Reading Favourites – another take – from WORD Christchurch Readers & Writers festival, Friday 29 August

My first session for the WORD Christchurch Writers Festival this year was Reading Favourites: Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing and Carl Nixon in conversation with Guy Somerset about their favourite New Zealand books. It was an excellent way into WORD, which celebrates reading and writing in the context of Aotearoa.

Author and children’s book reviewer Kate De Goldi was first up, recommending to us Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne – a gothic mystery with an unreliable narrator, and hailed by many as the great unread Kiwi novel. De Goldi said it’s the kind of book you love so much that you give it to someone you fancy as a sort of compatibility test. She spoke very movingly about her love for this novel and introduced what would become a theme: the lack of recognition for the work within New Zealand (although a cult following is now developing), with it consequently going out of print and becoming difficult to find. Happily, Sydney Bridge Upside Down has now been republished by Text Publishing in Australia and is available in NZ bookshops – for example, at the excellent UBS Canterbury stall right here at the festival.
De Goldi’s second choice was Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People (Auckland University Press) by Gregory O’Brien. She said it entirely lacks that “instructive worthiness” so prevalent amongst children’s non-fiction, and is instead accessible, personal and engaging – for adults as well as kids. And after she read aloud from the book, I immediately wanted to sit down with it and read the rest. Welcome to the South Seas is due to be re-published by AUP, with two companion volumes soon.

cv_hicksvilleAuthor and cartoonist Sarah Laing’s first pick for her favourite NZ book was Hicksville (Victoria University Press, 2012; but ), a graphic novel by Dylan Horrocks, who was in the audience. Laing said she devoured comics as a child, but, as a young woman, found comic book shops to be “scary” and off-putting. But she is rediscovering comics now, and incorporates cartoons in her own novels (as well as publishing the webcomic and blog, Let Me Be Frank). Laing praised Hicksville for its multi-layered, intertextual nature, and the way it creates a utopian version of Aotearoa where comics thrive and are loved by all. There was also a very interesting discussion of the way graphic novels force to you read in a different way.

Laing commented that, due to their ephemeral nature (both in terms of magazine-like publishing and in the sense of not being part of the literary mainstream), comics can be hard to track down. Horrocks is now published in NZ, but for a long time was only published overseas.

fromearthsendLaing’s second choice was From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird (Random House NZ), which she praised as a unique and extremely useful history of cartooning in New Zealand. Guy Somerset commented that he was interested to learn that NZ used to have a thriving comics publishing industry in the mid-twentieth century, until the moral panic about the effects of cartoons on children’s minds effectively shut it all down.

Novelist Carl Nixon’s first choice was The Day Hemingway Died and other stories by Owen Marshall, which he said was one of the first NZ books he read without being told to. He praised the way Marshall perfectly illustrates human foibles while also producing writing that is laugh-out-loud funny. Nixon then proved this last point by reading an excerpt, which did indeed make us all laugh.
Nixon also enthusiastically recommended to us Gifted by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press), a novel about the real-life working relationship between iconic Kiwi authors Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. Nixon praised Evans for “capturing what you believe to be Sargeson’s voice”. Like Sydney Bridge Upside Down, Gifted has been adapted for the stage.

Finally, Guy Somerset, Books and Culture editor for The Listener, recommended Arena by John Cranna, a futuristic novel of a brutalised dystopia. Somerset said it’s the first NZ book he read, in order to impress his new Kiwi wife.

Reading Favourites was an excellent session, and I was pleased to see many people head straight to the book stall afterwards. I came away with some excellent additions to my (teetering, infinite) To Read Pile – always a good sign that a writers festival has done its job. Looking forward to more to come!

by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher

Happy Birthday Janet and Reading Favourites with Sarah Jane Barnett & Matt Bialostocki, WORD Festival Friday 29 August

Sarah Jane Barnett is a poet, creative writing tutor, and reviewer from Wellington. Matt Bialostocki is a writer, photographer, and bookseller from Wellington. Together they went to a full day of festival events at the WORD Writers’ & Readers Festival 2014 in Christchurch. After each of the sessions they recorded their conversation. This is what was said in the first two sessions.

Happy Birthday, Janet
Friday, 29 August, 12pm

Owen Marshall, Tusiata Avia, and Bernadette Hall celebrate Janet Frame’s 90th birthday with favourite janet_framereadings and musings. Chaired by Pamela Gordon (Frame’s neice and literary executor).

