Book Review: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is another classic book that is difficult (and possibly pointless) to review. But I’ve just read it for the first time, and it’s worth a review in any case. My grandmother sent me the book a couple of years ago, and every time she’s seen me since she’s asked, “have you read it yet?” And so yes, Sylvia, yes I have!

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In her eagerness for me tor me to read it, my grandmother actually sent me two copies of the book. With one of them she included this article about Jane Austen – not sure what the relation was.

It was first published in 1950, and is set in that post-war period. It has an old-fashioned tone, narrated by a lawyer named Mr Strachan, an old man and widower who appears to have plenty of time on his hands. His story describes the life of his client, a Miss Jean Paget, between the years of her twenties until her early thirties. It begins with probably the longest flashback I’ve ever come across in a book, as he recounts what occurred to her while she was a prisoner of war in the ‘East’. She and a band of women and children were forced to walk hundreds of miles across Malaysia in search of a prison camp. Each Japanese commander they came across, too busy to really care, turned them away. It was during this time that she witnessed something truly horrific, which changed her life.

From Malaysia, to England, to the outback of Australia – this is a love story at its heart. Good things can come from horror, or at least this book would have you think. Good things also come to people who have plenty of money. I’m not sure if that was supposed to be the message, but it rang loud and clear all the same. Miss Paget had dough, and with it she eventually got everything she ever really wanted (nice eh?).

The vastly different terrains covered in this book are interesting to read about from a geographic point of view at the very least. When in Malaysia, I could feel the sticky heat, hear the insects, smell the decay. In the Outback (in which the second half of the book is set – ‘Alice’ is in reference to Alice Springs) I could see the men and their horses outside the old wooden hotel, taste the cold beer, feel the baking sun. The fact it was written about seventy years ago does mean there were times I squirmed a bit as people of different ethnicities were described (basically anyone not white). It’s also quietly sexist – again, a product of its time.

Despite this, it’s an easy read and reasonably enjoyable. I didn’t feel there was anything ground-breaking about it – I wasn’t at any point blown away by what I read – but it’s a solid story. Like many older English books it’s all very proper and restrained. By the end I quite liked the narrator, Mr Strachan, and felt a little touched and saddened by the fact he felt he had to write it all down.

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My grandmother included this letter with the other copy she sent.

Interestingly, this is what my grandmother (born 1931) had to say in the letter she sent me with the book:

Here is a book that I have always enjoyed and is probably a good representative of its time – which of course is no guarantee that you will find it easy to get through. At least I have worked out its appeal for me – it’s because it covered my ERA and I can understand the MORES & MORALS of the time.

I remember the war years and the horror stories, plus the austerity that still prevailed at the time when we left England. Then – the time that Dot and I went to outback Australia (1952) would be virtually the same time as the heroine first went there and became aware of how hard life was – the climate, the isolation and the womens’ lot.

I can also identify with the money value at the time because when we left England tradesmen in the building trade were earning between 2/6d and three shillings per hour – roughly $13 for a 45 hour week, and a labourers wage was roughly $9 or $10 per week – from which tax was deducted. Working in the office I earned $2-50 per week, which was good for that day and age. I have added the above information to show that her legacy, which doesn’t sound much these days, really was a fortune at that time.

Anyway, give it a go – and if you don’t like it blame it on how times have changed.

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In a world full of birds

Ben’s body keeps replicating each month, and it’s a hell of a mess disposing of his old body each time. Now he’s waiting for the the police to arrive, and he knows he has to prove himself innocent against charges of murder

I thought it would be a good idea to put one of my favourite stories up on-line. In a world full of birds was the first thing I wrote after finishing my Masters in Creative Writing at the end of 2012. Around that time Random Static (a small Wellington speculative fiction press) were doing a call-out for stories for their newest anthology, Regeneration. I submitted the story, and was thrilled to have it accepted (here’s a link to the publication). After that, it went on to be short-listed for the Sir Julius Vogel’s Best Novella of 2013 award, and it came first place in the Au Contraire short story competition, which ran alongside that year’s national sci fi/fantasy convention.

