Thursday, June 11, 2015

Comme ci comme ça: Updates

So we had a son in late April. We named him Caio -  a nod to those of his roots that are Italian (and a dozen other subsidiary factors that seem trivial when explained). Then we discovered some phones autocorrect this to "Ciao". Even when autocorrect doesn't intervene, some still misread it as "Ciao". Oh well.

We fuck them up, the mums and dads.
          We may not mean to, but we do.

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So the essay I wrote after reading about e-sports and video game spectatorship (see my last post) that went up on the Horoeka site last week.

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So I'm not sleeping much. When I'm able to get up at 5am, I'm doing work-work. As in "Craig Cliff, Senior Policy Manager, Education Infrastructure Service" work. Not "writing a short novel about a location scout in Italy retracing the life of St Joseph of Copertino" work. Yet.

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So my story about a Kiwi at an ANZAC day barbeque in Perth, 'Recessional', was published in the Griffith REVIEW in April.

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So I went to the inaugural conference for the Historical Novel Society of Australasia in Sydney in March. It was equal parts interesting (so many panels about hist-fic - couldn't help but read new ground) and excruciating (being the 'host writer' at a table for the conference dinner was not a good idea).

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So I bought a little city (it was Galveston, Texas).

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So I went to a conference in Canberra about designing school facilities in May. At a dinner at the National Arboretum I met a young architect called Caio.

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So here's three playlists:

March 2015
April 2015
May 2015

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So I saw Ned Kelly's death mask at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.



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So my story 'Copies', written way back in the Summer of 2006/07, was translated into Spanish and published online in March ('Copias').

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So these days I have a two and a half year old and a baby whose age is counted in weeks. My daughter's a sponge. The other day she saw leaves over the ground and said, 'It's a deciduous day, today.'


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Spectacles: A tourist in e-gaming



So I'm reading a lot about video games at the moment.


I read SUPER MARIO BROS. 2 by Jon Irwin, and learnt about speedruns (and lost hours watching people churn through old console games, exploiting every glitch and mastering every jump, on YouTube).


I read A MIND FOREVER VOYAGING: A HISTORY OF STORYTELLING IN VIDEO GAMES by Dylan Holmes and got all sentimental about Return to Monkey Island and Metal Gear Solid, then wham, suddenly I didn't know these games anymore, but it was still interesting. Most interesting (perhaps) were the experimental game designers, like Dan Pinchbeck's mod of a first-person shooter that removed all the shooting.


I read CLIPPING THROUGH: ONE MAD WEEK IN VIDEO GAMES by Leigh Alexander and again was most taken by the mention of Rachel Weil, founder of the Femicon Museum, who makes "nostalgic NES games from an imagined alternate history, one where Girly Stuff was also part of the narrative" (p31).

I read a bunch of academic papers on the rise of e-sports (video games as a spectator sport / pro sport), and each lead me to watching more YouTube clips: of League of Legends clashes, Tekken tournaments, Starcraft carnage.

I read a ton on articles and watch some mainstream TV clips about e-sports. Most present it as a confounding phenomenon (can you believe these kids are willing to sit and watch other people play video games?). Some are so bad they seem bent on provoking generational rebellion. The best so far has probably been this longer article by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker.


And I read WOLF IN WHITE VAN by John Darnielle, because I thought it was about video games (turns out the protagonist actually runs a text adventure via snail mail - how quaint). But it actually has some interesting things to say about gaming and narrative and escapism and delusion and depression and, and, and.

It's a stunning novel. It'd probably top my Best Books of 2014 list if I'd read it a few months earlier. It feels both focussed and sparse.

It's plot is driven by three lacunae that are slowly painted in:
1) What happened to Sean's face?
2) What's the legal trouble he's in/been in?
3) What's the text game 'Trace Italian' all about & how does it work?

To this, I guess you could add a broader question ("Who is Sean?) and a more specific one ("What does 'Wolf in White Van' refer to?).

