Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Very sweet and contagious, i' faith

I went to see Twelfth Night with my Shakespeare-mad daughter the other night - an amateur production with a talented cast of comics which had us rolling in the aisles. Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the Clown and Malvolio were stand-outs. The magic of theatre was centre stage - the careful construction of another reality that the audience knows isn't perfect but that it comes to trust and believe in and becomes part of because it desires to; sharing the same air with actors who quickly become people and seeing the sweat on their brows as they make this magic happen; the delightfulness nay the relief at laughing into the faces of these sweating, breathing characters and seeing their muscles shift, their mouths pout to deliver more of the clever words to make you laugh again, to hear you breathe in with anticipation, see you sweat as you howl. A sweet and ancient alchemy.

And leaving a play like that, driving home with Issy and talking about the foppish asides of Aguecheek and the brilliant choreography of the scene where Malvolio reads Maria's letter, I feel again the need to write that play I've had in notes and draft form since I saw The Taming of the Shrew with an all-woman cast. Also amateur, also thick with fun and energy and sweat and magic. No, in fact, I think I started it after I saw an English comedy on stage - Aykbourn perhaps? - and went home thinking I could do this thing, this play. Surely I could.

But this play of mine requires research and time to write, and I don't have it now. I have a novel to write and a jostling host of other worthy work to do. Still, on arriving home after Twelfth Night, I put Issy to bed and then sat beside her as she slept - with a pad of quad paper I'd found and a suspect biro - and wrote pages and pages of a script. The next morning I woke to an epiphany about the climax of my play. The whole thing shifted then from something potentially unconvincing and verging on cliche to something much more subtle and interesting. It cried out for more work, more time, more research.

I read some of it to Issy over morning coffee, but I could tell she preferred Twelfth Night. Mine is not a comedy. It's a tragedy, really, and it's talky, and it's set in a watchmaker's shop not Illyria. Why, I have no idea.

But there is not enough time in the day for this play.

If only I had two brains - one for the novel, one for the play. Then I could do it. But the novel needs me. I have a contract to complete it. I want to complete it. I have to be firm. The scrawled sheets of this stuttering but insistent script have been put away somewhere and will stay there. Until.... well, until. I know that next time I go to the theatre I'll want to drag them out, for plays have that effect on me. They are, in the words of the delightful Aguecheek, 'very sweet and contagious, i'faith.' I will just have to resist. Well, until I can work out a way of writing two things at once. Or doubling the hours in the day.

[Image of Aguecheek by artist John Link]

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Pak'n Save Prize for Popular Fiction

With the Montanas over - people are back to talking about what the new Awards, sponsored by the NZ Post, will be like. Here's Rachael King's 2 cents worth which includes a recommendation that the award system makes room for acknowledging the popular NZ read more than it has done in the past. Writer Denis Welch would no doubt agree, calling the Montana fiction shortlist this year The Great Unread.

Having read most of the fiction shortlist(s) this year, I have to disagree with Denis' epithet. But I do agree that popular work needs more recognition in our book awards. In the UK , the British Book Awards are an eclectic counterpoint to the literary Booker Prize, and include among other things the Sainsbury Prize for Popular Fiction. Britain's Costa Award is also about readability, emphasising 'the most enjoyable books of the year' in five key areas [fiction, new fiction, bio, poetry and children's books. ]

The interesting thing is the Booker doesn't sell a lot of books in Britain compared to the popular stuff. This article points out that mega-selling author Katie Price's Angel Uncovered sold 54,362 copies in under a month, outselling the 2008 Booker longlist by more than 20 copies to one. Here in NZ, publishers say the Montana shortlist doesn't shift many books either because there are too many different types of books involved and the marketing effect is diluted.

Note the lack of interest in my Tea Cosy Fiction Challenge which was about buying and reading the fiction lists. The result speaks for itself! Or maybe no-one wanted a tea cosy....

Apparently, if a book is selling well while it's a Montana finalist it's because it would have done well anyway. A Montana win, on the other hand, does lead to increased sales, sometimes significantly so.

Can we have a NZ Book Awards for different genres including 'popular' fiction? Or are we too small to think about finding the sponsorship for such a thing? How about a Pak'n Save Popular Prize for Fiction? Or could we think of an award that concentrates on 'enjoyable reading' in the manner of the Costa? Or a Booker-type Prize that is only about fiction? You'd think an award that's solely about fiction would focus marketing and reader interest and lead to more sales.

