Friday, December 31, 2010

Gifted by Patrick Evans

On this, the last day of 2010, I can’t think of a better book to have finished reading than Gifted by Patrick Evans.


For starters, it was last December that I paid a visit to Frank Sargeson’s house in Takapuna, which is the setting for much of the novel. Sadly, the army hut in which Janet Frame lived 1955-56 is no more and the portion of the back garden that housed it was sold off to pay for the upkeep of Sargeson’s house as a museum of sorts. Similarly, the macrocarpa hedge that is so large a symbol in the novel is less of a presence these days, but my time inside Frank’s fibrolite bach made reading the novel a very real, very navigable experience, the same as one might feel reading a novel set in Tuscany after renting a villa there.

Perhaps more significant than the physical overlap between myself and the novel’s two protagonists, Sargeson and Frame, was the fact that these writers featured so prominently in my reading in 2010. I’d read Sargeson’s collected stories at high school (and with a high school student’s exam-focussed eye), but the mention of his early collection, A Man and His Wife, in a review of my own short story collection prompted a trip to the local library (as Sargeson does so frequently in Gifted). My reaction to A Man and His Wife features in my July reading summary.

2010 was also the year I read Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame, which is the novel (or as Frame refers to it in Gifted, ‘an exploration’) she wrote in a furious five months in the army hut. Owls Do Cry made it all the way to #2 on my best reads of 2010 list.

Reading Gifted for me was like standing at a river delta and watching the different coloured waters collide, moil and eventually mix. Evans’ novel is both a tremendous piece of imagination and scholarship (see the three page author’s note at the back of the book). I’m not sure, however, if the story ever elevated beyond, as Kate De Goldi calls it on the back cover blurb, a “re-imaginging of a signal moment in our cultural history”. The ontological clash between Sargeson and Frame that provides much of the fuel for the story was the least engaging part for me, perhaps because I found all of the stuff about mimesis in 100 level English papers terribly dry and unsexy.

But anyone with a passing interest in Sargeson or Frame will get a lot out of reading this novel, and I feel invigorated for another year of reading well and reading widely in 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some thoughts on The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley

The Hut Builder

One reason I keep this blog is to open the door (however slightly) on my own writing process. So this is not a review of The Hut Builder. A review would take a more rounded, less personal approach to the reading experience. What I hope to do here is capture a few of my thoughts upon reading Fearnley’s novel and how this relates to my own writing.

Spoiler alert: The Hut Builder isn’t exactly a thriller or a mystery, but I do disclose certain elements of the plot in the following discussion which are kind of surprises at the time. You’ve been warned.

A brief summary

The novel is divided into four sections: ‘Fairlie’, ‘The Hut Builder’, ‘The Poet’ and 'Boden'. The first section covers the childhood of Boden Black in the early fifties. Boden’s twin brothers died in the war and his mother is forever diminished; his father, the town’s butcher, is also affected but powers on. The key scene in this section involves Boden’s first trip to the Mackenzie Country with his neighbour; inspired by the landscape, Boden is prompted to compose his first poem.

‘The Hut Builder’ section focuses on the time Boden spent constructing a hut on the slopes of Aoraki/Mt Cook in his early twenties, in particular his relationship with fellow hut builder and former conscientious objector, Walter. By this time, Boden is working with his father at the butcher’s shop and still harbours dreams of being a poet.

In ‘The Poet’, we mostly follow Boden in late-middle age. One of the poems he wrote after his hut building expedition, ‘Three Days At Least’, has become New Zealand’s “the third most widely read poem” after ‘The Magpies’ (Glover) and ‘Rain’ (Tuwhare). Boden’s poetic output (and success) since then is limited and he continues to work as a butcher, taking over the shop after his father’s death. He finds love with Stella, a historian, though they never live together in the same town, and meets his long lost birth sister (spoiler: he was adopted). After finally publishing a new collection of poems, Kindred Spirits, Boden is commissioned to write a new poem to commemorate the opening of a new museum at Mt Cook, bringing the story back in the final brief section, if not quite full-circle, at least to its centre.

A voice never raised

The novel is narrated throughout by Boden, the emotionally reticent butcher-poet. His language is very restrained: formal in its construction and cadence. A couple of illustrative sentences selected almost at random:
"I could see the woman but I was too embarrassed to intervene. On the one hand I wanted to disown my father, but I also didn't want to deny him this small pleasure." p2
"Determined to make one last-ditch effort I went at my tunnel with renewed vigour, and after another twenty minutes or so of back-breaking work I felt a faint breath of air against my face..." p97
"If I stand back a little, however, I can credit the poem with bringing me to the attention of my future partner, Stella." p174
The voice is clearly not the sort you'd hear in spoken conversation. It's much more considered, almost stuffy (he hardly sounds impassioned when talking about the love of his life!), which goes a long way to describing Boden Black.

It was on the level of language that I had my first strong reaction to The Hut Builder. I saw many similarities in the voice to the narrator in the novel I have been working on (off and on) for the last two years. On this blog I have referred to this project as Novel B. In part, it was to be the story of the narrator finding his way in the world of visual/mixed media arts rather than poetry. Boden is writing his story from an older age (sixty something) and a significant chunk of the novel is set in the fifties, while the narrator of Novel B is writing at the age of about thirty and the events are mostly contemporary, though they seem to share that sense of stuffiness when it comes to language.

The net result in reading the first eighty or so pages of Boden’s/Fearnely’s crisp, thoughtful, carefully constructed sentences — that were very much what I was trying to perform with my narrator in Novel B — was a sense of dissatisfaction. The words were not lifeless, exactly, but there was a distinct lack of vigour.

And while Boden Black becomes a believable character by the end of the novel — one of the lingering-in-your-thoughts variety — his emotional reticence kneecaps his ability as a narrator to engage the reader’s (or this reader’s) emotions. The language does not leap off the page, nor does the action, nor does the emotion. What we get is a well told story which flirts with being interesting, flirts with being sad, flirts with being poetic, but never quite follows through on its promises.

Chutzpah, or the lack thereof

Related to the muted voice of the narrator is the amount of work left up to the reader in terms of Boden’s poetry. We do not get to read any poems, or even a single stanza. The total evidence of our hero’s poetry comes to: a rhyming couplet from his first, childish poem, the title and a couple of rhymes from his ‘greatest hit’, the fact he had been writing sonnets at one point then decided to abandon the form but keep the content, and a couple more titles. The reader is left to construct Boden’s poetry from these hints, his discussion of other poets (Charles Brasch, Ursula Bethell, Byron) and the language of his narration.