The novel slowly works through these questions. At times the suspense and the narrator's circumlocution feel mechanical (standard literary fiction grasping for page-turner attributes), but every time I receive more information (or outright answers when it came to the title being explained) I'm satisfied.

Like I said, 'Trace Italian' is played via the post, but could easily be one of those earlier text adventure games. Which makes Sean the equivalent of a 248-bit processor. I suspect this comparison isn't lost on Darnielle. Yes, Sean created this game in his late teens (in the wake of his 'accident'), but now he's stuck performing mechanical tasks to enable others to play the game. His legal trouble stems from a player taking the game too seriously -- or: taking it too imaginatively, perhaps. This is a novel about the ways in which we can become trapped. Most of these traps are of our own making, and most of these are entirely in our heads.

Monday, February 2, 2015

(Belated) Best Reading of 2014

I've struggled with this post for over a month now (obviously). In 2014 I read about half as many books as I would in a normal year and compiling a top ten seemed too generous. But then, why not be generous? What does it matter if I make it sound like I enjoyed number eight on my list more than I really did? Well, what if you took my advice and read the book and were similarly un-wowed... Because there are 'wow' books out there.

So here's my list of the five wow books I read in 2014, and here's to more quantity and more quality in 2015!


#1 THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (novel, audiobook)
The Knife of Never Letting Go
What I said about it in October
"KNIFE is packed with more ideas than almost any novel I've read this year. It has better characterisation, is funnier and braver and is the sort of book I'd give a Milton Bradley 'Ages 12 and up' label to (coz everyone should read it) rather than 'YA'."


#2 WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead (novel, audiobook)

When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery)What I said about it in February:
"My wife and I listened to this on two separate car trips up to the Kapiti Coast over the summer. Haven’t done much in-car listening before., but found it an enjoyable experience. Probably helps that this YA novel about time travel is simply told…"

What I'll add now: "That YA dig was a bit iniquitous. With time away from the book I can say that it held together well, which is rare for time travel stories."


Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West (Picador Books)#3 BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy (novel, audiobook)

What I said about it in May:
"Vivid, violent, unhinged, mythic, vile, meandering, arch... Blood Meridian is an Elmore Leonard western written by the bastard love child of William S Burroughs and Henry Miller.

Now I get why people rave about CMcC and Blood Meridian in particular."


#4 I'M WORKING ON A BUILDING by Pip Adam (novel/short stories, NZ)

I'm Working on a BuildingWhat I said about it in July
"The boldness... is most evident structurally, with chapters ordered in reverse chronology. The main (human) character, Catherine, isn’t present in every chapter, and when she is, we’re never that close to her. We slowly unpick her past, from earthquakes to failed relationships, but the book, like Catherine, seems more focussed on buildings. Structure trumps character, quite deliberately.

At one point a minor character admires the Rankin Brown building at Victoria University, a boxy, concrete, characterless thing, but an amazing structure if you know what to look for. Same goes for I’m working on a building, I think."


#5 ARMS RACE by Nic Low (short stories, NZ/Aus)

I read this in December and the first week of January, so I haven't written about it yet. And maybe I'm breaking my own dumb rules by including it in this list. But this is my kinda story collection.

I first read Low when I was judging the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His story, 'Rush', was the funniest of the several hundred I read. It was also risky, sharp, political. You can read 'Rush' for yourselves now in ARMS RACE and see what bowled me over.

Sometimes there's a sense of trepidation when reading a full collection from a new writer you've loved in a small dose. But there was none of that when I cracked open ARMS RACE. Low can write, but he can also think. I was ready to be challenged. And entertained. I was not disappointed.

Monday, January 12, 2015

December Promises

So before I do my annual 'best books I read last year' post, I'd better put down a few thoughts about those books I read in the last part of 2014...

Here's some reading writing about my reading music:



To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (novel)

Ferris is hot or miss for me. His debut novel, Then We Came to the End made my top ten in 2008. His next novel, The Unnamed, did not impress in 2010. I really liked his short story, 'The Dinner Party' when it appeared in the New Yorker... then went off it when I heard it again as part of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast.

