Monday, June 30, 2008

Book Trout

One day a week, I work at Rona Gallery in Eastbourne. It is a bookshop and an art gallery.

The owners Joanna and Richard Ponder are a loquacious couple who love their books and love their art and love their community, and working there is like one long coffee break (Sally, Rhyna, Mick, Wendy, Jane, Alicia, Hana and Paul aren't bad either).

I get a whole day talking nothing but books. Although some days are busier than others at Rona Gallery.

On a good day I get to talk to Rupert aged 11 about how to spend his birthday book vouchers. He can deliver quickfire reviews of the books he's read. One of his current faves is Skulduggery Pleasant. So he buys the sequel, buys the latest Philip Pullman too. Then there's Imogen who wants a boxed set of the Warriors books which are novels about cats with a cast of thousands.

On a Good Day, there's Martin who visits nearly every day and brings his little daughter Maia. He collects first editions in hardback. He covers them in library covers and stores them in a special room in his house. In recent times, he's bought Ondaatje's Divisadero, Gunter Grass's Peeling an Onion and the latest James Bond.

There's Rona who buys books for her busy husband (the last time it was the Junot Diaz), Derek who buys beautiful coffee-table books on NZ to give away at conferences, and the man with red hair who put a few classics on layby once because he'd never read them, and paid off a little bit each week.

And a Good Day will bring in the elderly woman whose head barely comes above the counter, and when asked what she likes to read whispers 'crime.'

But not every day is a Good Day. Cold, wet days are especially grim, but even fine days are a little less busy with the recession biting.

One of my brilliant ideas on a Bad Day before Christmas was A Buck A Book. The books were from out the back, you understand, not the latest releases, but it still nearly caused a riot. One young woman who'd just bought a house and had no money, bought all her Xmas presents for 25 bucks that day. She was so happy. Sadly, it has been discontinued (blame Richard).

So it was lovely to fall, by accident, onto the blog of a bookshop called Old Saratoga Books. It sells used and rare books in the village of Schuylerville, nine miles east of Saratoga Springs NY. The instructions to get there go on forever, but it looks like it would be worth a trip (yes, even from here.) Here's their cat Sam and the logo for their blog is the Book Trout above.

The post that especially caught my eye was one describing 2 days in the life of a bookstore owner --which included a Good Day and a Bad Day. It doesn't sound too different from Eastbourne, Wellington, really. To give you a flavour, the highlight on the good day at Old Saratoga Books was selling some vintage paperbacks which the owner calls Bodacious Beauties. Here's the post.
And here's a recent post of mine with a pic taken at Rona Gallery .

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Sound of Butterflies

Author Rachael King has an interesting post on her blog about writing a list to help write a novel.

She uses it like notes on a whiteboard to remind herself of the mood she's trying to create. It's attracted some attention from other writers in the blogosphere who have gone off and done the same thing.

(I like the idea that blogs are the equivalent of conversations at the water cooler for people like writers who work alone.)

Actually, Rachael's blog attracts interest from other writers full-stop because it offers up the mind of a curious, intelligent, practical writer and gives generous insights into the business of writing. At the moment she is writing her second novel as Ursula Bethell fellow at Canterbury University. The picture is the cover of the German translation of her first novel The Sound of Butterflies.

Inspired, I sat down and wrote a (preliminary) list for Precarious, my second novel.

concrete bridge
standing upright
falling down
chicken man
choral singing
what you see
yearning to be

And here's Rachael's

And the rest of her blog here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Blue in Fiji

Alexandra and Quentin sent me this photo of The Blue in Fiji beside the pool with wine glasses taken last year. It looks pretty perky if a little out of its depth (probably wondering if that's Montana wine about to be served.) The thing is the humpback whales that migrate through Cook Strait - and are the main targets of the whale hunts in the book - usually head to Tahiti or Rarotonga rather than Fiji, or that's my understanding.

I tried to get to Tahiti when I was researching The Blue but it wasn't possible. I really just wanted to see the humpback whales breaching, it is supposed to be one of the wonders of the world. I had to look at photos instead.