As Lawrence Jones puts it in his review for the Otago Daily Times, there is, “a hidden Boden expressed only in his poetry.”  Even in his memoir, which The Hut Builder is on one level, Boden does not delve too deeply into emotion. He never writes much about his love for Stella, for example, though we hear he once wrote her a love poem (which he wasn’t that fond of). Where’s the poem? Where’s the love?

The GiftIt is one thing to read about art, another thing to experience it. Poetry is one of the few art forms that lends itself to presentation in fiction. And yet the reader of The Hut Builder is left empty handed.

Bend SinisterI was forced to draw an unfavourable comparison between this book and Nabokov’s last (and greatest) work in Russian before turning to English, The Gift. Nabokov’s novel focuses on the literary ambitions and artistic development of the poet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev. Fyodor’s poetry is a central part of both the narrative and the characterisation, and we get to read it! As Nabokov says in another novel, Bend Sinister, when talking about his philosopher protagonist:
"It was much the same as is liable to happen in novels when the author and his yes-characters assert that here is a ‘great artist’ or a ‘great poet’ without, however, bringing any proofs (reproductions of his paintings, samples of his poetry); indeed, taking care not to bring such proofs since any sample would be sure to fall short of the reader’s expectations and fancy."
Pale Fire: A NovelLater, Nabokov would take the poetry-in-novel conceit to its extreme in Pale Fire which centres around a 999 line poem and the excessive, mad footnotes from (ostensibly at least) the poet’s neighbour.

I can understand Fearnley’s reticence to hand the reader a poem such as ‘Three Days at Least’, which is held up as Boden’s biggest achievement, the one studied by two generations of high school students. For a novelist, to write a self-proclaimed ‘great NZ poem’ takes some chutzpah, and chances are it would fail in some way.

It’s like the uncanny valley in robotics, which describes the fact that the closer to human appearance a robot becomes, the more disconcerting it is, because we are almost fooled but then notice those little quirks, the slightly unhuman movement of the eyelids, or the too-regular complexion. So too, a slight misstep in a ‘droid’ poem (one that resides in a work of fiction, but is supposed to read as something taken from the outside world) is likely to irk readers more than a piece of doggerel (which would then throw the novel into a satirical space, prompting the reader to reassess the seriousness with which Boden pursues his poetry and the kind of general public who would hold up a poem as a national treasure).

So basically, the droid poem must be flawless to succeed. But without it, we are left at such a distance from the narrator-poet and even the version of New Zealand it presents. It is easy to write the words "one of the most famous poems in recent New Zealand literature" (p174) — that’s the kind of notebook entry a writer makes all the time. The challenge of the novelist is to convince the reader of this fact and I was not convinced by the evidence provided in the novel.

The Shanghai Knights effect

Shanghai Knights The third issue I had with The Hut Builder was the plot’s relationship with history. I have come to think of this as The Shanghai Knights effect, which is named after the entirely forgettable action movie starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson (the movie was a sequel, which should tell you something about its quality off the bat). In Shanghai Knights, Chan and Wilson’s characters travel to London and by the end of the movie it seems everyone they’ve met turns out to be some kind of historical figure. ‘Artie’, the inspector from Scotland Yard, turns out to be Arthur Conan Doyle (despite the fact Doyle never worked as a coppa). The young street urchin will grow up to be Charlie Chaplin. Rather than adding to the effect of the story, these contrivances are a kind of literary outsourcing and reduce the imaginative power of a work for me.

So it was, to a lesser extent it must be said, in The Hut Builder. When Boden’s mother takes a train trip up to Auckland to visit her ailing mother in December 1953, sure enough the Tangiwai disaster rushes into the story and prompts Boden’s father to tell him he was adopted.

What’s my problem? Many people were affected by the disaster, and it could make for interesting reading. The problem: there is so much evident engineering to get Boden’s mother on a train to Auckland (they barely ever leave Fairlie). It felt like Tangiwai was being used to add oomph to the novel rather than generating that oomph — and the prompt for Boden’s father to open up — from something internal to the story. It is true that events such as Tangiwai and more recently the Christchurch earthquake or Pike River impact on a lot of people (and shake the headspace of people who haven’t suffered any real loss) in a seemingly arbitrary fashion, but there are ways such events can be incorporated into fiction in satisfying, subtle and believable ways. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel this was the case in The Hut Builder.

Perhaps it was because of the Tangiwai affair, but when Sir Edmund Hillary popped up in the novel for the second time (we already know Boden climbed Mt Cook with Hillary from the photo in his father’s shop in the prologue) he felt a bit perfunctory. I didn’t actually have any issue with Sir Ed as a character, what he said or did. It’s the fact that he just happened to come along the one time Boden helped construct a hut. And lo, our timid narrator gets the chance to climb our greatest peak with our greatest mountaineer. It could have been any mountaineer who took Boden up Mt Cook, and the fact it was Hillary can either be viewed as serendipitous or cynicism on the part of the writer (I don’t trust myself to make a ficitional mountaineer  interesting enough…).

As the Earth Turns Silver(I’m conscious that I am coming down quite harshly on this book and I am about to heap more doubts upon it, so it is worth re-iterating that I thought it was a decent book and would not be surprised or disappointed to see it nominated for the NZ Post Book Awards next year. For what it’s worth, I found The Hut Builder to be a more accomplished and far more pleasurable read than this year’s NZPBA fiction winner, As the Earth Turns Silver. Other readers will have no problem with The Hut Builder’s celebrity cameos or the articulate-yet-reserved voice of the narrator — indeed, many would point to these as a strength (or selling point) of the book…)

There are also a number of other historical connections, such Walter’s chums from prison including Hillary’s brother and Charles Brasch, the poet and editor of Landfall. I didn’t mind these so much, but then when it was revealed that Boden’s birth parents were close friends of Brasch’s, the network of historical connections felt just too tight, too perfect.