Sarah: Our first session of the day was quite a session. What did you think?
Matt: The selection of material was great—a short story, four poems, and then a novel excerpt and a poem.
S: Each writer talked about the way Janet had influenced them. Owen Marshall—where did he get that plug from? [During the session Marshall had held up a bath plug on a chain]
M: Willowglen. It’s where Frame lived in Oamaru, a town where Marshall had also lived. He ripped it out of the sink in the corner of a room.
S: Yeah, it seemed important to him that they’d both lived in Oamaru, that they’d inhabited the same space. I was also quite excited by Bernadette Hall ‘stealing’ Frame’s words—in her making them part of her own poem.
M: They were from the novel, State of Seige. Hall used them in her poem, “Dark Pasture.”state of seige
S: It was Hall’s response to Frame’s work. She alternated her lines with Frame’s. That reading floored me; it showed me how much Frame still influences our writers.
M: They all had a personal connection to the work they were reading, and to Frame’s work as a whole. Marshall also noted that while a lot of people related to her fiction, there is a tangible sense of response to her autobiographical work because she was writing about places people knew; they were places they lived and places they shared.
S: He’s an amazing reader. I would like to have Marshall read me one of Frame’s novels.
M: You’d just have to watch out for your bath plug.

Reading Favourites
Friday, 29 August 2.30pm
Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing, and Carl Nixon talk about two of their favourite New Zealand books with Guy Somerset.

cv_sydney_bridge_upside_downS: That was freaking amazing!
M: Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels! Let’s quickly cover the books. First, De Goldi told us about Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne. She called it the ‘great unread New Zealand novel’. Laing recommended the graphic novel Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, and Nixon recommended The Day Hemingway Died and Other Stories by Owen Marshall.
S: Nixon said he felt it shows a darker side to Marshall’s writing. I want to read that.
M: For her second book, De Goldi raved about Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People by Gregory O’Brien. She said that we needed more creative non-fiction for kids in New Zealand. I agree. Laing showed us From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird. She pointed out the ephemeral nature of NZ comics, and how this means it’s easy to miss new titles. Finally, Nixon spoke to us about Gifted by Patrick Evans—a novel about Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson.
S: His reading was fantastic. So fantastically funny! That is definitely one I’m going to read.
M: It’s developed a cult following.
S: day_hemingway_diedThey all recommended books they came to through a personal process of discovery. I think there’s something in that. Laing read comics as a kid, but then discovered them again in her 30s; The Day Hemingway Died was the first book Nixon discovered himself at age eighteen. De Goldi used the word ‘evangalising’; they really wanted us to read these books—to love them as they did. Many were out of print, though, or first published outside New Zealand. What does that say?
M: Yes—Hicksville was first published by the Canadian publisher Black Eye Productions in 1998 [and VUP in 2012], and Sydney Bridge Upside Down was originally published in 1968 but was out of print for years until De Goldi foisted a copy on a Australian publisher who was over for dinner.
S: De Goldi talked about the value of libraries. That’s where we find out-of-print books.
M: And all of these books were loved by at least one other person on the panel. Actually, Somerset was a great chair. He got them talking about the books so we could hear their varied responses.
S: He called them the ‘uber book group’. I felt encouraged. Nixon said he doesn’t read graphic novels and De Goldi said, ‘You need to learn to read them’. This is something I think for myself.


These conversations were recorded and transcribed after the events: Happy Birthday, Janet and Reading Favourites, by Sarah Jane Barnett and Matt Bialostocki.

Words of the Day: Friday, 11 October 2013


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Book reviews

Book Review: The Virgin and the Whale: A love story, by Carl Nixon

Stephen King on Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, “a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade.”



We have three double passes to WLG or AKL screenings of Tim Winton’s The Turning courtesy @nzff to give away


Kind of excited to be going to @hueandcry‘s launch of One Human in Height by @itsracheloneill tonight…5.30pm @CityGalleryWgtn

Page & Blackmore are packing in stock for the start of the Nelson Readers and Writers Festival tomorrow.

Prof. Harry Ricketts gives his inaugural lecture on Kipling’s legacy

Book News

The Read: Friday, 4 October 2013 –

The PEN Printer prize has been awarded to Tom Stoppard, and the Belarusian journalist Irina Khalip.