From the first few pages, it was clear that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour - despite its titular similarities to Ferris' debut - was more like The Unnamed, ie: focussed on a middle-aged white dude going through a kind of breakdown / meh.

What's new here? Well, depends what you mean by new. There's a definite Phillip Roth ("ranty" as my wife would put it) quality to TRAAADH's first person narration that's new for Ferris, and there are moments when the rants sublimate and I started to enjoy myself.

I know exactly where - page 70 - because I folded the corner of the page over and said to myself: "Oh, this is getting good." Paul O'Rourke starts ranting about Google and me-machines...

She'd also forget who starred in what, who sang this or that, and if so-and-so was still dating so-and-so, and for those things, too, she'd abandon our conversation to secure the answer. She no longer lived in a world of speculation or recall and would take nothing on faith when the facts were but a few clicks away. It drove me nuts. I was sick to death if having as my dinner companions Wikipedia, About.com, IMDb, the Zagat guide, Time Out New York, a hundred Tumblrs, the New York Times and People magazine. Was there not some strange forgotten pleasure in reveling in our ignorance? Couldn't we just be wrong?
This region of ranting is enjoyable as it's still tied up with character (Paul, the narrator, is explaining why he ended his relationship with Connie, but also giving us more evidence why Connie wouldn't want to get back with Paul), as well as being an angry reflection on contemporary life.

Unfortunately, before and after this period in the book, the rants are less connected to plot or character (except for the "Look at how grumpy/fucked up Paul is!" effect).

The result of all of this is I'm afraid how Then We Came to the End would hold up to a second reading. Especially since I'm not the same office-hating 25-year-old I was when I first read it...


Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (novel, audiobook)


Honesty box: I'd read Dirt Music and Breath and one of Winton's story collections, before tackling Cloudstreet... and I'd always thought Cloudstreet was Tim Winton's first novel. Guess this goes to show how little New Zealanders are schooled in Australian Fiction.

'Wow!', I thought after a couple of chapters, still labouring under my misapprehension, 'he could write like this from the get-go??'

Maybe he could. But Cloudstreet isn't evidence of a savant. It's the work of a talented writer with years of practice, a life of observation, and a good dollop of gumption.

It still feels like a younger man's book, with too much crammed in, those elements of surreality (the pig that talks in tongues; the times we slip inside Fish's head), and the sheer weight of misfortune that befalls its characters (near-drowning, losing a hand, miscarriage, death, death, death). And it did seem to go on forever (a fact not helped in audiobook form, I suspect).

I can see why teachers make 16 and 17 year old Australian kids read Cloudstreet. And I can see why most of these kids would be left cold, or bemused (the book a quarter-read),

I mean, I liked this book. But I prefer Dirt Music and Breath - which are more focussed. Less ambitious, perhaps, but more accomplished.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Best albums of 2014

1) Future Islands - Singles

I'm glad I didn't see their semi-infamous Letterman performance until today, as it may have dampened (doused?) my enthusiasm for this band/album. The record is so tight, so careful in its balance of light and dark, tinny and profound, and that performance is, um, not.

I mean, I'm all for geeky dancing. Gord Downie anyone?

And a crumbling stage persona + failing voice? I'm Dave Wyndorf's eighth biggest fan.

But I don't need that stuff when you're pumping out dancy, croony, soulful, electro-pop. I'll be sticking to the studio versions for my summer playlists, that's for sure.

2) Wild Beasts - Present Tense 

The English Future Islands? I guess there are some similarities between my #1 and #2 this year. Wild Beasts dwell in a higher register and have a better back catalogue (though I only traversed it this year). Smother from 2011 is just as strong as Present Tense ('Loop The Loop' being its standout track). Present Tense is probably the most consistent (consistently good) album of 2014.


3) Cold War Kids - Hold My Home

What is it about some bands that makes expect them to disappear? You know those bands you like, but you're always surprised to hear with a new song on the radio?

I loved 'Hang Me Out To Dry' (from Robbers & Cobbers, 2006), but something about the song / the band felt one-hit-wondery. I was wrong.

