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


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


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:

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Playing catch-up

Hello strangers.

This is a taste of the music I listened to in June:

And this is what I’ve been reading over the last two months:

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (novel, audiobook)

The Left Hand of Darkness: Book in the Hainish SeriesI enjoyed this. Had never read Le Guin before and it was much more sociology-thought-experiment than the straight-up-and-down sci-fi I was expecting. Myth-making, on multiple levels, of the highest order.

Neuromancer by William Gibson (novel, audiobook)

NeuromancerI started listening to this before all the articles about it being 30 years since the novel was first published. So, partway through, just as I was getting a little lost, the novel’s importance became a big consideration, and I got a little more lost.

I think the biggest thing I’ll take away from Neuromancer was this: tough geeks make killer writers. Here was a Bill Gates brain with a Raymond Chandler hard-on, sitting alone in a room, plugging away at a manual typewriter, creating this namechecking biojacking future and it fucking worked (for the most part).

I’m working on a Building by Pip Adam (novel or short stories - your call, NZ)

Let me list all the ways I was predisposed to like this book:
I'm Working on a Building
·         It’s about buildings. I spend my day job thinking about buildings, specifically how they can support quality teaching and learning (and making sure they don’t leak, or fall down in a stiff breeze). I’m not an architect or an engineer or a teacher or an educationalist – I’m the bridge between those worlds (and between schools and the politicians who ultimately write the cheques). So I was really interested to see how Pip Adam, a writer who shadowed a bunch of building-types to get under the hood of the language of built forms, would go...

·         I’d read ‘Featherston Street’ a couple of years ago as a short story on Turbine, and it features as the fulcrum chapter in Adam’s novel.

·         It’s a bold book. By a New Zealander. Those two things combined are too rare. I want more!

And then I started reading and that first chapter, about building a replica of the Burj al Khalifa in the Southern Alps… woh! What a string of pages.

The boldness I mentioned earlier 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. It’s not for everyone. Or: not every chapter/story will ring your bells. But it rang enough of mine to leave my head spinning.


Discover Byron BayI also read a draft of Sue Orr’s next book (which was great, and will be ever greater thanks to my own genius suggestions… pfft), and re-read The Forrests as I’m about to head to the Byron Bay Writers Festival and will be doing a session with Emily Perkins about our latest books on Saturday. I also finished and re-read a couple essay in the NZ-themed Griffith Review, as I’m on a panel discussion about this on Sunday.

It's a bit of a struggle to think of myself as a writer at the moment, let alone project that image in front of a crowd. Should be interesting (for me at least).

And here’s what I was listening to in July:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

May - Why can't we live together in secret?



There is no time.

I only read one book in May. Actually I only listened to one audiobook.

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt (novel, audiobook)

My plan was that reading The Secret History would help me decide if I needed to read Tartt's latest, The Goldfinch, which has polarised reviewers and readers.

And this plan worked.

While I thought The Secret History was expertly set up (a good prologue that establishes the first half as a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit) and there's enough prolepsis laced through the early stages to make it kinda thrilling... the second half felt slacker.

For a book of this length, it's surprisingly single-minded. I was going to say focused, but there are a number of scenes in the second half that feel drawn out (eg the visit to the Corcorans in Connecticut) and to me 'focused' implies 'tight', but The Secret History is decidedly baggy.

Then there's the fact Hampton College and its cohort of six Ancient Greek students and their teacher is some kind of American upper-middle class wet dream. The Great Gatsby is invoked early on, as if by naming it, Tartt can distance herself from comparisons to it. I found the whole thing fantastic, in the sense that it is the product of a fantastical mind, rather than top-shelf.

Anyway, I'm clearly in the No thanks camp when it comes to The Goldfinch, which sounds a bit more sprawling and a bit more druggy (and hence more tedious) that The Secret History.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

April through my ears


My daughter likes music. She likes dancing. Which is cool. Her taste in music is questionable, though. Her favourite song right now is 'Hollaback Girl', which she calls the 'Nana' song (this shhh is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S).

My daughter is 16 months old.

