Monday, August 5, 2019

Nailing Down the Saint: The Playlist

So I wrote another novel and it comes out tomorrow in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s called Nailing Down the Saint and it’s about Hollywood, fatherhood and levitation. Here’s 70 minutes of music of special relevance to the project, and a bunch of words about that music (and other things).

1.     Patient Zero – Aimee Mann

If Nailing Down the Saint was Season Two of a TV show[1], this song that might play over the “Previously, on” recap: A young man arrives in Hollywood. The world lays at his feet. But things don’t go as planned.

There’s this point, two and half minutes into the song, just after Mann sings, “You paid your respects like a ransom / To a moment that was doomed from the start”, and there’s this low, ominous piano note. The song continues, but that note once struck can’t be unstruck. Things have turned to shit, even if you aren’t ready to admit it yet.
Welcome to Duncan Blake’s life in LA.

2.     Bedtime – Gord Downie

This song, the 3rd track on Introduce Yerself, kicked me in the guts so friggin’ hard when I first heard it, still reeling from Downie’s death[2], knowing he wrote it as his days with his family were numbered, and have young kids myself. The song recounts the struggle to get a young child to sleep, laying them down, pulling your hands away,  “as if from a bomb”, and getting out of the room, only to be called back in and for it to “start all over again”.

In the midst of this routine, it can seem a trial. Interminable. But what goes unsaid here is this eminently and imminently mortal father would give anything to go through it again. What might sound like a lullaby to someone not paying attention is actually an ode to fatherhood and a goodbye.

In NDTS, the protagonist, Duncan, has a nearly four-year-old son, Zeb, and thoughts of time passing and not being there for Zeb fuck him up. If he heard ‘Bedtime’, he’d be reduced to a puddle of gloop like *that*.

3.     Tinseltown in the Rain – The Blue Nile

So Duncan has moved to LA to continue his meteoric rise in the world of filmmaking, but was fucked over, then fucked up by fatherhood, and finds himself working in a chain restaurant in West Hollywood.

The penultimate chapter of the first section lifts its title directly from The Blue Nile’s song. With its synth-heavy, questioning mood – “Why did we ever come so far? / I knew I'd seen it all before / Do I love you ? Yes I love you / Will we always be happy go lucky?” – it feels like the mopey section of a John Hughes movie, which is absolutely something Duncan Blake might think in the moment before he gets his second chance handed to him by Frank Motta.

4.     Horizon – Aldous Harding

These next three songs are dedicated to Felicity “Mack” MacKinnon, Duncan’s best friend from high school, who, after a period of estrangement, joins him on his Italian quest to scout locations for Frank Motta’s biopic of Saint Joseph of Copertino (more on him in a bit).

When I first heard this song in 2017, I thought: that’s Mack. Here’s something I’d already written about her (and that’s in the final novel):

‘Come on, babe, play nice.’ She’d called him ‘babe’ since forever. Had shown up at his high school calling everyone that, like some Hollywood producer posing as a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, only she seemed to be doing it ironically. As if she’d ever turn Hollywood! She was real, belonged to the world of cellulite, not celluloid, could bend old language around new corners. It was as if every ‘babe’ had an implied, parenthetical retort, like the title of an unlikely pop hit.

(You’re no picture yourself) Babe.

(Nothing you can do can get to me) Babe.

Harding’s spare-yet-epic, totally cinematic masterpiece is likewise riddled with complex, terminal “babes”.

5.     It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back) – Eurythmics

The only thing is: Aldous Harding is more Duncan’s kind of music than Mack’s.

On the road trip, she’s the master of the in-car playlist, leaning much more toward the nostalgic (or what counts as nostalgia for a child of the 80’s and 90’s).

There was A LOT more banter about music while Duncan and Mack travelled around Italy in the first draft of NDTS, but this had to (HAD TO!!) be pared back. Examples of riffs that ended on the cutting room floor: how OK Computer-era Radiohead sounds like a piss-take of 90’s po-faced seriousness; on nostalgia and wistfulness; how Lennox and Stewart are a better songwriting duo than Lennon and McCartney… That’s not a hill I’m willing to die on, but I will sit at the summit until some vinyl-smelling boor comes to chase me off.

6.     I Will Wait – Hootie & the Blowfish

One thing I couldn’t cut was Mack and Duncan arguing about this song.