If I'd listened to Robbers & Cobbers more closely (heck, I'd know by 45 seconds into its first track, 'We Used To Vacation') I'd have been disabused of this notion. But anyway.

I was surprised last year when Dear Miss Lonelyhearts came out and was great. And was surprised again when Hold My Home came out this year and raised the bar again. This is partly a career achievement award and an endorsement from me to go and listen to Cold War Kids if, heaven forbid, you too have been sleeping on them.

4) War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

Okay, so I know this is on a lot of Year End lists. And part of me wants to drop them down further just to be contrary. But this is a great album for certain moods: Sunday afternoons, summer barbeques, early morning writing sessions. And that's pretty much all my listening slots, so they got me!

And War on Drugs were helped along by Mark Kozelek's vendetta against them. Sun Kil Moon's Benji was a pretty good album, but when I learnt what a douche Kozelek was (however catchy 'War on Drugs Suck My Cock' might be), Benji slipped from my top ten and kept slipping, while Lost in the Dream rose in my estimation.

Note to self: never feed the trolls, even when they're famous trolls.

 5) Lana Del Ray - Ultraviolence
Slow, dirgy pop with swearing, self-awarenees, self-effacement, parody. That's pretty cool. From the "poetry" of "Get a little bit of bourbon in ya / Go a little bit suburban and go craaazy" ('Cruel World') to the rocky-enough-to-play-on-Radio-Hauraki 'West Coast', this is a surprisingly fine album.

6) Fucked Up - Glass Boys

I'm not normally that into scream-singing. But Fucked Up have made me wonder if it's the screaming I don't like, or the music the screaming tends to get paired with. Because Glass Boys is a friggin ride, muscially. An avalanche of guitars and high-tempo drums (although the album is almost as good with the drums half-speed).

And it turns out this is the perfect music to write to in the early morning. I wouldn't have picked that.


7) Total Control - Typical System

There's a definite punky-throwback quality to Total Control. And the angular guitars and tempo breaks are reminiscent of mid-oughts Franz Ferdinand. But Typical System also sounds like it couldn't have been made any earlier than 2014. And that's pretty much what a 31 year old is looking for in music (contemporary feel; familiar grooves).

8) The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers

I don't love this album as much as some of TNP's others (yet?). I think because it's so full-on, up-beat, up-tempo. I mean, I love the way Dan Bezar's songs sound like Sigue Sigue Sputnik. And a dig the way A.C. Newman has channelled ELO's 'Livin' Thing' for an entire album. But I miss the slower tempo gut punches like 'Adventures in Solitude' and the builders like 'My Rights vs Yours'.

That said, Spotify tells me this is the album I've listened to the most in 2014. And I'm going to listen to it some more in 2015. So...

9) Real Estate - Atlas

How to describe Real Estate? A sleepier, less Springsteeny version of War on Drugs (it's about now that I start to wonder if  Mark Kozelek would describe my list of top albums as the whitest he ever saw...)? I dunno. But this album is like a good (jangly) friend. Time flies in its company.

10) Avi Buffalo - At Best Cuckold

Another album that softly flirts with sonic beauty. Maybe I was after 'pleasant' a lot this year. But the lyrics are real enough, and dark enough, and smart enough (well smart), to undercut any sense of mushiness.

Other notables

Set for a bump

By the end of March next year, I'll probably regret not putting one or more of these albums in my top ten, as all are coming to Wellington and I tend to become a homer for bands I've seen live.

11a) Perfume Genius - Too Bright

11b) Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal (and maybe, but less likely, their 2nd album of 2015: Content Nausea)

11c) Royal Blood - Royal Blood (the anti-Future Islands, in that they were just another band on the radio that I didn't get into until I saw a clip on YouTube and appreciated all that sound they were making with just a drum and a bass guitar)

Best single

'Class Historian' by BRONCHO

Da-da-do-do-do-do-d-d-d-da-da-da-da-d-d-d...



