Friday, October 21, 2016

Rob O’Neill on Renato Amato

The 98th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1994 issue. The intro read:
Rob O’Neill on Renato “Michael” Amato, 1928-1964. The first in an occasional series.
Neglected Writers
If, like me, you spend a lot of time rummaging around in second-hand bookshops, you may have come across the name Renato Amato. If you’re not, then the odds are that you wouldn’t have.

It was 30 years this April since Amato died from a brain haemorrhage in Wellington at the age of 35. His single volume, the collection of stories The Full Circle Of The Travelling Cuckoo, was posthumously published in 1967. Since then he has been almost universally, and quite unjustly, ignored. Perhaps because of the dominant strain of literary nationalism at the time, ironically a movement often associated with his friend Maurice Shadbolt, Amato just didn’t seem to fit.

Born in Portenza in southern Italy in 1928, Amato fought on both sides during World War II. First he was co-opted into the Fascist Black Brigade and later, using forged papers, he joined the partisans — where he saw many of his former officers taken prisoner and executed.

Filled with a general disgust after the war, Amato tried to build a life for himself. He attended university but did not finish a degree. He began writing and had some pieces published. Moving to Rome, he acted, wrote, took labouring jobs and waited on tables. He met several more-established writers, including Cesare Pavese, but they made little impression on him.

Working for a refugee organisation in the early 50s and learning English, Amato began to think about emigrating. New Zealand was virtually off limits to Italian migrants so, perhaps out of some sense of perversity, he decided that was where he wanted to go.

He arrived in Auckland in 1954 and renamed himself Michael. Again he found a succession of jobs — labouring, selling linen door-to-door — and virtually abandoned writing until, in 1958, he met his future wife, Sheena McAdam.

She was a student at Victoria University and, with her encouragement, he enrolled there himself and began writing again. Between then and his death in 1964, Amato had numerous stories published in local literary journals and his talent and promise began to be recognised.

To his contemporaries, Amato always seemed a writer of another order — internationalist when nationalism was a strong force in literature, cosmopolitan in a relatively closed and insular society, never prepared to pander to his new countrymen’s need of positive affirmation.

Robert Chapman described him as “the one adult in an adolescent generation”. And Maurice Shadbolt, in his introduction to Amato’s collection (where much of this information comes from), remembered him as “contemptuous of all special pleading for New Zealand and New Zealanders in literature”.

Another who knew him, John Parkyn, an occasional writer and one-time editor of the Victoria University journal Argot, says he was “one of the kindest men l have ever known. But he also loved nothing better than a good argument, taking an outrageous, taunting position on some literary or non-literary matter. ‘Come in, Johnny Parkino!’ he would bellow as he opened the door of his Kelburn house. ‘Why is your country so bloody boring?’”

New Zealand and New Zealanders do not get off lightly in his fiction either. In stories like “An Evening’s Word” he often used a fine sense of irony to display all that was provincial, crass and hypocritical in our society. Perhaps it was this that has led him to be little anthologised since. Amato’s unwillingness to heap praise on his adopted country, and often his willingness to do the reverse, hit us where it hurt the most: in our fragile sense of national pride. We could take such criticism from a fellow New Zealander — just — but from an outsider, a foreigner, an immigrant, it was too much.

But in the end, the only question that really counts is quite simple: Could he write? And the answer is equally straightforward: yes, and very well. His recent inclusion in Vincent O’Sullivan’s Oxford Book Of New Zealand Short Stories is totally deserved.

The Full Circle Of The Travelling Cuckoo is, for me, one of the best collections of short fiction published in this country. It should still be read.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bernard Brown on walking

The 97th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Browne and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists, art curators – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.

Bernard Brown
I cherished no schoolboy ambition to be a perambulator. But my hero, Ned Ludd, with his wrecker mates, hadn’t seen the job through. He’d let down the Simple Society. Me especially.

The problem, for 60 years, has been my nervy relationship with machines, even bicycles. Motor vehicles unerringly failed me. They could be induced to go forward smoothly, but only convulsively the other way.

My last driving test – in ]ohore Bahru, 1958 – promised success, until the Hudson Terraplane leaped back onto the examiner.

So walking became the chief and safer alternative, taking me from Boulogne to Paris (three weeks), through Malayan jungles and into a Singapore cricket match (where I was bowled by a chinaman, by a Chinaman), around and about the 20 suburbs in search of the city of Canberra, down bumpy parts of Borneo and, for a few years, New Guinea too (all for malaria, an arrow wound and sweaty tales of Errol Flynn). After which, I turned to Auckland as a pedestrian academe (“Here comes Associate Professor Plod,” the neighbours’ kids would call).

However, the pleasures of walking do outweigh the embarrassments, the inconvenience and the varicosity. You come to know your routes, the dogs and cats (by name), the children, gnomes and concrete bunnies on front lawns, as well as the dapper adulterer who tipped his hat to all he thought might know.

Garbage – yes. You become an authority on who puts out the really classy stuff. The rich are mean with rubbish. And in times of milk in bottles, you were alerted at gates to illness or death –  followed, alas, by For Sale signs, then quick-buck gentrifications of the nice old homes. Even sadder, the last five or six years have introduced this walker to the poor souls who used to be cared for, but who now traipse the streets probing litter bins. Somehow, they miss the odd coin or note dropped at the morning bus stops, but not the fag butts.

Along my ways I have found a homicide knife, numerous booties, a Rasta beret, corsets, lecture notes on Leavis (from which I lectured for a while), photos of a friend’s holiday and, intermittently, myself.

Pavement mores change. Exhausted condoms have become a welcome sight. Indeed, in mid-winter, one marvels.

You learn to smile at all oncoming pedestrians. Even to say hello. One ped, thus greeted, punched me in the throat. Thousands haven’t.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #73

From the edition of Friday 16 September. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.
Monumental ideas
I have been wondering where the council is going to put the waterfall?
Wairere, wai is water, rere is falling. There’s no point having Wairere Drive if there’s no monument.
Instead of replacing Founders Theatre, build a “cultural” waterfall. It could be incorporated into the Wairere/Cobham Drive intersection. Ten million dollars would be cheaper than messing around with Founders.
In a strategic location, everyone passing would see it making it the most looked at monument. That should be worth something.
My earlier brilliant ideas were to turn the Hillcrest cycle stadium into an ice rink, and put a mural of an International Airport on the Anglesea Wall – “The steepest airport in the world”.
Both were beyond the combined brainpower of the councillors at the time.
Laurie Polglase

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Reader attitudes and behaviours

A timeline of responses to the NZ Book Council’s Report on reader attitudes and behaviours.

9 September
The NZ Book Council releases Report on reader attitudes and behaviours by Catherine Robertson and Paula Morris, two novelists with experience of how to conduct surveys. You can download the PDF here. Quote unquote:
According to Nielsen BookScan, in 2014, New Zealand fiction comprised only 3% of all fiction bought in this country. Based on available sales data, estimates suggest that New Zealand fiction comprises more like 5-6% of all fiction bought here. Our research aimed to discover the reasons for the comparatively low consumption.
13 September
The Listener publishes “Why aren’t adults reading New Zealand fiction books?” by Elizabeth Easther, based on the report. The subhead is: “A survey reveals we have a crisis on our hands, with adults reading almost no New Zealand fiction.” Quote unquote:
The results showed deeply ingrained negative impressions towards New Zealand writing. When asked to quickly describe “New Zealand fiction”, about 75% came up with negative words including “dark”, “grim”, “depressing”, “gloomy”, “overrated” and “boring”. […] Younger readers were especially down on local fiction, summing it up as growing up in the backblocks “with pohutukawa and jandals”; “everything happening really slowly, no action”; Kiwiana, “a slice of not-very-enjoyable life, plodding and dull”.
14 September
Peter King posts a response online, headed “NZ books needs a better story”. Quote unquote:
So while the Book Council can pretend it isn’t an agency of Government the fact is, it’s board are largely there for the wine and cheese, and it is almost entirely taxpayer funded agency delivering Creative New Zealand programmes. […]
Catherine Robertson’s book club ladies interpreted the Creative New Zealand’s “High quality art” thing as a grim, actionless, literature with too many Pohutakawas and jandals in it.
This means the problem isn’t really the Book Council, or even Creative New Zealand, it’s that state support for literature in New Zealand is forced through the association with Creative New Zealand’s emphasis on “High quality art” to be what many New Zealanders would consider to be pretentious and arty farty.
What King doesn’t make clear here is that he is a genre writer so has, as they say, some skin in the game.

15 September
National Business Review doesn’t often comment on New Zealand literature but Nevil Gibson in his “Editor’s Insight” column, headed “Why Kiwi writers hate John Key and people don’t read NZ fiction”, has a view. Quote unquote:
Why the lack of entertainment value in Kiwi books and films?
I think the reasons are obvious. Too many writers ignore what’s happening around them or don’t like it. We know from studies such as Roger Horrocks’ Reinventing New Zealand (2016) that most of the academic and much of the artistic community think the post-Rogernomics era has been disastrous.
This, of course, is the opposite to the view of the majority, particularly those who read a lot and have access to everything available on the global scene.
The Horrocks view is that neo-liberalism has created a commercial environment run by “ruthless bean counters” and has removed the arts from the “public sphere.”
In this view, profit-making enterprises in the arts detract from the socialist goal of publicly-funded work that has strong political messages.
Copyright NBR. Cannot be reproduced without permission.
17 September
Peter King posts again online, this time under the heading “#NZbooks – how to start a better story”. Quote unquote:
For example New Zealand’s New York Times bestselling romance author Nalini Singh cannot be found on the Book Council’s writer files. She’s been writing for over a decade so it’s not that they haven’t had time to put her there.
You see what I mean? An organisation set up to promote NZ writing to New Zealanders doesn’t even recognise one of our top international bestselling authors, and then runs research showing New Zealand readers haven’t heard of her and find what they have heard of as grim etc etc.
19 September
Peter King’s 17 September blogpost is republished at The Spinoff  with the advisory:
Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that the NZ Book Council receives half a million dollars a year in funding from Creative New Zealand. The council in fact received $350,000 in 2016. It also claimed that the Book Council provided mentorships, grants and travel opportunities. This is not the case. For a number of years the council ran the CNZ International Travel Fund for Writers but the fund is now managed by the Publishers Association of New Zealand. We regret the errors.
Catherine Robertson, co-author of the report, responds to the general hoo-hah on her blog under the heading “What it’s like when you inadvertently unleash a shit-storm”. Quote unquote:
We are attacked by the literary establishment! (They obviously decided to give genre fiction writers a break and turn on us instead.) A renowned publisher with a beard tweets: ‘If for years you tell people they think NZ books are boring then ask them if they think NZ books are boring…’
Strangely, because we are not actual cretins, we didn’t ask them that. And is the logic weird, or is it just me? Who’s the ‘you’ who’s telling people they think New Zealand books are boring? FIND THEM! HUNT THEM DOWN! IT’S ALL THEIR FAULT! […]
On a lone Facebook comment thread numerous people decide the furious blogger’s rant is formless and weird, and his comments about old ladies are sexist. They wonder why Paula and I would want to diss genre writers when we are genre writers (I write commercial women’s fiction and Paula writes fantasy YA). Paula and I want to hug these people.
 In the comments – there are many, and Catherine has patiently replied to them all – is this from Paul Gilbert:
The single best “advocacy” for all NZ writers would be something like a Gazette that records all NZ publications released that month, with simple blurb, publisher and author, where to buy, etc – a genuine one-stop shop for anyone wanting to follow new NZ writing. That way readers can see what catches their fancy rather than have their choices filtered by industry. And their perception of NZ writing will duly widen.
20 September
Paula Morris joins the debate at her blog in a post on a different but related topic, “Do New Zealand books need special treatment?” Quote unquote:
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Catherine Robertson and I were being chastised online – which is the contemporary version of the Spanish Inquisition, complete with hypocrisy and manufactured outrage, except with ‘comments’ instead of bonfires – for daring to be women who ran focus groups of (mainly) women asking about their book-buying habits. We were sure, being women and all, to have done it wrong; we were sure to have had no experience running focus groups; we were sure to loaded the groups with women over 35, just because they buy books; we were sure to have asked leading questions, and goaded people into trashing Important New Zealand writers; we were sure to have excluded genre fiction, and tried to further our Industrial Literary Complex agenda; we were sure to have locked men out, and ignored library statistics, and to have kept the sample wilfully small, and proclaimed an end to all further research ever – even though our report explicitly addresses the next step, and that our key finding was about visibility rather than boringness, and so on.
22 September
Booksellers NZ has the bright idea of getting Rachel O’Neill to ask some booksellers what they think. As I always say, if you want to know what is going on in the bookworld, ask a bookseller. Quote unquote:
The report points out that “People discover new books in numerous ways” and that “Older readers cited mostly local sources for book news and reviews”, while younger readers look to international sources. David Cameron keyed into this area of the report, “We do sell a number of overseas literary journals but the NZ journals such as New Zealand Books and Landfall are too infrequent to influence book sales significantly. There is so much competing for people's attention and I have no answer to this.”
25 September
Susan Strongman brings it all to newspaper readers’ attention. Quote unquote:
Critics of the report took to the internet, calling the work a “big pile of anecdotes” and saying the council was failing at its role of promoting New Zealand literature.
Others took to social media; after several tweets critiquing the report, Victoria University press publisher Fergus Barrowman told the Herald on Sunday he thought the survey didn’t have anything new or useful to say.
Romance writer Brynn Kelly tweeted she thought the problem was that “mainstream and genre writers are largely ignored by media, festivals, etc. [and] readers aren’t aware of diversity.”
New York Times bestselling author, New Zealander Nalini Singh, writer of wildly popular paranormal romance series agreed, saying she thought New Zealand fiction was narrowly defined.
Robertson said the overall reaction left her feeling depressed and beleaguered.
“We wanted to shed a little light on the barriers that might prevent readers enjoying terrific New Zealand books, of all genres.”
In the Listener story that kicked all this off, Paula Morris said that a large part of the problem is the lack of information about our books and writers. Quote unquote: 
“We can do a lot more to get clear, useful information about new books to readers and to make good reviews of new New Zealand fiction more accessible and visible.”
Why, it’s almost as if someone should start a magazine, perhaps a monthly, aimed at the mainstream book-buying market – not books only, obviously. Perhaps movies, food, theatre and visual arts to broaden the appeal, but books mostly. Not just NZ books of all genres but putting them alongside overseas books which book club members would be interested in. You’d maybe have reviewers who were knowledgeable and could write entertainingly. You’d have photos of NZ authors on the cover to make it look like a normal magazine. And you’d work hard to get it displayed in supermarkets, which is where normal people buy their magazines. And it could do what Paul Gilbert suggested and list books published in New Zealand that month but not reviewed in that issue by title, author, publisher and ISBN. As a service to readers, booksellers and librarians.

Once upon a time there was a magazine that did that.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What I’m reading #138

As a palate cleanser between finishing Rachel Barrowman’s Maurice Gee: Life and Work and starting work on editing a massive scientific document on estuaries, I turn to Colin Watson, my favourite English comic crime novelist. It was either him or Janwillem van der Wetering, my favourite Dutch comic crime novelist. 

In Watson’s 1968 novel Charity Ends at Home, regular character Lucilla Teatime, a suspect in the murder of Henrietta Palgrove, is a genteel (but, as Cactus Kate would say, quite hot for a chick her age) fraudster posing as a fundraiser for animal charities; Inspector Purbright has a highly developed sense of irony. Quote unquote:
‘It was a very threatening letter, Miss Teatime.’
She shrugged lightly. ‘I can see that you are not accustomed to handling the correspondence of charitable societies, Mr Purbright. If one took seriously every hint of nefarious goings-on, one would have no time left for the collection of funds. And what would our animals do then, poor things?’
‘There is no truth, I take it, in the suggestion that there has been misappropriation of funds?’
‘None, of course. It is misapprehension, not misappropriation, that bedevils the work of charities. People do not realize how high is the cost of administration nowadays. Modern conditions demand the employment of all sorts of expensive devices – promotion campaigns, the public relations consultant, accountants, the business efficiency expert – even computers. My goodness, inspector, there is a great deal more to it than waving a collecting box. Which’ – she raised a finger and smiled sweetly – ‘reminds me. . .’
She put the teddy bear aside and went to the fireplace, on the mantel of which was a box. She brought the box back and set it between them. ‘Just my little charge for allowing you to interview me!’
Purbright grinned and found some coins to drop in the box.
‘Purely as a formality, Miss Teatime – you do understand – could you just tell me where you were on the night of the twelfth – the night before last, that is? From ten o’clock onward, say.’
Her eyes widened. ‘In bed, inspector. Where else?’
He smiled. ‘It clearly would be impertinent of me to ask of whom I might seek corroboration of that.’
‘Not in the least; I should take it as a compliment.’ Her gaze saddened a little and fell. ‘But no, I have left things rather late. To tell the truth, it is regarding the physical side of marriage that I have always been apprehensive.’
He nodded, sympathetically.
‘There so seldom seems to be enough of it,’ said Miss Teatime. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #72

From the edition of Friday 23 September. As always, spelling, punctuation (in this case especially, hyphens and the lack thereof), grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times. The writer is no relation; the “priggish” Tim Macindoe he describes does not resemble the one I lunch with regularly at the Wintec Press Club. That Tim Macindoe, National’s chief whip, is a hoot.

Café debate
West Ward city council and DHB incumbent candidate Martin Gallagher must cease tacitly endorsing his electoral successor, National MP for Hamilton West, Tim Macindoe. With his predecessor’s endorsement ensuring his position becomes virtually un-opposable, Macindoe is guaranteed a return to this once marginal seat, making next year’s general election race here undemocratic; certainly unviable for a serious Opposition contender.   

Tackling a generic question put to candidates at the National MP’s Agora Café debate (September 9), Gallagher defended his own multiplicity of elected roles, linking extra effective benefits to taking on greater responsibilities. Throughout the debate, Gallagher was unwilling to provide the required brief answers, constantly having to be cut short by mediator and host Tim Macindoe.

The priggish Tim Macindoe proved an unreliable debate adjudicator, unwilling to pull former Waikato Times reporter Geoff Taylor up for an unfortunate anecdote regarding his two teenage daughters commanding excessive water for showering, meant to illustrate higher demands on rural tank water capacity. Taylor’s unchallenged inferences are all the more concerning considering Macindoe’s chief political adversary over recent general elections, Labour list MP Sue Moroney, has herself been a former spokeswoman on women’s affairs.

Roger Stratford

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sentence of the day

Peter Bland reminiscing in 2003 about his acting days in the West End:
I can remember Joanna Lumley suddenly screaming onstage, ‘I can’t take this any more!’, and running off in her bikini. 
I wish I had memories like that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Keith Stewart on roses

The 96th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Barbara Else, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Browne and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists, art curators – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.

They are the sexiest things that grow. Always have been. In spite of the many prudish suburban gardens they adorn, the blatant sensuality of roses is still earthy enough to turn a shiver or two. They are a pleasure you can’t deny.

Red ones are hottest, especially when they have that radiating fragrance that makes the air resonate with their passionate colour. Fires deeper than you could imagine controlling, scorching away the mundane detail of gardening as soon as the buds spill their colours out. A great come-on to your eyeballs, heady visions laced with perfume.

Sweet pink seduces with subtlety; roses named for nymphs’ thighs, which capture the curve and texture of flowers with body. A graceful turn and flicker, blushed with promise, shaped exquisitely, they are an age away from fertiliser and fungal spray, flower shows and other public displays. This is intimate stuff, between a man and his rose in some secret, sunny corner of the mind.

Pure white tantalises, an unspoken hint. All grace and form, scent more ravishing for the subtlety of its source. Calm and elegant with a pristine beauty more powerfully suggestive than any scarlet bloom could be. A breathtaking abundance, pure and pregnant. Life with poise, playing on every sense a simple, ancient tune of pleasure. Sadly for old what’s her name, a rose is not a rose, is not just a bloody flower.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #71

From the edition of Monday 19 September. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.
Selfish, blind world
After the 1950s, when authority sold itself, the world has entered a stage of juvenility and following inherent problems.
Stating the obvious. Tried purchasing typewriter ribbons lately? Taken off the market. Syrian villages bombed after a recent race is broken. People making more money than they’ve ever seen in the current land and grab.
Is there a sense of lost sanity here?
These days being proved wrong is a form of victory. But watching the corrupt has become a pastime and even a form of dark collective pleasure. The world now is a blind, selfish brat. The vast majority of people are incapable of holding a conversation. And having a conversation with your fists is not really a conversation. Leave your kids alone and make your wife a meal occasionally.
Women, go and see a Tim Burton movie.
Peter J N Garland