It’s an interesting question: when a story is set in the past, how much historical reference is too much? Clearly, the small stuff is important: the type of climbing equipment they would have used, the fashions of the time. That’s all crucial. And there needs to be historical touchstones for the reader. But when the number of characters and events in the book that are taken from the real world starts to dwarf those dreamed up by the author, it starts to bring the ‘reality’ of the fictional world into question. Do we really know that many people in our real lives who will be remembered in fifty year’s time? How likely is it that a poet-butcher will have multiple connections with the founder of one of our most important literary journals? Etc.

Bringing it all back home

The three factors I’ve discussed – my unfavourable reaction to the stuffy voice, the lack of chutzpah (not taking the risk of showing us poems), and the Shanghai Knights effect – prompted me to reassess what I’m doing with Novel B. The first two complaints, voice and chutzpah, I can also level at my completed chapters (while I make much more of an effort to show reader’s the narrator’s artistic output, good and bad, there’s a lingering lack of ambition, eg contemporary first person male narrator in lower North Island…). The third, the use of historical figures and research, and my views on what works and what doesn’t, is something I’m eager to demonstrate, but Novel B is not the place to do it.

Everything, it seems, is pointing me to the project I have kept on the back burner while struggling with Novel B. It is set around the turn of the last century (it opens on New Years Day 1903 and goes forward and back in time from there), so there’s scope to include historical personages. This project, by its nature, would also satisfy my issues with voice (third person semi-intrusive narrator in the mould of Dumas or Dostoyevsky, who is looking back on historical events from the reader’s present) and chutzpah (which I’ll need up the yingyang to pull it off). For the last week and a half I’ve been devoting my time to research and plot development (which includes coming up with character names). I love this part of writing — playing Maquet to my future Dumas — which isn’t technically writing at all.

What will happen to Novel B? This isn’t the first time I’ve abandoned it. I’ll come back to it in some form, some day. It did start out as a sequel to a short story and the chapters I’ve completed may be better served as a short story or two themselves. We shall see.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Worksheet #51, now with parentheses!

I haven't read everything in this year's edition of Turbine yet, but I have read Pip Adam's short story 'Featherston Street' and was well impressed. Don't let the dull title and the muted, engineering-speak opening put you off. It's a great example of Pip's aspiration to "represent large built forms in new and engaging ways", which she discussed more fully when I interviewed her back in July.



The Hut Builder
I've now finished The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley and have a number of comments I'll cobble together into a separate post. While it wasn't the sort of book that would cause me to reshuffle my top ten books of 2010 (there's goes any hope of a gender equitable split), it has prompted a massive realignment of my own writing projects… Like I said, watch this space.



I’ve submitted my entry for the Unity Books’ The long and the short of it competition. Despite best intentions to enter the ‘long’ category (10,000 words plus) I’ve put all my eggs in a sub-1000 word wonder.
Entries close on Christmas Eve, so I made it in plenty of time (as far as s/s competitions are concerned).

I was surprised to read in the confirmation email that winners would be informed by 1 May 2011. That sure seems like a long time, but I guess it’s to line up with the next issue of Sport (in which a select number of entries will appear).


(disclaimer: I no idea what's going on with the video)


Speaking of long lead times, I received an email this week informing me that two of my poems had been accepted for the next edition of the online poetry zine Trout (#16). I appeared in Trout #15 way back in October 2008, so it’s been a long time between editions. I submitted my poems back in August 2009, so that means it was 16 months between submission and acceptance. Unfortunately one of these two ‘new’ poems had subsequently been published elsewhere (‘Free walking tour with my brother’, Snorkel #11)...



I went searching through my old blog to see if I mentioned the last time I got accepted for Trout (and how long the wait was), but I didn’t seem to. I did, however, re-read this post about when I went to Greece.
The sun sets everywhere, everyday, but not all sunsets are equal. 
How smart I was back in 2008!



Some more bracket-y type titles I couldn't find youtube versions for:

It's all over now, baby blue (live)

Gotta know (remix)

Yazoo Street scandal (outtake)

All in one (medley)

Good day (extended edit)

White riot (single)

Vamos (another version)




Newsflash: Trout #16 is now online.  I was cheeky and sent another poem which was accepted in the Snorkel poem's stead.

Read: 'Six napkins' and 'Ten places I could be with the big one hits' (which, coincidentally, shares something in common with 'Featherston Street'...)


Friday, December 10, 2010

Best of 2010: Reading

As promised, here are the top ten books I've read in 2010 (note: books not necessarily released in 2010)...

10. Brief Lives by Chris Price 
(Short fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays - you name it; NZ, 2006)
Brief Lives

What I said in November: "I eventually got around to buying a copy of Brief Lives this year and really, really enjoyed it. Halfway through I was certain it would rocket into my top ten books I read in 2010... It may still make it [obviously it squeezed in], but I didn’t enjoy the big biographical/literary essay at the end of the book, ‘Variable Stars’, as much as I enjoyed the chunks of alphabetically arranged sui generis joy that preceded it. Some read like prose poems, others flash fiction, others short stories. One piece (‘Notebook’) is pure ideas as one may find in a...  notebook."

9. A Model World and Other Stories by Michael Chabon
(Short stories, 1991)
A Model World: And Other Stories

What I said in August: "I tried very hard not to like [this book]. The stories were too much like SHORT STORIES. The jacket blurb trumpets how most were previously published in the New Yorker, and they are very much in that mold... By the end of the book, however, I had to concede that I could have asked nothing more. And I wasn’t even in the mood for hard enlightenment or moments of bleak grace!"

8. Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker
(Novel, 1990)
Room Temperature

What I said in February: "Nicholson Baker’s narrator... takes the minutiae of a day with his baby daughter (cable knit sweaters and nose picking) and gives a kind of life story; in turn illustrating that [with reference to genetic cloning]: “the particular cell you started from colored your entire re-creation.” Room Temperature is both focused and meandering; myopic and exquisitely precise, but also profound and, at times, scatological. Every time I read one of Bakers books (this is numero tres), I leave richer and more wide-eyed."

7. The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton 
(Novel, NZ, 2008)

The Rehearsal

What I said in January: "It’s easy to envy Catton's early success before reading The Rehearsal, and hard to begrudge her afterwards... The plot tends to chase its own tail, but there is beauty in the chase: sentences that flail for the trapeze and make it, great chunks of decanted observation about high school, sex, drama and fiction..."

6. Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon
(Short stories, 2009)
Love and Obstacles

What I said in January: "A collection of short stories sharing the same narrator, a Sarajevan who spends the war in Chicago... There’s clearly some autobiography going on, but the lives of the narrator, his family and passers-through are rendered so richly, one soon leaves distinctions like fiction and autobiography behind... The collection properly takes off at story three (‘Conductor’), which happens to be the first that directly deals with “the war”, and apart from a technical (point of view) gripe in ‘Smurza’s Room’, I was rapt the rest of the way."

5. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
(Novel, audiobook, 2006)

What I said in October: "I enjoyed this book immensely. The audiobook version, which I borrowed from the Wellington City Library via its overdrive online borrowing system (a fabulous thing itself), was nominated for an Audie (the audiobook equivalent of an Oscar) in 2007, and rightly so. Arte Johnson’s turn as the ebullient narrator, Misha Vainberg, unable to return to his beloved United States, could have easily been over-egged, but Johnson eggs it perfectly (so to speak). Shteyngart’s novel is funny, generous and carefully absurd. A great reading/listening experience."

4. Gilead by Marilyn Robinson
(Novel, audiobook, 2004)

What I said in June: "Listening to Tim Jerome read Robinson's novel was a fantastic experience. The story is told in epistolary form and one of the strengths of the book is the voice of the narrator, Reverand John Ames, who is writing a long letter to his young son whom he will not see grow up... There was plenty of time to marvel at the craft and intellect of Robinson, and the voice-acting of Jerome, while still feeling pulled along by the story."

3. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
(Short stories/novella, 2008)
Legend of a Suicide

What I said in September: "Hard to classify, but its essentially three short stories, followed by a novella in two parts, and two more short stories to close out the book. Wasn’t so taken with the final two stories, but was gripped by the rest... Vann’s back in NZ later in the year to teach a short fiction course at the IIML. Would be great if our paths crossed and we got to have a chat..."  

2. Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame 
(Novel, audiobook, NZ, 1957)
Owls Do Cry

What I said in August: Owls Do Cry had its quirks as an audiobook... being a Bolinda production means the reader, Heather Bolton, is Australian. Her accent was almost imperceptible for the most part, but sometimes when she did dialogue, especially males’, I was suddenly transported from Waimaru (or ‘WAI-ma-ROO’) to Woollongong... But the book, oh the book. What a gem."

1* Moby Dick by Herman Melville 
(Novel, 1851)

This comes in first with an asterisk since it was a re-read, which is totally cheating (not sure if it's Melville or me that cheating, though).

What I said in July: "This is one of my two favourite books I read at university (the other being The Great Gatsby). The last time I re-read Moby Dick was 2005... My big takeaway this time: I'm sure I'll return to it again within the next five years, but hopefully I don't feel the need to ravage it for material and can just enjoy the book on its own merits.


The Worm in the TequilaThis list may well look different if I were to prepare it in January. For one, I would have finished Laurence Fearnley's The Hut Builder and Patrick Evans' Gifted (both NZ novels released in 2010). I like to think at least one would edge into the top ten, in which case I'd bump Moby off and Janet could take the top spot.

But skimming through the list of books read in 2010, there are a number that could sit comfortably along side these ten. There's no poetry above, but Geoff Cochrane or Pablo Neruda could have made it only the list on sheer reading pleasure alone. Then there were the older books whose reputations preceded them and didn't disappoint, but perhaps suffered because they didn't overachieve (whatever that means): Lucky Jim, A Room with a View, Love in the Time of Cholera, perhaps even the re-released Sydney Bridge Upside Down. There were also more recent books with a rep which seemed (mostly) deserved: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
Love in the Time of Cholera (Popular Penguins)
In all, I read and commented on this blog about: 21 novels, 14 poetry collections or anthologies, 13 short story collections or anthologies, 4 books of non-fiction. I also read some more lit-mags and books about birds and trees and such, which would bring up the non-fiction and poetry/short fiction quotient a bit. In all, the mix looks okay. Maybe still a little light on non-fiction. I may try listening to some non-fiction audiobooks next year. We'll see how that goes.

Some more stats: 3 New Zealand books made my top ten and in all I read 22 books by Kiwi authors this year across all forms. That's about 42% of all books read. Again, that seems like a good amount. Were my reading selections influenced by parochial intentions? Well, I did state back in February how I try to read at least one NZ book a month, but that only seems fair. And 2010 has been a pretty great year for NZ books (much better than 2009, if I'm honest... besides Relief I really didn't rate any fiction that came out last year, including NZ Post Book Award winner As the Earth Turns Silver... what are people seeing in that book that I don't?).

One thing I never thought about till now, either in my reading selections or compiling my reading thoughts, is the gender mix. I honestly haven't thought about it. A quick tally shows I've read 13 books by female authors, about a quarter of my reading, the proportion as short story collections holds against other forms (and I really like short story collections!). Could the percentage of female writers be higher? Yes, certainly. Should it? Probably. But I don't think I want to add a quota system into my reading choices -- books have to earn their place on my bedside table (or iPod) on their own merits.  I will say that I probably read more female authors in 2010 than any other year to date. I think it's quite common for males to prefer males writers, especially younger male readers. I remember struggling with Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte et. al. when I was at university. These days, even without re-reading these books, I have a better appreciation for them.  Perhaps it says something that 4/10 of my top ten are books by female authors? Back in 2008 only 2 were (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital). If The Hut Builder edges Moby out, it'd be a fifty/fifty gender split.

The Three Musketeers
I've said too much about gender already for what is really a non-issue.
One thing I feel more comfortable commenting on is the lack of Young Adult fiction I read this year. Lack as in complete lack, zero, zippo, nil. Unless you count Alexandre Dumas, which maybe you can. But I just don't read "YA". Never have. Harry Potter? I've seen bits of the first film. Phillip Pullman? Ditto for The Golden Compass or whatever it's called. When I was a young adult I read Douglas Coupland and later Chuck Palahniuk, authors who definitely appeal to a younger audience who don't have time for subtlety, but not YA. I know it's a big industry and I don't have any active prejudice against it (how could I form such a prejudice without reading any?), I just don't read it. But in 2011 I'll dip my toes into YA waters and see what happens. Any recommendations for what I should read first?

Finally, the award you've all been waiting for... the book I enjoyed the least in 2010. Now, this isn't necessarily the worst book (only books I finished reading can qualify), just the one that disappointed and confounded me the most. Those that have read this blog throughout the year may be able to guess this one...