I was very much in Duncan’s camp (i.e. it is unconscionable to enjoy, yet alone publicly endorse Hootie & the Blowfish) for most of my life[3]. But I’m now Team Mack on this particular track. Add it twice to your next road trip playlist: once to get over the hump of your fellow travellers’ prejudice and a second time for the singalong.

7.     Can’t Keep Checking My Phone – Unknown Mortal Orchestra

I saw UMO live in Wellington in December 2015, when progress on the novel was stymied. I’d written about 10,000 words the year before, then got very sick for a fortnight and couldn’t get clear of family and work commitments to get the ball rolling again. But I could still faff around on my phone and go to concerts and have transcendent experiences listening to Ruban Neilson do Prince via T-Rex through one of those tin-can-and-string telephone getups.

When I got back into NDTS the next year, UMO’s Multi Love was still on high rotate and Duncan’s cellphone became one of the major characters – a know-it-all who sucks the mystery out of tipsy wonderings but can’t help get you out of the tangle it has led you into in the medieval centre of Assisi.

Then there’s Duncan’s female friend from work in LA who’s What’s App-ing him, desperate to know how his road trip is going…

8.     Sitting in my Hotel – The Kinks

‘Celluloid Heroes’ might be the more obvious Kinks song here, but that song sucks.

This one, however, is up there with ‘Sweet Lady Genevieve’ as the underappreciated Kinks masterpiece.

It has that classic, fame-is-a-downer vibe that can translate even when you’re not famous (which is, let’s face it, most of us), just simply alone in a hotel room, or, right next to your best friend in a room in Pietrarubbaia and you realise that you’ve been criminally incurious about her life and motivations.

9.     A Private Understanding – Protomartyr

The best track from my favourite album of 2017 (Relatives in Descent), the most important year in the creation of NDTS.[4]

You can read a lot of things into the lyrics, so of course I see connections with my novel, but in 2018 I learnt another thing I love about Protomartyr while preparing to see them live[5]: that the frontman, Joe Casey, didn’t join a band until he was 35 (my age at the time), couldn’t play an instrument (like me, despite those three terms of classical guitar tuition at Intermediate) and struggled with stage-fright (hence the dark glasses and static stage presence). There’s even a Tumblr dedicated to journalist’s overwrought descriptions of him.

“The one who looks like a Belgian lorry driver is lead singer Joe Casey”

And yet here he is, singing songs about the Flint water crisis, the plague of toxic masculinity and the mysterious hum that can be heard in Windsor, Ontario.

A hero for our times!

10.  My Body – David Bazan

This was my favourite song of 2018. If 2017 was all about the first draft, 2018 was about actually writing an ending (!) and rolling through the manuscript again and again until it was fit for someone else to read (the editing process took me through to mid-2019).

Bazan solo and in all his other projects is amazing. Everything is shot through with the anxiety that comes as another mediocre (or not) white dude with a microphone.

‘My Body’ speaks directly to the concerns of NDTS.

Honestly, pick any line.

Or just start from the beginning: “This feels like a disproportionate amount of longing / More confirmation I was never meant to live alone”

(I mean, who write lyrics like that?)

As Duncan gets further and further into his location scouting gig, his native scepticism about the feats of Saint Joseph of Copertino, a seventeenth century Franciscan friar who is purported to have levitated hundreds of times and performed countless other miracles during and after his time on earth, is eaten away. To the point he might admit, as Bazan does in his chorus: “My body doesn’t believe what my mind believes”. Might.

Image result for Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston
11.  Mind Games – John Lennon

I’d never really listened to, or thought about, the lyrics here until I was writing this book. I’d just assumed it was about the mind games two people in a relationship play, but it’s a much more positive type of mind game Lennon is talking about – inspired by the book Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston – and totally in keeping with Lennon in 1973.

For a while I wanted to call the novel Absolute Elsewhere, after a lyric in this song[6]. Instead it’s just a chapter title (along with another lyric, ‘Out of the Now’) and I let someone in sweatpants mangle it on guitar to a pizzeria full of cult members.

12.  Strange Torpedo – Lucy Dacus

Another chapter title.

Dacus has explained that she was inspired by a line in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I still can’t avoid the phallic associations of a ‘strange torpedo on the loose’ – which fits in with the theme of Hollywood enabling the unchecked masculine gaze…

Having said that. the strange torpedo in NDTS is a dead blackbird a young girl is trying to bring back to life in a convent carpark.

13.  Stay Lost (acoustic) / Tinseltown Swimming in Blood – Destroyer

This double shot from the deluxe edition of Destroyer’s Ken (2017) rounds out the Italian portion of the novel. Not gonna divulge any spoilers, but from the song titles themselves you can begin to surmise how things round out for Duncan with Mack and Motta.

14.  The French Inhaler – Warren Zevon

Early in the novel, there’s a discussion of Frank Motta’s oeuvre, including a film called French Inhaler, about “the ultimate kiss-off song [i.e. Zevon’s]. A cross between a talking heads documentary and crime scene re-enactment.”[7]

Thematically, this track and the way it crosses the line for both misogyny and self-loathing fits much better at the tail end of this playlist and the moment for Duncan “when the lights came up at two”.

15.  Mariners Apartment Complex – Lana Del Rey
16.  Green Light – Lorde

Image result for lorde lana del rey

It’s important to finish this playlist with some younger, female voices for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who gets to the end of NDTS.

I’ve long been a sucker for the overtness of Del Rey’s façade and the performativeness of her songs, but ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ appears to mark a more personal turn in her song writing. When she sings, ‘I’m your man’, in the chorus, it’s about self-empowerment and reclaiming gendered language and everything you want to surround your kids – female, male or otherwise - with.

Then there’s Lorde.

Melodrama came out in 2017 and was on high rotate as I wrote NDTS. But I was also in the US in 2013 when ‘Royals’ started to blow up (and Ellie Catton won the Booker Prize) and it was this amazing moment for young Kiwi women and I was struggling to start something new after my novel, The Mannequin Makers, had come out and would struggle for another four years…

So when Lorde kicked off her sophomore album with ‘Green Light’, a perfectly complex dancefloor jam about almost having the licence to just let go, it struck a chord with this thirty-something, who, like Duncan Blake, had “skin the colour of old lace, a penis and a second chance.”

[1] It’s not – it’s a standalone novel – but if it was…

[2] If you get to the end of NDTS, or if you’re like me and you read the acknowledgements page first, you’ll see that I dedicate the book to the memory of Gord Downie, the Canadian musician, writer and humanitarian best known as the frontman of The Tragically Hip. Downie recorded his final solo album, Introduce Yerself, while in the late stage of his battle with brain cancer. It was released 10 days after his death in October 2017, when I was in the midst of writing the first draft of NDTS. I’d been a rabid fan of The Hip and Downie’s solo work for more than a decade, and had shared a brief email exchange with him in the early 2010s which included me sending him my first book, but it felt to personal, too chummy, to have the dedication open the book. So that’s why it’s tucked away in back.

[3] I once flatted with a person who was inconsiderate, untidy and morally bogus (she expected us to lie to her husband when he called), but at the time I thought our most emblematic exchange was when, the one time she actually decided to clean the kitchen, she was blaring an FM station and said to me, “I just love Hootie and the Goldfish, don’t you?”

[4] The formula is pretty simple if you wanna pander to my tastes: dark, brooding music with evocative yet unpindownable lyrics = fantastic music to listen to while writing = dozens of streams.

[5] It was a great show BTW.

[6] Bullet dodged.

[7] One of the cool things about creating multiple filmographies was coming up with movies I wish someone would make. I mean, this craze for basic pop biopics baffles me when there’s so many more interesting stories to be told. Listen to ‘The French Inhaler’ and then Loudon Wainwright III’s ‘Hollywood Hopeful’ and tell me these songs haven’t just conjured up 90 minutes of screen time you’d actually leave the house for.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

July Consumption Diary



Image result for basketball and other thingsBasketball & Other Things by Shea Serrano (non-fiction)

This felt like reading something online (unsurprising, as Serrano writes for the Ringer and many chapters started as bits there or on its precursor, Grantland), without all the bells and whistles you might get online, like the ability to see the particular play being described instantly.

Which became the strength of the book.

Like the slow food revolution for NBA-heads. A wormhole back to the not-too-distant-past when you had to take some of these feats on faith, until the VHS arrived with the proof.

It helped reduce my screen time and open windows into a more creative application of my own NBA addiction.

The "(and other things)" is important, too. The book becomes a collection of personal essays, leaping off from barroom questions like "Which version of Michael Jordan was the best?" to discuss the difference between how white Americans and Mexican Americans care for their elderly.

