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Book Reviews Bug Week - Airini Beautrais Uncategorized

Book Review: Bug Week by Airini Beautrais

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Short fiction collection

Award-winning poet Airini Beautrais’s short fiction collection, Bug Week, deftly steps from story to story exploring various perspectives – both geographical and personal. Beautrais slides her characters and their lives under her microscope – a young woman trying to move on from heartbreak, a male teacher fantasising about his young student teacher, an older female teacher who has become an ‘object of general revulsion’, an albatross at an open mic night.

I like short fiction. A lot. I enjoy the brevity, the impact of the story. In a collection of stories, the worries and niggles that press on the writer’s mind come through, sneaking and snaking through the characters and the narrations, no matter how diverse. In Bug Week, these are clear – our transgressions and our attempts to disassociate ourselves from the natural world, love and sex, death and birth. Although quite different in tone and setting, the strongest stories from Bug Week reminded me of stories from Claire Vaye Watkin’s Battleborn, particularly Watkin’s story ‘The Archivist’.

Beautrais’s stories are concerned with bodies and flesh and their uses and their decay, pitting humans against and alongside animals. Bodily functions and animal desire give many stories their heartbeat – hands and legs and touching waists and strange naked bodies like ‘peeled crustaceans’. Often the characters dislike bodies, the dirtiness of them. In the story ‘A pair of hands’, the controlled Richard is confronted by the gory reality of our physical selves, observing of the hands that the ‘severed ends were wiggly – lobes of fat, dangling tendons.’ In ‘Bug Week’, the main character likes her lover’s bed sheets clean ‘as if there had been nothing bodily happening in them’. This character is like many others in the rest of the stories, yearning for organisation and cleanliness and purity. ‘I just want some semblance of order in my life,’ she says, but it’s clear containment isn’t possible: nature will burst through any constructs we create to maintain control.

The inevitability of death is the rotting underworld you sense beneath most of the stories. The title story, ‘Bug Week’, is an off-beat entry into the world of the collection. The major themes of fertility, sex, death and boredom are introduced through the unnamed main character who works at a museum. She’s bored in her marriage, disgusted by the banality and reality of her messy life, and embarks on a shortlived affair with an entomologist who spends time in a ‘microscopic daze’. Some charming sentences mingle with the grotesque – the entomologist’s office was ‘piled to the ceiling with filing drawers, each with a little pinned death inside.’

Most of the stories work well, thought a few of them are definite highlights. The story ‘Billy the Pirate Poet’ stood out for its light touch and dirty confessional style. Amy, the main character, remembers a friendship and the summer it all fell apart, looking back from middle-age. She details the way she lived, the intimacies of youth, now replaced with the intimacies of motherhood. Regrets are put under the microscope here, and one sentence drew together the bittersweet sadness of aging: ‘Someday I looked in the mirror and saw lines forming around my eyes, the beginnings of grey, and knew that possibilities had narrowed themselves, that I wouldn’t live forever.’

The biological nature of life hides on the edges of many stories. In one story, pregnancy is described: ‘bodies grew inside our bodies and emerged out of them, and screamed, and fed, and grew’, placing the birth alongside a butterfly’s metamorphosis, an emergence into the world.

Another highlight was the story ‘A summer of scents’. Smells and colours permeate all the stories, but this one uses it to greater effect. Beautrais’s style and confidence abound in this story. Again there are references to microscopes and the rank reality of nature – ‘the lake smelled faintly of microscopic algae’. The story centres on the inhabitants of an apartment block in post-Communist Germany, and gently reminds us that life is forever changing. Herr Rabe knows that change is necessary: ‘The other option was to remain here, and that was simply worse.’

The final story is titled ‘A quiet death’, though the death in the story is anything but quiet. The narrator is able to see her body from the afterlife, and she sees it, already ‘savaged by disease’, now defiled and desecrated. Though this is an awful and sickening act, the narrator isn’t overwhelmed. She sees this as merely another moment in which women are destroyed. It’s a sombre ending to a collection of stories that have moments of softness, humour and gristly detail.

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Author QandA The Girl In The Mirror - Rose Carlyle

QandA with Rose Carlyle

READ CLOSE: Your debut novel The Girl in The Mirror is a racy, pacy thriller – could you tell us about the writing of this book?

ROSE CARLYLE: I feel as though this story fell out of the sky fully formed, and I had no choice but to write it down. I’ve heard other writers (such as Elizabeth Gilbert) describe the feeling that the story chooses the writer, and although I don’t believe in supernatural stuff, there was something a bit spooky about the process.

My sister, Madeleine, and I were both trying to write novels and both considering trashing them and starting fresh with new ideas. One day at lunch, Maddie mentioned she would like to write a twin story. I felt as though I knew what she was going to say before she said it, because I wanted to write a twin story too. When we put our ideas together, the magic happened. We had the key plot points planned within an hour.

So it was as if the story was floating around in the sky, and half of it fell into my lap and half into Maddie’s. We had to put the halves together to make the story complete. Fortunately, Maddie wanted me to write the story, but she has put an enormous amount of energy into it, too. She’s like a pre-editor, helping me shape the story before, during and after the writing process.

Twins are such a fascinating pairing in a novel. Could you tell us why you made your protagonists twins and how that doubling and symmetry works in the novel storytelling?

To me, the special thing about fiction is that it allows you to inhabit someone else’s mind. I don’t know any other art form that creates such a deep experience of living somebody else’s experience. Movies come close, but in a movie you are usually still watching the characters from the outside. When you finish reading Jane Eyre, you feel that you are Jane. Sometimes that feeling persists for a long time.

I wanted to take that idea one step further. If readers love being somebody else, what about a story about a character who tries to become someone else for real? I wasn’t drawn to writing sci-fi or fantasy, so a way for me to explore that idea was with identical twins.

Iris and Summer sail across the Indian Ocean, and you write this part of the novel with such clarity and evoke the feeling of isolation and beauty so well. You obviously have an affinity with the sea and sailing: do you think the ocean and its latent danger will feature in future work?

Yes, I think I can safely say the ocean will feature in future work, because I never plan to write about the ocean, but it always manages to sneak in. I wish I could have depicted the ocean as less dangerous, though. In real life, sailing is not scary. Perhaps one day I will write a book in which the ocean is better behaved.

If The Girl in The Mirror is made into a film, who would you love to see in the role of Iris and Summer?

My kids have been fan-casting the novel since I read them a sample chapter back in 2018. One son votes for Samara Weaving, the other for Margot Robbie, but the running joke in our household is that one of them could play each twin. My daughter, Florence, wants her namesake Florence Pugh. I can only tell you who is perfect for the audiobook and that is Holly Robinson. When I heard her audition tape, I felt as though they found the real Iris. I’m told the audiobook will be ready in August and I’m extremely excited about it.

If The Girl In The Mirror was sitting on my bookshelf, what two or three other books would you hope to see stacked beside it?

I would hope to see War and Peace, The Best American Science Writing of 2019, and The Day My Bum Went Psycho, because I hope that people read all sorts of books—and, like me, don’t have time to organise their bookshelves. I didn’t learn how to write a thriller by religiously reading other thrillers. I believe that everything you read influences your writing somehow, so you’ve got more chance of finding your own voice if you read widely and randomly. I’m a big fan of picking up some forgotten treasure at your friend’s uncle’s bach and reading it in order to learn what was once popular. Or just read it because it’s a book and you’re a reader.

Tell us about some of the books and the writers who have been influential in your writing.

I know I’m meant to list other thrillers, but honestly, some of them are too scary for me. I’m sure there are writers who have influenced me, but I don’t know who they are, because I’ve read thousands of books in my life and they’re all blended together in my brain like a soup that’s been cooking too long. So, my all-time faves include Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, the Russians from Tolstoy to Nabokov, and Marilynne Robinson. How you get from there to writing a thriller is beyond me.

What are you reading now? What is on your To Be Read pile?

