Book Review: Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe, by James Norcliffe

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dark_days_at_the_oxygen_cafeJames Norcliffe is a well-known name in New Zealand poetry and the soft, subtle writing of his newest collection confirms why this is so. Norcliffe’s restrained and delicate style crafts Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe into an atmospherically cohesive collection that portrays a variety of different lives.

His poem Double Indemnity conveys the quick and suave style of the Film Noir movie the piece is based on. The narrator sounds just like a hard-boiled detective of the genre, a man who describes how his “glass / clinked with the sudden ice in my heart”. Norcliffe portrays Phyllis, the femme fatale, as alluring and dangerous as she is in the movie. The poem focuses on a snapshot of images that make up the heart of this classic black and white movie.

Meanwhile, in James Dean, two characters describe the image of this eponymous and captivating figure; the tilt of a grin, the recurring cigarette. Stories become concrete once written, and through this metaphor, the piece acknowledges the permanence of the past. James Dean will forever be immortalised as the man before his death: young, handsome, and always grappling with danger like that perpetually smoking cigarette.

In another poem, Laika, Norcliffe writes about the first animal to orbit the earth, a stray dog from Moscow named Laika. Norcliffe’s note at the back of the book explains how Laika would have probably died after a few hours in space. And so, Norcliffe renders her brief life in the cosmos into something strange and wonderful but also especially sad. It is a world where human achievement happens at the cost of an animal’s life, a world where “we will keep the cosmos company… as what remains of Laika / falls like incandescent snow”.

The Amnesia Aquarium is an especially beautiful piece. In the depth of the aquarium, snippets of memory are like brief flashes of light that reflect off the scales of fish. The accumulation of this memory becomes a whirlpool of images; Norcliffe poignantly describes them as “nebulae you can barely remember / shining in a familiar sky”, mixing the cosmos into his aquarium of memory.

The scope of well-known figures and those less familiar creates a collection of poems that are fragments of both stories and lives. The final life, a poem titled The death of Seneca, closes off Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe. It portrays the indifference of Seneca who, when ordered to commit suicide, could only go through the motions in a strange, disassociated way, telling his servants to “bring him sharp blades, bring him pomegranates”. Here, Seneca is another character who captures a moment of frailty. This moment is so striking that Seneca has been remembered for thousands of years after his death.

Although death is a common theme for the characters Norcliffe presents, his writing is reassuring in its subtle beauty. Since many of these characters are stuck within concrete events that have already happened, Norcliffe also shows how emotions like longing are timeless. He renders this feeling across multiple stories and lives, each character or creature with their own experience of pleasure and pain.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe  
by James Norcliffe
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560837

Book Review: Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury earthquakes

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_leaving_the_red_zoneThe Garden City, the cathedral, the sight of cranes towering overhead—these things have all amalgamated into the image of what Christchurch is and has been. Leaving the Red Zone captures this blended image, presenting a collection of poems on the Canterbury earthquakes.

With a range of different writers in one collection, it was amazing to read such a selection of perspectives and emotional responses to the same event. Some writers use facts to try and understand Christchurch’s suffering; demographics become something structural, concrete, and real amidst the strangeness of a home turned to ruins. Keith Westwater employs the Richter scale to measure the effect of the earthquakes on both the earth and humans. It starts at “3.1… Felt by only a few” and finally moves to “6.1… Felt by all… Stoics grimace and those on edge start crying”.

Gravity is also an everyday concept turned strange in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Janet Wainscott asks, “how do we find and keep our footing here?” during the strange imposition of aftershocks that are constantly changing what used to be a stable home. Fixating on action and items becomes a reprise, even if, like Frankie McMillan, she becomes “another woman hurrying / home ticking off a list / candles, shelter, food and water”.

Many poems in Leaving the Red Zone describe interactions between not only friends and family, but also strangers. The title of Jeni Curtis’ piece says it all—Prayer For A Boy Whose Name I Never Found Out—the poem itself proving that even amid all the terror, there is a string of community. The question “Where were you when it struck?” becomes a point of reference for those who share the experience of the Canterbury earthquakes.

