Book Review: The Sparsholt Affair, by Alan Hollinghurst

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_The-sparsholt_affair.jpgThe Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst is an ambiguous tale of the permeating aftershocks of encounters with the charming David Sparsholt: war-hero, strong-man, closet gay man prior to the British sexual liberation of 1967. Set over five parts, numerous narrators give us peep-hole insights to the influence and lasting touches of Sparsholt, and cleverly leaves the unspeakable to occur behind blinds, during blackouts (of both varieties), and between parts. Be warned: the Sparsholt Affair is not entirely what it seems.

We are first introduced to David Sparsholt as an entry in Freddie Green’s memoir of Oxford during the war, in ‘that brief time between sunset and blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms’. Spied by Green and his contemporaries Evert Dax and Peter Goyle, Sparsholt’s impressive aesthetic ignites a male infatuation that will both mire Sparsholt’s life and carry the novel. Sparsholt is an engineer and athlete training for the RAF, and is embroiled in sexual scandal from the outset thanks to the ‘rhythmical creaking’ from his room during visits from his to-be wife, Connie. Sparsholt’s blatant heterosexuality seems to only fuel the intrigue as Green, Dax, and Goyle each fall into pursuit of Sparsholt in their own ways. Between the suggestive war time black-outs, this competition is won by Dax, and recorded as told to Green. Sparsholt is doused in secrecy and scandal, spoken about in the same way neighbours may trade gossip in whispers before an inevitable disgrace.

Leaving Sparsholt’s war to occur in the part break, the novel now jumps to 1965, where Freddie Green’s literary journal has been replaced with a contemporary yet equally insightful narrative from the perspective of Johnny, Sparsholt’s adolescent son. Sparsholt is now a war-hero and established industrialist, married to Connie. Together with Connie, Johnny, French exchange student Bastien, and the Haxbys, the story moves to summertime in Cornwall. The Cornish setting allows air to two flames: that between David Sparsholt and the noisome Clifford Haxby, conducted in secrecy yet with a recklessness that makes one’s stomach turn somersaults, and simultaneously for Johnny – the typically sexually repressed English teen – who is besotted with his liberal French counterpart, Bastien. Should Johnny not have been so consumed by his own pubescent crush, he might have had warning of the scandal his family was on course for.

The story jumps again, this time into Evert Dax’s house in London post the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality. We re-connect with Evert as Johnny Sparsholt, now a strapping young gay man, enters Evert’s house as an art restorer. Oblivious to the relationship once shared between his father and the paunchy old art enthusiast, Johnny is both eager to gain a place in the gay scene based at Cranley Gardens and naïve about the intentions of those around him. We learn that the actual Sparsholt affair that was so pregnant in the previous setting has been and gone between parts, and we turn the pages in eagerness for a climax, trembling for the revelations that might come with it.

But Hollinghurst holds back, denying us any juicy details, giving us only scraps: ‘money, power, gay shenanigans…it had everything!’ This is somewhat frustrating, as up until this point the reader has been led to believe the explosiveness of the affair was the carrot we’d been patiently chasing. Once the disappointment abates, however, the Sparsholt Affair morphs away from a legacy instead into a story of life’s vice and drama, particularly for gay men in a liberated London. It is a generational comparison, pulling a colourful contrast of experience from each side of 1967.

By the 90s we are led by Lucy, the child (born in the part-break) of Johnny and a lesbian couple who had requested him to ‘do a baby for us’. We see Johnny finally in the new millennium, where parenting and dating apps have again revolutionized the gay landscape. Johnny does his best to adapt, as a successful portrait painter who suffers love, loss, and reincarnation.

As a first-time reader of Hollinghurst, his tendency to let pivotal scenes happen between the parts can leave you feeling crestfallen, but the Sparsholt Affair withstands these temporary disappointments as one begins to recognize the larger, comedic, and charming design of the story.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

The Sparsholt Affair
by Alan Hollinghurst
Published by Pan Macmillan
ISBN 9781509844937


Book Review: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_scytheIn a world where an artificial conscience maintains peace and prosperity, death has been conquered; no longer are you likely to die from disease or fatal accident, even age can be reversed. The only hand dealing death are the hands of the Scythes: humans selected specifically to keep the population stable and to maintain balance. It feels like a Utopia.

It is not.

Our female protagonist Citra Terranova’s life changes the day the Scythe knocks on her door. He’s not there to glean any of her family, but to take the life of her neighbour. While he waits for her to come home, he joins them for dinner. For no-one denies a Scythe anything. Male protagonist Rowan Damisch meets his first Scythe when he comes to glean a classmate. Rowan’s act of compassion – sitting with the boy as he dies – leads to alienation amongst his peers.

Both are soon recruited as apprentice Scythes: weighed down with the responsibility of selecting victims, and learning the art of killing. But corruption is growing within the Scythe society, and Citra and Rowan must band together to fight it – then they are informed of the final test: There can be only one, one of them must glean the other…

Utopia-turns-dystopia in a world where death has been defeated, but with it, some of the passion has leaked from the world. This story has been branded (by Young Adult author, Maggie Stiefvater) as “A true successor to The Hunger Games” and it does live up to that tagline, whilst retaining an intriguing freshness, despite following what is a very common theme within Young Adult fiction (the apprentice learning their trade).

The Scythe society is particularly novel: here is a profession in which you are truly forced to a distance by the general population, you are something of a celebrity, but everyone fears the day you turn up on their doorstep. The characters are each their own individuals, and watching the effect of their new responsibilities and how they react is both inspiring and terrifying.

For a fresh take on a tried-and-true formula, I would recommend Scythe to fans of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other dystopic novels.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

by Neal Shusterman
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406379242

Book Review: 仁 surrender, by Janet Charman

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_surrendersurrender is a poetry collection that Janet Charman began to write during a 2009 residency at the International Writers’ Workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University. It was during a guest readership at the 2014 Taipei International Poetry Forum that Charman completed the first draft. And the influence of these locations is potent all throughout 仁 surrender.

Charman begins with familiar concrete images related to travel. A ‘felt carpeted box / with a pin number’ holds a passport and an envelope of cash. Charman takes her time going through the routine of washing her clothes, hanging them on an elastic and a ledge above the window-bay. She pauses for a moment, letting herself take in the view as she stands within this new temporary space.

Throughout 仁 surrender, there is a ‘you’ that Charman speaks of with affection. Small snippets from different poems tell us more about this ‘you’. In the poem where people are, Charman explains how she is ‘but one whose work you’ve translated’. And even without mentioning a name or a physical characteristic, Charman builds up this ‘you’ into a strong figure. It is someone who gives Charman the ‘sharp of your (their) tongue’ when they realise that Charman has not brought an electronic dictionary with her. ‘Western cultural hegemony’, Charman states in explanation of her actions, and her own shame is evident when she writes that this ‘you’ has every ‘right to be angry’. As a result, Charman is left considering, ‘what will be left of the Chinese culture / when Capitalism has finished planting its landscapes with Coca-Cola’.

Charman’s experience with this ‘you’ also touches on issues of being a woman. While talking about this figure, Charman states that she is someone ‘who fears men for every good reason / and still wants to be wrong about them’. Meanwhile, in another poem, Charman finds an exhibition about a woman called Lydia Sum. Charman sees costumes on display, each piece ‘alive with jouissance’. But when Charman mentions the exhibition to one of the others at the hotel, she learns that Lydia Sum was sometimes ‘referred to as ‘Fatty’ / affectionately’. And hearing this, Charman writes, “i want to burst into tears”.

In the poem writing exercise, Charman goes on to explain why she writes the way she does, with minimal capitalisation. For her, lower-case first person represents:

‘the interrupted narratives of women’s lives
menstruation domestic celebration’

Whereas upper-case first person:

‘reads as the default generic setting

of uninterrupted male subjectivity

as neutral and universal in patriarchy

in relation to which

a woman artist

must perpetually distinguish herself’

Comparing the conventional, or the male, against the unconventional, or the female, in this way is an enlightening process. It also brings a valuable insight into Charman’s own work and opens up how her poetry can be read. In this way, 仁 surrender is more than just a collection of poems about new places and locations. It highlights the issues that follow us wherever we go in the world, some that go far beyond the concrete and into the invisible frameworks that hum in the background and define what is acceptable.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

by Janet Charman
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531106

Book Review: The Kiwi Cyclist’s Guide To Life, by Jane King

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_kiwi_cyclists_guide_to_lifeI’ve been meaning to review this one for a little while. It’s been sitting on my coffee table glaring at me. ‘Read Me’, it beckons. But it’s been a great summer and I’ve been out on the road, peddling away through some great trails – on road, off road, town and country.

And every time I reached out to pick it up, a visitor would arrive. So, instead, they are the ones to pick it up a and peruse its chapters. They often drift away to another part of the house to finish a chapter. They are not long, complicated or overwritten. Quite the opposite. King writes with a journalist’s eye. She wants to capture the full flavour, not just the essence of her subjects.

When I found time, I discovered that King’s book is a taste treat for anyone who loves cycling; but it’s much more than that. Over 25 chapters, she introduces us to a varied selection of cycle fiends from literally every walk of life. She covers every popular style – GT factory racing, track, BMX, triathletes, cycle builders, historians, off-roaders and inventors. There’s eccentrics, lifestyle cyclists and hippies. There are some of the pioneers like Graeme Pearson (a racer, rebellious innovator and bike designer who pushed the boundaries of conventional cycle racing in NZ). Or Aaron Gate (World Champion and Olympic Medalist) and Sarah Walker, whom we all know as a top BMX rider and pioneer for the sport in New Zealand.

Mountain biking gets a mention, with a look at Wyn Masters (see image from his Instagram below) who’s won some big events like last year’s Enduro World Series and competed in the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Leogang. If you’ve ever been up the Gondola at Rotorua then you would have seen the  Crankworx track. That’s where he raced.

A post shared by Wyn Masters (@wynmasters) on


If biking has an unsung hero of Arthur Lydiard proportions it could well be Phil Gibbs, who nurtures new talent. And don’t forget another legend, swimmer Moss Burmester – double Olympian, Commonwealth Games Champion and World Champion – he’s eternally on two wheels as well. In training, racing and, as proven in a great photo double spread, in bed sleeping with his Giant training bike. He’s taking a fear of stolen bicycles to a new level!

There’s a profile on Graeme Simpson, who operates out of his Oamaru garage making, believe it or not, Penny Farthing Bicycles! We also get an intriguing inside into journalist and presenter Mary Lambie who is a keen competitive cyclist, racing in the Taupo Cycle Challenge, the K2 around Coromandel Peninsula and even doing the Coast to Coast race.

There is a profile of Drew Duff-Dobson, who runs a Cycle Shop-cum café in Auckland. Now that’s my kind of cycling. And then there’s a High Country Heli-biker (yep, it’s a thing), tour operator Dan McMullan. His piece is accompanied by a stunning photo of he and his bike perched on a lonely precipice surrounded by an endless mountainous backdrop, with another inside of him leading a group down the snowy slopes of Mt Burke. You could not ask for a better work story!

Not everyone in this book is an over-achiever, though. One of my favourite stories is that of Ana Steele and her adventures on her electric bike, leather jacket and vintage flying goggles. She’s done her OE differently, riding across Europe, instead of hitching or bussing it. Brett Cotter doesn’t just ride, he organises biking film festivals and couple Sandra Jensen and Mark Vuletich have embraced the new trend for wearing vintage clothes and riding ancient Velos from the 1930’s.

Jane King was originally from the UK but it’s clear that she has a love of our outdoors and she travels widely to source material for her books. She knows about quality publishing being a digital producer and content writer for TVNZ, NZME, Tourism NZ and a number of other digital agencies. A lot of her photos definitely look like they belong in a brochure – in a good way!

King’s book is thorough, as she covers every aspect of cycling, from racers to innovators to fashionista to cycle tourists to electric users to zen riders and planet savers. Cycling is as diverse as the people that sit in the saddle and this book proves it. She has drawn on a wide range of photographers to illustrate her book, including herself. The image of Dan McMullen off-loading a bike from a helicopter in the snowy back country is one of my favourites. It has the promise of a great ride in amazing terrain. It sparks the imagination but is also a familiar scene, of which every Kiwi is proud of. It sums it all up superbly: the spirit of adventure; entrepreneurship; risk taking; ecology and green tourism and, best of all the invitation to have fun.

On the other extreme is Sandra Jensen and Mark Vuletich riding alongside an old tank dressed in their finest tweeds and muslin, expressing their overt eccentricities and quirkiness. They want to be alternatives to a life in front of a screen, breathing in recycled office air and drinking bad coffee. To be on a bike is the freedom you can never get from any other pursuit. It offers something more than the daily grind of the crankshaft. This is what this book embraces.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Kiwi Cyclist’s Guide To Life
by Jane King
Published by Bateman
ISBN 9781869539795

Book Review: Bruce Finds a Home, by Katherine van Beek

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_bruce_finds_a_home.jpgThe tiny grey kitten on the front of this colourfully illustrated book elicited an immediate cooing “awwww” from my school-age children. I thought they would be much too old for picture books by now but Bruce Finds A Home was snatched up immediately upon sight, the combination of cute cat plus delicate artwork proving a winning combination.

Bruce the Cat was found as a day-old kitten, lying helpless by the side of a road in central Auckland. Now two years old and living in Dunedin, he is an internet star with thousands of followers worldwide. This is his first foray into books, with the help of writer Kathryn van Beek.

This beautiful hardcover book was the result of a Kickstarter campaign backed by over 300 keen Bruce fans, eager to see his story in print. The result is a lovely rhyming tale about how a tiny newborn found his forever home – and his name. This would make a great read-aloud for kindergarten-aged children and a handy conversation starter for a gentle discussion about caring for animals.

I am sure this won’t be the last we see of the gorgeous Bruce or his clever “mum” Kathryn.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

Bruce Finds A Home
by Katherine van Beek
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473391737

Book Review: He’s so MASC, by Chris Tse

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

‘This is my blood oath with myself: the only
dead Chinese person I’ll write about from now on
is me.’

cv_hes_so_mascSo writes Chris Tse in his poem, Punctum. And this quote is the first thing I find in the blurb of He’s so MASC after flipping over the dazzling cover. If you’re familiar with Tse’s debut poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which revisited the murder of Cantonese goldminer Joe Kum Yung, then you know how incredibly potent this single sentence is.

Tse’s promise to be personal involves exploring a variety of identities. In doing so, Tse brings visible light onto invisible minorities. In Punctum, he describes a Chinese girl ‘behind the counter being bullied into saying “fried rice”‘. Here, she thinks about her own bleak future; she knows that there is no career progression for her unless she marries her boss’s son.

And what about her children? They could be actors taking on different identities, from a pregnant teen goth to a simple restaurateur. But even as Tse spins out all these possibilities, these are still simply acts. Even if her children do take on new identities, they will never be removed from the race they were born with; race is the first thing that others will see and judge them against accordingly. She knows that when she dies, she’ll be left wondering whether she pushed her children ‘hard enough to never settle / for being the token Asian in a crowd scene’. And when Tse asks, ‘Can you see her?’ at the end of the piece, it is evident that the answer is nothing close to yes. She, like many other minorities, is only a small little dot. A punctum.

All throughout He’s so MASC, Tse plays with this idea of personal identity, and the influence of the identities we carry. In Performance—Part 2, Tse goes through a variety of characters, who are all belittled in some way because of their identity. He starts with ‘CHRIS TSE AS DELETED SCENE’, who tells us that he didn’t have the ‘right look / to play a New Zealander’ even though he sounds like a native speaker. The next character is written in a way that speaks volumes. Tse simply states: ‘CHRIS TSE AS ASIAN HITMAN #1: / (non-speaking part)’.

Tse also delves into the personal in a tender and precious way. In the poem Next year’s colours, Tse ponders why we take photos while travelling, and how our phones end up filling up with photos that once meant something. He portrays the desperation of recording memories when in new places. Another tender poem is Release, which explores the emotions that come with letting go of a lover. The piece is so gentle, even if it’s about heartbreak, and Tse portrays each moment with such clarity. Especially moving is a verse where Tse describes himself going through the motions of the day, and then at last:

returning home to

duvet, sheets and pillows

hastily abandoned

and finally finding the time

to cry.’

In He’s so MASC, Chris Tse takes an oath to explore the personal. As well as exploring the emotions that come with memories and growth, his poems make you reconsider the layers of identity that you hold true. They also make you consider the identities that you appropriate onto others, and the ones that they appropriate onto you.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

He’s so MASC
by Chris Tse
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408879



NZF Writers & Readers: Poetry International

‘Featuring local featured poets Hera Lindsay BirdAnahera GildeaBill ManhireCourtney Sina Meredith and Anna Jackson together with international poetry guests Jeet ThayilPatricia LockwoodHarry Giles and Mike Ladd.’

Honestly, I’ve never been really sure where I stand with poetry. I remember Dad reading us Edward Lear as children, and memorising Wilfred Owen’s sonnet in high school (which I can still recite – ask me next time you see me). At uni I studied English, including poetry, and submitted to the belief that poetry was difficult on purpose and only those with the right number of degrees could hope to correctly interpret it.

Since returning to Aotearoa and wiggling my way into booky spaces here I’ve put my hand up to review NZ poetry several times. I always have to take a deep breath first, to try and shake off the terrible lessons of my formal education. To trust myself and my ability to read at least thoughtfully, if not expertly.

So it was with trepidation – plus a good dollop of end-of-the-festival, mind-spinning fatigue – that I turned up to review Poetry International. I hadn’t been scheduled to review it, but I was keen to see as much of Harry Josephine Giles and Patricia Lockwood as I could before they left.

Poetry_International_WR18_600x500.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250Poetry International was inspired by the February 2018 edition of Poetry magazine that celebrates NZ poets. It was a rather disjointed and long-winded event. The poets came on stage in two lots, since there were nine of them and only six seats. The chair, Chris Price, had come straight from the hospital and added a note of muted medical emergency to the proceedings by holding a bandage up to her face as she listened.

First up were Anahera Gildea, Mike Ladd, Anna Jackson, Harry Josephine Giles, and Hera Lindsay Bird. They all performed their poetry and made some remarks, and then Price briefly interviewed them. The two stand-outs for me were Gildea and Giles, who both spoke with great power. Gildea – like Emma Espiner at Tikanga Now – talked in English and Te Reo about the erasure of wāhine Māori from NZ’s Suffrage 125 celebrations. Her poem was written as a kōrero with C19th suffrage activist Meri Te Tai Mangakahia.

Also on the theme of (de)colonisation, Scottish poet Giles said that most of the places they go around the world they’re following their people, who ‘chose to steal and murder and orchestrate genocide’. Giles is trying to remake the world, but acknowledged that they were doing so ‘in and through system of racialised capitalism from which I benefit’. They then blew up the earnestness of the event by enthusiastically performing a poem in the Scots language about butt plugs. Hashtag festival highlight.

The next tranche of poets comprised Patricia Lockwood, Courtney Sina Meredith, Jeet Thayil, and Bill Manhire. Meredith spoke with understandable exasperation of being constantly required to ‘diversity up’ the place a bit, since she is a queer Samoan-Kiwi woman (triple whammy!). I was particularly struck by her remark that ‘opportunities are often just mountains of hard work’. Too true.

I had been looking forward to seeing more of Lockwood, and enjoyed her poem about being on the plane where John Ashbery no longer exists – although, due to my aforementioned lack of poetry expertise, I didn’t know who Ashbery was or why I should care. Unfortunately Price’s brief interview with Lockwood fell flat: a mismatch between Price’s earnest intellect and Lockwood’s acerbic wit. I had managed to catch the first half of Blazing Stars (Charlotte Graham-McLay chairing Lockwood and Bird) and noticed a similar thing. Lockwood and Bird together were hilarious and I would have preferred to see them by themselves just riffing off each other without the chair interrupting with serious questions.

Thayil, an Indian poet and musician, was the only person I noticed in this festival to mention rats (an extremely underappreciated literary topic – festival organisers please note I have a keynote prepared to remedy this lack). He performed a poem called How To Be A Bandicoot and explained that bandicoots are ‘large unkillable rats’, which of course prejudiced me immediately in favour of them. He also performed a poem called The Consolations of Ageing which comprised him standing on the stage in silence. Do you get it, it’s because there aren’t any. He helpfully held up his book of poetry to demonstrate the blank page.

After three solid days of performing, talking, tweeting, and reviewing, my note-taking skills were faltering. (Under Bill Manhire I’ve written ‘dead All Black’.) I had failed to read the programme correctly and wasn’t prepared for Poetry International to last longer than an hour. Towards the end I slid off my chair and typed rather forlornly on the floor. Emily Perkins smiled at me kindly. Later, Elizabeth Knox very generously described my festival reviewing as ‘a service to humanity’. Over and out, my friends. Ka kite anō au i a koutou.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage