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Middle Distance | Regional News

Middle Distance

Edited by Craig Gamble

Victoria University Press

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

Middle Distance takes works from a total of 14 New Zealand writers and puts together a collection of short stories that are as diverse as the people writing them. Each story grabbed my attention and hooked me until the end, something not a lot of authors can do. The fact that this book does it not once but several times over is a testament to the depth of literacy skill on display here.

Each story is small, but they all pack a sizeable punch, and a few even had me thinking about them hours after I was finished reading. Despite the brevity of short stories, characters are well developed and come across as fully functioning people living in good old Aotearoa. The world they inhabit is equally as fleshed out and there were times I could almost recognise some of the places in the book.

One story in particular caught my attention the most, titled The Promotion by Maria Samuela. It’s the tale of a young man trying to reconnect with his absentee father and his family. Like all good stories, it has its fair share of ups and downs and then ends on a sweet, sombre note leaving me wanting more. For me, that is the mark of a good story: one that leaves you on the edge of your seat and has you asking the question, what happens next?

My only real concern is the book may come off as something of a mixed bag to some readers. While this is understandable considering the variety of literacy talent involved, it also means readers might be turned off by one story before finding another they really like. It’s a risk but in my humble opinion one worth taking. 

For those who are willing to plunge in and stick it out, Middle Distance delivers a real treat, as I am sure the amount of content here will impress the majority of people who give it a go.

Bright Burning Things | Regional News

Bright Burning Things

Written by: Lisa Harding

Bloomsbury Publishing

Reviewed by: Rosea Capper-Starr

In her second novel, Bright Burning Things, Lisa Harding enthralls us in the chaotic spiral of Sonya Moriarty.

Once a lauded stage performer, Sonya is now careening through motherhood and filled with overwhelming love for her four-year-old son, Tommy. Together, they can conquer the world, as long as no one interferes or looks at her funny. Unfortunately, Sonya is haunted by an imp that won’t leave her alone; an evil fairy who drives her to soothe the only way she knows. “Every part of me is jangling. Feel myself crashing, falling into the pit. Should’ve known when I first saw her there on the beach, shimmering, irresistible, that this was the way it would go. Grab the bottle, turn my back, undo the screw top with my teeth. Tell myself that what Tommy doesn’t see can’t hurt him.”

Harding does not hold her punches in this novel. With raw honesty, we journey with Sonya through her denial of her addiction, juxtaposed against her loss of self-control, sense of self, and steadily growing chunks of memory. Inevitably, in what feels like an enormous betrayal, Sonya is torn from her son and forced into a rehab stint. Harding explores the reality of the stages of sobriety and the immense loss of power over one’s life one must face when put into such a position. Being involuntarily away from her closest loved one with no means of contact causes her to resist the programme intended to help her.

Once ‘out the other side’ and faced with maintaining her sobriety alone, we see the desperate need for a caring support system. As family and friends are pushed away, one may become isolated and vulnerable. Sonya struggles to regain the trust of her son, whose mother disappeared unexpectedly for three months. “A whole-body lovesickness burrows inside me, biting and scraping... This is it, the moment of unconscious surrender, but there is some other part of me watching: angels, good and evil, battling it out.”

Ultimately a profound tale of fear, love, and redemption, Bright Burning Things held me in its grasp to the last page.

Licorice Pizza | Regional News

Licorice Pizza


134 Mins

(4 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson once again proves his versatility with Licorice Pizza, a heartfelt and outrageously funny tale that follows a pair of loveable misfits through the throes of adolescence.

Set in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, 15-year-old child actor and wannabe business tycoon Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) spies Alana Kane (Alana Haim) at his school’s photo day and quickly declares, “I met the girl I’m gonna marry one day”. Though an unlikely pairing, the two can’t help but develop a deep friendship, despite the oddball world surrounding them.

Though world’s apart stylistically, I can’t help but compare Anderson to Stanley Kubrick for his ability to comfortably shift gears from film to film. His last was the contemplative, regal Phantom Thread (2017). Before that, the bonkers neo-noir Inherent Vice (2014). Yet here we have a coming-of-age comedy that simultaneously captures a sense of nostalgia and outright bizarreness; beautifully photographed, ingeniously written, and oh so fresh.

This film, perhaps more than any of Anderson’s previous efforts, feeds directly from its central characters, with Gary and Alana driving the narrative rather that it driving them. Thankfully, these are endlessly watchable people, portrayed with genuine warmth, affection, and passion. Alana may be one of the best characters I’ve seen put to screen in some time; driven and lost, angry and sweet. They are both fish out of water, weirdos in their own right, yet somehow make sense to each other in a world that often doesn’t.