Monday, September 19, 2016

Gerry Webb on Raewyn Alexander and Dominic Sheehan

The 95th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the August 1996 issue. The lead book review was David Eggleton on Sue McCauley’s novel A Fancy Man, followed by Barbara Else on E Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes, Kevin Ireland on Jan Corbett’s non-fiction crime debut Caught By His Past and Sheridan Keith on Elizabeth Smithers’ journal The Journal Box. Here is Gerry Webb on two first New Zealand novels.

by Raewyn Alexander
Penguin, $24.95, ISBN 0140260374
by Dominic Sheehan
Secker & Warburg, $19.95, ISBN 0790004623
Auckland poet Raewyn Alexander’s first novel fairly crackles and pops. The sheer dash and bite of her language make for a densely packed and colourful text with lots of great lines. The narrator is Poppy, maid and minder to Iris, a well-to-do hooker, “a whore through and through”. Poppy’s sharp intelligence ducks back and forth over her history and contacts — middle-class origins in Avondale, waiting at tables, university, a relationship with a dope grower, work at a London sex club, the underworld of the Auckland sex industry. At the same time she relates the sinister developments resulting from her delivery of Iris’s blackmail note to a wealthy, titled sleazeball in the Waikato. It’s a narrative which shifts and weaves.
Poppy has a strong, sometimes combative voice; she gets in a few punches against “the system” and at the end, when she and her five-year-old daughter flee Auckland for the bosom of her family, she finds in Marxism “the theory to back up what I’ve always felt”. It’s not a subtle option or a very satisfying ending. In fact the novel loses some of its brilliant edge in the latter stages as Poppy seeks normality in her family and with a local lad on the Firth of Thames.
But the main part, the characters and scenes in and around Auckland and the sex business, is outstanding. Especially brilliant are dangerous, decadent Sir Arthur (“an old walrus full of fish”), boss lady Ho in her 80s and Iris with “the hard seagull eyes”. A luscious and coruscating book — I was hooked on the first page.
Life was never more intense and hair-raising than that year in Standard Three: a treacherous teacher, playground fights, parents’ arguments spilling from behind closed doors, a big sister who leaves home without a blessing, small-town hostility towards dad — my Standard Three in Cheviot, North Canterbury, in the mid-50s? Not quite; but Dominic Sheehan’s Finding Home, the story of Kevin Garrick’s year in a small Taranaki town in the mid-70s, rang a few bells.
Kevin says at the outset that his adult self keeps getting in the way of his attempt “to listen and think as I was then”, but in fact his story beautifully recreates the world of the child, and this is the major strength of this disarmingly fresh and gripping book.
Especially authentic is the private nature of the child’s world that we are shown — Kevin’s relationships, fantasies and humiliations, his genuinely scary encounters with others’ nastiness and suffering are not things that he can tell his parents about. At times I thought of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s young protagonists, but though this novel skirts the macabre it is a much gentler creature and opts for language that is low-key, sometimes rather ordinary, but always transparent. Sheehan’s sympathetic characterisation and tense story-line will appeal to both adults and teenagers.

I had done some work on Raewyn Alexander’s Fat. The submitted draft was a bit of a mess but her talent shone through. I wrote a supportive reader’s report (“The manuscript needs a major overhaul, but what’s good in it is very good… There is no other writer in New Zealand doing what Alexander does when she hits the mark.”) with suggestions for how the m/s might be made publishable, basically shifting many of the scenes set in England to New Zealand because she was so sharp about life and class here. I was astonished at how quickly she did that  within weeks, from memory. My second report said, “An incredible improvement.” That revised version, which is what was published, was every bit as good as Gerry says.

One of the great pleasures of working as a publisher’s reader was discovering new talent. After Raewyn came writers such as Kelly Ana Morey, Linda Olsson, Hamish Clayton. You knew from the first page – the first paragraph, even – that here was a major new voice. Reading manuscripts can be tedious, but this was seriously exciting. And in each case, a star was born.