Best comeback album

Sloan - Commonwealth

A double album, with each member taking song writing duties for a side (including a single 18-minute track to close out the record), this is both ambitious and welcoming. So many poppy gems. But a tad too slick and too, um, uncool (?!) to make the top ten.

Blameless unstickability

Last year, I loved Cloud Control's Dream Cave. This year, Cloud Nothings and Total Control made great albums. For some reasons, I just couldn't keep them all straight in my head and Cloud Nothings seemed to be the one I forgot (misplaced) the most. A shame, as Here and Nowhere Else is a good'n.

Anyway, don't take my words for it. Listen to choice tracks from all these albums below:

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My best non-book, non-music things from 2014

Tomorrow I'm going to post my top ten albums of 2014.

Then, in a few days or weeks, I'll post the top ten books I read in 2014 (I'm holding off because I'll probably read another three books in the next 11 days and one or two might merit inclusion on the list).

Until then, here are the best things I did this year:


1) Put a solid state hard drive in my PC

Honestly.

There's a lot more "worthwhile" and "big picture" things on this list, but they all have drawbacks (a promotion means work is more tiring; fatherhood means less time to yourself, etc). But putting a solid state drive into my four year old PC is the best $120 I've ever spent. Booting up used to take two minutes. Now it takes less than 10 seconds. Those 10 second boot-ups still fill me with glee. It's all gain, no pain.


2) Spent solo days with my daughter at least one a fortnight

Kereru-spotting at Zealandia
I started out the year working from home and caring for my daughter every Thursday. It was just possible to do a full working day when she had two naps a day (2 hours work before she woke, 3 hours during her naps, 1 hour of phone calls and emailing sprinkled during her waking hours, and a couple more hours once she was in bed for the night).

Draining, but possible.

When she went down to one nap, and I started managing a team at work, I had to go down to one day a fortnight.

Thursdays with Lia are one of the reasons this year has felt full to brimming. So much to do, so little time. But on reflection, our days together have been more important than a day in the office or a chance to recharge my batteries (even if I'm the only one who'll recall specifics): watching the baboons at the poor dad's zoo (Melrose Park); fun times with the paddling pool on the deck; eating pizza in the car; birdwatching at Zealandia and Otari-Wilton; all those smoothies and trips to the supermarket...

She turned two yesterday. She'll have a brother come April. Next year will be different, for sure.


3) Said 'yes' at work.

When I came back from Iowa in December last year I was asked to act up in a more senior role at work. It meant more pay, and a more impressive CV, but it also meant more stress and less head space to devote to creative writing. But I said yes and it kicked off the most fulfilling year of my professional life.

The role I was acting in later got re-profiled into a manager's role and I said 'yes' when asked to apply for it. And reader: I got it.

Best unidentified tree:
this one on McKinley Cres, Brooklyn
Managing people isn't rocket science, but it has been an adjustment. A bit like being a parent. You still have to do everything you used to do, but you also have to make sure the needs of others are being met.

It (higher pay) also helps when your wife wants a bigger house.


4) Acquiesced when my wife said we needed to sell our house

Even before Baby #2 was a reality, Marisa was back in the routine of getting the Property Press every week. Our section isn't that baby friendly and carrying a toddler, a baby and groceries up the steps from the garage would be a bit of nightmare. And we'd be short of space (goodbye daddy's dedicated office).

But it wasn't yet three years since we'd bought this house. Our first house. I was attached to it. I liked how it was a 20 minute bike ride to work (downhill) and a 30 minute ride home (uphill). I liked how private it was. I liked our view. I liked the vege garden we'd eked out. I liked the damage we'd done to our mortgage.

But I let myself be overruled and we bought a new house, and sold this one, and we didn't take a massive bath (we actually sold our house for more than we paid for it), and we'll be moving in early February.

The new house will be bigger, and warmer, and more sheltered, and the kids can run around without us worrying about them falling down the hill. And the section will take less time to maintain.

And I'll still have a dedicated office. And I'm going to put bluetooth speakers in the ceiling throughout the house and we won't move for at least ten years...


