Novella Review: “A Sky of Wretched Shells,” by Mark Blackham

Cover image of "A Sky of Wretched Shells", a novella by Mark Blackham

Mark Blackham’s A Sky of Wretched Shells is the third book in The Cuba Press’ novella series, following my novella Where We Land and Zirk van den Berg’s I Wish, I Wish. Both Where We Land and A Sky of Wretched Shells are climate fiction novellas, but they’re very different: Where We Land is about our near-future response to climate change, while A Sky of Wretched Shells is set further in the future, when most of the world has fallen victim to ecological disaster and only one island offers hope for survival.

On the island of Woleai, 15-year-old Mala and his people live in relative peace and safety as the rest of the world falls apart. The arrival of two Western outsiders brings an end to this fragile equilibrium.

I won’t say more about the plot, because a lot happens in this novella that it would be a shame to spoil. I will say that there’s some really beautiful descriptive writing and imagery in A Sky of Wretched Shells: I got a strong sense of place from Mark Blackham’s novella.

Nevertheless, I struggled with some of the choices the central character, Mala, made – from my point of view, he persistently makes choices that puts his island and his people at greater risk. (Though my decision-making at age 15 may not have been the greatest, either, and the end of the novel suggests that he has made better choices than it first appears.)

The ending took the story in directions I didn’t expect, reactivating the sense of wonder I used to get as a teenager from reading science fiction, even as my adult eye was casting a more sceptical gaze over proceedings. So I ended the novella with mixed feelings: but given the quality of his descriptive writing and the scope of his imagination, I’m keen to see what stories Mark Blackham writes next.

Two New Books: “Upturned” by Kay McKenzie Cooke and “I Wish, I Wish” by Zirk Van Den Berg

I’ve been catching up with my reading over the holidays – here are two new books worth your attention, both published by The Cuba Press.

Upturned is a new poetry collection by one of my favourite poets. I Wish, I Wish is the second volume in the Cuba Press Novella series – my climate fiction novella Where We Land was the first in this series.

Upturned by Kay McKenzie Cooke.

Kay McKenzie Cooke is one of my favourite poets. Her poetry connects with me on both levels that really matter to me: emotion and language. For me, there’s an extra level of connection in that Kay was born in Murihiku / Southland, where I grew up, and some of her poems feature places I know well and times I’ve experienced.

But even if you have no connection with Southland – or for that matter Berlin, where a section of this collection is set – these poems are likely to speak to anyone who enjoys beautiful, resonant writing that is strongly connected with land, people and memory.

These poems are both highly skilled and very welcoming – this is poetry that invites you in rather than fences you out. So even if you don’t usually read poetry, give Upturned a try. You won’t regret it.

Front cover of Upturned, a poetry collection by Kay McKenzie Cooke

I Wish, I Wish by Zirk Van Den Berg

As the title signifies, I Wish, I Wish is a fairy tale – but it’s a very down-to-earth one. Mortician Seb’s monotonous life is abruptly upturned after he meets a dying young boy called Gabe. At the start of the novella, Seb is thoroughly stuck in an unsatisfying life that’s going nowhere, and by the end … well, read it and find out.

This novella works because Zirk Van Den Berg steers away from sentiment while communicating the protagonist’s emotions effectively. This is a very well-written book, with neat touches of humour that offset what could otherwise be too moralistic a narrative. I wasn’t sure I wanted to start 2021 by reading another story about death, but before long I was caught up in this novella, and I think you will be too.

Front cover of I Wish, I Wish, a novella by Zirk Van Den Berg

Good Reviews on Goodreads For “Where We Land”

My climate fiction (cli-fi) novella Where We Land has been getting good reviews on Goodreads. Here are some excerpts from those reviews:

On Goodreads:

“This novella set in the near future deals with the human impact of the worsening climate crisis…. Amid societal brutality and xenophobia, there are still a few glimmers of compassion.

“This is a beautifully written novella in the cli-fi genre…. The characters are compelling and the story gripping. Highly recommend it!!”

(Read the full reviews here:

From Tabatha Wood’s review for SpecFicNZ:

“Jones talks in depth about human resilience and the determination to survive. The ability to keep going even when all seems lost. He examines our humanity; how we respond to threats and challenges, but ultimately how we, as a global species, behave to one another. The tension is high, the characters relatable, and Jones deftly manoeuvres you into bearing witness to the unfolding plot. He places you squarely in both Nasimul and Donna’s shoes. What would you do if…? he asks.”

Read the full review:

You can read more of Tabatha’s reviews and her writing on her blog.

“Where We Land” is a print novella – but you can also buy an earlier version of this story as “Landfall”, an ebook from Amazon.

Book Review: The Last Church, by Lee Pletzers

The Last Church is available from Other availability details are on Lee Pletzers’ website. The Last Church is published by Black Bed Sheet Books, RRP US $20.95.

New Zealand horror writer Lee Pletzers’ The Last Church does the job of a good horror novel (or, I suppose, any novel): it keeps you turning the pages, wanting to know what happens next, and hoping that at least some of the characters – not to mention the world – will make it out alive at the end of the story.

And the fate of the world is very much at stake. I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s just say that there’s a man with a plan for the future of the world which isn’t what most of us would wish for; that this man has, or embodies, demonic assistance; and that a diverse coalition of characters with less power but equal determination come together to stop him — or, at least, to try.

Along the way, quite a lot of the characters meet gruesome fates. And some of them are very gruesome: The Last Church doesn’t stint on sex, violence, and in some cases sexual violence. You have been warned.

It took me a while to get into the story. There is a large cast of characters to start with – before the main villain and his henchpeople start to whittle them down — and the story jumps between several time periods. I had trouble keep track of everything and everyone for about the first quarter of the novel. Also off-putting were quite a few proofreading and grammatical errors: mostly minor things, like missing apostrophes, but until I got into the flow of the story I found these distracting. I know only too well how hard it is to eliminate all such errors, but another proofreading run would benefit future printings of the novel.

As I read, I wasn’t always convinced that characters’ motivations for their actions were sufficiently well established. The principal villain is a nasty piece of work, but he has a goal, and his actions are consistent with that goal. On the other hand, to my eyes at least, the behaviour of his “dream woman” and subsequent consort seems inconsistent; or, put another way, I didn’t feel I had a clear enough understanding of her character, so that her actions sometimes seemed arbitrary rather than well-founded.

But it would be a mistake to dwell on the negatives. The Last Church is scary, gruesome at times, and increasingly gripping as it approaches its climax. If you like horror with a side order of apocalypse, The Last Church is worth a visit.

Southern Ocean Review: The Final Issue

The 50th issue of Southern Ocean Review, which has just been posted, is also the last issue.

Every three months for over a dozen years, on the 12th of the month, editor Trevor Reeves has got an issue of Southern Ocean Review on line. I don’t know whether that sounds like much of an achievement to you, but to me, that shows an incredible level of dedication to the task in hand.

But I don’t mean to imply that Southern Ocean Review has been notable only for the regularity with which it has been produced. Take a look at the roster of contributors to the current issue and you’ll see that there’s a mixture of lesser- and better-known writers. This has been true throughout the magazine’s history.

SoR has always been a hospitable place for new writers to find their feet. My first contributions to it appeared in Issue 6, and I had a couple more stories and several poems appearing there over the years, with my most recent contribution being in Issue 48.

In addition, each issue of SoR has carried a series of short reviews of New Zealand books and literary magazines – the final issue’s review column includes a review of JAAM 26, which Helen Rickerby has blogged about. This review column has probably carried the most comprehensive reviews of New Zealand literary publications, and in particular, small press publications, during the last dozen or so years.

So I’ll be sorry to see Southern Ocean Review go, but I also hope its closure will free up more time for Trevor’s own writing. I’m going to interview Trevor within the next couple of months on this blog, so I’m looking forward to that opportunity to find out what he has in mind.

In the meantime, do check out Southern Ocean Review while you have the chance.

What I’m Writing

I set up this blog to write about and promote the three books I had published between September 2007 and June 2008 – All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens, Anarya’s Secret and Transported – plus post about other writers, books, and matters of interest to me. I’ve been doing all that, and will keep doing it, but I realised a few days back that there was one topic I hadn’t tackled: what I’m writing now.

I write short stories, poetry, and novels. Inefficient, maybe, especially for someone who writes part-time, but that mix doesn’t seem likely to change in the near future – because I’ve got all three types of writing on the go. My main focus is my new novel, but short stories and poetry refuse to be entirely set aside.

First, the novel. I’m prone to calling it “my new novel”, but that’s not strictly accurate. Before I wrote Anarya’s Secret, I had written another novel, with the working title “Antarctic Convergence”. The jumping off point for “Antarctic Convergence” was a story I wrote in 2000, “The Wadestown Shore”, which is included in Transported.


This is the story that begins:

I cut the engine in the shadow of the motorway pillars and let the dinghy drift in to the Wadestown shore. The quiet of late afternoon was broken only by the squawking of parakeets. After locking the boat away in the old garage I now used as a boatshed, I stood for a moment to soak in the view. The setting sun was winking off the windows of drowned office blocks. To the left lay Miramar Island, and beyond it the open sea.

and ends:

The sunken office blocks of the Drowned city were far behind me. The rich waters and virgin shores of Antarctica lay ahead. I made my way forward to greet them.


“The Wadestown Shore” is (in revised form) also Chapter 1 of the novel.