Looking forward to Movies (and other things) in October!!

Superior by Angela Saini (non-fiction, audiobook)
Image result for superior angela saini

This pairs pretty well with The Coddling of the American Mind (which I still haven't finished, but). Answers the question: how did we get here? through the lens of race and race-based debate and politics.

In a macro-sense: it's so fucking demoralising (see also the ending of BlacKkKlansman). The scientific basis for racial difference has long been dismissed. But money and bad faith have been allowed to spur on bad science, which mixes with wilful ignorance...

That's the kicker. Without a latent mass of people waiting for these dog-whistles, it's over.

But there's enough in this book, if you pick through the individual parts, to suggest how we might go about (re?)building a better level of public discourse.

But some days it's just easier to go full-bore misanthropist, isn't it?

Image result for against interpretation susan sontagAgainst Interpretation and Other Essay by Susan Sontag (non-fiction, audiobook)

After reading these essays I happened to watch Darren Aronofsky's Mother! and it helped me understand why I hated it. There was no surface truth: it was all meant to be interpreted. No vehicle, just tenor. The urge to interpret turned into the creative act, leaving an empty vessel.

So, yeah, good book, bad movie.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (novel, audiobook)
Image result for my year of rest and relaxation by ottessa moshfegh

The only fiction I read this month.

I really wanted to like it, but it had a steep hill to climb as it based its narrative of some of my pet peeves: excessive drug use, extended therapy scenes, privileged, passive protagonist... While I hadn't quite read this exact story before (ie from the perspective of a mid-twenties female in New York around the turn of the Millennium) I have to say, it was a slog.


The OA - Season 2 - I can see how some might see this show as a hot mess. It throws so many things against the wall. But to me, most of it coheres. And the stuff they're throwing? It's like they've been stealing my dream journal. Alternate realities. Angels. Cosmic Connections. And reading the same books: The Secret Life of Trees. Mind Games. Three-Body Problem...

The only thing that didn't sit right for me was the final twists, which was altogether too meta for me. If there's a reason Netflix hasn't renewed the show yet, it might be how the season ended. More likely it's that not enough people have watched it yet... I'm guilty for letting this sit on my watchlist for too long.

Or maybe the showrunners caught wind of the likelihood The OA would not be renewed and tried to crowbar some kind of closure (or deadening of expectations) so they could walk away from it? I think that's unlikely. But it's a show that invites theorising, even about it's production.


Crazy Rich Asians
Catch 22 (TV show)
Aziz Ansari: Right Now (curiosity killed the cat)
The Inbetweeners 2 - ugh

Monday, July 1, 2019

June Consumption Diary



The Angel's Cut by Elizabeth Knox (novel, audiobook, NZ)
Image result for the angel's cut elizabeth knox
It only took me ten years to get around to reading the sequel to The Vintner's Luck but boy howdee this was good.

It sent me scrambling for reasons for how a sequel could be this good. Like, it helps when the main character doesn't age, so the sequel can take place at any time or place that takes your fancy up until the present day... but it still takes a massive amount of  skill to pull off!

There's a lot in this book that echoes what I was interested in when writing Nailing Down the Saint. It goes a lot further in pushing forward a counter-story to the rational materialist world view (the main character is an ANGEL! Lucifer makes regular guest appearances), without ever seeming like fantasy for the sake of fantasy.

Hark by Sam Lipsyte (novel)

HarkI'd been hanging out for Hark to appear on Audible (or one of the borrowing services I can access through my library) but I got tired of waiting and read the physical book instead.

And at first it was like a drug. I was taking photos of individual pages so I'd have record of an amazing sentence, or a hilarious joke (often both at the same time).

An example from page 78, where two characters are at an art gallery:
"It says here that we should enjoy Volk's work but not forget that we was distant with his family in later years and once considered having an affair with a neighbor."
So much to unpack!

I did struggle slightly to separate the first perspective character (the novel has a handful of them), Fraz Penzig, from Milo Burke, the protagonist of Lipsyte's previous novel, The Ask (2010) - and Steve and Lewis from the two novels that preceded that one.

The middle section of Hark suffers a similar, you're-not-really-reading-for-plot-are-you?, doldrums. The kind I'd normally be able to power through in an audiobook, but is more pronounced when you can't multi-task. And the ending... well, it sucked.

