Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book #17: China – The Year of the Shanghai Shark by Mo Zhi Hong

You hear a lot about structure and plot and the perfect way to do them, but a lot of the time books don’t conform to the rules. The Year of the Shanghai Shark is one of these – every chapter shows you an important person in the narrator’s life, and you come to know the character  indirectly through his friends. The narrative skips forward and back in time, and threads are dropped and caught up again throughout. You see things in snippets, building the story like a mosaic. And it works.

Hai Long lives with his uncle in Dalian, a port city in North East China. The book covers his life until about 2003 (I think), focusing mostly on the years leading up to SARS and Yao Ming’s NBA basketball debut (both important events in Hai Long’s life). I’ve never been to China, but the book makes you feel as if you have. You see daily life at micro scale, and follow the trials and triumphs of the characters.

If you like to have everything laid out in front of you to follow, then this probably isn’t the book for you. The novel is a bit like a puzzle, and I kind of want to go find Mo Zhi Hong and interrogate him about what exactly was happening in certain places.  Questions are left unanswered, but you gain a real insight into Hai Long’s life and the lives of the people around him. The diversity of China (and of people in general) is revealed in the careful layering of stories. Most of the time, you finish a book feeling you’ve met the main character and a few sub-characters. When you finish The Year of the Shanghai Shark, you’ll have met fifteen.

I really liked this book. And I think I’ve used too many metaphors in this review.

Give me some other books set in China! :-)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Waiting Game

So I sent off my visa application today... I thought it would be better when I have it all done and in the post but it’s not. Before, I was stressing about whether I’d get it in on time or and whether I had enough stuff. Now I’m stressing about whether it will get there early enough and if I forgot to put something in and what if hijackers blow up the mail plane. Before, things were in my control, even if my control wasn’t all that great. Now they’re not and I don’t like it.

I should stop being a control freak. It will be less stressful.

It’s not as bad as sending out queries or manuscripts, I think. At least with a visa application, it’s plain facts you’re dealing with. Unless the visa officer is astrology-obsessed, they’re not going to judge you on your birth date or your mother’s maiden name. When you send out work that you’ve pored over for months and years, putting your heart and soul into it, you can’t help but feel that your heart and soul are being judged. Logically, you know that rejections don’t mean an agent or an editor hates you personally, but there’s still that feeling way down deep...

Waiting’s the hardest part. When you’re in that Schrödinger’s cat stage when it could go either way, and you’re having mini panic attacks every time you check your mail. What if I’d done this, or that? What’s happening in that parallel universe where I’ve done everything correctly?

Maybe it’s better to think about the parallel universe where everything’s gone wrong. The one where you forgot to sign things, you spelt three words in the first sentence wrong, you used Comic Sans, and you caught the agent or editor or visa officer on a day when they hated the world... So really, this particular reality isn’t actually that bad.

And even if you do get a rejection, it just means you get to go back and write more awesome stuff.

If you’re submitting things for publication, that is. If they reject my visa application, I guess I’m kinda screwed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Book #16: Greenland – They Came on Viking Ships by Jackie French

I hope everyone you know is safe and well, and that everyone affected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is okay. I know, not really very realistic, but I hope it anyway.