Which reminds me that reading books isn't only about sales it's also about library readers who, I am guessing, are big voters in the Readers' Choice Award. I say this because these people are often HUGE READERS - getting through half a dozen books in a week -and the libraries are big promoters of books and of the Montanas. That's the only way I can explain The Blue winning the Readers' Choice given the size of its sales compared to some of the other books on the Montana shortlists last year.

Here's former publisher and arch defender of NZ books, Bookman Beattie's take on the vexed book awards issue:

The Montana New Zealand Book Awards were formed by a merger of the Montana Book Awards and the New Zealand Book Awards. The latter always had a more literary bias than the more commercial Montanas and in recent times more serious authors and publishers have occasionally voiced the wish that the two separate awards were still in existence to give those more serious writers more chance of recognition. This year the pendulum has swung strongly the other way with the more serious and literary work pushing aside the more popular. This clearly has much to do with the makeup of the judging panel headed by senior academic Dr. Mark Williams, Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington.

And you can follow the comments on his post here.

Interestingly, Emily Perkins' medal-winning novel this year is a racy read as well as being terribly literary. Who knows it might have won a Pak'n Save Prize too ...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Emily Perkins wins Montana Medal

Emily Perkins has won the Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry with Novel about My Wife [Photo: NZPA]. The Montana NZ Book Award judges say the novel is 'highly assured' and 'sophisticated and urban' and Perkins is 'writing at the height of her powers.' I hope not - I reckon this writer will only get better. Congrats Emily - the book is marvellous. Here's my brief blogged review:
Oh what a joy -a novel that is gleefully dark, deliciously tense, packed with incisive personal and social observations and laugh out loud funny. Sad, too. Powerful. Crafted. Bloody amazing.
Runners-up for Fiction were Kate de Goldi's NZ Post Winner 10 PM Question [to do get high honours in the adult and children book awards is quite a coup] and Bernard Beckett's Acid Song.

I'm guessing, because it wasn't in the article I've just seen on the TVNZ website, that Eleanor Catton must have won the Best First Book of Fiction with The Rehearsal.

There were a host of other winners, too, of course. I was pleased to see Jill Trevelyan's book on Rita Angus winning the bio section. I wonder if it won the Readers Choice Award along with the Booksellers Award - giving it a hat-trick? Or if that went to 10 PM Question? I'll have to keep trawling through the net and the late news I guess.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

counter, original, spare, strange - the montana fiction lists

It's Monday July 27, so it must be Montana NZ Book Awards Day. A year ago today, I was nervous about a. how The Blue would do in the Awards b. what to wear. By the end of the night, I was a. clutching two bottles of wine [one for each award] b. making buzzing noises in my excitement c. still dressed in something. A fabulous night.

Meanwhile, I am pleased to say that I have met my own TEA COSY CHALLENGE posed a little while back on this blog - reading five of the seven books in the fiction/new fiction lists. I meant to read all of them but children, family sickness, school holidays, and those relentless paying jobs mean I still have two left to read.

It's seems sexist of me, but they are the only two novels by men: Bernard Beckett's Acid Song and Mo Zhi Hong's The Year of the Shanghai Shark. I left them to last because, well, the others appealed more on the book shop shelves: the Perkins, Catton, De Goldi, Randall and Van der Zijpp novels.

At this point, I am thrilled with what I've encountered in Montana fiction so far. The novels are [in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins] 'counter, original, spare, strange'.

Add to that: fresh, accomplished and compelling.

Add to that: some of the best writing I have read this year.

The novels vary widely in what they write about and where - they are set in London and Fiji, Greece, New Zealand and Shanghai. They are set in family homes, B & Bs, a girls' school/drama school, a retirement village by the beach, and places unknown [to me] in Shanghai. They involve a sex scandal, a damaged woman living with a down-at-heel screenwriter, a woman's disappearance, a woman seeking revenge for a broken love affair and - apparently - scientists and street boys. I'm not doing the male writers justice here, and my apologies for this.

Suffice to say, none of these novels shout out 'Kia ora/Gidday listen to me, I am an important NZ novel.' They're singular pieces of writing that could stand up anywhere. My Tea Cosy Fiction Challenge was well worth every cent and minute I spent on it.

And so far, unless I hear otherwise from blog-readers sometime during today, I have won my own challenge. My naked teapot will, finally, have something to wear when we sit down tonight to find out who won the Montana NZ Book Awards 2009. I'm ignoring the premature announcement by Next magazine, by the way, taking on face value their declaration of a mistake.

My teaspoons will be crossed for....

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Rocky Shore Wins

It's National Poetry Day and I am at Rona Books in Eastbourne selling books. No poetry yet but I live in hope. Someone called Jill just showed interest in Vincent O'Sullivan's Futher Convictions Pending but had to dash off to the doctor.