Zooming out, I think we've all been conditioned to be a little tougher on satire in the last few years, which makes it hard for Hark to hit all of its targets. Like that joke above could be seen as minimising the shittiness of the Woody Allens and Louis C.K.'s of the world... You really need to go with the fact none of the characters - but the white males especially - are vessels for hyperbole. Heroic they are not. And when a joke makes you squirm, there's power in holding that space and interrogating why, even if you come out the other end thinking: you really shouldn't have, Sam.

Still, like The Ask (which was my favourite read of 2017), I've got a lot of love for Hark - it's verve and eye-descaling moments - but it won't compete for a spot in my top ten reads this year.

Aside: Any author concerned about your average star-ratings on Goodreads should scan Sam Lipstye's for a reminder that average + Amazon = piffle.

Image result for the dry jane harper
The Dry by Jane Harper (novel, audiobook)

Pretty standard crime thriller.

Revealed the killer a little early (and the twist wasn't in a very satisfying direction), puncturing the tension.

But then: could I write anything near as thrilling? Nope.

Image result for fight club 2Fight Club 2 by Chuck Palahniuk and Cameron Stewart (graphic novel)


God awful.

Mercifully short.


Game of Thrones - Season 7* and 8
Succession - Season 1
Black Mirror - Season 5
Always Be My Maybe
Behind the Curve
About Time

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Third Age Vacation

In May I went down to Wanaka to talk to a branch of the University of the Third Age. They were running a four week 'course' on NZ writers. One writer a week, two hours per session (with a tea break in the middle). Cilla McQueen kicked off, discussing poetry. Paula Morris was next, covering fiction and teaching creative writing, then it was me, and Carl Nixon went last.

My talk was titled 'Career? Calling? Hobby?' and covered everything I've done in the last fifteen years, from writing the first draft of a novel in 28 days as a 21 year old, to my third published book that drops in August, along side the places I've lived, the jobs I've worked and the kids that have joined team Cliff.

The answer is you can't consider writing a career, at least in the financial sense, nor a hobby, in the emotional sense. And a calling seems to highfalutin for something that, so far and to my knowledge, hasn't changed anyone's life.

Writing books, having a family and paying the bills: it's all a juggling act. You can only persist so long if you don't have passion in all three aspects.

I also explained the geneses of The Mannequin Makers and Nailing Down the Saint, how my novels take-off when I see the connection between two bad ideas. A father raising his kids to be living mannequins and a shipwreck around Cape Horn. A levitating Franciscan friar and modern movie-making.

After the tea break there was time for almost an hour of questions and we could have kept going a  longer. The crowd was around 130-140 people and they were really engaged. Lots of retired school teachers and university types.

My family came down south with me and we spent two nights in Wanaka and two in Queenstown and did lots of touristy things (and spent a lot of money)...

Queenstown from the top of the gondola

...the kids highlight was the motel in Wanaka because it had a trampoline (typical)...

but those two hours with the University of the Third Age was mine.

May Consumption Diary


May is the month I finally got a feel for 2019 musically, from amazing albums from Aldous Harding and Orville Peck, to the fact my four year old wants to listen to 'Old Town Road' on repeat...


Advance copy of my next book, arrived 30 May 2019
(Anyone who asks why the book is dedicated to Gord Downie clearly has clearly never read this blog)

Image result for there there tommy orange

There There by Tommy Orange (novel, audiobook)

Wow. I loved this.

I was a bit apprehensive when the novel began with a long, direct address about the lives of urban Native Americans, particularly those in Oakland, and how they got there. I was thinking: Where can this go from here?

And then Orange begins to introduce a large cast of characters, each with chapters from their own perspective. Weird comparison, but it felt a bit like George R.R. Martin at the helm of another exploding narrative (albeit in a mix of first and third person).

So I was still like: How's he gonna land this plane?

And he fucking does!

There's so much heart in here it's easy to overlook the head required to corral so many moving parts.

The New ShipsThe New Ships by Kate Duignan (novel, NZ)

Oh my god, I finished a physical book. And a NZ novel, to boot!

I really enjoyed this. It was dense in a good way. Not at the sentence level - at all - but the way there's all these time periods layered, geologically, and at various points we dig through from one time to another.

One observation: I kept forgetting I was reading a first person narrator. Peter Collie is so in check, in the beginning at least, despite the recent death of his wife, that it feels like a third person coolly narrating the story. I found this distance, ironically, pulled me in. What's up with this dude? Turns out, if you dig, plenty.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira (novel)

What? Two physical books in a month? Well, I did fly for work a little more than normal. And this one is only 87 pages.