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark
(Novel, 2000)

What I said about it in October: "[Aiding and Abetting] is the worst novel I have ever finished. Thin, slap-dash, meandering... Its only redeeming feature is its brevity (if it were any longer I would not have retrieved it that time I threw it across the room)... The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favourite books, but I have also read and not-really-liked The Comforters, The Public Image and The Driver’s Seat. Which leaves me with a conundrum. Do I continue to pick up a Spark novel every year in the hope of getting another Brodie (I could, perhaps, be more scientific about which books of Spark’s I choose) , or do I just move on?"

Monday, December 6, 2010

Making the list and checking it twice

Good news list-lovers: A Man Melting made it into The Listener's 'Top 100 Books of 2010'.

If you zoom in really close you can see A Man Melting is even on the cover, along with a bunch of other books. Easier perhaps just to buy your own copy and hold it close to your face. AMM spine-action also on the contents page and there's a cover shot in the actual article so pretty good coverage all-told.

The full list is a great source of Chrissy present ideas for the book-shaped guys and gals in your life, and there's a  good percentage of NZ books represented. Ka pai, The Listener, as usual. Word on the street is there'll also be a summer reading issue... Now if only they'd go back to publishing poems and stories in regular issues!


Sprinkled amongst the Best Books list are brief 'What I've Been Reading' voxpops with local luminaries. These snippets aren't confined to books that have come out in 2010, as no one ever reads (or should read) exclusively from the new release table. This is definitely true of me. 

Quick tally: I will have read eight books published in 2010 by the end of December (currently reading The Hut Builder and Gifted is next), make that nine if you count the reissue of Sydney Bridge Upside Down. According to my monthly reading posts, I've read 53 books in 2010 (this excludes all the natural history books and lit mags I've read but haven't noted down), which means I read about 17% New Releases. I read 7 books that came out in 2009 (13% of total reading), so I'll surely tick off a few more of The Listener's latest list over the next twelve months (Freedom, I'm lookin' at you!).

Stay tuned for my 2010 Reading in Review extravaganza post. As you may expect, I will unleash my excel skills and supply more interesting statistics. I'll also the list my top ten books I've read this year (much as I did back in 2008). What happened to 2009? I ask myself that quite often.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November Reading in Review

Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne (novel, NZ)

Sydney Bridge Upside DownHarry’s cousin Caroline has come to stay in Calliope Bay, while his mother is away in the city for an ever-expanding reprieve from life at the edge of the world. Sinister things start to happen, all centring on the abandoned slaughterhouse. There’s a definite Ronald Hugh Morrieson vibe here, but I also found myself (strangely) thinking of Jim Morrison/The Doors more than one (Weird scenes inside the coal mine, etc.). A serious reviewer would refrain from such comments, but this isn’t a serious review, so there!

Patrick Evans once claimed Sydney Bridge Upside Down was, ‘The great unread New Zealand novel’. Well, after Text publishers (Australia) reprinted the book earlier this year and reignited interest in it, I’m not sure how unread it still is. And great? It was good, but I’m not going to claim it changed my life (Bernard Beckett) or that I'll re-read numerous times (Kate De Goldi).


The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell (novel, audiobook)

The ResurrectionistA couple of years ago I read O’Connell’s Word Made Flesh. I mentioned in my blog post at the time the blurb from James Ellroy about O’Connell being “the future of the literary suspense novel”; how this spoke of the promise and the shortcomings of that particular novel. O’Connell’s next effort, The Resurrectionist, is a step further down the path of literary machismo; it still exhibits its grimy genre chops without be ‘crime’ or ‘suspense’. O’Connell reminds me of NZ’s own Chad Taylor in a lot of ways.

The story has two main plots which rub against each other and sort of combine but sort of diverge at the end. The first is told in flat-but-punchy Ellroy-esque prose. Sweeney transfers his comatose son to the Peck Clinic because they have a track record of ‘arousals’... The other storyline is ostensibly a comic called Limbo, though it’s short on dialogue and long on narrative (and the occasionally overwritten passage): a bunch of circus freaks that go through a series of travails (hermaphrodite about to be sodomised by a sounding pole, strongman gets his arm hacked off by a tomahawk, the entire troop getting buried alive) and yet we’re supposed to believe Sweeney read these comics aloud to his six year old son? Okay, there are some problems with this novel. There’s a ton of loose threads and wasted build up just as there was in Word Made Flesh, but this was ultimately satisfying and I’ll definitely read whatever O’Connell produces next.

The moral: literary machismo can get you everywhere.


Brief Lives by Chris Price (multiple forms, NZ)

Brief LivesFun fact: the first book launch I ever went to was Chris Price’s Brief Lives. I was an MA student up at Vic and Chris had led some of our workshops while Bill Manhire was overseas, and I remember having an awkward conversation with her in the kitchen the day after the launch. I tried to say that her book sounded really interesting but I basically outed myself for not having bought a copy at the launch and would probably wait until someone who had bought a copy lent it to me. Shame.

Etiquette for a book launch #1: Buy the book. The wine will taste fuller-bodied for it.

Anyway, I eventually got around to buying a copy of Brief Lives this year and really, really enjoyed it. Halfway through I was certain it would rocket into my top ten books I read in 2010 (a phantom list I may just get around to compiling in December). It may still make it, but I didn’t enjoy the big biographical/literary essay at the end of the book, ‘Variable Stars’, as much as I enjoyed the chunks of alphabetically arranged sui generis joy that preceded it. Some read like prose poems, others flash fiction, others short stories. One piece (‘Notebook’) is pure ideas as one may find in a...  notebook. Favourites included ‘Harry Partch: A composer’s life, found at irregular intervals’ and ‘Singapore’.


Selected Poems, Pablo Neruda (poetry)

Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems/Bilingual EditionI know, I know. Last month I said (with reference to Selected Poems: Octavio Paz – Edited by Eliot Weinberger): “Again, I come to the conclusion that reading anthologies, Best Ofs and Selected Works misses the point.” Well, I actually enjoyed dipping in and out of this hefty anthology. Unlike the Paz book, this one had the original Spanish versions on the left leaf and the English translations of the right. I read most of the Spanish versions first without cheating. I often had moments of personal poetic frisson in the false friends I failed to translate (when I read ‘lava’ I thought 'molten rock' instead of ‘to wash’ etc). And there’s the fact I spent a lot more time in Chile than in Mexico, and did the tourist thing in Valparaiso, visited one of Neruda’s houses and shook his (statue's) hand. But all these things aside, I’m probably just more of a Neruda guy than a Paz guy.