I like historical fiction. I should read more of it. This book is based on 13th century sagas about Norse voyages to Greenland and North America, and is called Slave Girl in some places. Jackie French, although not from Greenland, is a great author and friend to wombats, and you should check out her other books ('In the Blood' trilogy is good).
Hekja lives in a small village on a Scottish island around the turn of the eleventh century AD. Her life, which is already difficult, becomes much harder when Vikings destroy her village, killing nearly everyone and taking Hekja and her dog Snarf captive. Her mistress is Freydis Eriksson, sister to Leif Eriksson, and Hekja can’t figure out how to think of these people - they killed her friends and mother and yet have humanity at close range. She wants only to return home with Snarf, but it’s pretty hard to do that when you’re taken hundreds of miles across the sea to a new land, Greenland.
There is not much green in Greenland. Trees do not grow tall enough to make buildings, and small icebergs float in the fjords even in summer. The people rely on traders for building materials and other goods, and must huddle out the dark winter in their longhouses. But everywhere is beautiful in its own way, as Hekja notes, and she begins to accept her life, even if she dreams of more.
Norsemen had settled Iceland some time before, and Freydis’ father discovered Greenland while banished. Freydis’ brother discovered North America, and Freydis wants to have a voyage of her own, and be seen as a leader in her own right. Hekja is taken further from her home, to the new Vinland (somewhere on the US east coast).
This is a great immersion in the life of ten centuries ago. It makes you glad for electric heaters and microwaves, but also wistful for times of adventure, when the world was wide and surprising. I suppose it can still be surprising, but in a different way. We know everything, or we think we do.
Any books about Greenland you recommend?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Okay, I’m slack. Or just sharpening my skills at procrastination. There will be a round-the-world book this week! The thing is I haven’t finished reading it yet.
On Sunday I went to the main (not very good) library and got out two books. Then I went to a suburban (awesome) library and got out five books, one of which is my round-the-world book and actually quite good. Unfortunately I convinced myself that reading other books as ‘research’ is just as valid as reading my round-the-world book, and as it’s been my birthday this week I felt justified in procrastinating. Or perendinating (=super-procrastinating). So I started the book on Sunday, but since then I’ve finished four other books and started a fifth. I tend to chain-read.
But it shall be up later. I made a goal and I am sticking to it. Or sticking in its general area.
What do you do to procrastinate?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


The only thing I feel I can write about at the moment is the Christchurch Earthquake. It’s the only thing I feel right writing about.

I live about 750km from Christchurch. The earthquake showed up on seismographs near me, but nowhere near enough to be felt. I’ve been in earthquakes before, the largest a 6.7 I don’t remember (I was four). The ones I do remember were scary and exciting, because nothing really bad happened.

The first earthquake in September came as a complete shock. Christchurch is not supposed to have earthquakes – everyone knows the next big one will be in Wellington (my hometown). Wellingtonians are resigned to this, and most of the buildings should stand up to the quake long enough to get people out. The last big earthquake was an 8.2 in 1855, and half of Wellington city is built on land that was underwater before this. Since then most Wellington buildings have been built in timber – Wellington is even the home of the largest wooden building in the southern hemisphere.

But Christchurch? It’s had smaller earthquakes, but no one really thought much about it. As the news came through in September we found that no lives had been lost. A miracle! Businesses were ruined, houses made uninhabitable, but nobody had died. The earthquake became more spectacle than disaster as relief set in. Children stood in fissures, engineers got down to business marking buildings green, yellow, red, and New Zealanders pulled together.

Now things are completely different. The February 22nd earthquake was of a smaller magnitude, but it was closer to the city and much shallower. There was sideways movement of more than 1G – as if gravity turned ninety degrees. Two office buildings collapsed completely and the spire of the Christchurch Cathedral fell. The death toll stands at 160.

Every flag is at half-mast. Every conversation turns to the earthquake. Do you know anyone in Christchurch? Are they okay? Our national census, set for March, has been called off – the last time that happened was because of World War II. The government is trying to figure out what to cut so that Christchurch can function and be rebuilt.

But we pull together. When bad things happen, we find the courage and strength to continue. You see the best in people. There’s a ‘student army’ helping in Christchurch, and people around the country have opened their homes to earthquake refugees. Everywhere you go there are fundraisers – look on Trademe (our ebay) and you’ll see hundreds of auctions with profits going to help Christchurch. One guy’s selling the 25 tonne rock that destroyed his house – it’s called ‘Rocky’.

We discover ourselves through ordeals. We realise how lucky we are to be alive, and mourn for those who were not so lucky. Life is sharp and immediate and beautiful. It should not be wasted.

Kia kaha – stay strong.