In April her favourite song was Phil Collins' 'Sussudio', which she first heard while she and I were at the supermarket (Newtown Countdown has this peppy late80s/early90s vibe with is playlist: the other day I found myself singing along to 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around'). She went on a real Phil Collins/Genesis/Peter Gabriel binge on Pandora after that. And I have to say, maybe some of those songs were kinda alright.

And me? I'm really into Future Islands' new album 'Singles' at the mo. Like, really into it.

Lia likes it too, but it's no Gwen Stefani.


Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (novel, audiobook)

Doomsday BookI was pretty keen on this novel in the early stages (as my March reading update attests). But the book tended to get caught up in trivial situations that just churned and churned for pages. What has the technician come down with? Why can’t Kivrin understand the ‘contemps’? Interesting enough plot points for a page or so, but stretch that to twenty and you’ve got a ponderous book.

As it went on, I found myself most excited by how stuffy and unfuturistic the novel's present (our future) was. The novel was written in 1991 but set in 2054/5. In almost every way except the fact historians can time travel (so just a minor thing, really), our 2014 is more futuristic than Willis’ 2054. They don’t have cellphones, let alone smartphones. The internet isn’t a thing (there's ‘the net’, but that refers to the method universities use to travel back in time).

There’s a quest to get into a locked office to get paper files (there are electronic files, but they don’t have the patient’s NHS number to access them)... 

Even the NHS is still intact (call me a sceptic by I can see it lasting another Tory government).

So often writers are guilty of over-predicting the level of change in the future. Flying cars. Android servants. Meals in pills. It was refreshing to see such an unassuming vision of the future and reminded me how much like a visitor from the stars I would have seemed if 31 year-old Craig appeared to 8 year-old Craig in 1991 with my iPod nano stocked with audiobooks, my iPad (presuming it could still connect to the 2014 version of the internet) and my android smartphone (just in case you think I’m an apple tragic!).

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Gal... who am I kidding?, JK Rowling (novel, audiobook)

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike)Speaking of the miracle of audiobooks, something odd happened with The Cuckoo’s Calling. I started listening to it over Easter while I carried out grounds maintenance at my estate (okay, so I pruned some trees... but it took ages!). 

The story started with what I thought was the prologue: a tired, injured detective observing the fall-out after solving a case. It seemed pretty standard way to start a crime novel, but as it progressed I got more excited by the level of detail of this dummy case and the depth of the relationships between detective and his office lady and a couple of the other characters. It felt complex and murky but totally alive. Then the narrator of the audiobook said, “That was The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, read by Robert Glenister”.

Turns out I’d been listening to the epilogue, which my iPod for  decided to play first some reason.

Before I could put down my hedge trimmer, the story moved onto the next track, which happened to be the prologue, which was much less exciting the epilogue.

So, ladies and gentlemen, a rule: if you must have a prologue, make it the epilogue from an unwritten book.

The problem with listening to the actual epilogue first is it drains so much of the mystery and tension from the book. While The Cuckoo’s Calling felt well-handled throughout, I couldn’t help being disappointed. I wanted the book that followed the epilogue, the unwritten one (or maybe it's The Silkworm) and that’s totally on me (or my mischievous iPod).

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (novel, audiobook)

Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West (Picador Books)I checked that I was about to listen to track one before pushing play this time. And wham, Richard Poe started talking to me in this florid, biblical polysyndetic prose. 

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.


This year I've been taking TV seriously. Not live broadcast TV of course, but binge-style box set TV. First it was House of Cards (the US version... twas good, my only wish was that the Finchery text messages popping up on the screen from first 2 eps carried through the entire run). Then True Detective (so much promise, such a slack ending). 

Aside: mid-season of True Detective I entertained fantasies about writing a TV show next. Nic Pizzolatto published a short story collection, then a novel (just like me) before penning True Detective, I thought. Such fantasies have waned now.

At the moment I'm doing Breaking Bad. I never got on that ride at the time, so I'm still in Season One.

Then there's Season Four of Game of Thrones to catch-up on.

And finally, a shout-out to the local show, Step Dave, which I thought would be a bit of a cringe-fest. The set up, 24 year old bartender hooks up with 39 year old mother of 3, didn't sound like my kinda thing at all. But I gave the first episode a shot via TVNZ OnDemand and wound up watching the whole season, mostly while doing the dishes (normally Podcast time). 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

March [like a shark]

March in Music

March in Books

Thanks to a decent, relatively dry March I've been up a ladder clearing gutters and pruning trees, which has afforded some excellent audiobook-listening opportunities...

Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell (non-fiction, audiobook)

Prospero's Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu (Faber Library)I often wonder about travel writing. I wonder about the privilege inherent in the pursuit and eurocentricity and whether there’s any point writing non-fiction travel stuff these days coz if people really were that interested, why don’t they just save up and travel there themselves? (This question, in itself, relies on a level of privilege). Durrell’s book suffers from privilege and a sense of 'otherness', but being set before the second world war, it avoids my ‘what’s the point?’ complaint. It was occasionally interesting and sometimes poetic, but the diary-like structure limited its appeal.

David Copperfield: The Personal History of David Copperfield: Personal History of David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield by Charles Dickens (novel, audiobook)

Gosh. I loved Nicholas Nickleby a few years ago, but I found DC a drag. Perhaps it was the first person narrator versus the third? Perhaps I'm an early-Dickens man? Or was it my own un-Victorian mood this month? Oh well.

LamplighterLamplighter by Kerry Donovan Brown (novel, NZ)

I’m reviewing this for NZ Books, which means a) I’ll end up reading this a couple more times and b) I won’t give anything away here!

In progress:

Doomsday BookDoomsday Book by Connie Willis (novel, audiobook)

Apparently this is number 75 in some list of the best science fiction books of all time. But being about time travel, I wonder if it’s possible to have a list of the best books of all time that doesn’t include any from the future. *rimshot* So far, I’m really enjoying Willis’s take on the paradox-averting, research-only form of time travel presented in this novel. I’ve already got the sequel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, queued up on my iPod. All I need is for the fine weather to continue...

Griffith Review – Pacific Highways (NZ-themed issue)

I’m slowly working my way through the book and its free e-companion. There’s some good stuff and some great stuff. An Australian lit journal turning its attention so completely to “us” is almost unprecidented, though it’s also worth lauding Islands’ recent efforts to get more Kiwis between their covers. When will a NZ journal reciprocate? How can we keep the conversation going? Hard work and Tim Tams, I say!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Objects in a book review may appear smaller than they really are

Some notes I made myself before writing another book review
  • Do re-read John Updike's rules for reviewing books before starting the process afresh.
  • Don’t veil your put-downs. A young author, a first book, an ambitious premise, a long book, a short book – none of these things in themselves is a negative. If attitudes appear naive, the book is poorly structured, confusing or long-winded – just say so.
  • Do think deeply about the book and the author’s possible intentions, before setting fingers to keyboard.
  • Don’t mention aspects of book design unless there’s evidence that the author drove these decisions and discussion of them further illuminates the text.
  • Don't talk about "writing", talk about "language" - the means by which reader receives the story- and provide examples. If you must talk about "voice", again, back it up with quotation.
  • Do provide a plot summary that corresponds to the length of the review.
  • Don’t jump around. Keeps things ordered and orderly. Don't talk about the book’s opening after discussing the middle.
  • Don't use the first person if it can be avoided. It's the best way to dodge the pitfalls of space-wasting and humblebragging, and it forces you to consider other readers/readings.
  • Do refer to other books, other writers, literary theory or popular culture if it serves to illuminate the reading of the text at hand (and the reference will be comprehensible to the readers of the review).


Maybe it’s because I egged the universe on with my digression on the art of reviewing in my last post. Or maybe it really is that the book world hibernates between November and late Feb. Whatever the reason, I opened the door and more reviews of The Mannequin Makers came marching in.

First, some oldies I missed from the Oamaru Mail and Gisborne Herald in August and M2Woman in October (basically an abbreviation of the blurb and a rating of 3.5 stars - informative, huh?).

(I once flicked through M2Woman's brother publication, M2Man (naturally),  in my dentist’s waiting room, specifically looking to see if they do book reviews (they did that particular edition, but they were both non-fiction; they also reviewed DVDs and video games). It’d be nice to one day be reviewed in M2Man, even if it's a glorified thumbnail ad... but I can see why a book that revolves around two department stores -- despite it’s long, briny excursion into sailing and shipwrecks -- doesn't scream out manliness.)