The ABA’s CEO writes about indies and their importance in this world of bookselling

Australian and NZ authors nominated for 2014 Astrid Lindgren awards

Kobo’s CEO Michael Serbinis’ October newsletter – new developments & growth stats

NZ publishers build on Frankfurt fair success

2014 commonwealth short story prize is open for entry. Kiwis have been known to win this… 

‘Master of the contemporary short story’ Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature overnight

Booker Awards News

Claire Armistead does a great job selling The Luminaries (video)

From around the internet

The always good @vicbks blog: A Light to Read by

Gary Steel! Legend, top writer, good egg. His book on Frank Zappa is a classic in the making; help make it! 

Margaret Atwood on Alice Munro’s road to the Nobel Prize.

Canadian writer Alice Munro has said it is “splendid” to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

Some intriguing stories coming from Frankfurt. Markus Dohle talks about the Penguin Random House merger

And in a panel ‘What is a Publisher Now?’ publishers are being told to get closer to their audience w digital

Book Review: The Virgin and the Whale: A love story, by Carl Nixon

I get it: books don’t just happen. A novel is a collection of cv_the_virgin_and_the_whalewords actively written by a person, it is a writer’s deliberate construction of images and tales, places and emotions. Plot, world-building, style and characterisation are the results of thousands of decisions made by an author, decisions that are weighed up with an editor and often revised before being stilled in print.

I know this, but I don’t want to be reminded. I want the act of reading to take me to an exclusive truth the author has created; I want to be lulled and excited by thoughts that my brain hasn’t experienced before. I want to be able to fall into the book’s world without seeing the scaffolding – the discarded false starts, the second thoughts, the mutterings of the author’s voice. As a publisher, I understand that those things all happen; as a reader, I want them to be cleared away before I arrive; I want the world of the novel to be fresh and whole.

Carl Nixon has no such mercy. Right from the beginning he makes the acts of writing and of storytelling take centre stage, constantly pushing you out of the world of the novel he’s created and back into your own head, talking about how he came to write the book, what he’s chosen to include and exclude, how he thinks the writing is going, what he thinks you might be thinking.

It’s annoying; viscerally so. I often actually shouted at him, get out of the way of the book! The torture of it is that the central story he’s nominally telling is wonderfully dramatic; engaging and gracefully told with warm, complex characters. A man has returned to New Zealand from the Great War with a head wound, remembering nothing from before the explosion in the trenches. Gradually he is nursed back to health and a love story develops as he rebuilds his own identity. It is an extraordinary thought experiment, to try and write your way into the mind of an adult with only a few months’-worth of memories, and Nixon succeeds superbly. He paints a compelling portrait of a deeply wounded man and, in so doing, illustrates the fundamental importance of memory in the construction of personality, of humanity.

One of the basic ways in which the man reconstructs himself is through story – and this, I think, is Nixon’s main point. We are always telling stories, turning memories into narratives in our brains. The man’s tale is hedged about with other stories: his nurse Elizabeth Whitman tells her son – now missing a father – a series of tales about The Balloonist, a man who left his family in a hot air balloon for exotic, wild adventures (reminding me of the 2006 film The Fall). At one point, a character within one of those tales tells The Balloonist a story…and so on. The arcs of tale-telling spiral outwards as well: The Virgin and the Whale begins with a note from Nixon claiming that the story of the man with no memory is true, and was told to him by the man’s son, who insisted that Nixon construct a fiction from it. Because this was at the beginning of the book, I believed it: I no longer do so.

Once Nixon makes you start looking for layers of story in The Virgin and the Whale, you can’t stop: on the back cover we have the publishers’ story about the book: “A touching, clever novel about stories, about using them to create your own identity, and about the way they can forge bonds of love.” And of course I have just added a stratum of my own in the form of this review.

It’s not the layering itself that I mind – inspired by the recent, excellent film, I have just re-read the wonderful Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, which also focuses on the power of story as a constructor of identity, also uses layers of storytelling to give itself weight and resonance. What irritated me about The Virgin and the Whale was the voice Nixon adopts when commenting on his own writing. On p. 13: “How to begin?…what inky scratchings will lead the argosy of dark shapes on their way, bobbing in military rows across the calm pale oceans bordered by these covers?” (I had to look up argosy: it means fleet, or opulent supply.)

Despite Nixon’s undoubted talent, I ultimately found The Virgin and the Whale frustrating. I am left with the irrational feeling that the chapters comprising Nixon’s worries about how the book is going have somehow cheated me out of chapters spent exploring the central love story. Because Nixon has drawn my reluctant attention to the book-making process, I end up telling myself the story that these imagined chapters do exist somehow, forlorn on the cutting-room floor.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

The Virgin and the Whale: A love story
Written by Carl Nixon
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775533757