Aira is an interesting writer. Whatever number of books I say here, he'll have published more than that by the time you read it. Wikipedia doesn't even try, listing only a "Partial Biography", comprising 73 novels published since 1975, and a bunch of other shorter works.

Is this a novel or a novella? It's unlike any novella I've ever read. It's so dense and direct. After reading Carl Shuker's A Mistake a couple of months ago, which is 182 pages, I've been thinking a lot about how to get in and get out in less than 200 pages. Aira has me lowering that page limit.

There's a particular kind of story that suits the level of compression and focus required to make it feel bigger than a short story but not leave you wanting more. The title of Aira's 2000 novel, translated by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions in 2006, tells you a lot about how this one works.

One thing that slim books can get away with: getting better upon re-reading.

Which is ironic as Aira claims never to go back and edit his work. That's how he can churn out three books a year, a superhuman feat regardless of length. The complete lack of editing is surely posturing. The way he leaves the date he finished the manuscript on the last page! But I certainly felt the forward momentum he claims comes, for him, only by laying sentence after sentence in an indelible sequence.

Image result for artful ali smithArtful by Ali Smith (fiction/non-fiction hybrid, audiobook)

So, I thought I was going to listen to four lectures Smith delivered at Oxford, now read by the author herself in audiobook form - and this was true. But those lectures took such an inventive form that once can only refer to the resulting book as a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction.

Artful served to reinforce a couple of things.

Like: shit, Ali Smith is a good writer.

And: I could never do that! I don't think it's meant as an intellectual flex, but the connections she draws across literatures (albeit predominantly European) is impressive, and then to do it within a frame narration that is heart-breaking?


Image result for The Coddling of the American MindThe Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (non-fiction, audiobook)

I'm only halfway through. I had to stop as this book was making me overthink a lot of things.

There's plenty to agree with here. Call-out culture isn't something we'll look back on and say: that's where things started getting good. It makes me anxious even saying anything about call-out culture.

But there was an underlying tone in this book. The glee it felt in focussing on left-wing examples of violence and hypocrisy and blinkeredness and general badness. I couldn't stop thinking about Trump's "on both sides".

So I hit pause and I'll try finish it next month. Because muting isn't the solution when dealing with confronting ideas and material.


I ordered a quilt and nailed it to the wall of my garage.
Time will tell if this is the start of my Tragically Hip shrine.


Game of Thrones, seasons 4, 5, 6 (continuing the our rewatch) and eps 3-6 (& The Last Watch) of Season 8

My reckons, briefly: the final season was rushed. It would have been so much better if it was stretched into 10 episodes. There were at least 10 good episode-ending beats. A little bit of extra time for the big events to breathe. No need for any more CGI or crowd scenes: just people talking in rooms or on ramparts. You know, the show's bread and butter until the checkbook was opened too far.

Back when the show behaved liked TV, with all it's budgetary limitations and workarounds (see all of Rob Stark's off-screen battles in the early seasons), there was nothing but time. But it morphed into a full-blown fantasy-action epic with cinematic budget (and the echoes to Peter Jackson's Rings films got more and more pronounced), while still obeying something resembling a TV schedule. 6+ hours of content delivered over a 2 year period? No wonder everyone involved, from the makeup artists to the showrunners, wanted the dream to end. The fact 2 of those 6 hours were effectively action sequences (battles of Winterfell and Kings Landing): that's a lot of time and cost and effort that simply wasn't part of the formula when Thrones was building its fanbase.

So effectively four hours to explain everything that had built up over almost 70 hours previously? Ouch.

And then there's the expectations of the audience.

A lot of people were watching the show wrong (ha!). The death pools that people ran at the start of the season, as if that's the most interesting part: seeing characters die. Some people were only there for the cinematics. For the CGI dragons and the army of the dead. And then they have the gaul to join the chorus of people criticising the scripting and execution?

If you set aside the fact things were incredibly rushed, did any of the major plot points come without heavy foreshadowing? What Arya achieves in episode 3 was built up for seven seasons! (I concede her "leap" was poorly shot and did this plot point no favours.) Daenerys' heel turn: did y'all not watch the first half of Battle of the Bastards? And all of that Jon being Jon. The thing that becomes apparent when rewatching the show was how shit of a military commander Jon is, how frequently others bail him out (Stannis, the Knights of the Vale, Arya, Drogon) and how he'll never fully exercise his agency.