It also explores breaking points; C. M. Fitzgerald, writes “If I hear that damn word resilience / one more time, I will scream”, when the frustration of building herself back up over and over again becomes harder each time. Others poems question how ruined something has to be before you finally have no choice but to give up, and what it means to reach this breaking point. In her poem Possibilities Of The Now, Annette Chapman leaves with her “world packed in a moving van”, a departure that has layers of history behind it.

I was only fourteen when the 2011 earthquake struck. I had lived my whole life in Auckland, never been to Christchurch, and didn’t have family or friends there, so I am someone who has never felt the full effect of it. However, this collection makes Christchurch feel a little closer, through a whole chorus of voices that are joined together by memory.

The fact that Leaving the Red Zone cycles through the initial earthquake to aftershocks, the aftermath, and the promise of rebuild creates a full and rich narrative. Although many people have left Christchurch itself, the words of these poets persist in this collection; they are New Zealanders who are still attempting to understand this tragedy, years on from when the first quake struck.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury earthquakes
edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston
Published by Clerestory Press
ISBN 9780992251758

Book Review: The Pirates and the Nightmaker, by James Norcliffe

Available in booksellers nationwide.

IPirates and the nightmaker_smln the mid-eighteenth century young Jeremy is signed up aboard the Firefly as a loblolly boy – a gruesome job aiding the ship’s doctor. However, his seafaring adventures turn even more disturbing when, after the Firefly is attacked by pirates, he finds himself set adrift with the remnants of the crew and the mysterious figure, Mr Wicker. To escape the murderous intentions of this unscrupulous band Jeremy, renamed Loblolly Boy, is transformed, made invisible by the curious talents of this latter character.

But is Mr Wicker acting in Loblolly Boy’s interests or his own? Caught by the seemingly eternal ties that now bind him to his new master, Loblolly Boy must engage in a dangerous game to discover who Mr Wicker really is and what drives this strange, enigmatic individual. With equal urgency, however, Loblolly Boy must also find a way to cross over from his liminal existence – unseen, unheard – back to his human self.

As Norcliffe himself confirms, The Pirates and the Nightmaker affords a backstory to the author’s Loblolly Boy concept – an intriguing characterisation first introduced in The Loblolly Boy. A finalist in this year’s The New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, The Pirates and the Nightmaker’s engaging blend of fact and fiction produces an absorbing quest that advances with serpent-like shifts. Enigmas, commotions and betrayals layer complexity and captivating drama as a tousled cast of characters jostle for supremacy on land and the high seas.

This title is a perplexing mystery adventure in which, with narrative precision, James Norcliffe evokes detailed imagery of the iconic battle between “light and darkness” in the pursuit of power. I highly recommend this book and will be watching its award’s journey with keen interest.

Reviewed by Kay Hall

The Pirates and the Nightmaker
by James Norcliffe
Published by Longacre
ISBN 9781775537694

Exciting Tales and All Right Release, and Creating Worlds, at WORD Christchurch, Saturday 30 August

As a writer, bookseller and dedicated bibliophile, I make it my practice to attend as many literary events as I can. It is fun to recognise faces, and engage in networking, as well as meeting some of the authors that I admire. Today, at the Christchurch WORD festival, there was the chance to do a bit of both, along with making some new discoveries. Today, I attended three of the events, the following two of which were free.

The first event was Exciting Tales and All Right? Book Launch at 11.30 am, hosted by librarian and children’s book blogger/expert, Zac Harding. cv_felix and the red ratsThree authors, two of which are local faces, read selected pieces from their books. The first to take the stand was James Norcliffe, poet, writer and educator.  He had selected two passages from his tale x and the Red Rats, a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. This tale is an entwined narrative of two different words − blending the modern and the fantastical. In his strong, expressive manner, Norcliffe first revealed to us the mystery of the red rats, then took us on a pig-bound flight of fancy.

He was followed up by Desna Wallace, school librarian, bookseller and author, reading from her story, Earthquake. Part of the “My Story” range for Scholastic, it is written in diary format. She took us back to April, 2011, after the second of the major earthquakes, and to a time of relative calm, allowing us to re-live the royal wedding through the eyes of her (fictional) narrator.

Third up was Melinda Syzmanik, cv_a_winters_day_in_1939a prolific and experienced professional author. Her chosen reading was taken from A Winter’s Day in 1939, another NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults finalist – and winner of the Librarian’s Choice Award at the LIANZA Book Awards. Whilst a fictional story, this tale developed from her father’s own experiences in Poland during World War II. Beautifully told, it transported us into 12-year old Adam’s world, and the uncertainity he faced as he and his family were transported to a Russian work camp. Her language is compelling, and left me eager to learn more.

With the readings finished, it was time for the All Right? book launch. This nifty little staple-bound chapbook was available for free, and contains poetry from the very talented students from the School for Young Writers. After a brief introduction, we were treated to short readings from the children, ranging in age from Year 5 to Year 11. All spoke with confidence and clarity, stepping boldly up to the microphone (in some cases they were barely visible over the podium) and reading out their imagery-rich pieces. Their evocative prose, to say so much in so few words, left me feeling like a rank amateur. A particular favourite of mine was “Dust Mite Mountains”.

After that, it was time for a short break before the next event, Creating Worlds, in which five wonderful young adult novelists − two international − read from their works. This was one of the events I was most excited about, as two of the authors are particular favourites of mine. Once again, each guest was skilfully introduced by Zac Harding.

The first to step up to the elizabeth_knoxpodium was Elizabeth Knox, author of The Vintner’s Luck and the Dreamhunter duet. She read a passage from Mortal Fire, winner of the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in the Young Adult category. Her selected passage tied in loosely with the “Dreamhunter / Dreamquake” duo.

word-LainiTaylorFollowing her up was Laini Taylor, from Portland, America. One of my favourite writers, her writing has enchanted me since I first discovered it, and she selected a passage from the wonderful Daughter of Smoke and Bone, first announcing that she had chosen the most embarrasing chapter for her to read aloud, and then keeping us spellbound through it. With her lyrical language combined with the wry humour and her rather charming accent, it was an excellent way to re-experience her writing.

Next up, Karen Healey took the stage. She is both author and a school teacher with a strength of character and charisma that added extra charm to her tellings. Instead of reading to us from one of her books, of which there are four, she read us a short story from her smart phone. Entitled “Careful Magic” it is to feature in an anthology, and one I shall definitely consider purchasing. Her tongue-in-cheek humour and rich use of language shone through.

Tania Roxborogh then read us a passage from her novel Third Degree. Her dialogue was very clever, and her rather descriptive prose as her narrator was being treated for serious burns had us wincing at the imagery.

WORD-Web-Event-INTERESTINGWe concluded with American author Meg Wotlizer, whom I am ashamed to say I was unfamiliar with previously. This is something I intend to remedy! Her chosen piece was taken from the not-yet-released-in-NZ Belzhar,  a novel inspried by Sylvia Platt’s The Bell Jar (which all of the authors, but few in the audience, had read).  The short piece she read to us had me instantly hooked, and I am definitely going to be hunting down a copy of this one to read in full!

Overall, it was a wonderful opportunity to hear the authors read their work, giving it the passion that it clearly deserves, and I felt privileged to be able to attend.

by Angela Oliver, writer, artist, bookseller and reviewer

Book Review: Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page, edited by Harry Ricketts, Siobhan Harvey and James Norcliffe

Available in bookstores nationwide. There is also a nationwide tour accompanying this publication, details can be found here. 

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (2014) weighed heavily in my cv_essential_nz_poemshands. It had some major shoes to fill. Its predecessor and titular sibling of thirteen years earlier, edited by Edmond and Sewell, was my first guide to New Zealand poetry. A veritable treasure trove − I found New Zealand poetry pioneers Bethell, Fairburn, Mason within the pages, as well as shiny new gems from the likes of Emma Neale and Vivienne Plumb. With time, I wondered at the title. The word ‘essential’ troubled me. Could New Zealand’s rich body of poetic works really be sieved through to reveal its ‘essence’?

In this latest anthology, Harvey, Norcliffe and Ricketts approach this issue head on and, with admirable candidness, describe the collection as ‘Some Rather Good New Zealand Poems the Three of Us Rather Like’. Moreover, the new collection has an adjunct title, ‘Facing the Empty Page’, taken from a poem authored by Elizabeth Nannestad. The problem of ‘essence’, though scarcely resolved, seems to be shrunk.

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page is a literary slumber party, where old-hands and newcomers coalesce. Baxter is bedfellow with Hinemoana Baker, Kiri Piahana-Wong is bunked down with Alistair Paterson. The assemblage is egalitarian, insofar as each author is represented by one poem. Poets are arranged, not chronologically, but in alphabetical sequence. Such an arrangement lends itself to surprises. A page turned can occasion a completely new mood and style. Bub Bridger’s comedic ‘A Christmas Wish’ jolts the reader out of Diana Bridge’s meditational and exquisite ‘Jars, Bubble Bowls and Bottle Vases’. Approaching the book from cover to cover, the reader is sent on an affective rollercoaster. And though giddiness may ensue, the buzz is something addictive.

This anthology, unlike its predecessor, kicks off in the 1950s. So while Curnow is included, Bethell and Mason are not. This is a shortcoming, perhaps, but it does serve to open up the field to a greater number of lesser known contemporary poets. Helen Heath, Courtney Sina Meredith and Ashleigh Young are new kids on the block but, in each case, their poems hold their own.

The book itself is testament to the survival of books as pulp and ink. It is a handsome production − cloth bound, and peppered with haunting greyscale images of New Zealand landscapes. These images serve as reminders that this poetry is ‘earthed’, that the works within were born into the New Zealand context.

Yet many of the pieces featured extend beyond their geographical location. Fleur Adcock’s ‘Having Sex with the Dead’ introduces Greek mythology, Koenraad Kuiper’s ‘Tales’ hauls in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Then there are poems that take us on trips through our very own streets. We are in Titirangi with David Eggleton, the Maniototo with Kevin Ireland, Banks Peninsular with Denis Glover. And James K Baxter enlightens us about Auckland, that ‘great arsehole’ of a city.

This is a beautiful and considered collection. Essential or not, this book is worth getting your hands on.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page
edited by Harry Ricketts, Siobhan Harvey and James Norcliffe
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775534594

Book Review: Felix and the Red Rats, by James Norcliffe

Felix and the Red Rats is a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Here is James Norcliffe’s Q & A about the writing of this book. 

Felix and the Red Rats tells two stories.cv_felix and the red rats The first, set in contemporary New Zealand, is the story of a typical Kiwi family who are preparing for the visit of their somewhat odd uncle. The Uncle, Felix, is famous for having written children’s books about an alternative world, Axillaris. The second story (told in alternate chapters) is set in Axillaris itself.

David, the narrator, is very interested in his uncle’s arrival and begins to read the books. When his older brother’s rats change colour overnight David suspects his uncle’s involvement. He begins to ask questions about his uncle, and the world portrayed in his books.

The story seemed very simplistic to me at first − the writing is uncomplicated and very accessible. The last half of the book though is quick paced and the story concludes beautifully leaving questions regarding the blurring of reality and fiction. I really liked it.

And I really liked the puzzles used in the story. They are addictive! My seven year old also liked them.

My favourite character was the mean older brother, Gray. Gray is richly described − the surly teenager who is mean to his younger brother just because he can be. David has learnt to keep away from him, and the different approaches Gray and David take in dealing with the mystery of the colour change rats are very consistent with their personalities. Gray explodes under the stress and David approaches the problem from a curious, gently investigatory process. I’d love to see Gray portrayed on screen − he would be awesome.

I felt that the story would be great for getting children into more detailed analysis of writing. For a story written in a straightforward and simple manner, the family created is vividly portrayed. The end of the story invites a sequel − but not in an obvious way. I’d enjoy exploring some of the unsolved mysteries in a future book.

Felix and the Red Rats is a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

Felix and the Red Rats
by James Norcliffe
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775533245