Talking of wine, David Cohen has waded into the feeding frenzy over the caught short Montana shortlist.

Thanks A and Q for the Fijian still-life.

Spring Storms

This photo of Mars just in from NASA. I opened up my google home page this morning to find it, and despite having a thousand things to do was distracted for a moment by the thought of spring on Mars as opposed to winter in Wellington. The caption says: 'Early spring typically brings dust storms to northern polar regions of Mars. As the north polar cap begins to thaw, the temperature difference between the cold frost region and recently thawed surface results in swirling winds. The choppy dust clouds of at least three dust storms are visible in this mosaic of images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft in 2002. Currently, the Phoenix Mars Lander is exploring the Red Planet's northern region. For Phoenix's latest discoveries, visit '

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Hail the audacious aviatrix

Every day on my google page there is a new picture from NASA. Today it's an astronaut in groovy glasses lying sideways, yesterday it was Amelia Earhart in front of the plane she disappeared in while on a round-the-world flight in 1937. NASA must have been short of photos this week, they appear to have chosen to showcase Earhart because 80 years ago on June 18 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger aboard a Fokker tri-motor aircraft. Oh well, I suppose she had to start somewhere.

Anyway, it got me to thinking about our own audacious woman aviator, Jean Batten, who like Earhart was a flying celebrity in the 1920s and 30s, with that same astonishing combination of skill, elegance, courage and mystery. When I was researching The Blue I went off into one of those fascinating research tangents that ended in my finding out a lot about Batten, but in the end I couldn't find anywhere in the book to put her. The Blue is set in 1938, so I wanted some reference to the emergence of flight as a form of travel and a step forward into a new technological era, and had hoped to have a mention of Batten's finest hour: her 1936 flight in a monoplane from England to New Zealand.

On October 16 1936, the NZ aviatrix completed her 14, 224 mile solo journey landing on a small grass airstrip at Mangere in front of a crowd of 60,000 people (oh hail the era before television and computers when people had to go out for their entertainment.) Batten's whole trip lasted 11 days 45 minutes and was achieved without a radio using only a map, watch and simple magnetic compass. It was a solo record for 44 years and other records followed.

Even though I couldn't have Batten, I still made flight a thread in The Blue - it recurs through the constant nature of the birds in and around the island, one whaler's thoughts about how one day whales might be shot from the air (which in fact happened), and the point of view of the final whaling scene which shifts from the frenzy of the chase on the water and is given, in part, to an aviator. The chapter begins:

'Riding the squally air above Lookout Hill, for this was a time of flight, remember, of men and women pushing machines to do the unthinkable, would reveal seven men sprawled on the brow of the hill as if they owned the spot. Their bodies would be poised, though, rather than relaxed, their faces concentrated on the sea below, their elbows firm to the grass, the soles of their feet planted hard, so they could push away from it the second the cry went up, and run, down the narrow track and over the swing bridge, to the beach, to the boats and away to open water. The poise was the hunter honed to evidence of his prey; and although they seemed earth-bound, these men, when watched from the sky, they were floating, in fact, half an inch above the grass, buoyed by the seltzer of anticipation, ready to take off.'

Later, after following the hunt at closer quarters, the POV shifts back to the air:

'The picture would be clearer from the air. There'd be the obvious stillness of this slender neck of water known for its turbulence; and then the sharp eye of an aviator would pick out the four white lines drawn on the polished surface. Fast boats. And something else.

From that distance, there'd be no evidence of the misfired harpoon or the man who fired it, and none of the sounds he let loose when he saw what he'd done...'

I loved writing this chapter, it's one of my favourites, the wonders of human flight underscoring the epic nature of the final dramatic whale hunt.

The sadness is that the lives of these women aviators ended so mysteriously: Jane Batten dying alone of a dog bite and buried in a paupers' grave without the world knowing, and Amelia Earhart disappearing, literally, into the air.

More about Jean Batten here and here and here and Amelia Earhart courtesy of NASA here (oddly when I searched the NASA website nothing came up on our Jean.)