All in all, I was very happy with how it got on, and I feel it’s time to share it in its entirety.

So here it is: In-a-world-full-of-birds-pdf

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Book Review: Ghosting by Jennie Erdal

Ghosting, by Jennie Erdal (2004), is an intriguing, somewhat unsettling glimpse into the lives of a ghostwriter and her employer. It’s a true story – her story – and spans nearly twenty years of her life. During this time she loses love, finds love again and her kids grow up, but all the while her relationship with her employer deepens into something increasingly complex and binding.

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She calls her boss “Tiger”, due to the Tiger head he proudly displays on his wall. A prominent member of the British elite and publishing industry, he’s also one of the most interesting people I’ve ever read about. He’s extravagantly wealthy, flamboyant, a romantic extrovert driven by whims and fancies, but he’s also anxious and obsessive to point of being compulsive. A collector of nude art, a gracious host, a cook, a clean-freak, the owner of murderous dogs – I think you could read this book purely as a character study and get a lot out of it.

Erdal, on the other hand, comes across as being an analytic, systematic, studious type. An expert in Russian language and literature, she was first employed (above the table) as a translator and editor of Russian books. I don’t think Tiger ever set out to employ a ghostwriter. It seemed to me that he started finding extra jobs for her to do out of kindness, as her situation had become difficult. But one job led to the next until she was eventually writing novels for him, and the voice the world knew of as his was actually hers and he couldn’t let her go.

Ironically, she probably wasn’t the best fit for him. His tastes were far different from hers. He wanted graphic sex scenes (“poetic” ones). He wanted her to put down on page extraordinary – hell, supernatural – sexual techniques, which she struggled to write about convincingly. She had no prior experience in writing fiction, and no real inclination either.

Despite all that, she’s obviously a good writer, so Ghosting is a good read. It’s reasonably light, yet full of insightful observations about childhood, relationships, and also the act of writing. About divorce she writes:

Yet when a marriage falls apart, every memory is threatened, and the good times can be blackened overnight. There is nothing that cannot be reinterpreted. Divorce violates the present, but it also slithers backwards on its filthy tentacles and desecrates the past.

Nice. And so very true.

I did feel, however, that she often relied on other people’s quotes to make her point (and maybe that’s the academic in her). Many times throughout I wished I could speak French.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the relationship between Tiger and Erdal. Before I began reading this I imagined the life of the ghostwriter to be a secretive, secluded thing. There would be midnight phone calls and code words, the whole affair steeped in dirty guilt. But Erdal played a prominent part in Tiger’s life – she was in and out of his London office, vacationed with him in France, travelled to foreign book fairs with him. By the end, their lives had become so horribly entwined that I felt suffocated just reading about it. Strangely, it was like Tiger never properly admitted to himself that he wasn’t actually writing his own work. It was like he believed that he was the muse, and she simply his pen.

This is a good read. I highly recommend it.

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Yellow Pill – Ink Stains Volume 2

Howdy folks. This rather gruesome (**non-vegan!**) image is the cover of the newest anthology that my writing is a part of. Published by Dark Alley Press, the anthology contains seven gritty, dark fictions.

My story Yellow Pill is a suspenseful tale about Lata, who begins to become increasingly suspicious about the pills her boyfriend Joseph takes for his asthma. He seems to take them an awful lot. He’s cagey about where he gets them from. The local pharmacy is even hounding her, after they ran some tests and didn’t even recognise what the hell they were. Things get much worse when Lara decides to take one of the pills herself.

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Ink Stains Volume 2 can be purchased here at Amazon – either as an ebook, or print. Happy reading….

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This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy (movie review)

Every time I go to write down the movie’s name I end up missing at least one word. In fact, when I asked for a ticket at the cinema, I got half way through the name and then both the teller and I went “and blah blah yadda yadda” to finish it off. It’s certainly a mouthful, but it’s also quite clever. Because before you even watch the film the name instantly gives you a sense of what you’re going to see. I figured it would be funny, self-referential, and very cheaply made. I imagined an amateur indie film, in which the props are made by the director’s flatmate’s girlfriend, and the soundtrack is recorded on an early-90s Casio keyboard with built-in drum beats.

This was pretty close to the truth, though the music was marginally better than that. It’s made in New Zealand – maybe a classic Kiwi film of the future.

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The story begins with the three main blokes – Tom, Gavin and Jeffrey – watching an old B-grade sci-fi film ‘Space Warriors in Space’. Part way through, they are mysteriously sucked into the movie, and come under attack from the evil Lord Froth. With the help of some friends they meet along the way, not to mention the scantily dressed warrior women (obligatory for any sci-fi adventure film), they must find their way back to Earth, and back to reality.

This film is done on a budget – seriously. But they’ve cleverly gotten away with it by setting the story inside a very low-budget film. It reminded me of the early seasons of Red Dwarf, when they used a computer joystick to steer the ship, and pretty much everything else was built from cardboard boxes glued together and painted grey. In TGPMBIARH the lids of pump bottles are buttons on the ship’s console; an electric egg beater is a cargo ship flying through space; lampshades (or possibly suspended baking bowls?) serve as those visor things you wear when you want to aim your ship’s cannons at another ship (you know what I mean…). And no animals were harmed in the film, because they were mostly soft toys (quite cute ones, too). But the cheapness is essential for the plot, it’s part of the point. The characters, for the most part, realise they are stuck inside a budget film, and are generally stumped by the fact that a recognisable kitchen utensil actually fires a laser out its end. Which is why it’s also surprising that the “giant papier mache boulder is actually really (fucking) heavy”.

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I had quite a few laughs. They got the theatrical nature of an old sci-fi film right. When someone is punched in the face they don’t just drop to the ground, they fly through the air. If someone rolls down a bank then they bloody well fall off a waterfall too. That’s just common sense. However, if I’m going to pick a hole (and I will), it’s that I felt the film could do with a brutal edit. Some scenes went on too long, and some were superfluous altogether. I know that when you’ve worked closely on something for a long time you get precious, but really it could have done with a good snip snip snip.

TGPMBIARH is running for another week at the Rialto in Newmarket, and also the Dunedin Rialto and the cinema in Devonport. Go out and support a NZ independent film.

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National Poetry Day and Broken Egg

Today is New Zealand’s National Poetry Day. There have been heaps of cool events this past week, and still a few more still to come. You can check them out here.

In celebration of the day, I thought I’d share one of my poems, titled Broken Egg. I wrote it in 2013, and it was published in the February 2014 edition of Writing Tomorrow. I hope that you like it.

 

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Broken Egg

1

They come bounding at me bow-legged,

expecting beaks like upside down spoons and brass eyes unblinking.

Oi, get off, I skip backwards, I gave you the wheat!

Don’t you remember pecking my hand and hearing me squeak?

 

I check for eggs inside the roosting shed, poke my head in,

perceive a hen-like shape and beak swiveling my way.

Oops, sorry – I say, retreat, retreat.

A rock in your place, a sleeping cat, even,

so stuffed with shadows, I’d think it a hen.

 

Sometimes I hear you wailing all the way from the front fence.

With misshapen eggs, I wonder why you lay.

Maybe because, secretly, you enjoy the quiet, dark,

the rustle of your feathers in the straw,

the curve, the release.

 

2

My mother owns sixty-one eggcups

though seldom eats her own eggs.

They sit in a brown cabinet

beside the lamp whose height hides a layer of dust.

The rest of her house is spotless, of course.

She’s a short woman, it’s not her fault.

 

She tried to have more kids but was stuck with just the one,

then my dad won big with the bonus bonds and moved away

with the lady who cut all our hair.

Two of the eggcups were wedding presents.

They sit front, centre, polished brightly.

Mum doesn’t receive many gifts.

 

In the early eve she’s sleeve-deep in the garden

speaking to her hens, upturning rocks.

Beetles and millipedes have no safe nooks.

I’ll never understand the pleasure she gets, digging potatoes,

wrenching sticky weeds from the mischievous earth.

 

She lays her carrots with care,

side by side on the lilac rug we used to take to the beach.

It’s covered in holes, I don’t know why she doesn’t biff it.

I sit with her till dusk while she shovels compost, full of broken shells.

She told me once that when hens eat a broken egg they get a taste.

 

3

Dad could catch a wave with his body, like a rocket,

arms stretched straight in front, strong legs kicking.

Mum and I skulked beneath the parasol, watching him.

I hear he has three kids now – probably brown, and fit, like him.

 

As a teenager I hated this farm.

I’d climb the overgrown rhododendrons,

perch like a pissed-off gargoyle, listing unfairnesses.

There’s nothing fun about being a kid.

When the doctor told me I couldn’t have any I was glad.

 

Dad sent me a postcard once, from France,

wrote it like he wrote them every week.

I didn’t recognise the handwriting

till Mum pointed out his name at the bottom.

I remember she cried.

She told me once she would’ve liked grandchildren.

 

Sometimes I see you running wide-armed at me,

scabby knees and bright eyes unflinching.

I’ve seen plasters with pictures on them, at the supermarket, just for kids.

Oi, get off, I tut, holding you at arm’s length

and poking your tummy till you squeak.

 

For a downloadable copy, click here.

 

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Poi E: The Story of our Song (movie review)

Tonight I went to the movies to watch Poi E: The Story of our Song, written and directed by Tearepa Kahi. I guess the fact that it’s freezing outside, and that it’s a Monday night, accounts for the fact that my friend and I had the whole theatre to ourselves… and usually I’d have been stoked to not have to crane my neck around the tall dude sitting in front of me or to have to mentally fade out the mandatory movie cougher (and because I got to lie back with my feet on the seat in front). But tonight it just seemed wrong.

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I’ve always loved Poi E, the song. I wonder if there’s a New Zealander who doesn’t. It’s part of our culture, as well as part of our pop music history – along with Six Months in a Leaky Boat and Slice of Heaven. Yet, weirdly, I had no idea when it was filmed, no idea about the woman who wrote it, the club who performed it, or the man who brought the whole thing together – Dalvanius Prime. Maybe I’m just too young (I was born the year before it was released). When I sat down to watch the movie, therefore, I wondered how anyone could possibly create a whole documentary about a single song.  Woah – I had a few things to learn.

This documentary takes you on a journey from the small town of Patea all the way to England and back. You get to witness a community’s love for their songs, for their culture, and for one fat Maori dude who knew how to make music. There are moments when you have to have a wee giggle about just how ‘kiwi’ some people are – in fact, if I’d watched it while overseas I’d probably have been overcome with homesickness and flown right home (except, if you know me, then you know I’m not so much into glorifying the freezing works). But most importantly, the film addresses the stifling of Te Reo Maori that occurred, well, up until recently really, as well as the pigeon-holing of the whole Maori culture that took place (when there were only certain contexts when it was acceptable for people to speak Maori or to act in any way not white).

And so because, like most people, I’ve always just sung along to the “Poi e” part of the lyrics, sort of mumbling or humming over the rest, I decided to go home tonight and learn the full song. And then I sang it several times to myself, strumming on my guitar, not quite ever mastering all those syllables, but getting close enough!

Go see the film. No arguing. We need to support NZ film makers and become more culturally enlightened wherever possible. And here, of course, is the song itself!

 

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