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.

Book Review: “The Death of Music Journalism” by Simon Sweetman

Front cover of The Death of Music Journalism, a poetry collection by Simon Sweetman

Before I say anything else, I loved the cover of this new poetry collection by well-known music journalist – and performer, and blogger, and poet – Simon Sweetman. The cover of The Death of Music Journalism is both highly informative and ever-so-slightly surreal, which really appeals to me.

I’m not sure whether he’d take this a compliment, but I think of Simon Sweetman as an old-school music journalist, the kind who could conceivably have stepped out of the pages of Rolling Stone magazine, a local and latter-day Robert Christgau or Lester Bangs. I think of him writing passionately in favour of bands and albums I like (Bowie!), and equally passionately against other bands and albums I like.

So I had a little trepidation prior to opening this volume – oh my god is he going to have another go at St Vincent?, but my fears were quickly laid to rest. These poems are still passionate about music and life, but they’re also reflective, funny, discursive, and really, really well written. They’re about Simon’s relationship with music – favourite songs, favourite bands, favourite musicians – but also how music has reflected and influenced his relationship with his family, as in “Father and Son”, which isn’t just, or even mainly, about the Cat Stevens song.

You don’t have to know your paradiddles from your palm muting to enjoy this book. Music is the kicking-off point for many of these poems, but they’re mostly about people. If you know who Steve Gadd is or have an opinion about Mark Knopfler’s guitar solos, then that might add a little frisson to your response, but such knowledge is far from essential. The Death of Music Journalism is a sprawling, generous, entertaining and moving collection of poems, and I recommend it.

Book Review: “Five O’Clock Shadows” by Richard Langston



Front cover of Five O'Clock Shawdows, a poetry collection by Richard Langston

I’ve heard Richard Langston read a number of times over the years, and always enjoyed his work, but at the Southern Writers at Te Awe Brandon Library event in October 2020 I was particularly struck by how much I enjoyed the poems from his new collection Five O’Clock Shadows, published by The Cuba Press. So I was keen to read them as well as hear them – and Five O’Clock Shadows, Richard’s sixth collection, doesn’t disappoint.

Richard enjoys a lot of stuff I also enjoy: Dunedin, Wellington, cricket, music. A collection that includes a poem about Brendon McCullum’s 302 vs India at the Basin Reserve, and a poem about how marvellous Dunedin is, has already gone a long way towards securing my loyalty. But it’s some of the poems I’m not pre-wired to enjoy that most stand out for me here – such as “Bsharri, Lebanon” and “Sons”. This is a fine, humanistic collection.

(For the avoidance of doubt: I do not in any way identify with the subject matter of the poem “Snoring”. Not at all.)




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