Landfall #220 Open House (literary journal, NZ)

I haven’t always noted down the litmags I’ve read this year, and that’s naughty of me. It’s probably because I rarely read everything. I read most pieces eventually, but I’m a dipper when it comes to these sorts of things. This Landfall was extra special (as I’ve already noted here) because it featured a review of A Man Melting. Maybe that casts everything else in a favourable light, but I enjoyed lots in this issue, including Pip Adam’s quirky short story ‘Jesus Already Has’, Latika Vasil’s pleasing ‘The Sand Mandala’ and Lynn Davidson’s non-fiction piece about her mother with Alzheimer’s ‘Leaving the Is-land’.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Worksheet #49, or 'The Last Review?'

I bought a copy of Landfall #220 'Open House' today. Only got the chance to flick through it on the bus ride home but it looks like a cracker. Not the least because it features what could be the last review of A Man Melting for the foreseeable future.

Kate Duignan seemed to dig the stories.  Selected highlights:

"A Man Melting is a fine set of stories. It foots lightly through the angst of the young and the restless - schoolkids, teenagers, ex-pats, small-town boys and grils returning home, the entire 'Diaspora of Privilege' as one character puts it. It mixes PhDs and office jobs and classroom bullies with exotica gleaned from Google and presumably Cliff's own teeming brain..."


I'd much prefer to quote the whole review (there's no negative bits to leave out), but people should be buying/subscribing to Landfall.


"Cliff's quarry is the human heart and he hones in on it with a fierce accuracy."


When I'm not hunting for human hearts, I'm writing fortnightly light-hearted reflections for the Dom Post. It took my Gran to point out that the headline for my column on Saturday - "Keep up the with Joneses" had a typo in it.

No one else has mentioned this to me, and my gran is pretty eagle-eyed...

I'm not too put out because I don't even write the headlines (well, I submit my columns with a proposed headline, but so far I have a 1 from 6 success rate). My proposed headline for this particular column was A Man Mingling.

Dammit. Now that I've seen the typo, I can't unsee it.


No one has mentioned any typos in A Man Melting. I'm sure there are some. Milson Line appears as 'Milson Lane', but unless you're from Palmerston North, this wouldn't register as a mistake. In fact, the story ('Another Language') never explicity says it's set in Palmy, so it could be some other town with a Ruahine Street and a Rutland Place. Is there one?

GoogleMaps says No.

(There are Ruahine Streets in Paraparaumu, Hataitai, Dannevirke and Avondale, but no other Rutland Places).

If you find a proper typo, keep it to yourself.


"Perhaps more writers should train up on Excel."   (Truly.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A season of trees

At the moment I spend a lot of time thinking about flowering trees. On the bus, on lunchtime walks, gazing out my office window. Last summer I went on a native flora and fauna binge, including an effort to get to the bottom of the difference between pohutokawa and rata, but my interest this spring has been less parochial.

It started with the magnolia trees on Roy Street in Newtown. At least, I think they were magnolias, white ones. I had appreciated the full-on nature of the street in bloom last year without thinking too deeply about it. This year I had anticipated the white fortnight or so in late August/early September as a sign that I’d been travelling this way to work for over a year.

Something I hadn’t put much thought into, however, is that these trees had been planted specifically for the purpose of this all-out flowering. I guess most trees in inner city suburbs have been planted with some form of intent, either by homeowners or the council. Often the intent is decorative (the shade or oxygenation they provide being secondary). But flowers — big-ass flowers at that — growing on trees? It seemed like I had been missing something to this point in my life.

I suspect I am not alone in that the first types of flowers that pop in my mind when I hear the word are the sort you’ll find a florist. Those that grow from bulbs or on thorny bushes. The plant that produces the flower is secondary, or perhaps inseparable from the blossom in name and biology, like the daffodil. If asked to push further I’d think of something ground-hugging and decorative like a pansy.

Of course, I always knew on one level that trees produced flowers. Some, like the pohutokawa, are pretty hard not to notice.

Then in late winter/early spring I started to notice all the tree blossoms, especially on a trip from Christchurch to Timaru. I’d always thought of these as cherry blossoms but I knew there couldn’t be that many cherry trees around… Research suggests they were also other fruit bearing trees (apple, pear, plum...), crabapple, dogwood, and so on.

Early spring really belongs to these immigrant trees and they add an interesting flavour to our seasons. New Zealand life would be duller without them. But now that we're in November the natives are beginning to put their hands up. Some juvenile pohutokawa in Wellington have already popped their first red blossoms, while the more mature trees appear covered in dotted whites (the fresh flower pods, ready to blossom).

Pohutokawa tree set to blossom, Island Bay
But the revelation for me this year has been the beauty of the cabbage trees (ti kouka) in bloom. I've always had a deep affection for cabbage trees. We had a particularly straight-trunked, single-headed specimen at my childhood home and the image of a lone tree standing in a Manawatu paddock makes me swallow my vowels.

I'm less taken with cabbage trees as what they call "street trees", bound by concrete (and often metal cages) and placed with a kind of over-the-top cynicism; the stand of mature ti kouka outside parliament (which I can see from my window at work), however, seems to strike the right balance of overt symbolism and natural selection.

Perhaps it is these many-headed hydras that are responsible for my recent revelation that their blossoms are beautiful. Previously I hadn't thought much of them. If pushed, I would have described their efforts at reproduction as scraggly, straw-coloured, uninspiring. But this spring I've come around. A cabbage tree in bloom, particularly a many-headed hydra, is often the perfect balance of flower and foliage. The understated colour scheme, green lanceolate leaves and the white blossoms that soon give way to the tawny brown of the bare panicles (not unlike like the dun of the cricket pitch and the green of the outfield, but I don’t want to get carried away).
A many-headed cabbage tree/ti kouka, Melrose
And in a fabulous piece of timing, I discovered on Guy Fawkes how much those fireworks that make those fizzy showers of yellow-white light — you know the one’s whose images that seem to last longer than the other explosions — looks so much like a cabbage tree’s flowers.