I have put Jenny Bornholdt's The Rocky Shore at the centre of the poetry display now because I see she's won the Montana NZ Poetry Award this year - it's always announced on Poetry Day. Congratulations Jenny. And to Sam Sampson who won the novice award.

Interestingly, Jill the Customer and I were pouring over The Rocky Shore earlier not knowing Jenny had won. Jill has a copy she got for Christmas and we were talking about the lovely way Jenny Bornholdt writes of gardens and yet - by her own admission - has a garden that languishes. In one poem, a newspaper photographer comes to capture the garden on film for an article, and all he can say is 'Jesus.'

And here's a poem I have to share. Tim Upperton wrote it. Like me, he's a tutor at Massey University, and he launches his first collection of poetry A House on Fire at the Palmerston North City Library at 7 tonight [all welcome]. Tim's poems are tender things - rich in language and finely observed quotidian detail - much like a Jenny Bornholdt. This villanelle is a little different from other poems of Tim's I've read ...

The drill’s bright bit, its tip, its jewel
by Tim Upperton

In a lane as straight as a child’s rule,
as twilight falls, not dark, not quite,
I swim another lap of the pool.

The water encloses me, comfortably cool.
The attendant passes, flicks on a light.
In a lane as straight as a child’s rule

The rest here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

lighter than the medium you walk on - cilla mcqueen is the new poet laureate

It's one of those days when there is poetry in the air. You hear of it being read out loud in broad daylight in a car park in Cuba Street, and later - as night closes in - you hear it aired in the large lit foyer of the National Library. And you find them gathered: poets who walk on water, poets nimble in the littoral, poets who hop with burnt feet on the sand, poets who sit on towels and watch the waves, poets who - I dunno - lick ice-creams?

Outgoing NZ Poet Laureate Michele Leggott is the car park reader it seems [TV3's resident poet Richard Langston caught her at it] - and she might have been standing near a fish shop. I'm not sure about that bit but it fits. She reads now at the National Library, 'Poetry is a crayfish or two packed in wood shavings flying home in a chilly box with my name on it...'

Then it's time for the announcement of the newest laureate, Cilla McQueen from Bluff, whose first meeting with a live poet was at a bus-stop. His name was James K Baxter. When she's called to accept the tokotoko of laureateship, there's a small bashful pause in proceedings. At last she steps from the crowd, quietly in a kilt, and takes the tokotoko and speaks to it: 'Bless you, Hone, I know you're in there somewhere.'

All around me the poets and others make sounds of the sea: yes, yes, Cilla McQueeeeeen. Richard Langston is standing next to me and 'yessing' along with the rest. He says that when he lived down south she was one of the big three of poetry along with Brian Turner and the late Hone Tuwhare, 'the three of them like Easter Island statues.'

McQueen reads a handful of poems then. One of the lines goes: 'poetry takes you apart, puts you back different', and another - about a lake - says, 'it is a matter of ensuring you are lighter than the medium you walk on'. Ah-ha! They do walk on water, then, or aspire to - insects in this case. Poets, too, perhaps - not only Leggott and McQueen and other kiwi lit-luminaries but the likes of Faber & Faber poet and former poetry editor, Christopher Reid. He's standing off to one side watching. We talk for a moment, him and I, about his friend Ted Hughes.

There's more poetry on Friday - stacks of it - everywhere. It's National Poetry Day. You might find Leggott in a car park somewhere down South if you're lucky, and you'll certainly find more poets in Cuba Street - this time in Cuba Mall as part of an all-day poetry marathon. If I had my way, I'd get to Unity's poetry readings at 12.30, Christopher Reid at the IIML in the afternoon and the launch of Tim Upperton's accomplished first collection A House on Fire at Palmerston North City Library at 7.

However, I might just have to stay working at Rona Books in Eastbourne and sell poetry instead. It does happen.

Postscript: It's Cilla - more from the NZ Poet Laureate site.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

the angelic conversation

Thank you Rachael King for finding the trailer for The Vintner's Luck!

I can't wait. And I can't wait to read Knox's The Angel's Cut [ where Xas from VL hits Hollywood] but it's on hold while I finish Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal which is up for the Montanas in a week's time.

There's a fascinating interview with Catton in The Times Online. And really, this young woman - a mere 24 years old - is a stellar talent. With the Vintner's Luck movie in my head at the moment, I can't help but think that that Catton is a talent in the way of Elizabeth Knox: each of them ignores literary fashion and forges a singular, highly original voice.