5) Volunteered with IHC

I spent this year as a mentor in IHC's one-to-one goal achievement programme. Like parenthood and managing workers, this was rewarding but time-consuming. I'm not sure how I'm going to squeeze it in next year, but we shall see.


6) Baked

These crucifixion shrewsbury biscuits went down a treat on Twitter
(and in real life).

This boysenberry NY cheesecake with a brownie base looks a bit iffy,
but it was great. Guess you had to be there.

7) Quit writing my column in the Dom Post

Which I wrote about here. And yes, I can see the irony in this post being a listicle.


8) Not stressed too much about my output of other writing

I got one short story published this year (which I wrote in 2013), and finished one other which might be published next year. I made a bunch of starts on stories that I intend to get back to. And I progressed three novelly ideas to the point where they felt solid and I could probably start writing any one of them. The only problem was I couldn't be sure I'd pick the wrong one and want to switch tracks in six months.

But I think one of those three (actually, half of one of the ideas) has ascended to the top this month and I might really make some headway in 2015.

The thing is, what does one year of low productivity really mean if I'm in it for the long haul? It took me about three years to write The Mannequin Makers only for it to disappear from the face of the earth after a couple of months.

But many who read it dug it. Reviewers included. It will always be there on my Wikipedia page (at least until I get culled from Wikipedia).

One thing I learnt from the last decade as a worker bee: it rarely happens overnight. But as long as your CV keeps getting better, as long as you don't drop off the face of the earth completely, or get an offensive forehead tattoo, your hard work will pay off in time.


9) Kept making playlists

Even if I haven't blogged enough to post one a month.

Here's October's. And here's November's.

These things are useful when it comes to writing my best ablums of the year post. But I've also found it interesting to listen to playlists from 2012 and 2013 and relive whatever I was going through at the time,

If I ever need to transport myself back to 2014, I've got my soundtrack sorted.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Punch / Splat / Bark; an update

Recent writing

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

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

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

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

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

Recent writing music

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

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

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



Recent reading...


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 5, 2014

Walking away from a hill of beans

My daughter’s favourite movie is Shrek 2.

She’s seen the first and third movies, and Shrek the Halls, but for her there’s only one Shrek.

(Parental disclaimer: She doesn’t watch TV normally, but she’s been sick a lot this winter year [day care], and sometimes you’re all just better off with a DVD on in the background.)

Lia is as likely to ask to watch ‘Ona’ (as in Princess Fiona) as she is ‘Shrek’ and when Fiona’s not on screen she’ll say/moan/shout ‘Ona, Ona, Ona’ until she appears.

When watching the first Shrek, she’s moaning half the movie before her kickass princess arrives.


(Thought experiment: What if the sequel to Shrek was called Fiona?)

Her absolute favourite moment in cinematic history is the half-minute snippet of Butterfly Boucher’s cover of “Changes” (with a cameo from Mr Bowie) during Shrek 2. It’s an insipid version. I tried playing her the original the other day but it left her cold. For her, Boucher’s the original and Bowie’s the pretender (kinda how I feel about Bowie’s version of Iggy Pop’s ‘China Girl’).

My daughter will sing “Ch-ch-ch-changes” at odd moments during the day.

I’m spreading Marmite on her toast: “Ch-ch-ch-changes”.

We’re walking down to the garage: “Ch-ch-ch-changes”.

We’re waiting for the bath to fill: “Ch-ch-ch-changes”.

And things are changing.

I’ve quit writing my column in the Dominion Post’s Your Weekend lift out. Tomorrow’s my last dispatch, four years since my first. 104 columns later, I feel like I never got better, never got being a columnist. The restrictions of the form (500 words a fortnight, submission 2 weeks before publication) were still restrictive. The challenge of juggling my other writing, my day job, my family — both in terms of finding time to do everything, but how and when to mine these other lives for the column — was still challenging.

I’m writing a longer thing about the frustrations and frustrations (no typo) of being a print-first columnist that should appear online in the next wee while… but big picture: I hope to free up four 5am-7am slots a fortnight for fiction. For writing books. Because that’s what I really want to be doing.

It’s been nice to be paid, regularly, for words, but I’m steadily moving up the ladder at work (the word ‘Manager’ features in my job title — “Ch-ch-ch-changes”) so the money isn’t as important.

Although... there’s another baby on the way — “Ch-ch-ch-changes” ­— and Marisa wants a bigger house — “Ch-ch-ch-changes” — and I’m not sure I can write another novel while working full time…

*

Two years ago I wrote about my time as I columnist to that point. Turns out that was the exact midpoint of my “career”.

That post included a list of what my 52 columns had covered. Well, here’s the second half:

53.   The bump list, fatherhood, Aliens
54.   Road rules, advertising, cultural amnesia
55.   Getting glasses, Cats Protection League, superpowers
56.   Sign language, grocery shopping, silence
57.   Palmerston North, guitar solos, the poet James Brown
58.   Antenatal classes, THE VIDEO, gingernuts
59.   Apocalypse, The Netherlands, televangelists
60.   Due dates, Tom Petty, house alarms
61.   A baby!, quinoa, yellow pohutukawa
62.   Chivalry, Louis L’Amour, Whangamomona
63.   Valentine’s day, Dwight Schrute, Walter Benjamin
64.   Supermarkets, flatting, the great wildebeest migration
65.   Landfills, Second Treasures, Richard Dean Anderson
66.   Flying, the parents room, dodged bullets
67.   Cycling, Wellington, cholesterol
68.   Obstacle courses, Lisa Carrington, Kronum
69.   Internet piracy, Pablo Honey, Spotify
70.   Haircuts, GrabOne, ‘Sexyback’
71.   Winter, fantasy football, sperm
72.   Golf, great uncles, hipflasks
73.   Smartphones, shouty TV shows, the capital of Myanmar
74.   Parenthood, sea fog, editing a novel
75.   Dentists, Norm Peterson, “sticktoitiveness”
76.   Whinging, Whittaker’s L&P Slab, couriers
77.   Father’s day, itineraries, Bulgarians
78.   Fashion, Iowa City, tie-dye
79.   Rodeo, praying cowboys, deep-fried oreos
80.   The Midwest, bathroom graffiti, extirpation
81.   New Orleans, Local Natives, Louis Armstrong
82.   Working parents, the Father of Rocket Science, Eugenics
83.   Halloween, pumpkin season, Matariki
84.   Washington DC, Independence Day, Toad the Wet Sprocket
85.   Professional wrestling, Shane Howarth, collecting quarters
86.   Compact living, the Keret House, tiny house porn
87.   Aging, the periodic table, Tim Duncan
88.   The man card, Russell Packer, kitset furniture
89.   Dieting parents, Tyler the Creator, toddlers
90.   Reality TV, Undercover Boss Uncovered, frankenbiting
91.   Subtlemobs, Kenny Loggins, community
92.   Hospitals, parenthood, Stoicitis
93.   Americans, black sheep, Antarctica
94.   Office moves, standing desks, A Dictionary of Lift Users
95.   Professional wrestling, community halls, The Ultimate Warrior
96.   Direct democracy, Aaron Gilmore, Switzerland
97.   My (early) thirties, baking, wives
98.   Football world cup, GDP per capita, Martin Devlin’s hair
99.   Day care, germ sponges, the social lives of toddlers
100.  Time travel, Back to the Future II, true believers
101.  Rodney Hide, afternoon tea, shoelaces
102.  Crap teachers, quitting, interpretive dance
103.  Weeds, holly leaved senecio, apocalypse
*spoiler alert*
104.  Macauley’s New Zealander, apocalypse, Clifton Carpark


 *

There's a bunch of things that I could have, and should have, written about over the last four years that I didn't because of the column. Maybe this blog will burst back into life. Maybe I'll just post Spotify playlists once a month and add a few hasty thoughts about books I've read. 

We shall see.

Until then, here's a playlist: