Book Review: This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman

Available in bookshops nationwide.
Finalist in the 2019 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize 

cv_this_mortal_boyIn 1955 New Zealand was far from liberal. Xenophobia was rife. English, and in particular Irish immigrants were generally treated with mistrust or even outright dislike. It was also the time of bodgies and widgies and “milk bar cowboys”, so different to the usual run of middle New Zealanders of the era.

Albert Black, the focus of Fiona Kidman’s latest novel, This Mortal Boy, came to Wellington with the encouragement of his doting mother, seeking a better life. Initially he made a friend of another immigrant and together they found labouring jobs and were able to board with a widow in Lower Hutt. The mother of the house treated them as well as Albert’s mother had treated him, and he grew fit and strong. He tried to save enough money to go back to Ireland but he was restless and homesick. It wasn’t long before he started mixing with the young people around the city and had stopped saving his money. The bright lights of Auckland beckoned.

He became the caretaker of a large central city house in Auckland and eventually started taking in housemates but it quickly became a rough party house with a bad reputation. Albert found “drinking, dancing and dames” to be more fun than working and saving. He fell in love with one girl but others chased him and he faced the jealousy of a small-time crook. In a scuffle one night, Albert accidentally killed him.

In prison for murder, Albert saw moral decisions being made on his behalf but always hoped for a reprieve. His mother in Ireland raised a huge petition which even went as far as the Governor General but it was ultimately unsuccessful. His was the last hanging in New Zealand.

Readers will recognise famous names of local identities and politicians and may be surprised by some of the attitudes expressed. This is a well-crafted story which is gripping to the very end.

Reviewed by Nan Turner

This Mortal Boy
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143771807

WORD: The Power of Poetry: Dr Paul Millar with CK Stead, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Fiona Kidman and Bill Manhire

While it was raining and bleak out in the street
We had wonderful words to finish the week.

So National Poetry Day saw five craftspeople read and discuss their poetry, in this, the second poetry-focused event of today. Dr Paul Millar from the University of Canterbury had cleverly selected a number of poems to introduce the guests.Auden was read to introduce CK Stead, because Stead has a great love of Auden.

Stead shared some of his tasks as Poet Laureate and the guidelines that come with such a commission. WW100 was written for the Navy on the 100th anniversary of WW1. He read a series of beautiful vignettes; each a glimpse of some aspect of war. They were very visual and included Mansfield reflecting on the loss of her brother, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘Passchendaele’ and ‘In Memorium’. This final poem was for his Great Uncle.

We then moved to the more lyrical poetry of Selina Tusitala Marsh. ‘Eviction Notice 113’ was written on the death of her mother and links the family home to her mother, as gradually one becomes the other. Her reading was rhythmic and musical and urgent. It really made the words come to life, truly put them in orbit. Her next offering was the poem she was commissioned to write for Queen Elizabeth. We had the conditions, the guidelines, the performance and the response. It was a very clever way to use words, to unite 53 Commonwealth nations.

Ali Cobby Eckerman is an Australian poet who weaves her Aboriginal experiences into her poems. Meeting her removed son at 18, her own Mother at 35. This was gritty writing, raw and difficult. ‘I Can’t stop Drinking’ says much about how experiences shape us, and the danger of judging on appearances. “…don’t judge too hard, cos you don’t know what sorrows we are nursing.”

Fiona Kidman took us to her childhood memories of country living, ‘living at the end of Darwin road’. The landscape plays a big part in her poetry. She reflected on the Irishness of her Dad and her memories of Christmas.

Finally Bill Manhire launched us into a list of all the things we had as kids in the 1950’s. It was brilliant and I just itched to rush off and create a visual. I loved his quote from Emily Dickinson about poetry, “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense”. He also shared a poem commissioned for the war memorial services. ‘Known Unto God’ brought the Somme experience to the current time, and finished with a young girl in the Mediterranean.

It was a powerful hour of wondrous words. I was reminded of the importance of spoken poetry, rather than my silent personal reading.

We ventured back out to the dark, wet streets with a song of words in our hearts to keep us warm.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

(ed’s note: books to come. Possibly also pictures.)


Book Review: All Day at the Movies, by Fiona Kidman

cv_all_day_at_the_moviesAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

I can honestly say that this is one of the best books I have ever read.  I began to read it on a Sunday morning around 11:30 and finished it at 7:48 the same evening. I couldn’t put it down.