Wellington's Writers on Monday series has Knox speaking on August 17 at Te Papa 12.15-1.15 pm. Meanwhile, this week's Writers on Monday event [July 20, Te Papa's Soundings Theatre, 12.15] is a curtain-raiser for Montana Poetry Day on Friday with some Best NZ Poems being read by the poets that penned them. And there are some more poets reading at Unity Books on Friday lunchtime [July 24] from 12.30 including the likes of Alison Wong and Airini Beautrais.

I'd highly recommend abandoning the usual lunchtime chit-chat for these snippets of the angelic conversation.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mirabile Dictu

Reviewed this marvellous book of poetry this morning on National Radio. Here's the link.

If you don't want to listen, here are my notes tidied up and joined into sensible sentences...

This is Michele Leggott's 7th book. She is the inaugural NZ Poet Laureate [2007-9] and has just finished her term. She is losing her sight to retinitis pigmentosa. She has spoken movingly of this in her previous collection AS FAR AS I CAN SEE: "I give what is left of the light of my eyes, I have fallen out of a clear sky."

Mirabile Dictu is a year in the life of the Laureate. She wrote a poem a week. At 154 pages, her AUP publisher pointed out it is the same length as a novella. Some poems are as long as eight pages. He says that as Poet Laureate she's gained confidence and knows now she has our attention.

BLINDNESS: The poems capture the darkening world of Michele Leggott and show how she copes: learns to touch type, uses a white stick, deals with grief, travels around NZ and to Italy, tracks the history of her family – joins with family and friends in funerals/weddings/feasts. And writes poems.

POETIC EMPORIUM [from the Greek emporos – a journey]: This is how Michele Leggott describes this collection. It starts with a bunch of poets heading to Hone Tuwhare’s funeral and ends with a wedding. A host of other poets are hauled in by name along the way. There are literal journeys and then the poet's interior journey from light to darkness and then back to another kind of vision.

The poems overlap, breathe on each other, are linked by themes and images [the sky, birds, water, singing.] There is a development through the collection from the early despair of the title poem Mirabile Dictu - "only now/has my hand found the stones/I could add to the smooth interior /of my despair" – to the final poems which are lightened/enlightened and show her rediscovery of the miraculous including Wonderful to Relate [Mirabile Dictu translated] which is about a family reunited at the wedding.

In between there is the "breathing world" which is lit by "flashes of brilliance" and the fire/ahi of poetry and inspiration. "Not a white stick but a sky", she says. The sky to Leggott is light and inspiration and beauty and the miraculous and is embodied in the sky-blue tokotoko which she carries as Laureate.

‘here is the light/here is the darkness/look between them and sing/for we are the breathing world’

FINDING POEMS: they are in pockets, tucked inside books, ‘sometimes you meet the title/walking home and the first lines/present themselves at the corner …’ Leggott follows a trail into the university clock tower to track down two elephant skulls and writes a poem about them. There are snatches of language everywhere, and her delight in the history of words : in one poem, people look for vegetables while she looks for the latin word for "really big flower".

TE KIKORANGI: this is the name of Leggott's exquisite sky-blue Tokotoko [here they both are on the left]. An engraved pool cue, its power is an important part of this collection. It features as a CUE to write, an INSPIRATION [its name means the sky] and a PROD: in one wonderfully humorous poem reminiscent of Tuwhare, the stick tells her to write a poem and then goes "back to cooking up/a feed of mussels from Kawhia."

Leggott doesn't use punctuation, instead the lines have gaps which act like the breath in before the rush of words out. These poems have beauty and humour, they sing and rage, they are full of the serendipity and miraculousness of life. Read them and marvel.

Friday, July 10, 2009

From gleeful Perkins to velvety Catton - the joys of the Tea Cosy Challenge

Well, finished Novel about my Wife by Emily Perkins. And oh what a joy -a novel that is gleefully dark, deliciously tense, packed with incisive personal and social observations and laugh out loud funny. Sad, too. Powerful. Crafted. Bloody amazing.

And now - as I pursue my own Tea Cosy Fiction Challenge - I am moving onto Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal. I am excited. It's like grabbing the baton in a relay and hitting the ground running because there is an added purpose to the reading, a kind of race in progress. Although opening something which has 'velvety pleasures', according to its cover, is enough to get the blood going. Or the kettle at least.

Remember, you can join me for the Tea Cosy Fiction Challenge and win one for your tea pot ....

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

as the earth turns

Alison Wong signs a copy of her book AS THE EARTH TURNS SILVE... on Twitpic

A pic via Twitter of Alison Wong signing a copy of her book AS THE EARTH TURNS SILVER at the launch at Unity Books in Wellington last night. I was there but, sadly, had to rush away before Alison - or her 'launcher' Fiona Kidman - spoke.