Then two new-new reviews happened.

The first was in New Zealand Books new issue (Autumn 2014). It’s a triple-billed review, with my novel sandwiched between Duncan Sarkies’ The Demolition of the Century and Summer Wigmore's The Wind City. It’s a good review, I think. Both favourable to the book and well-written.

One complaint: "Cliff suffers perhaps from first-time novelist's compulsion to cram every possible image, experience and idea into a too-small space."

I’d rather a reviewer said, ‘The book crams a lot in and I found it too much at points A B C, because X Y Z’. 

Or, dream scenario, when an author has another book (even if it’s not a novel) the reviewer investigates to see if this maximalist impulse is present elsewhere and comes to a conclusion about what this means for the novel’s shape, themes and overall effect.

But like I said, it’s a good review all told. Especially when held against the other new review, which appears in Landfall Review Online

The review is long. Nearly 2,000 words. And while it’s nice that the reviewer spends so long on my novel, the bigger compliment would have been to spend longer and write a shorter review.

Again, it's largely favourable, but, well... I'm probably the most interested reader this review could hope for and, despite multiple attempts, I've never managed to read it the entire way through.

Try and read this sentence while retaining the will to live: "Occasionally, despite genuine mastery overall, the prose packs in over-much explaining, but not often."

And the reviewer mentions the cover and the engravings of birds at the start of each of the four parts of the novel and internal design. (I’ve blogged about how little say I had over my cover.) Wasting breath on this stuff represents a totally superficial way of appraising fiction, as if they really are reviewing a book – a physical object, a commodity to be bought and shelved – rather than effect the words create. Perhaps if the reviewer asked the question, ‘What do these different birds at the start of each part signify?’ the thought process might result in a worthwhile and enlightening paragraph.

Anywho. Enough shit talking. Any coverage is good coverage. I'm off to drink free wine... 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

February influx / Young Turks etc / February flatline

Last week the book world came back from their summer break. At least, it seemed that way after things had been awful quiet (for me) since November. But then, BLAM: a translation deal for The Mannequin Makers, an invitation to an Aussie writers festival in August and a request to review a novel all arrived in my inbox in the space of 48 hours.

The translation thing is the coolest (being my first book-length translation deal) and the oddest, since the language is Romanian. Not to be sniffed at (24 million speakers), but not the first language you think of when someone says, ‘Hey, a foreign publisher asked for a copy of your book...’

Romanian mannequins, via Reddit

According to Google Translate (!) the novel's title could be rendered: ‘Factorii de decizie manechin’ and (because I can’t help myself on Google Translate) my name becomes Craig Stâncă in Romanian. Stâncă! Makes me think of a bi-polar (sad-mouth “a”, happy-mouth “a”) narcoleptic.

Last week I also came across a new review of The Mannequin Makers, though it was published earlier (8 February) in The Southland Times. It’s only 228 words, and there’s not a lot anyone can do in that space without resorting to sweeping comments / sounding dangerously like a press release.

But I found the final paragraph odd:

I guess we see the age-old themes of love, loss and redemption. The cover and blurb of this novel did not appeal to me but I was hooked in the first chapter and found it extremely difficult to put down. Cliff lives in Wellington but is in Iowa on a writing residency working on a second short-story collection. His writing reminded me of the likes of Jack Lazenby or Doris Lessing. May he be as prolific.

“I guess”? I can’t read further without picturing the reviewer’s elbow on the table, her head weighing heavily on her hand. 

Question: have Jack Lazenby and Doris Lessing ever been mentioned in the same sentence before? Not on the internet they haven’t.

And this talk about covers and blurbs in limited space is a disturbing trend. This review a couple of days ago on the Booksellers NZ website, for example, devotes 23% of its space (63 of 276 words) to the cover.

I know writers are supposed to be grateful for every outlet talking about books, but when a review (I feel tempted to put that word in scare quotes for anything with a wordcount under 500) piffles about things almost entirely out of the author’s control... well, it seems a lost opportunity.

One reason I agreed to review this other book is that I get 1,250 words to do it.

I know reviewing is poorly remunerated and largely thankless. If you get the space to demonstrate critical and/or original thought, you’re doing so for pennies in the dollar. The only people the system currently works for seems to be academics, who’re expected to publish (*another temptation to use scare quotes narrowly defeated*) and have a salary to fall back on.