Dame Fiona Kidman has captured the New Zealand I grew up in, her words drawing pictures of the way we lived, the issues we faced and the people who accompanied us on our journeys as we grew. She does this so thoroughly, it was as though I was looking at a box of photographs dug out from the back of a closet. Dealing as it does with the members of one family, it never becomes mired in sentimentality, nor does it veer off into pathos.

Many readers of an age to remember the issues the characters face will find feelings being stirred that were perhaps long buried or forgotten, such is the reality evoked by Kidman’s writing. Life could be harsh for those who were vulnerable, (it still is of course) and society pretended to live by a stricter moral code than is followed today. All members of the family portrayed in the book live within the constraints of the same society, yet all are affected in different ways. The roads they travel are as random and arbitrary as most of ours turn out to be and we can identify with them because of this, our interest held by the very uncertainty of their destinations.

At the same time, the familiarity, the beautiful familiarity, of their lives holds us in thrall. Introduced to the mother at the beginning of the book we follow her children as they deal with the circumstances they encounter. The siblings take different paths, growing apart due not only to distance but also to life experiences. Their reactions to what happens to them are entirely believable, and I found myself identifying with them often, so skilfully are they drawn.

The book is 320 pages in total and so perfectly written, the reader comes to the end of them satisfied with the final glimpses we are given of the characters and their fortunes, while still carrying a lingering sense of loss.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

 All Day at the Movies
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Vintage NZ (PRH)
ISBN 9781775538905


Book Review: This Change in the Light, by Fiona Kidman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_this_change_in_the_lightFiona Kidman’s latest collection of poems, This Change in the Light, feels like a documentation, and exploration, of the past. The present is there in the voice, but the past occupies the words. Separated into four parts, each section looks at a different part of Kidman’s life, interspersed with a mixture of images, from black and white photos of a wedding, to colourful tiled mosaics.

This sharing of a life is made to seem very intimate in this collection, realised through the exact descriptions given by Kidman. She creates vivid images, scenes, and characters in her poetry, allowing the reader a visual way into the subject. Like the mosaic pictures scattered through the book, her poems are put together with many different pieces, coming together to create a singular beautiful image.

We are invited to a festive dinner in the poem Christmas, both before and after the passing of Kidman’s father, the contrast inviting our sympathy. In her poem The Town we are taken to her childhood town, hearing not only about a railway / station and an avenue of green trees, but also about a wild girl who used to live there. These poems are reflections of the past, a crystal ball giving us a view of these people and places, while the voice of the poet stays with us in the present.

This clever use of the past tense mixing with the past serves to not alienate the reader, but helps to ease us into Kidman’s past, allowing a comfortable experience to unfold. But it is not only this journey into the past that Kidman presents us. Part three of this collection, titled Abroad, takes us over oceans to Canada and France. The physical distance is neither alienating or strange, much like the use of the past and present. Kidman begins this section with the poem Rooster on a Window Sill, and this sets up the closeness of these faraway places. ‘[M]y friend, / who is going ‘back home’ / to Canada’. The distance is broken down and shown as a home from the start, allowing us to comfortably journey around the world with Kidman.

Her poetry is a lot about comfort, or about feeling comfortable, in that it never feels strange or out of place, but rather there is an inviting nature in the words. The collection has a calmer ending, the short fourth section, titled So far, for now, seemingly more cemented in the present. It is short, but does not feel abrupt. Rather, it is a quiet, fading goodbye. ‘Oh, you know / that you are going, that / you have already gone’. Just as throughout This Change in the Light Fiona Kidman makes the reader comfortable in her poetry, so too does she make the ending continue this, leaving us with a pleasant feeling as we close the book.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

This Change in the Light
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Godwit
ISBN 9781775538554

Words of the Day, Tuesday 22 October 2013

words_of_the_day_graphicThis is a digest of our Twitter feed that we email out most Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sign up here for free if you’d like it emailed to you.

Book reviews
Flying high with a double review, @e_heritage reviews The Infinite Air & One Summer: America 1927 @RHNZ

Page and Blackmore GOT THE GOLDFINCH! Donna Tartt’s new book ‘The Goldfinch’ flew in this morning. The plot circles around a…

This book sounds brilliant. Rise and shine: the daily routines of history’s most creative minds. The Guardian

Author interviews
What irks you in poetry?’ ‘The ‘isn’t-my-life-lovely’ poem.’ Anne Kennedy talks to Paula Green

“The journey has been so much fun.” David Jason talks about his career as his long-awaited autobiography hits stores

In the mood for a bit of old-time comedy (biography)? Giveaway: One Leg Too Few, about Cook & Moore

Learn about Pomarine Jaegers, Pacific Mollymawks, and NZ Tomtits with our Birds of NZ giveaway @AUPBooks

Announcing the next guest speaker at the @WintecPressClub free lunch extravaganza staged on Nov 15 via @waikatonews

Everybody! VUP have moved the WAKE launch from 5 to 6 November, 6pm , at Unity Books

Still a few tickets left to see 11 outstanding women writers at The Women’s Bookshop Ladies Litera-tea in November…

At your request, Wellington City Library is pleased to announce adult box fort building!

Look out, Auckland – Pip Adam and Elizabeth Knox are coming your way on 3 November

Book News
Letter to all booksellers from VUP re The Luminaries distribution/reprints

NZ Post’s official The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug stamps & coins are available for pre-orders online at  #TheHobbit

On the topic of book pricing, here is our lead from last week’s Read

From around the internet
The continued conversation about the problem of e-book pricing

“My Life As a Young Thug,” by @MikeTyson:

Bookish baby born in Barnes & Noble 

Interesting article – is Google killing our university libraries?

My fabulous list of NZ bookshops that stock poetry for children

Remembering James K Baxter today. Baxter Basics his poems for children

Book Review: The Infinite Air, by Fiona Kidman, and One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson

Both books are currently available in bookstores.

Human flight is extraordinary. It’s easy to forget, these days, when commercial flying has become as monotonous as commuting. But to fling ourselves into the sky, to zoom at speed through the air, and to safely land in the place we were aiming for – these are spectacular acts.

Two books recently published bring this to life: The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman, and One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson (both from Random House). The former is a novel about pioneering Kiwi aviator Jean Batten, the latter is a pop history of the USA in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. They’re both excellent.

Opening a Bill Bryson book is like settling cv_one_summer_america_1927down with an old friend for a long, luxurious chat. His books are always packed full of interesting information, but he never sounds like he’s lecturing, simply that he’s happened to come across some wonderful stories that he wants to share with you. His enthusiasm is infectious, and you find yourself becoming immersed in all kinds of things that you had never before considered: baseball scores, historical numbers of US newspapers, the actual amounts of ticker tape in a ticker tape parade. Bryson has that special historian’s delight in discovering connections, uncovering links between Lindbergh and the stock market crash; between Babe Ruth, Al Capone and the invention of television.
The central event of One Summer is Lindbergh’s iconic cross-Atlantic flight, made the more extraordinary the more you learn: his youth, and lack of training; the surrounding disasters; the extreme dangers of early aviation; the limited technology, especially in terms of navigation; the clumsy, primitive aircraft (not even a covered cockpit!). Bryson’s point, though, it not just that Lindbergh was the first person in the world to fly the Atlantic solo; he was the first ever media superstar. The international press was still developing, and Lindbergh was one of its earliest darlings. Column in inches ran to the truckloads across the world; his slightest move was front page news for years. The ticker tape parade in New York City that greeted him after his flight is still the biggest there has ever been. He couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed – and he hated it.
cv_the_infinite_airCut to 1936 and aviation is still big news. jean Batten’s record-setting solo flight from England to New Zealand led her to be hailed as the most famous woman in the world. Whereas Bryson’s book is enthusiastically packed with data – engine makes, aircraft design, fuel types – and is firmly placed in the context of US history, Kidman’s novel brings us intimately inside Batten’s head, and keeps us there, torn between admiring fascination and uneasiness.
Batten’s ambition, determination and achievements floor me. Goals for women in her time were meant to centre around marriage and family. Batten instead wanted fame – she wanted to explore the world – she wanted to soar. She wanted to do things not only that no woman had done before, but that no one ever had. And, despite all obstacles, including precarious lack of funds and periods of severe depression, she set off, got the training, scraped together a plane, and triumphed magnificently. In a Bryson-esque twisting together of the histories of famous people, we also learn that Batten knew Winston Churchill, flew at the same airfield as Edward VII, hung out with Noel Coward, chatted with Queen Elizabeth, was ‘adopted’ by Louis Bleriot, and served as a muse for Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel.