I finished the initial version of this novel in 2004, but was unable to get it published. I decided to shelve it for a while, write something else (that turned out to be Anarya’s Secret), and then revisit the novel and the feedback I’d had on it.

I did that earlier this year, and though there are some valid arguments against rewriting your first completed novel, I felt that the basic idea of “Antarctic Convergence” was still good, but that the novel had major structural problems, especially in its second half. So I’m rewriting it pretty much from scratch, and I’m almost half way through the redraft. More news, I hope, in 2009.

Next, the short stories. I’ve written three new stories since Transported was put to bed, and am currently working on a fourth which I’m trying to finish in time for an anthology submission deadline. That isn’t exactly enough for a collection, and I’m putting completing the novel ahead of writing lots more stories, but I will keep plugging away. When new stories of mine do appear in print or online, I’ll let you know.

Last but not least, the poetry. Although All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens was published in 2007, I completed the manuscript (more or less) in 2005, so I have had three years to get some more poetry written. But, whereas I can decide that I’m going to work on my novel for the next two hours, sit down, and get 1000 or so words written, I have found that I can’t make myself write poetry: it arrives when it wants, and when it doesn’t want, nothing will induce it – yes, it’s that old favourite “the muse” again!

All the same, when checking the other day, I found that I had 29 poems which I’d consider putting towards a new collection – and what’s more, 29 poems that fit a theme. Will I write more poems that fit this theme and assemble them beautifully into a collection, or will I go off on a complete tangent? Watch this space!

The New Land

This 800-word story appears in my first short fiction collection, Extreme Weather Events (HeadworX, 2001).

The new land was discovered on a Thursday. The Prime Minister addressed the nation. “It’s large,” she said, “and damp, and all ours.” She announced that an expedition was already nearing its northern shores.

The expedition waded ashore and raised the flag in a moving ceremony. The new land was covered in seaweed, mud, and the carcasses of fish. It had a distinctive smell.

The discovery of the new land had significant implications for public policy. An inter-departmental working party was set up, with representatives from all affected Crown entities. Change agents were brought in to build a team culture that would be open, proactive, and outcomes-focused.

The Government welcomed tangata whenua participation. Several tribes had fished in the seas displaced by the new land, and consultative hui were quickly arranged. The participation of the Maori Fisheries Commission Te Ohu Kai Moana, and other stakeholders in the quota allocation process, was subject to pending High Court action.

With the cooperation of public and private service providers, an intensive effort began to map the new land. Global Positioning System data revealed that it had a total surface area of 387 ± 2.5 square kilometres, based on best practice assessments. The majority of the new land was only a few metres above sea level, but there was a gradual rise towards a prominent elevation in the southwestern quadrant, which satellite measurements revealed to be some sixty metres in height. A more accurate figure awaited the arrival of a ground party, which promptly left from Base Camp One.

Together with the composition of the All Black midfield, the new land was the prime topic of conversation over the weekend. Callers to talkback radio were unsure of its potential usefulness, but a prominent life sciences company suggested that it would make an ideal testbed for experiments in plant biotechnology.

On Sunday, the nation was treated to live reports from the party sent to investigate the southwestern elevation. The gradual rise previously reported was crowned by a rocky hill, atop which were strewn large blocks of grey stone. The superficial resemblance of these blocks to construction materials excited worldwide interest. Both print and electronic media carried a number of ill-considered and poorly researched stories making allusions to Atlantis, Mu, and/or Lemuria. The Skeptics Society responded with a strongly-worded statement.

The Government acted decisively to quell speculation. An exclusion zone, to be patrolled by all three services, was established around the hill in question. Any party wishing to land in the area was required to have government permission and pay a substantial fee. It was announced that samples from the quarantine zone would be sent to leading overseas laboratories for analysis, and that results were expected in six to eight weeks.

Sharemarket reaction, which had been muted the previous week, was strongly positive when trading opened on Monday, with the tourism, energy, and telecommunications sectors especially buoyant. Fishing industry shares suffered reverses, however, with analysts pointing to the loss of valuable fishing grounds and the uncertain future of several joint venture arrangements.

Other developments on Monday were primarily institutional in character. The Prime Minister announced that a naming rights sponsor was being sought for the new land. Major corporates, breweries, and communications companies had already expressed interest. On a less positive note, plans by the Tourism Board to brand the new land as an eco-tourism destination came under sustained criticism by environmental groups.

To widespread surprise, the new land slipped beneath the sea just after 5am on Tuesday. Loss of life was averted save for two adventurers who had illegally entered the exclusion zone earlier that night to explore the southwestern elevation. Their Zodiac pilot, who escaped, returned with lurid tales of strange lights in the sky and unearthly noises beneath the hill. These accounts were not corroborated, and the Zodiac pilot was subsequently deported to an undisclosed location.