Now I’m going to contradict myself because I just advocated for serendipitous reading, but I don’t have much time for it these days. As a Kiwi author who is published in Australia, America and the UK, it’s almost part of the job description to keep up with the latest thrillers from all these countries, as well as other notable fiction from anywhere in the world. I also feel that I want to keep delving into the past. There are still some classics I haven’t read, like Don Quixote. Right now I am halfway through Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg and All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Then I want to catch up with the latest thrillers by Chris Hammer and Ruth Ware.

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Book Reviews The Girl In The Mirror - Rose Carlyle

Book Review: The Girl In The Mirror by Rose Carlyle

The Girl In The Mirror, the debut novel from Rose Carlyle, billed as one of those books you can’t put down. One of those special books that come along every once in a while and whisk you away to another world, the intrigue and the drama capturing your attention and not letting go until you turn the last page. Often, I don’t find these sort of claims pan out. I like to sleep. I own a lot of bookmarks, and I’m happy to slip one into the pages of even the most enthralling of novels.

But, it turns out they might be right. I read this book – a racy, pacy thriller about gorgeous Australian twins and their battle for their multi-billion dollar inheritance in two sittings. I opened the book in the afternoon and read the first few chapters. ‘Very professional, very slick, very fun,‘ I thought. I wrote some of my own novel after that, drank a late afternoon coffee, and watched an episode of Unorthodox before going to bed. I will read some more of that book, I thought, and then I will sleep.

Was it the coffee? Maybe. But I didn’t go to sleep until 2 am, once I made it to the very end of the book. I couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t put it down. The promises made on the blurb were true.

I have read that Carlyle set out to write a novel like this, one that is ‘unputdownable’. She’s clever with her plot twists, heavy-footed on the adrenaline. The prologue explaining the circumstances leading to the extraordinary ‘mirror-twins’ Iris and Summer was gripping and led straight into the incredible story.

The plot is full of money and glamour and sex: I can imagine the film this will make. Almost a love-child of Dead Calm and Succession, if Logan Roy made his successor dependent on procreation, and his daughters were twisted versions of Jessica and Elizabeth from Sweet Valley High. Locations are exotic – Thailand, the Seychelles – and the women are beauty queens. Ruthless beauty queens.

To describe the story would be to give away spoilers. And this is a book you need to read to enjoy the twists. The twins scenario is ripe for manipulation and deception, and Carlyle deftly sets the stage for their devious behaviour. First-person narrators like Iris provide wonderful opportunity for untrustworthy tales, and when you have twins so identical no one can tell them apart, there’s plenty of scope for tricks. As a reader, you feel you are in safe hands – Carlyle writes as though she’s been at this work for many years and knows all the tricks. As a recent graduate of the University of Auckland’s Masters of Creative Writing course in 2017 (Carlyle was in the same class as Amy McDaid, author of Fake Baby), it’s a remarkable display of both tension and playfulness.

The Girl In The Mirror has been published with a splash. Carlyle has an international publishing deal; the US rights sold in a bidding war. The film rights have been sold. What incredible success! It’s exhilarating to see a writer from New Zealand enjoy such a welcome with her first published novel.

It’s not a novel with a ‘meaning’ – unless it’s ‘Enjoy the ride’. It’s a thriller; an escape from reality, pure entertainment that might keep you awake until the early hours of the morning, unable to put it down.

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Book Reviews Dance Prone - David Coventry

Book Review: Dance Prone by David Coventry

Early in Dance Prone, the new novel from David Coventry, two members of the post-hardcore band Neues Bauen, Conrad Wells and Tony Seburg, both experience trauma – on the same night, at the same time. Different trauma, although Conrad circles around and around the idea that these events are connected, and the rest of his life is weighed down by the burden of finding peace. Healing is a step too far, for the boys in this band, for the women they abuse and neglect, no matter the depth of their artistic desires and their philosophical interior lives. Dance Prone is a novel that interrogates music and it’s capacity for producing societal change, the bonds of friendship and family, and the manner in which we avoid confronting ourselves with the truth.

Conrad is the guitar player and the driver of the band’s dirty, run-down van, navigating them through snowstorms to each new venue on their 1985 tour. Concerts are described in brutal language, and this vicious vocabulary creates a vivid and clear sensation of a post-punk concert. In these scenes, and everywhere else the music or the songwriting talents of the characters are described, Coventry’s energetic and multi-layered skill with words rises to the occasion. His disjointed and disordered style perfectly suits the themes of destruction and reconstruction explored by the musicians in the book – the breaking down of art’s ideas and meanings. Paloma, the Moroccan artist who moves on the periphery of the novel, when she meets the band at one of the artist colonies run by the academic enigma Joan George-Warren, says they make the ‘music after music after music.’ Dance Prone isn’t a clear cut narrative, either – it’s an attempt to create the novel in it’s essence: looking for the new, resisting the obvious, denying the familiar.

This ambitious desire to resist familiar forms and structures makes for a challenging read at times. Glorious detail (young women in the street: ‘Kiss-me mouths and boots, black lipstick and a kind of low-core goth’; the mention of a goat in the audience at a concert lifted to bleat into the microphone) sit beside sentences that sometimes drift into semantics, deep dives into the meaning of things sometimes as meaningless as cars changing lanes on the LA expressway. A long conversation between Conrad and a minor character named Blair should slow the pace later in the novel but instead becomes the glue to piece the puzzle together – who was raped, by whom? Can one experience be compared to another? Why do we remember and why do we forget? – and I found my concentration was held during these slower, opaque sections because of Coventry’s unflagging dedication to language and literary risk. When a cryptic sentence looms, deliberately vague and elusive, avoiding clarity the way Conrad avoids his feelings and his memories, I had a sense that if I could unlock this one sentence, then I might discover the meaning of the whole novel, or perhaps the meaning of life. So I continued to read, following the words to the next page.

David Coventry’s first novel, The Invisible Mile won the Hubert Church Award for Best First Book at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His author biography explains that this book was described as ‘one of the most gruelling novels about sport ever written’. Dance Prone is also gruelling. Violence, loneliness, blood and sex fill the pages, and between the two novels, it’s clear that Coventry is committed to writing fiction that’s gritty and raw and true. The back of the book is packed with quotes from Carl Shuker and Kiran Dass and Alan McMonagle, all testament to the esteem in which Coventry is held.

Like the band members of Neues Bauen, the novel resists the easy option. It resists an easy read. The structure and language create a story that sits inside itself like a Matryoshka doll; only the dolls are cracked and reordered into a nest that takes time to stack. For those who persist, the novel splits open to show friendships decaying from deception in multiple locations, a haunting read that leaves you feeling desiccated and hollow.

The idea that punk, and many other art movements, is not about destruction, but reconstruction, weaves through Dance Prone. These men (and this book is about men, really, with the women supporting the action from the shadows) believe they can change their world with their music. Only it doesn’t. Conrad is the witness to the devastation, and the beauty, in the attempt.

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Author QandA Nothing to See - Pip Adam Uncategorized

QandA with Pip Adam

READ CLOSE: Nothing To See has such an incredible cover. Could you tell us more about the process of design for this book?

PIP ADAM: Working with VUP on covers is really fun. We send ideas back and forward. It’s very collaborative and also acts a really good exercise in working out exactly what the book is about and how best to talk about the book.

My memory of how this cover came about is we were having a lot of back and forward and, although we had some good ideas, nothing was sticking. I think I was being a bit difficult because I wasn’t sure I wanted an identifiable person on the cover.

I was in Sephora in Auckland and there was a poster where two women were cheek to cheek each with different eye liner and I thought, Hmm. So, I found a stock picture of two people cheek to cheek to everyone. Everyone had been talking about asking the incredible Russel Kleyn [https://russellkleyn.com/] to take the photo for the cover. This excited me heaps because I love Russel’s work.

Russell recommended Franca and took the photos and then Fergus laid the cover out. It was very exciting for me. I have never had a real person on my book before and I feel very grateful to Franca – it’s no small thing to allow your likeness to be used to interpret someone else’s art. I particularly like the cover because I don’t think Russel simply mirrored the image – this means both halves of Franca’s face are slightly different. I think this is slightly more un-nerving, which I really like.

If Nothing To See were to be made as a film or TV show, who would you cast in the roles?

I don’t think I would want to cast this myself. I think my answer for this question goes back to my resistance to having an actual person on the cover of the book. I have this hope, which I think is possibly a cop-out, that people will build the identity of the characters for themselves. I’m quite light on description of characters, purposefully, and I think in my head, I often don’t see characters. Instead, I kind of experience them from inside. I hope what this means is that people who read the book can do the same.

I think this was part of the discussion we had around the cover. People were talking about a ‘non-descript’ or ‘unrecognisable’ person on the cover and we always kept landing on this ideal of ‘normal’ that I felt didn’t represent the way I had been trying to write the characters. I think ‘normal’ often means ‘closest to the people in power’ and, like I say, I have this idea that if I write characters the way I do, there’s space for people to insert people who look like they do into the work.

Like I say, I’m aware that maybe this is a cop-out for facing the harder questions around including characters who have experiences different from mine.

I always imagine books existing in conversation with other booksIf you could place Nothing To See with two or three other books that it would ‘speak’ to, which books would they be?

One book I had in mind was Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly because of its interest in addiction and the way it talks about this in a science fiction world. I also have a lot to owe Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous which is a work that holds itself strong as a novel despite being linked strongly with autobiography.

Are there any books or writers you see as the most influential in your writing?

Bae Suah has been incredibly influential. Bae Suah writes the feminine experience like no other writer I can think of.

I also think Nothing to See owes so much to the TV series The Leftovers and the work of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij both of which were a touchstone for the book.

The Leftovers reminded me that what I was more interested in was the lived experience of the people in an unusual situation, than the mechanics of the situation. Tom Perrotta’s book series begins with a preface which explains a lot about the occurrence and it was interesting to see how much information could be left out of the TV show and it still be satisfying.

I am very obsessed with the idea of ambiguity – or the possibility of two things being true at the same time and that’s where I turn to Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij work. I am always in awe of the way they manage to keep two realities alive at the same time – resisting resolution – but still make fully engaging and exciting work.

If there was a playlist to accompany Nothing To See, what songs would you have on that list?

Oddly, there is a playlist for Nothing to See J It includes, music from each of the years the book takes place in, quite a bit of Aldous Harding, Fever Ray, Orchestra of Spheres, Car Sseat Headrest (‘Bodies’ in particular), The Knife and Sufjan Stevens.

Tell me how you challenge yourself as a writer, and how you see fiction writing in particular continue to grow stronger in New Zealand?

I think being a writer in New Zealand comes with quite a few in-built challenges and I guess part of how I challenge myself is by trying to find ways to lessen these challenges for other writers. I’m always interested in ways to make room for other writers because I think this is the only way to strengthen fiction writing. I often fail at these very badly and I guess this is another way I try to challenge myself – it’s tempting when I fail to give up, to retreat back into my privilege where I’m safe, but when I mess up I try really hard to not do this. I think often I expect living this way to be straightforward and like a smooth improvement but it is messy and I fail in all sorts of new ways but I can’t see an alternative at the moment and I want change very badly.

What are you reading right now? What is next to be read?

Right at this moment I am reading incredible work in progress from some amazing writers who I’m working with at a couple of tertiary institutions and through a mentoring programme. I get extremely excited when I read this work. I have also really enjoyed the work in Stasis Journal [https://www.stasisjournal.com] which has been an amazing project.

I am really looking forward to reading Almond by Won-Pyung Sohn and Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann.

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Book Reviews Fake Baby - Amy McDaid Fake Baby - Amy McDaid Uncategorized

Book Review: Fake Baby by Amy McDaid

Penguin Random House, RRP $36.00, Contemporary Fiction

Spoiler alert – plot points are discussed in this review

Last Halloween, I tied four sparkling fake spiders to our gate, to let families on our street know that we’d welcome trick-or-treating. My husband decided this wasn’t scary enough, so he retrieved the plastic baby doll that belonged to our young children and tied that to the gate as well. That plastic doll, when it was in the arms of my daughters, was cute and sweet. Once the doll was attached to the fence, it became the opposite: creepy, unsettling, alarming. 

 The title of Amy McDaid’s debut novel, Fake Baby, brings to my mind this doll. Of course, the fake baby in the book is a doll of much grander ambition – it is made from silicone, baked and hand-painted and weighted perfectly to mimic a real baby. The doll, a Reborn worth more than $5000, is stolen by one of the main characters, Jaanvi. The doll symbolises an idea interrogated in Fake Baby: what are the differences between fakeness and reality; where are the boundaries of pretence and authenticity? The doll and the act of playing with dolls, so acceptable when we were children, ceases to be considered ‘normal’ once we are adults. What is normal, this book challenges us. What is not? 

 A trio of characters forms the basis for the story: Stephen, Jaanvi, and Lucas. Three people who behave in ways that seem unfathomable to others, and sometimes even to themselves. Stephen is the first character we’re introduced to, and it’s in his chapters that McDaid’s most confident writing occurs. Although the very last parts of his story feel weaker than the other two storylines, the whole book to me is carried by the confident, playful, free prose in his passages. Even when the storylines felt a touch forced, it was the zest of language that captured my attention. McDaid’s writing was never fussy or flimsy, and the comedy of the writing feels fun and natural. 

 Stephen’s a man battling with the memories of his father. The two other characters, Jaanvi and Lucas, are also dealing with issues around parenthood – their relationships with their parents are tense and difficult, and these painful feelings form Jaanvi’s experience of being a parent herself. She loses her son when he is nine days old, flashbacks deepening our understanding of what this loss was like in real-time. All the characters in the novel find that disappointment and hurt destroy or maim their love for their parents. In one of Lucas’s flashbacks, his mother gives his childhood puppy to the neighbours. He peers through the hedge to watch the dog grow. His mother discards a beloved family pet, and in the same way, Lucas feels discarded and forgotten as an adult. Lucas and Stephen have both been hurt by the people who created them, and this damage leaves deep scars. Lucas sums up his thoughts about mothers succinctly when he watches ducks at Green Bay beach: ‘They did such a poor job of caring for their young.’ 

 I imagine Jaanvi would be horrified to hear this idea. She’s a mother willing to do anything to be a mother, to give love. She has the hope that all new parents have: that they won’t repeat the mistakes of their parents. Her theft of the doll may be exactly what she says – a coping mechanism, but for some this behaviour strays too far from the norm. Her husband doesn’t seem to find it comforting or healing, and their relationship suffers from the aftershocks of their loss. Edith, Lucas’s pharmacy customer, offers a counter view of mothers and parents when she says, ‘Mothers do what they can do to get through,’ and this could be what Jaanvi’s trying to do – doing what she can to get through her pain, albeit in a way that seems to be teetering on the edge of what is creepy and what is cute.

 The novel seems to suggest that everyone moulds their behaviour to fit what is considered ‘normal’ by others: we put ourselves on display, and we shift and mutate our behaviour based on the response from our audience. Jaanvi’s friend Ayla performs in this way – she displays herself on social media and then can behave to please, with statistics to help her figure out what’s acceptable, and what is not. It’s the gaze of others that determines whether we are merely eccentric or if we require psychiatric care, whether we need a cocktail of drugs or if we need to be hospitalised. 

 McDaid’s language in the book flickers with an off-beat whimsy; words like ‘cock-a-doodled’, ‘hoed into’ and ‘hullaballoo’ pop up. There are other childlike nursery rhymes referred to at times; Stephen sings himself Twinkle Twinkle little star, Winnie the Pooh is mentioned as a potential wise sage, and offer a light touch in moments of darkness for the characters. 

 One scene has stayed with me, from a book packed with memorable scenes: Stephen, cradling the fake baby, singing a lullaby – rock-a-bye-baby. Two men take the doll from him, call him a ‘pedo’. Once they realise it’s a doll, they damage the doll. and burn it and break it. This behaviour feels more gruesome because the same pain, the same damage, is inflicted on real children in the same ways when they should be loved and protected. It’s this balance between grim and harsh reality and the clever playfulness of language that keeps Fake Baby ticking along, weaving through Auckland, exploring the heartbreak and the small joys of the people who live there.