Season Six was when the show well and truly left the books behind and rewatching it in tandem with the last couple of episodes of Season 8 demonstrated the showrunners were working really hard to get to their ending. But a lot of people's reactions reflect the fact it was 2.5 years since season six aired and people just don't have good enough memories.

Small, non-spoilery example: two of my friends mentioned they didn't remember who Edmure Tully was when he stood up and started to pitch himself as the next king in the final episode, despite him being prominent in the siege of Riverrun late in Season Six (and his earlier significance leading up to the Red Wedding). So that whole 'Sit down Uncle' bit made them shrug.

Endings are hard. Game of Thrones had it worse than most: a thousand strands to pull together, a rep for subverting expectations, millions of fans that rage from rabid to extremely casual but everyone feeling entitled to express their opinion in real time (and in an age when social status can be accrued through denunciation without debate), and doing so at double speed.

But to say the final season should be handed to someone else and reshot? Every one of the signatories for that petition should be forced to make their own piece of art, a short story or film or script for a single episode of TV, and then reflect on their right to demand greater satisfaction from the labour and creativity of others.

Barry, Seasons 1 and 2

Having said something about GoT, I feel I should say something about this quite different HBO show. I also watching in May.

Season 1 didn't wow me until late in the piece, but with 30 minute episodes and 8 episode seasons, I was able to power through quickly and become hooked.

NoHo Hank is one of the better characters in TV history and it will be interesting to see how the show balances the need to give us our Hank fix without imbalancing things too much.

I love that the show feels so free to take risks, like the whole supernatural Taekwondo 12 year old in Season 2, or the way the inspecting officers don't stick around long. There's a bit of Thrones (at least, what GRRM wrote) in this ruthlessness.

Bumping Mics, Season 1

Isle of Dogs (watched in April, I think, but I left it off that list because it was... regrettably forgettable)

Saturday, May 4, 2019

April Consumption Diary



A Man in Love (Book 2 in My Struggle) by Karl Ove Knausgaard (novel, audiobook)

Image result for a man in love audiobook
Book 1 hooked me with its obsession with death, particularly the death of a father, and the brutal honesty (or the convincing facsimile of brutal honesty) of being a writer.

Book 2, as the title suggests, is more concerned with romance and what comes on its heels (in Knausgaard's eyes: the emasculating labour of the modern father), and the challenges of balancing family and writing, doled out with equal depth and brutality. So, again, it spoke to me. Structurally, it's interesting to consume as a 21+ hour audiobook, as there's only very subtle cues that we're shifting scenes (there's a lot of nesting and un-nesting) or gears - but it worked for me.

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke (short stories, audiobook)

Image result for maxine beneba clarke foreign soilI love short stories, but I keep finding myself struggling to get through a whole story collection in audiobook form. 

Individually, Clarke's stories were all interesting and well-crafted (though a couple of the endings felt abrupt) and, importantly, sufficiently different from each other (there's a host of different settings and set-ups), while being held together by central concerns about identity and belonging - particularly as a minority (including one story about a white Australian hair-dresser who moves to East Africa). 

So it must be the form (audiobooks) and the way I've been trained to immerse in 20-hour narratives that means story collections keep knocking me off balance in unsatisfying ways.

(There's something similar to be said for watching TV series vs discrete films: why invest anything in these characters that'll only be round another 90 minutes?)


Things are still getting back to normal at the Cliff household after my wife went onto shift work with uncertain hours and days for an undefined duration. My 5am starts have been rare, and those I have mustered have ended before 6am thanks to my son waking. 

I have now signed off on the final proofs of NAILING DOWN THE SAINT, so that sucker is off to the printers. In stores: 6 August.

The non-fiction music book I pitched before Xmas didn't get picked up, so I'm mentally promiscuous at the moment, waiting for the right ideas to collide and let me know what I'll be doing in early mornings and my days off for the next four years.


The Bad Seed - Season 1
I Think You Should Leave - Season 1
Peaky Blinders - Season 1
Game of Thrones - Season 3 and Season 8 eps 1-3 (and Talk The Thrones following each ep)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

March consumption diary


BOOKS (in the order I read them)

Image result for under the sea mark leidner

Under the Sea by Mark Leidner (short stories, audiobook, US)

I was expecting shorter stories, and weirder stories, based on Leidner's poetry and Twitter account. I mean, there's weirdness and experimentation, but it's throttled down and/or dragged out. Still cool. But...