I’m going to talk more about reviewing in a few days, so I'll stop. Take it away Rod!



There is no February reading summary because The Recognitions is really long and I’m still listening it. The Luminaries is really long and I finished re-reading it but it deserves a separate post. The Flamethrowers isn’t that long, but it defeated my enthusiasm for it after a while and Rachel Kushner isn’t coming to Wellington next month anymore so it all seemed less urgent.

Conclusion: I was a slack reader in February 2014, but an obsessive cricket fan, a present and willing father, an amazing chief policy analyst / shaky acting policy manager, an inexperienced IHC volunteer, a threadbare columnist, a deliberate cyclist and a ready sleeper.

Monday, February 3, 2014

January reading / playlist

I dropped the ball with these monthly reading summaries early last year, but it was never intentional. So here I am, picking the ball back up..

(As a bonus: some songs I liked this month:


Case Histories – Kate Atkinson (audiobook)
Case HistoriesFar be it from me to criticise a book that blurs genre boundaries, but Case Histories never really got going for me, I think because it used aspects of Crime Fiction (crimes!, a private detective) and Literary Fiction (multiple perspectives, lot’s of non-detective characters, lots of time spent on characterisation) that don’t gel. Rather than letting the crimes drive the plot, they seemed to pull it apart, making for a slow read.
When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery)
When you reach me – Rebecca Stead (audiobook)
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…

Somewhere in time – Richard Matheson (audiobook)
Somewhere in TimeContinuing the time travel theme, this novel opens with a note from the narrator’s brother, disclaiming some of the zany stuff that’ll follow, and apologising for the slow start to the tale. An apologia – just the sort of thing to put you in a good frame of mind… In all, it felt like a padded out short story. This is true of many of the early greats of this sort of spec-fic, like HG Wells and Verne. So much padding and plodding in order to veil the premise a little longer. Such coyness wears on me (right now).
At the Mountains of Madness
At the Mountains of Madness – HP Lovecraft (audiobook)
My first ever Lovecraft. May be my last. Early on it has some nice resonance with Shackleton’s South, which I read in 2011, but it moves slowly to the reveal (Cthulu mythos stuff) and wasn’t very horrifying to me. Oh well.

And books in progress (in case I forget something this time next month)...

The Recognitions – William Gaddis (audiobook)
The RecognitionsThis'll take a while. I listened to the first two hours while driving, and you can't get much further from the straight-forwardness of When You Reach Me. But The Recognitions is amazing, once you get your ears tuned in to Gaddis's flow. It's like listening to Shakespeare. In more ways than one. But it is 38+ hours long, or Hamlet + Othello + Lear + MacBeth + As You Like It + Much Ado + Midsummer Night's Dream + Henry V + Winter's Tale. Okay, that's totally unfair. I wish I never did that. As you were.
The Flamethrowers
The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
I'm reading this ahead of Kushner's appearance at Wellington Writers and Readers Week next month. Digging it so far... (reading it makes me use terms like 'digging it').

Aside: the UK cover (right), which is the paperback cover we get here in NZ is one of the ugliest, least appealing covers I've encountered in a long time, down to the embossed silver foil flame in the upper left. Ugh. Wonder what RK thinks of it?

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
The LuminariesI didn't explain in my Best of 2013 list, but I read The Luminaries the first time on fast forward. I'd left my copy in NZ when I went to the States (luggage space was at a premium) and instead borrowed a friend's US edition for three days in late October, always intending to go back and give it a more considered read. Which is what's happening now. I'm 300 pages in and those 3/4 page chunks of character exposition I skipped over on my first reading have been dutifully scrutinised (though I still feel like skipping as soon as I realise it'll be one of those paragraphs).

My first-time impressions remain the strongest: (1) There are some cracking scenes (like Jo Pritchard w/ Anna Wetherall in the Gridiron - the first time we see Anna up close - then Gascoigne arrives...) that help you hoover up the pages. (2) Every page has one or two moments where I go: 'Gee, that must have taken multiple days/drafts to get right. Respect.' (3) 'This is so Deadwood set in Hokitika' (a compliment).