Cabbage tree flowers, Houghton Bay
In my spring observing of flowering trees I've also decided I don't much like the kowhai. In bloom, and from a distance (preferably driving past at high speed), a kowhai can be striking. But the yellow flowers are at their brightest so brief a time and quickly revert to the blighted colouring of an over ripe banana. And in this period of full bloom, there's virtually no leaves to speak of. It's as if the tree has gone all out on the flowers at the expense of everything else. I shouldn't humanise the actions of this poor native tree, but it doesn't speak to me the same as the measured, unimposing approach of the cabbage tree.

Then there's the kowhai's fallen flowers which gum up gutters and make footpaths slippery. Since deciding I didn't like kowhai I've learnt of two people who required dental work after slipping on kowhai-slimed concrete. I wonder if there's a disproportionate amount of kowhai's growing outside dentist's houses?

The days of the kowhai bloom are already gone for another year and the cabbage trees will shake off their flowery ways soon enough. But I feel as if, in taking note of these process of nature around me, I have welcomed another set of companions to my life. Like an extended family, one or other will always step forward at significant times. And while there's nothing cynical or calculating in the least about my recent interest in the seasons and nature, it can only help my writing to know what sort of tree to place in what sort of situation...

Now, off to write that story about the aborist.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Worksheet #45 or 'You know you've made it when...'

You know you've made it when... No. 8
You know you've made it when you appear in a webcomic. [Courtesy of the fabulous Sarah Laing]


It's that time of year again. Creative writing students are having bonfires and pashing each other and generally acting like fictional characters now that they've handed in their year's work. Meanwhile, ex-creative writing students spend their nearly-Summer evenings reading manuscripts and making notes in the margin like:

Is this necessary?


Love this

Not sure about this


You know you've made it when... No. 14
You know you've made it when you're browsing in a book store and a clerk asks you if you're you. When you answer in the affirmative, they ask you to sign some books. [In related news, there's probably still some signed copies of A Man Melting at Unity Books in Wellington].


This scene is a lost opportunity.


I have two manuscripts to assess this fortnight, both Whitireia students, one collection of short stories and one novel.


Awkwardly worded


One for the Trainspotters....
My most recent column in the Dominion Post (Sat 6 Nov) has been posted online. Not sure if this is going to be a regular occurrence, or if this is a one off webular excursion.


You know you've made it when... No. 16
You know you've made it when you make man-dates with visiting French writers for Thursday evenings (and your fiancée says, 'A weeknight?' and you say, 'Yes,' resolutely, 'a weeknight.')


Needs more conflict.

It doesn't feel like you've earnt this ending.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Close but no big fat cheque

I went along to the award ceremony for the BNZ Literary Awards last night here in Wellington. I got an invite by virtue of winning the novice category in the distant past (2007). I also came top ten in the premier category in 2008, but all you get for that is a letter after the winner has been announced.

I'd entered the premier category again this year and knew I hadn't won as October went by without any excited phone calls from BNZ employees.  But at 2pm yesterday I got a phone call from an excited BNZ employee informing me I had been judged a runner up by premier category judge Lloyd Jones, that my name would be mentioned in the booklet being handed out at the awards and would I like a copy sent to me? I said that I actually had an invite to the awards and that I'd just collect a copy there. Cue short moment of awkwardness while information sinks in on both sides (runner's up aren't invited coz it'd make the event to expensive, especially if some wanted subsided travel to the awards).

At the awards, Margaret, the kind BNZ employee, proceeded to seek me out and introduce me to Lloyd Jones as one of the runners up. He asked which story mine had been. I told him the title and he said, 'The taxi one. That was a great story.' Which is always nice to hear. Later he told me I came second, but that he'd tell all the other runner ups the same thing if he saw them. Fair enough.

Then I ran into his ghost reader, who'd read all 500 entries and culled them down to a more manageable 50 which Lloyd then read. Once he'd settled on his faves, he and his ghost reader met up in her cousin's kitchen. According to the ghost reader, it really had come down to my story and the eventual winner. Take that with a grain of salt, I guess. The free wine was flowing and there was tequila in the dipping sauce for the prawns. If I came second or sixth, it makes no difference. BNZ have listed five runners up online, with a wee spiel about each of these stories (there's a typo in the quote they pulled from my story; their fault, not mine), but there's no order involved (the booklet explicitly says, 'No particular order' but the online version is silent on this point). Runner up is still worthy of putting on my CV and it was great chatting to Lloyd Jones and his ghost reader about my story (I wanted to changed the ending anyway, now I am motivated to do so).

But if I really did come second, and if it really was a line-ball call, that's a bit gutting. Seeing as how the winner (wait your patience, details to come below) gets $10,000 and some pretty valuable media coverage and I get to sound like a self-obsessed, unsatisfied schmuck on my own blog...


Hearty congratulations go to Wes Lee, winner of the premier category a.k.a. Katherine Mansfield Award for her story 'Furniture' (by my count her third short story competition win this year... check out her website at

The novice award went to Chloe Searle for 'Babysitting', as judged by the lovely Emma Neale.

And Brittany Rorrison won the secondary school category for 'Thirteen Stories', judged by Emily Perkins.

Full details of the winners, judges' reports and stories on the BNZ's website.

And props to BNZ for their long running and continued support of this award and, by extension, New Zealand writers.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Drip-fed fiction – this November’s experiment

In November 2008 I wrote a self-contained story in 100 words every day for thirty days and posted them on my blog. You can read those stories here.

I enjoyed the process so much I decided to repeat the dose in November 2009, adding one further constraint that all of the stories would be set in the fictional South Island town of Marumaru South. The result was 3000 words that worked rather well as a single piece, and ’30 Ways of Looking at Marumaru South’ was published in Sport 38 in May 2010.

So what does this November have in store? Well, I have my eye on Unity Book’s competition the long and the short of it, which is open to stories under 1,000 words or over 10,000 words. I’m drawn to the over 10,000 word category but entries close on Christmas Eve and I don’t have anything on the go that fits that description. So...

November 2010’s prescription: 334 words a day for 30 days = 10,020 words.

I quite like the discipline a smallish daily word count imposes upon the writing process for a particular piece, so I’m going to try to write discrete 334 word chunks every day. To do this, I will — to begin with at least — jump around chronologically. The first day I will write a scene from the middle of the story, say, then write something that could be the beginning the next day.

At the end of the day I should have a jumbled first draft and a couple of weeks to turn it into a literary masterpiece.