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A Mistake by Carl Shuker (novel, NZ)

I can't watch surgery shows on TV and the opening section of A Mistake made the feeling drain from my fingertips, but I ploughed through. This is not a diss but a compliment to the realism of the surgery scene (and me outing myself as a bag of blood and organs that dislikes being confronted with this fact).

Shuker's wide-ranging interview with Kim Hill last weekend was a classic. A Mistake might be one, too. It's a slim but knotty read: highly recommended!

Image result for the black and the white geoff cochrane

The Black and the White by Geoff Cochrane (poetry, NZ)

More of the same, Hallelujah Geoff.

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The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney (novel, audiobook, NZ/Scotland)

I heard McIlvanney discuss this novel and read from it in 2017, when it was going through the last stages of the editing process. At the time I found the challenge of lightly fictionalising the Bible John murders a bold one to tackle and, as someone with link to the actual crimes, it felt like McIlvanney pulled it off.

Image result for zinzi clemmons what we lose

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (novel, audiobook, South Africa/US)

Lightly fictionalised. That can mean many things - most all of them apply here. 

To be fair, my head was still ringing from reading Knausgaard's A Death in the Family in Feb, and whatever you will say about the relationship between truth, memory and invention in the Norwegian's autofiction project, there's nothing light about it.  

Clemmons' short novel, in contrast, is light on detail, light on invention, light on characterisation. As a daughter-of-cancer memoir, it's passable. As a work of fiction, it doesn't really leave a mark.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (novel, audiobook, US)

A lot of narrative/narrator gymnastics are deployed by KJF. And the book does a good job of being able to get away with a limited first person perspective and leaf in a lot of real life research and theory about human and ape cognition and development. At times it felt more like an exercise than an attempt at immersion - but maybe that was the shadow of Knausgaard again (eff that guy, amirite?)

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Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (novel, audiobook, UK)

My third short novel of the month (after Shuker and Clemmons). This one takes less than two hours to listen to at 1.0 speed. So: short. But definitely novelistic in scope and ambition. The kind of book you can, and in all likelihood: will, return to again and again.


Speaking of grief, this month was severed in two by the events of 15 March.

On a personal level, my family life was thrown into minor disarray as my wife is one of the hundreds of people whose professional lives have been repurposed in the wake of one act of terrorism and cowardice. It's nothing compared to those that suffered more directly, as victims or loved ones of victims, or even those for whom the event was intended to single out and rattle with fear. But all the law enforcement, security, intelligence, ambulance and hospital staff - and the other unsung contributors in the days and weeks of rebuilding a better normal that have ensued - have my gratitidude. 

This is all to say I've spent a lot of time this past fortnight with just my kids, or alone once they are in bed, with my eyes leaking. Feeling helpless. Trying to tamp down rage. Fighting the urge to write about it, or worse, to tweet.  

My wife and I were supposed to see Alejandro Escovedo together on the 16th, but as she had just worked 30 hours straight, she slept and I took my brother instead. Escovdeo was clearly shaken by the events in Christchurch but was so genuine and warm that I can't think of a better artist to commune with at such a moment.

Towards the end of his set he had the house lights brought up (with some difficulty - no one at Caroline seemed to know where the switches were) and performed three songs from the floor. I know he's been doing this all tour, but it's still the ultimate gesture of vulnerability and generosity.

Truly a performance I will remember forever.

The next night I was supposed to see another concert with my brother, Regurgitator, one of his favourite bands in his youth, but I had to look after my kids.

I had tickets to see Gang of Four on the 27th, but that was postponed due to Andy Gill's ill health. So I must wait until 13 November to see the foundational post-punk outfit (or parts thereof).

Add to this Julien Baker's NZ tour in Feb being cancelled, and 2019 hasn't been the most auspicious for live music... but if that one gig from Alejandro Escovedo is all I see this year, by crikey I'll still be grateful.


Free solo
This is 40
The City and the City - limited run series
Lady Bird
Game of Thrones - Seasons 1* and 2*

I've also been playing a bit of Red Dead Redemption II (all these nights on my lonesome) and find it pretty tedious and yet I can sense that I'm probably one more gameplay session away from being hooked.