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“The frequent flyer friar” John McCrystal

Nailing Down The Saint
Craig Cliff
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143773740

Those familiar with Craig Cliff’s work will know that he is fond of a kooky premise – a starting-off point that allows him to tread the blurred line between mundane realism and the surreal. Many of the stories in his debut collection, A Man Melting, caught the eye precisely because of the imaginative, offbeat conceit at their heart; his first novel, The Mannequin Makers, asked us to imagine a man so consumed by professional rivalry that he is prepared to sequester his own children away from the world and raise them for the sole purpose of masquerading as mannequins in a department store window.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review

Here be gods, monsters and mortals, David Eggleton

Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold By Māori Writers
Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka (eds)
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143772965

In Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold By Māori Writers, the retelling of mythic stories is a communal activity, with one storyteller picking up where another leaves off, but then transmogrifying the story and often taking it in a completely new direction. Pū rākau means “tree roots”, and so these stories are an affirmation of the polytheistic animism running through the cosmology of the Māori world – Te Ao Māori – with story branching from story, and all interconnected to the main trunk of the mythology as part of a holistic continuum. Here be gods, monsters and mortals in tales of star-crossed lovers, of defiance and derring-do, of transgressive behaviour and comeuppance. These myths retold bend and blend genres, from the supernatural and fantasy to science fiction, ghost stories and magical realism – all this, the reclaiming and the repurposing, a far cry from the bowdlerised, even infantalised, interpretations found in the versions of A W Reed, Antony Alpers and other 20th-century Pākehā anthologists.

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Posted in Literature, Māori, Review

On not relying on truthiness, Brian Easton 

A Conversation With My Country
Alan Duff
Penguin Random House, $39.00,
ISBN 9780143773269

In 1990, a comet brightened the New Zealand literary scene and society with the publication of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, for it involved both an extraordinary literary style and a powerful story.

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Posted in Māori, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology

And on the strangest sea, Paul Moon

New Zealand and the Sea: Historical Perspectives 
Frances Steel (ed)
Bridget Williams Books, $60.00,
ISBN 9780947518707

Ocean: Tales of Voyaging and Encounter that Defined New Zealand
Sarah Ell
Penguin Random House, $70.00,
ISBN 9780143772675

Most histories of nations tend to be terrestrial-bound in their focus, and those of New Zealand are no exception. The land, after all, is where people live, where their social, cultural, and political institutions exist and evolve, and into which the roots of their sense of belonging are sunk. Yes, the sea gets a mention at times, usually as having served in an earlier era as some vast aquatic highway bringing migrants to the shore. Yet, even in this context, the sea tends to be portrayed more often as something that separates New Zealand from other countries – a generally bland oceanic backdrop to where all the “real” history takes place. Two books have now appeared which, in different ways, address aspects of the country’s relationship with the sea, and which both serve as antidotes to those many works which depict New Zealand as a place of forests and farms, cities and towns.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review

Why Y? David Hill

Tina Shaw
Walker Books, $23.00,
ISBN 9781760651244

Invisibly Breathing
Eileen Merriman
Penguin Random House, $20.00,
ISBN 9780143772859

Flight of the Fantail
Steph Matuku
Huia, $30.00,
ISBN 9781775503521

An unspecified number of years back at a Going West Festival, I was on a panel talking about aspects of YA fiction. At question time, a firm voice from the floor asked why we needed the YA category, anyway? Wasn’t it maybe a bit of a fad, a publishers’ ploy to sell more titles? We’d got along for years without it, so why invent it now?

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults

Modern love, Hannah Marshall

Invisibly Breathing Eileen Merriman Penguin Random House, $20.00, ISBN 9780143772859 Invisibly Breathing is Eileen Merriman’s third novel, and it offers more than your typical romance. Bullying, homophobia and being an outsider – Merriman tackles plenty of tough topics in this

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Posted in Literature, Review, YA Reviewers, Young adults

Looking forward, Tim Hazledine

The Big Questions: What is New Zealand’s Future? 
Various authors
Penguin Random House, $38.00
ISBN 9780143772378

I’ve been worrying about Trump. Not the man – a lost cause, that – but the movement: Trumpism – the apparently bigoted, intolerant, resentful roilings that are driving apart, not just nations, but people within nations. Why has this happened? What, exactly, has happened? Could something similar arise in New Zealand?

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology

Balancing pathos, Janet Wilson

This Mortal Boy: A Novel
Fiona Kidman
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143771807

In This Mortal Boy (with its subtle, sad echo of Brendan Behan’s novel, Borstal Boy), Fiona Kidman gives a semi-fictional reconstruction of the highly publicised case of the “jukebox” murder that took place in Auckland in May 1955. Committed by a young Northern Irish immigrant, Albert (Paddy) Black, against Alan Jacques, another immigrant who had earlier beaten up Black, the murder went to trial, and Black received a verdict of guilty which, at that time, meant the death penalty. An appeal and the petition raised by his mother in Belfast of 12,000 signatures, failed, and Black was hanged on 5th December 1955. The death penalty had been reinstated in New Zealand by the National government in 1950, following a particularly brutal murder. Black’s was the penultimate case of execution before the Labour government commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment in 1957, and it was finally abolished in 1961 with 10 National members of parliament crossing the floor.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review

Beyond the pale, Kathryn Walls

Mandy Hager
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143770992

Heloise is Mandy Hager’s reconstruction in novelistic terms of the lives of the 12th-century lovers Heloise and Abelard, told from Heloise’s point of view. While both Abelard and Heloise read a great deal, neither of them had ever read a novel. They had, no doubt, read Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiography as distant in time from the 12th century as the 12th century is from our own. But Augustine saw no point in the concrete realisation of experience that characterises most novels. Unlike Hager, he does not mention things like the off-putting “flatulence, coughs and wheezing snores” of the convent dormitory, or the impression made on him by “streams of fish gut and animal entrails that [ran] down to meet the river”, or where the privy was. His subject was his psyche as a model for the reader’s. Being an African, he might have been black, but his skin colour remains a mystery. And yet, Hager, whose novel is rich in evocations of earthy reality, is not genuinely concerned with “the medieval body” (although the subject is currently being done to death by academics). Indeed, she has followed in the steps of Augustine (in this respect, at least, as so many great novelists have done) by focusing on the trajectory of her subject’s inner life. Paradoxically, while she has sought to establish authenticity by appealing to our senses, the effect here is decorative. What is truly authentic about her novel is quite different. Hager has, impressively, studied a wealth of primary and secondary texts in order to reconstruct Heloise’s mental and emotional development.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review

Connecting kindred tribes, David Eggleton

Black Marks on the White Page
Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti (eds)
Penguin Random House, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143770299

Billed as a guidebook to the contemporary literature of Oceania, Black Marks on the White Page is not quite that; it’s too eclectic, too much of a hotchpotch for a start, sweeping erratically back and forth across the Pacific to locate, we are told, “the best new and uncollected fiction” generated out of the rolling identity revolution of Pasifika peoples in the 21st century. You could make a very long list of “the best” that is not included. What this anthology is is a sampling: it contains 29 examples of “story-telling” by 25 writers, complemented or contextualised by images of nine artworks by nine artists.

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Posted in Art, Literature, Māori, Non-fiction, Pacific, Short stories
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