I heard her publisher [and mine] Geoff Walker's speech, though [see twitpic below.] He was in 'super-proud-and-confident-of-major-prizes' mode - predicting Alison's novel would be one of the great novels of the year in this country and how it was being lapped up in the UK and France and other places .... and how her UK agent, the redoubtable Toby Eady, flew across the world to meet Alison after he read her MS - something he does once in a blue moon, or a silver earth...

It's Alison's astonishing poetic prose that made him book those tickets and should be enough to make the rest of us hand over a few crisp notes to own this one.

Publisher Geoff Walker speaking at the launch of AS THE EARTH... on Twitpic
Postscript: By the way there are lovely reviews here and here.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Tea Cosy Fiction Challenge

What to do on these freezing days? So cold even the teapot needs to wear a hat? Bank up the fire, brew a pot of tea, put up your feet and r-e-a-d. Bliss. And what better to read than the fiction category of the Montana NZ Book Awards? The first book of fiction , too, of course - [oh those tropical waters where The Blue was swimming only a year ago...]

I am rather proud of the fact that I am exactly half way through the joint fiction lists already [total of seven books and I've read 3 1/2: see full lists below]. I've read Crocus Hour, and 10 PM Question in the fiction list and am now in the middle of the snappy blackly-humorous London world of Novel about my Wife. In the First Book category I've read Misconduct only.

If you need encouragement, here it is:

Read all seven novels, email me [marymac21ATgmailDOTcom] with a scan of the docket from the purchase of at least one of the books dated from today onwards [July 6], answer a quick quiz to show you have indeed read the books, and ....

YOU WIN a gorgeous tea cosy like the one at the start of my post made by my friend Audrey Shearer. Note, you can't be associated with the Montana NZ Book Awards in any way. Just a virgin reader with a cosy-less teapot....

LATE CHANGE: Given the fact that the Montana Awards are announced in just over a fortnight [July 27] and cold weather clearly makes people sluggish, I will accept any FIVE novels from the list of Fiction finalists and Best First Book of Fiction as entries in this competition. Btw - I have finished Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins and it is a seriously wonderful read. Do not miss it. The Rehearsal calls....

And a recent update on my progress with the Tea Cosy Fiction Challenge here.

Now here are all the books. Good luck.


10 PM Question - Kate De Goldi Longacre Press

Acid Song - Bernard Beckett Longacre Press

The Crocus Hour - Charlotte Randall Penguin

Novel About My Wife - Emily Perkins Bloomsbury

The Rehearsal - Eleanor Catton Victoria University Press


Misconduct - Bridget van der Zijpp Victoria University Press

The Rehearsal -- Eleanor Catton Victoria University Press

The Year of the Shanghai Shark - Mo Zhi Hong Penguin

Friday, July 3, 2009


The NZ Poet Laureate website has a great write up on Michele Leggott's addition to the wonderful laureate series and the launch of her collection of poetry Mirabile Dictu which I talked about two posts ago. I am gnashing my teeth even more now having seen how wonderful the launch was because I missed it due to circumstances beyond my control.

Gnash. Gnash. Gnash.

But my good humour [and my teeth] have been restored somewhat by news that my friend Fifi Colston is about to launch her new book for children. It's called Glory, it's published by Scholastic and will be launched at the Storylines Festival.

I know a number of young Fifi fans who'll be rushing to read this book including my daughter Issy who's at the front of the photo with Fifi at the launch of her previous children's novel, Janie Olive, in 2005. Now that was a fabulous event I did make it to - there were young chefs, firefighters and bottles of bubbly...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Girl Who Lived

Following on from last post about the girl who lived - some interesting thoughts here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Stranger than fiction

It's one of those mornings when you wake up and hear something on the radio stranger than fiction. And it makes your brain race - imagining the girl, the falling, the feelings she'll have about being the only one, the reaction of those that waited for her, the sort of life she'll have now ... this girl who lived.

On a more selfish note, I missed the launch of the Poet Laureate Michele Leggott's new book Mirabile Dictu last night [something at my daughter's school I had to sort...] And I am furious about it because Leggott's events are magical word-blown events that should not be missed. Her book is astonishing as always. I review it in a couple of weeks on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon. Here's an extract that [strangely in the way of poetry - which is in itself stranger than fiction] echoes the start of this post:

cyclones have names earthquakes

numbers and in the carnage

of zeros stretching from ocean to sky

one bird falls to earth