Unfortunately, I won’t be posting any work in progress on my blog for this experiment as it may contravene certain rules about anonymity Unity’s competition may have (the judges aren’t supposed to know who wrote the entries). But I will keep you posted how things are going. Is 334 words a good length for this sort of exercise (this blog post is just over 334 words long)? How long does it take to whip up my daily dose? Did I choose the right story to compose using this method? What will I do next November?


October Reading in Review

Discussed already this month:
A Room with a View – E.M. Forster (novel, audiobook)
Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark (novel)
The Day Hemingway Died – Owen Marshall (short stories, New Zealand)


Self-Help – Lorrie Moore (short stories)

Self-HelpI hate most writing that uses the second person. Just hate it. But I could abide all the you’s in this book, Lorrie Moore’s first collection (1985), so that’s saying something. Maybe it’s because I was a big Moore fan already — her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital was one of my favourite reads in 2008; her 1998 short story collection Birds of America was a big influence on me the year before.


Selected Poems: Octavio Paz – Edited by Eliot Weinberger (poetry)

Again, I come to the conclusion that reading anthologies, Best Ofs and Selected Works misses the point. But how else does one begin to approach a prolific poet, especially one in translation?


Absurdistan – Gary Shteyngart (novel, audiobook)

AbsurdistanI enjoyed this book immensely. The audiobook version, which I borrowed from the Wellington City Library via its overdrive online borrowing system (a fabulous thing itself), was nominated for an Audie (the audiobook equivalent of an Oscar) in 2007, and rightly so. Arte Johnson’s turn as the ebullient narrator, Misha Vainberg, unable to return to his beloved United States, could have easily been over-egged, but Johnson eggs it perfectly (so to speak). Shteyngart’s novel is funny, generous and over-so-carefully absurd. A great reading/listening experience.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Day Hemingway Died and other stories

Last October was ‘Owen Marshall Month’ on this blog. I argued why it was more satisfying to read Marshall’s stories in their natural habitat (i.e. the collections in which they first appeared) rather than in a Best Of anthology, discussed three collections in more detail (The Lynx Hunter, Coming Home in the Dark, Watch of Grypons), before reviewing Marshall’s latest collection, Living as a Moon.

I wasn’t as monogamous this October (see my monthly reading summary post tomorrow) but I did read another Marshall collection, which I thought I might summarise in the same fashion as last year...

The Day Hemingway Died and other stories

Published 1984 (Marshall's third short story collection)
24 Stories, 158 Pages (an average length of 6.5 pages per story)

The vibe

I bought my copy at this year's Second Hand Book Fair at the TSB Arena along with Tomorrow We Save The Orphans (which I may save for October 2011). I only recognised a few stories in Hemingway from previous anthologies, ‘The Divided World’ being the most memorable (more on this a bit later). 

Olive KitteridgeThe fictional New Zealand town of Te Tarehi pops up frequently in Marshall’s oeuvre, but of the collections I’ve read Hemingway visits this town most frequently. The stories are not solely focussed on the one town like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or James Joyce’s Dubliners, but Te Tarehi and its inhabitants (particularly the Ransumeens) feature in at least half the stories and act as a uniting thread for the collection.

Most of the stories are brief and realistic, but there are a few, like ‘The Divided World’ and ‘Choctaw Princess’ which are more interested in language than plot. Humour, or perhaps wryness, is at the heart of a small number of stories, whereas others feel like vehicles for astute observation and aphorisms. Often I felt the stories suffered at the hands of this tendency for sweeping statements, like “Passion has a sudden grip when you are twenty” (‘Bravo Echo Victor’). Sometimes, however, the aphorism is good enough to justify the whole story, like, “In time we all punish our parents for having treated us like children.” (‘A Town of Rivers’).

My five favourite stories in the collection

Kenneth’s Friend

The first story in a Marshall collection always seems to make my top five. The narrator recalls the summer holiday he spent with his classmate Kenneth and his family down in Queen Charlotte Sound. He’s not really friends with Kenneth, and feels bossed around and neglected, eventually deciding to take revenge on Kenneth and his father by destroying their precious shell collection—then comes the twist.

The Divided World

“The world is divided between the superstitious, and the unimaginative; between those who love men, and those who love women; between those who have witnessed Bjorn Borg’s topspin, and those who have lost the chance; between the exemplary, and the few of us who are left.” Etc.

Is it a short story? Is it a poem? Who cares. It’s a fun, brainy three and a bit pages stuffed with insight and Oxford commas.

Bravo Echo Victor

Even though I felt pulled out of the story by the odd sweeping pronouncement from the narrator, the story as a whole was engaging. It probably helped that it was one of the longer stories in the collection. Bruce invites David to spend their leave from the army in his home town of Te Tarehi. David falls for Bruce’s sister, Bev (Bravo Echo Victor), he kinda sorta sexually assaults her (the ambiguous relation of this event feels horrifyingly true-to-life). On the way back to Waiouru, Bruce and David have a fist fight because, “Bruce had taken him home as a friend on leave, and in return he’d rolled his sister.” No one really wins.

The Fat Boy

Seventeen thousand dollars worth of parts go missing from the railway yards and the workers blame the fat boy they’ve seen hanging round. McNulty’s warehouse burns down, Mrs Denzil is tied upside down in her bathtub, Nigel Lammerton beats up his wife—and each time the fat boy is implicated. “The fat boy seemed to be a harbinger of trouble”, and the townspeople set about bringing the fat boy to justice, except he’s not that easy to find. When an angry mob finally gets their hands on him, he’s a goner, though “No-one seemed to know what happened to the fat boy’s body” afterwards.
A telling social satire with some laugh out loud moments (“Nigel Lammerton, with his experience as a wife-beater, got one or two really good thuds on the fat boy’s face...”).

Don’t Blame Yourself at All

This story directly follows ‘The Fat Boy’ and keeps up that satirical edge. Julie’s husband Russell is a huge bore, obsessed with the fuel efficiency of their car and planning every detail of their holiday. On top of this, it seems he talked her into getting an abortion in the recent past. When inspecting an old Maori pa site, Russell slips down a cliff and into the sea. He calls out for Julie to get the rope from the car as the tide is rising, but she stands frozen on the clifftop, to the delight of the reader, only for a traditional happy ending for Russell (and no one else).