Thematically, Licorice Pizza feels akin to a film like Harold and Maude (1971) more so than any of Anderson’s previous work. However, one link is the casting of Cooper Hoffman, the son of late-great actor and frequent collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman – a truly gracious tribute.

I could have hung out in the world of Licorice Pizza all day. Sure, it could have been squeezed into a tighter runtime, and sure, it doesn’t carry the weight of its director’s heavier films, but this one feels intentionally light by comparison. Anderson simply allows you time to play around in the sandpit, laughing all the way.

Paper Jam | Regional News

Paper Jam

Created by: Imaginaries Theatre

Directed by: Belinda Campbell

BATS Theatre, 25th Jan 2022

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Part of the Six Degrees Festival at BATS Theatre, Paper Jam comes from the creative young minds of Master of Fine Arts in Theatre students at Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka.

Sal (Anna Barker) is broke and caught in a whirlwind of mundane work in the mailroom of an unnamed corporate with shy Travis (Dylan Hutton). She thinks her life is under control and has ambitions for promotion, but her superior Mary (Zoë Christall) has other ideas. Cracking under the strain, she actualises her chaotic and mischievous childhood friend, Biscuit (Daniel Nodder).

The cast of four work exceptionally well as an ensemble. They are highly energetic, create believable and empathetic characters, and imbue their relatable story with equal measures of fun and pathos. Barker excels as the well-meaning hero, and Hutton’s creepy Graham and adorable Travis are hilarious and in fine contrast. Christall’s icy Mary and nerdy intern are also beautifully juxtaposed, and Nodder’s Biscuit is engagingly bouncy and naughty, pushing Sal out of her comfort zone.

As well as producing well-crafted and entertaining theatre, the creative team of Paper Jam has emphasised accessibility and sustainability as part of their production values. Instead of falling into the trap of being overly worthy, this choice works to Paper Jam’s favour.

Sadly, the burgeoning Omicron outbreak has put paid to the pre-show touch tour, but stage manager Felipe McDonald-Cuevas instead describes the set, props, and costumes for the particular benefit of people with visual impairments. This ethos continues throughout the performance with the actors speaking their stage directions, which amplifies the comic effect for seeing audience members.

The clever set design (Rebekah de Roo) relies on recycled and reused materials, such as wooden pallets and cardboard boxes. The back wall of the stage is covered in flattened boxes to make a projection screen, which is used to good effect throughout the performance.

From this joyful and thoughtful production, it’s clear that Wellington theatre’s next generation of creatives is in great form.

A Natural Woman | Regional News

A Natural Woman

Produced by: Ali-Cat Productions

Running at Circa Theatre until 22nd Feb 2022

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

It’s clear there are many Carole King fans in the house at A Natural Woman. While I’d happily belt out hits like I Feel the Earth Move, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and the titular A Natural Woman (cue a rousing chorus of “you make me feeeel!”) on karaoke night, I know very little about the master musician behind them. I am however a big fan of Ali Harper, which is more than enough to get me through the door.

Supported by her talented band of Nick Granville on guitar, Scott Maynard on bass, and Francis Meria on piano, Harper performs a range of King’s most popular and lesser-known songs with soaring vocals and dazzling star power. Between the songs the audience is treated to brief spoken interludes that give us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into King’s life and music. These moments shine the brightest when Harper speaks of her personal connection with the American singer-songwriter and often lead beautifully into the next song.

The main sensation I feel during A Natural Woman is surprise. Wait, Carole King wrote that? And that? And that? This is a particularly special feeling when Harper starts singing Where You Lead, the theme from Gilmore Girls… which my friend and I were talking about just before the show!

Around the halfway point, guest singer Francis Leota walks onstage and wows with vocals that blend beautifully with Harper’s. Two voices matched in heaven. Performing a stirring solo of Child of Mine, not to mention ably supporting on the congas, Leota is a wonderful addition to the band of consummate musicians.

When Granville and Maynard are recruited to sing backup, they do so well but look out of their comfort zones. I hope their nerves dwindle over the course of the season, because they have every reason to feel confident in their vocal abilities.

In A Natural Woman, Ali Harper honours Carole King with an uplifting and astounding performance.

The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions | Regional News

The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions

Written by: Kerry Greenwood

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

When I found out that Kerry Greenwood’s latest book The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions was a series of short stories rather than a full-length novel, I have to admit I was sceptical that she could pack in the same atmosphere and the sharp wit that I normally associate with her titles. 

Thankfully I was wrong because each story has the same smart, tight writing that I have come to expect from an author of her pedigree. The stories revolve around heroine Phryne Fisher as she solves a series of mysteries with her usual aplomb. 

