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.

Three New Poetry Books: Shelter, Up Flynn Road…, and Kissing a Ghost

One of my writing ambitions for 2022 is to get cracking on a new collection of poetry – my last few years have been very much about climate activism and, when I’ve been writing, climate fiction. Poetry is my first love as a writer and one I’m always keen to return to.

As a herald of what I hope will be more focus on reading and writing poetry in 2022,* here’s a review of a new poetry collection by Kirsten Le Harivel plus news of an anthology I contributed to and one I’ve edited.

*There is that idea for a sequel to Where We Land, though…

Review: Shelter, by Kirsten Le Harivel

Shelter is a collection of precisely observed poems that traverse cities, countries and places important to the poet: Glasgow, Ahmedabad, Kāpiti, and many others: a Tuapeka sheep truck, the Isle of Bute, Hiroshima, the corner of Cuba and Manners.

Kirsten Le Harivel has a sharp eye for people, places and the ways they interact, piling up words into pictures – that’s especially the case for the many fine prose poems in Shelter. There are many memorable lines here, and for much of the collection, the effect of the poems is cumulative rather than immediate. Helen Lehndorf says in her endorsement of the collection, “Le Harivel writes elegant, restrained poems which will soothe you, move you and ultimately, shelter you.”


Cover of poetry collection Shelter

It was the less restrained poems in Shelter, those with a clearer path through the elegant surface to the thoughts and feelings within, that appealed to me most. In her endorsement, Lynn Jenner comments that “Shelter contains the best poem about sex that I have ever read,” and it was the poems about sex and love that really stood out for me: funny, passionate, pissed off, or all three. I won’t quote “Bedroom”, but you’ll remember it once you’ve read it!

I will quote “Pillow talk” (p. 62):

“If you were here
the motes would float out
the upper window,
the breeze would linger,
there would be no interruptions.
I would ride your bed

and the smell of us would mingle…”

A beautiful poem about love, sex and recollection – but even better is “Writing conversations”, a love poem brought to you by the letter F where desire and The Oxford English Dictionary lose out to the Olympics: love as a sprint, not a marathon.

Shelter is powerful, controlled, and often smooth – yet it’s the sharper edges I’ll remember most.

New Anthology: Up Flynn Road, across Cook Strait, through the Magellanic Crowd

My poem “Interrupted Journey” is included in this new anthology of travel poems, edited by Norman P. Franke and published by Orplid Press. It’s a lovely production and there are some excellent poems here – find out more and buy your copy from Poppies Bookshop, Hamilton.

Cover of poetry anthology Up Flynn Road...

New Anthology: Kissing a Ghost

With Anne Harré, who did the design and production work, I edited this year’s New Zealand Poetry Society anthology Kissing a Ghost, which contains all the winning, placed, highly commended and commended entries from the NZPS International Poetry Competition 2021 plus additional poems I chose from among all the entries. Check out the lovely cover Anne designed!


Cover of poetry anthology Kissing a Ghost

This anthology contains a lot of fine contemporary poetry and haiku from Aotearoa and abroad. If you’d like to buy a copy, here’s how:

For New Zealand Orders:
https://buy.stripe.com/5kA7sP65zatkfoA5km

For Australian Orders: https://buy.stripe.com/cN23cz3Xr1WO90c3cf

For Rest of the World Orders:
https://buy.stripe.com/cN2eVh1PjdFwa4g9AE

More Favourable Waters: Aotearoa Poets Respond to Dante’s Purgatory

I’m very pleased to be one of the 33 poets included in More Favourable Waters, a new anthology published by the Cuba Press, which is being launched on Thursday 25 March at Unity Books from 6-7.30pm:

https://www.eventfinda.co.nz/2021/double-book-launch-more-favourable-waters-quantum-of-dante/wellington

Much to my frustration, I can’t attend the launch, but I’d love to be there.

Here’s more info about the book. Writing a poem for this anthology which incorporated a fragment of Dante’s poem, in Clive James’ translation, was a formidable challenge, but one I enjoyed! I’m very much looking forward to reading the anthology.

About the book

More Favourable Waters, edited by Marco Sonzogni and Timothy Smith, is an anthology of contemporary poets from Aotearoa New Zealand commemorating one of the world’s great poets, Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), 700 years after his death.

Each of the 33 poets has written a poem of 33 lines inspired by and including a short passage from one of the 33 cantos of Dante’s Purgatory, the second part of his epic The Divine Comedy.

Airini Beautrais • Marisa Cappetta • Kay McKenzie Cooke • Mary Cresswell • Majella Cullinane • Sam Duckor-Jones • Nicola Easthope • David Eggleton • Michael Fitzsimons • Janis Freegard • Anahera Gildea • Michael Harlow Jeffrey Paparoa Holman • Anna Jackson • Andrew Johnston • Tim Jones • Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod • Hugh Lauder • Vana Manasiadis • Mary McCallum • Elizabeth Morton • Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall • Vincent O’Sullivan • Robin Peace • Helen Rickerby • Reihana Robinson • Robert Sullivan • Steven Toussaint • Jamie Trower • Tim Upperton • Sophie van Waardenberg • Bryan Walpert • Sue Wootton

https://thecubapress.nz/shop/more-favourable-waters/