exchange contact details, leading to a friendship via text as Penny pursues her dream of becoming a writer and Sam attempts to become a film-maker, with personal complications along the way.

Not a very compelling summary but this is probably my favourite of the three, similar in feel and content to Eleanor and Park. Penny and Sam are both awkward, creative individuals dealing with difficult backgrounds — Penny with her anger towards her flaky mother, Sam with his checked-out parents and newly pregnant ex-girlfriend — but despite this there is a lot of humour in their exchanges, with many funny moments. If you’re a fan of Rainbow Rowell then I’d add this one to your to-read pile.

Cool stuff from the Selectors: Musings on fiction

Fiction publishing  is very much trend and theme driven, and as Heidi Klum said “one day you’re in and the next day you’re out”.

There are always the bestseller authors, but in amongst their numbers are a few subjects and authors that can come out of left field.

Bookshops

Bookshops. Books and people who sell them, read in them, murder in them and fall in love, usually in old dusty quaint places – none of which resemble Whitcoulls or Paper Plus.  The recently released movie The bookshop might also create some interest in this area.

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Librarians and Libraries

Librarians and libraries!  Well, not exactly a major trend, but for a generally under-represented group in books and films we seem to be featuring on a regular basis lately – usually there is a murder involved …which is um, interesting?

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Bakeries

Bakeries.  Food has always been a feature in fiction, but just lately there has been the odd bakery/romance popping up, which seems like a nice mixture to me.

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Bees and Beekeepers

Bees – and for some reason Beekeepers

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Feminist Dystopias

Feminist dystopias – not surprising considering the dramatisation of The Handmaid’s tale. These books are not for the faint hearted.

Find more feminist dystopias in our collection.

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Of course, fiction publishing is also affected by what is going on in the world, there have been more titles published in the last few years about refugees for example, plenty of titles about the economic crisis, climate change and a plethora of light easy reads for those of us who just want to escape.

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