All excerpts from The Blue (Penguin 2007) are copyright to Mary McCallum.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Taste of sea spray

Thanks to Nicola Smith & Bruce Rennie of The Press for this review - the first for The Blue.

Taste of Sea Spray by Nicola Smith
Review of The Blue by Mary McCallum [Penguin 2007]
The Press, July 28, 2007

Any novel that opens a window on a previously unimagined time and place is hard to put down and New Zealander Mary NcCallum's impressive debut novel, The Blue, achieves this spectacularly.

McCallum's voice is strong and beautifully honed from the first page of this fascinating story of the inter-war world of the small whaling community at Arapawa Island in the Tory Channel, where the wounds of World War 1 are still fresh while the unsuspected horrors of World War 2 loom ominously closer.

The Blue is Lilian Prideaux's story. A war bride and seemingly quintessential New Zealand woman of her era, Lilian is vigorous, hard working and resilient.

But the facade of commonality crumbles all too easily when the return of her troubled son creates fissures in the taut inter-relationships of the islanders.

McCallum captures the smallness of Lilian's world to perfection in prose that is vibrant with life, and deftly juxtaposes her mundane daily existence with the electrifying seasonal slaughter of whales which is the life-blood of the small community.

Like war whaling was men's work in 1938 and yet both powerfully shape Lilian's life; and McCallum's representation of both the trenches and the hunt are unflinching.

Barbaric and enthralling, the three-month whaling season galvanises the entire community, and McCallum skilfully avoids straying into moralist, while starkly revealing how much New Zealand has changed in so short a time.

Moving seamlessly between past and present McCallum gradually reveals the unseen fractures in Lilian's life through the characters of her children, husband and the island community.

The freshness of her prose is remarkable, with descriptions so vivid you can almost taste the salt spray and smell the pine needles underfoot. Her portrayal of the 1930s man is particularly subtle and insightful.

The Blue offers a fascinating insight into a past era and a lost way of life. McCallum's deft and skilful handling of her story produces an original, polished first novel and the promise of a second that will be well worth waiting for.

Review Ends

There's nothing like a first review of a book for an author. The week The Blue was released into the shops last July, my friend Penny rang me from Christchurch to say The Press had a review (yes, the same Penny who rang me to tell me about the Montana shortlisting). She read it over the phone and we both danced for joy.

It was by Nicola Smith and I decided to run it in full on the blog today because there's no obvious web link I can use and it's a nice counterpoint to The Montana excitement - the excitement of the single reader at home with the book.

When I emailed to get Nicola's permission to run the review, she told me she'd only just had a baby when she read The Blue. She said, 'I enjoyed your book so much it distracted me from staring at my new baby for several hours.'A new baby!

I know two people for whom The Blue was the last book they ever read. My dear friend Colin who died aged 83 and my friend Valerie's cousin.Colin didn't finish it. He died peacefully with one more chapter to go. And so the book became one of the bookends of his long and colourful life, like seeing his last seagull, patting his dog for the last time, going to his last play. Who knows which book was his first? It would have been read to him, no doubt, by his elegant mother Zillah who wore long buttoned gloves even in the country. A fairytale, I think.

Anyway, it's nice to know The Blue has been read at both ends of the spectrum. Even if the baby didn't exactly read it, she (he?) couldn't have been closer. (Actually come to think of it, this baby must be nearly one by now, walking perhaps, certainly enjoying books.)

The other serendipitous thing about this perfect first review is that it came out in the South Island which is the home of The Blue.

Photo: Me at Rona Gallery - where I work and The Blue was launched - the week it was released into the shops.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Blue in Qatar

Continuing the Arab theme of the post before last, here's The Blue in Qatar. Astounding but true. My friend Whena Owen took the book with her on a trip to Qatar and Jordan earlier this year, and now with the Montana Award shortlisting she believes its pilgrimage has paid off. She emails: 'I'd like to take some credit for how blessed The Blue is, after hauling it around the Middle East!'