Jean Batten and Buddy the cat

Kidman does a superb job of bringing this magnificent tall poppy to life, and we are enthralled by Batten’s victories even as we are repulsed by her aloof selfishness, and pity her intense isolation. The drive that made her succeed bulldozed through her personal relationships, leaving her unhealthily close to her mother and largely friendless, estranged even from her brothers. Ultimately, though, Kidman sympathises: marriage, for Batten, would have meant the clipping of her wings. The men of The Infinite Air are largely boorish and jealous, chiding Batten for her arrogance and withdrawing support as she dares to succeed.

I highly recommend reading these books in tandem. Bryson gives a lively account of the context of early aviation and its global sense of new possibilities, setting out the ways in which certain people and feats became emblems of the ever-increasing possibilities of human daring. Kidman’s beautiful prose and textured characterisation help us experience the freedom of flight, the whoop of joy heard over the roar of cantankerous engines, the sheer miracle of breaking the bounds of gravity. Kidman and Bryson illustrate in glorious technicolour how Batten and Lindbergh aspired, in every sense of the word. I salute them for it.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage –

The Infinite Air
by Fiona Kidman
ISBN 9781869797928    

One Summer: America 1927
by Bill Bryson
ISBN 9780857522146

Both of these books are distributed by Random House NZ

Words of the Day: Monday, 7 October 2013

This is a digest of our Twitter feed (now with a new title) that we email out most Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sign up here for free if you’d like it emailed to you.

Book reviews
 A (love) letter to Margaret Mahy on the re-publication of Dashing Dog, from @sarahjbarnett

Author interviews
Fiona Kidman talks Jean Batten and The Infinite Air

Dame Fiona Kidman also featured on Radio NZ national on Sunday

Bernadette Hall talks to Poetry Shelf: All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever

Giveaway: Lonely Planet’s Beautiful World

Train enthusiast? Wellington central is hosting the @KiwiRail Open Day this Saturday 14 Oct. Do the locomotion…

A zombie walk to launch a book… this has got to be good The launch of Blue, by Brandy Wehinger

Book News
Edify are pleased to announce they are representing Sunshine Books here in NZ

I enjoyed this article in the Sunday mag – The Life and Love of Murray Ball, by his wife Pam

Congratulations to Lloyd Jones and Dawn Sanders, as well as others, for their nominations for Welly awards.

The future of publishing in NZ according to Radio NZ – featuring Peter from Page & Blackmore

@nzherald talks about publishing

From around the internet
The Thirtysomething Teen: Adult YA addict @thisisjendoll comes clean.

Watch the first trailer for new Jack Ryan movie

“Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.” Henry Miller’s Commandments of Writing

As a fan of lists of things, which I don’t often follow up, I love this post -You Must Read It

Now We Have Proof Reading Literary Fiction Makes You a Better Person

Email digest: Wed 18 July 2012

This is a digest of our Twitter feed that we email out most Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sign up here for free if you’d like it emailed to you.

Tonight on the North Shore The Story of Peter Blake is being launched at 6.30pm

Ladies’ Litera-Tea – now there are two of them!

Book News
2012 winner of the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing announced

Costa’s new short story award to be judged anonymously

Book reviews
The Big Music: selected papers by Kirsty Gunn

From Under the Overcoat by Sue Orr

A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Life and Times of Graham Percy by Gregory O’Brien

Velocity by Ahmed Ajaz and Stefan Olander

Bligh by Anne Salmond

The Frog Footy Player by Chris Gurney

The secret lives of authors
A blog where I talk about my author photo being taken

Dame Fiona Kidman talks The Trouble with Fire (Fiction finalist for the New Zealand Post Book Awards)

Meet Chris Cleave author of ‘Gold’

From around the internet

Fifty Shades of Grey in pictures

“What is the reason for the sex-novel craze? Is it the public or the novelists to blame?”

A maze made of 250,000 books at London 2012

Are you aged 13-18 and love poetry? We’d love to publish your poems on the Pulse  Email

Email digest: Monday 16 July 2012

This is a digest of our Twitter feed that we email out most Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sign up here for free if you’d like it emailed to you.

Meet the winners of the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards

Warm Auditorium – poet James Brown on Radio NZ this afternoon on his new collection

Book reviews
New Zealand Film an illustrated history + competition

Fuss-Free Suppers by Jenny Kay and Elinor Storkey

The Trouble with Fire by Dame Fiona Kidman

Book recommendations
My top-5 teen tear jerkers

Wellington City Library blogged: Intriguing picture books for older children: Spend some time reading aloud to your older kids, they …

From around the internet
More from Michael Cunningham on last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction controversy: How to define greatness?

Jodi Picoult and her 16-year-old muse – Life & Style – NZ Herald News