A planned debate on the new land went ahead when Parliament resumed sitting that afternoon, but its character was much altered. The Prime Minister was put on the defensive by persistent questioning and responded with a blistering attack on the Leader of the Opposition. The disappearance was made worse for the Government because subsequent polling showed that the new land had been especially popular in the key North Island 18-45 male demographic.

After a week in which the new land showed no sign of reappearing, the inter-departmental working party was disbanded and the consultative hui cancelled. Fish stocks over the area were reported to be severely depleted, and the fishing industry pressed the Government for a compensation package. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research was commissioned to conduct a bathymetric survey of the newly-restored sea floor.

The new land is commemorated by two Top 20 singles, an “Assignment” documentary, and a projected TV mini-series which has yet to receive New Zealand On Air funding. A leading authority on the uncanny, now hard at work on a book about the new land, has promised to reveal a scandalous cover-up of dramatic new evidence concerning humanity’s place in the Universe. If these claims are substantiated, they may yet revive public interest in the matter.

2008 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing

I received the following email yesterday from the Royal Society. The inaugural Manhire Prize competition was held in 2007, and you can read the fiction and non-fiction winners online.

This year’s topic is evolution. The Royal Society says:

We encourage you to enter the 2008 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing. The theme for 2008 is evolution, in honour of Charles Darwin.

Next year is the 150th anniversary of his birth, and the 200th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. But it was on 1 July 1858, the joint Wallace-Darwin paper was read to the Linnaean Society, and was thus launched to the science community.

The topic you are asked to respond to is:

“The Universe makes rather an indifferent parent, I’m afraid,” said Dickens’ kindly Mr Jarndyce. Humans have evolved to understand and intervene in the unsentimental processes of nature. With some unfortunate and unintended consequences. Back to nature or on to the future?

Remember, there are fiction and non fiction categories, prizes of $2500 for each, and the winning entries will be published in the New Zealand Listener. Entries close 15 August, 2008. For full details see the Listener just out, or go to

If you have any enquiries, call Glenda Lewis, 04 470 5758, or email glenda.lewis (at)

How It Came To Pass: Transported

I posted earlier about the origins of my Earthdawn novel, Anarya’s Secret. That started with a call from a RedBrick staff member who’d seen some of the writing linked from my website and thought I might be the person to write an Earthdawn novel for them.

The origins of Transported are a little similar, but more convoluted. In early 2007, I got an email message from Fiona Farrell, appointed to edit Random House New Zealand’s Best New Zealand Fiction 4 anthology, to say that she had seen my story A Short History of the 20th Century, With Fries online in Flashquake and enjoyed it. Did I have any stories in the 3000-5000 word range, previously unpublished in book form, that I’d like to submit for BNZF4? I thought this offer over for 1.2 seconds, said I did, and submitted four stories, from which Fiona Farrell chose “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev!” for the anthology.

That was rather nice. Striking while the iron was hot while not letting the grass grow under my feet, I mentioned to Harriet Allan of Random House that I was putting together the manuscript of my second collection of short stories (following 2001’s Extreme Weather Events), and would she be interested in seeing it? She replied that she would. After we did some reordering and I added a couple of new stories, the deal was sealed, and my second short story collection, Transported, came into being. With the aid of excellent editor Claire Gummer, the manuscript was kneaded into shape

Transported Cover

I recently learned that Transported will be published on the 6th of June, and there’s preliminary publicity up on the Random House NZ website. This is my first book to be published by a major publisher. Before the process started, I had a little trepidation about it – would I be chewed up and spat out by the giant corporate machine? So far, however, everyone at Random House has been an absolute pleasure to deal with, and I’m looking forward with no little excitement to launch day and beyond. I’ll keep you posted!

I’m Editing JAAM 26

I’m editing Issue 26 of JAAM Magazine. The deadline for submissions is 31 March 2008.

JAAM (Just Another Art Movement) is a literary journal run by an independent publishing collective in Wellington, New Zealand.

JAAM publishes emerging writers alongside the work of established writers. It focuses on New Zealand writers, but overseas writers are also welcome to submit.

JAAM prints fiction, poetry, essays and black and white artworks. Payment is NZ$20 per contributor (rather than per contribution) for accepted work, plus a free copy of the magazine. There is no official word limit, but fiction and essays longer than 4000 words will have to be exceptional to be published.

JAAM publishes literary fiction and poetry. For JAAM 26, writing in other genres, such as speculative fiction and poetry (science fiction, fantasy and horror) will be considered on an equal footing to literary fiction and poetry. There is no set theme for this issue.

Submissions for JAAM 26 can be emailed to or posted to:

PO Box 25239
Panama Street
Wellington 6146
New Zealand

Make sure you enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope for reply.

Subscriptions within New Zealand are $24 for three issues (includes postage). Cheques can be sent to the address above.

For more information, see JAAM’s MySpace page.