The photographs were taken in the Waqif Souq in Doha. According to a Qatar heritage website, a souq is a place to both trade and to meet: 'The Waqif souq is the one place in Qatar where you can find anything and everything. Made up of a large labyrinth of alleyways lined with various shops, the popular souq is a feast for the senses. Selections of perfumes, spices, incense, sweets, rice and dried fruits are so plentiful they often spill out of the shops into the alleys where shoppers find them too tempting to resist.'

It goes on to say: 'After shopping at Waqif souq, enjoy a cup of tea and smoke some “shisha” in one of the many traditional teahouses.'

Thanks Whena (and Peter) for all that hauling. I'd love to be able to read the thoughts of the man with the donkey.

Here's a fabulous interactive map of Qatar and the Qatar heritage site (there's even a model mosque to explore).

This opens the link for the post on Al-Jahiz with interesting comments on Gertrude Bell and Lawrence of Arabia.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Vote for The Blue

The Readers' Choice Award allows readers to vote for the book they like best out of the line-up of finalists for the Montana NZ Book Awards. If you liked The Blue, follow this link to Booksellers NZ and press VOTE NOW button. Thank you.

Friday, June 13, 2008

An orchard you can take on your lap

With all the furore over the Montana Book Awards (mostly around the fact of their being only four finalists in the Fiction category not five as usual) it might pay to remind ourselves what we're all talking about.

My friend Quentin sent me this quote which he found clearing out his study. It's written by the great ninth-century intellectual Al-Jahiz in praise of the book:

Have you ever seen [elsewhere] a garden that will go into a man's sleeve, an orchard you can take on your lap, a speaker who can speak of the dead and yet be the interpreter of the living? Where else will you find a companion who sleeps only when you are asleep, and speaks only when you wish him to?

According to Wikipedia, Al-Jahiz wrote 360 books in his long life. Islamic scholar H.A.R Gibb said, 'The most genial writer of the age, if not of Arabic literature, and the founder of the Arab prose style, was the grandson of a Negro slave, Amr ben Bahr, known as Al-Jahiz, 'The Goggle-Eyed.' ' His writings brought together the knowledge and wisdom of the time, one book being about 'the skills of language and eloquence, the art of silence and the art of poetry.'

I wonder which Montana category he would have fitted into?

More recent links (added Saturday June 14): more on beattie's , hear the radio nz discussion, read it in nz herald

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Blue swims into the Montana Finals

I am still trying to digest the news. But here it is. The Blue is shortlisted in the FICTION category of the Montana Book Awards. Not the Best First Book of Fiction but the category people like Maurice Gee and Lloyd Jones compete in.

My friend Penny rang with the news after she'd read the Dompost this morning and I thought she'd made a mistake. I got her to read it over. But no, there are no finalists for the Best First Book award this year, apparently. The Blue has swum into deeper waters. Here's the list.

Fiction: The Blue by Mary McCallum (Penguin Group NZ), Edwin & Matilda by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Group NZ), Luminous by Alice Tawhai (Huia Publishers), Opportunity by Charlotte Grimshaw (Random House NZ).

Which is all rather daunting.

Bookman Beattie has the full list of finalists which includes Poetry, Biography and History, and he's already investigating why there are only four Fiction finalists as opposed to the usual five and why there is no First Book Award.

So, perplexing and daunting and wonderful.

Thanks to Maggie Rainey-Smith who has already posted a congratulatory comment on the previous post. And speaking of the previous post, Mum came through didn't she?

Link: The Dominion Post

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Holding up The Blue

On the eve of the announcement of the Montana Award finalists (June 10), I am posting a photo of my Mum. That's The Blue she's holding and Kapiti Island is lying fetchingly behind them.

Mums and Dads are good when award anxiety sets in. They think - however good the opposition - that your first-time novel should be shortlisted for every major award, and will most certainly win.

They have already told everyone about the book from the moment of its launch: the woman at the garden shop, the butcher, the GP's nurse. They carried it around for weeks so they could brandish it when running into friends and acquaintances, and have gently insisted that every single one of them read it and report back. They've made sure the library has multiple copies, and have been known to rearrange bookshop displays when no-one's looking so your book is suddenly (yet again) Read of the Week.

So this post is in part a good luck charm for the upcoming Montanas. In part a thank you. Here they are, my Mum and Dad, Norma and Lindsay McCallum, The Blue's unsung promotional team.

And here's one of the artistic shots they took of The Blue and Kapiti - braving the stares of startled beach walkers and hungry gulls to get it. It resonates with the blueness of The Blue, the stuff of islands and sea and sky. Blue wherever the eye goes.

In fact, people whaled from Kapiti as they did on Arapawa Island, and during one of the whale hunts in The Blue the Tory Channel whalers ponder going as far north as Kapiti Island in pursuit of the whale.

I love to think of Mum and Dad on Waikanae Beach organising this scene. Mum worried the book will fall off, Dad hoping the camera will work, and both of their voices travelling clear across the water. Then one of the beach walkers makes a silly comment about Mum sending the photo 'home' to England, and my Seaham-born Mum who's lived here over 40 years rounds on the gentleman and gives him an earful.

She tells him that the photo is staying right here in New Zealand because she and Lindsay are both kiwis now. By adoption. Kapiti-folk doing what parents round these parts do: photographing their daughter's book on a log. For her blog.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Award-winning NZ author Carl Shuker (The Method Actors) neatly side-steps publishers and bookshops and puts his new novel up for sale via 'limited edition download'. Buyers can go to the book's website and pay what they want to from 1cent US up (he wanted it to be from zero but Paypal wouldn't let him).

Called three novellas for a novel -- the first of three parts the depleted forest is available now.

Shuker says : 'the first of three intertwined twenty-first-century horror stories to be published in serial for free or more, is now live at - for just two more weeks until ∆O hills park (part 2) arrives with all its madness mid-June. Novellas written, designed and laid out by me, web site design by Ryan Skelton at the Chop Shop with Junichiro Onuki deftly bevelling the tech.'

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Heroic pen-pushers

Graham 'Bookman' Beattie comments on the post below this one on the quaint way writer Roger Morris appears to be writing a novel by hand. He wonders if there are many other writers who do this now.

Scroll down and take a look at the link - it's a little home-made movie of Morris scribbling in a notebook (remember those?) with an unbudgeable cat on his shoulders. Commenting on Morris' blog, kiwi author Rachael King asks fascinated: 'Do you write longhand first, or are those just notes? Or are you just pretending to write for the camera?'

Morris hasn't replied yet so we are none the wiser. It doesn't look like a trick. He seems quite relaxed about the method of writing but perplexed by the cat.

Responding to Bookman Beattie in the comments, I threw Michael Ondaatje's name into the ring as a pen-pushing author. I also mentioned Richard Ford but said I didn't know for sure. Anyway, a quick google clears it up. A fine article by The Guardian's Phil Hogan in 2006 describes Ford at home, including his writing den. Here's a snippet:

'..... Ford emerges cheerfully from the house in shorts, a plaid shirt, Converse All Star basketball boots ('I love these,' he says. 'I have two pairs') and what look like hand-knitted socks in purple and green. A bird takes off from somewhere high in the pine wood that borders the path. 'That's an osprey,' he says as it flaps out to sea.

We wander down to the boat shed, which is kitted out with a desk, an old armchair, a bed, a kettle, a bookshelf, oars, ropes, buoys, a barrel and a wood-burning stove for the winter months. There's a big wall map, too, of the New Jersey suburbs, where the Frank Bascombe books are set. This is where Ford writes, by hand, on unlined sheets of A4, transferring it, when he can be bothered, to a computer. He shows me the melted table top where during the Herculean editing processes of the past months an upended halogen lamp scorched its way through 350 pages of draft typescript, though miraculously his proof marks in the margin were intact. 'I felt I'd dodged a bullet there,' he says.'

Are there any others out there? I've certainly tried penning it from time to time - and like the way the words flow with less self-editing - but oh I do love a computer.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

It's a heroic struggle, writing, sometimes.

A UK writer called Roger Morris tries to write ... with his cat's help. Follow the link and press play.