Despite only being bite-sized in length, I was blown away by how well written each one is. The world she’s created, while small, is still rich in detail, and the characters, despite the brevity of the book, are well fleshed out and come across as ‘real’. But standing above all of them is unsurprisingly the star of the show herself.

Like many of Greenwood’s other books, Phryne comes across as an extremely polished individual. Poised and refined with a razor-sharp mind, it isn’t long before she inevitably finds herself in hot water. I just love how she’s written; not only does she give readers a glimpse into life in the Roaring 20s, she shows us how things ought to have been. Rather than being the typical damsel in distress that you might see in other books, Phryne instead takes charge of many of the situations she finds herself in and is equal to the majority of her male contemporaries.

The stories themselves also deserve a shout out. Sometimes funny and light-hearted and other times dark and serious, but always entertaining, The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions is something I think everyone can enjoy. If you are new to reading or are looking for your next whodunnit, then I cannot recommend this enough. With Christmas on the way, this might be something to look out for as your next stocking stuffer.

The Discomfort of Evening | Regional News

The Discomfort of Evening

Written by: Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Faber & Faber

Reviewed by: Rosea Capper-Starr

The Discomfort of Evening is a disconcerting read.

Marieke Rijneveld sets the tone in her opening chapter with a blunt discussion of death, which continues to be a running theme throughout the book, captured through the chaotic train-of-thought style of a child. Jas, our young narrator, offers us the briefest of glimpses of Matthies, her eldest brother, before Jas casually offers a bargain to God: take Matthies instead of her pet rabbit, who she suspects her father is planning to kill for their Christmas dinner. Later that same day, Jas overhears her mother receiving the terrible news of Matthies’ accidental death. The idea of guilt and accountability, or payment for sin, in the eyes of a child is a complex one, which Rijneveld explores in the context of a deeply religious family and community, where open grief and conversations about mental health are not encouraged.

Through the lens of Jas’ perspective, we see a family unravelling after tragedy. While the grieving parents struggle to maintain structure for their remaining children, the siblings left behind begin their own explorations into the subject of death and how to avoid it or meet it on their own terms. The sudden and accidental nature of Matthies’ death leads Jas, Hanna, and Obbe to attempt to exert control over their surroundings and the course of their own lives.

Trauma manifests in strange ways, such as Jas constantly wearing her red coat and obsessively holding in her poo, as she struggles to gain power over her own body and life. Some of the rules that Jas implements seem to be a sort of bargaining with God; Jas becomes fixed on the idea that a sacrifice of some kind must be made to save her parents, who she feels slipping away from her. Meanwhile, natural childish curiosity about sexuality becomes tangled with disturbing acts of violence and abuse.

The Discomfort of Evening is a dark exploration of the creative superstitions of children as they fight to make sense of the world around them, with a slow aura of dread building to an unforgettable finality.

Selected Poems by Margaret Jeune | Regional News

Selected Poems by Margaret Jeune

Written by: Margaret Jeune

HeadworX Publishers

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

Margaret Jeune’s Selected Poems is written memory of a life; this compilation is particularly poignant and intriguing as it follows Jeune from her earliest poems as a naive starry-eyed youth to a girl in love with life and lovers, heartbroken and bitter at times, angry at the world’s injustice, but also her hopefulness and admiration of simple beauty and pleasures as she transitions into the later stages of life. Her life is laid out bare, vulnerable and exposed.

Jeune is fiercely political and socially conscious. Lawn Cemetery criticises bureaucracy: “such a tidy, circumspect piece of dirt … souls confined rows of unwilling neighbors all duly labelled and processed.” Sexism, consumerism, and climate change are similarly critiqued in other poems. Jeune recognises and embodies a sense of responsibility and duty each of us should have for our own world, but also for the future generations. In her poem Legacy, she writes: “your legacy is meaningful and in the course of time will be seen to be hugely significant.”

In her own words, Jeune’s poetry is “about waking up to yet another day… about dashed hopes and unmet expectations… it’s a reality check and it’s about being human” (The Suburban Bubble 175).

Her poetry is humble, sometimes playful, often abrupt, incredibly self-aware, and most importantly, mundane. But mundane in the most positive sense of the word. Her poems are the poems of the everyday; they capture little moments in time. Selected Poems is a diary of a life, with chapters and footnotes, regrets and celebrations; and though the diary is specifically Jeune’s, with each poem you feel as though you are reading from a page of your own life.

Whether she writes of heartbreak or McDonald’s, death or waitressing, broad social commentary or the loneliness and surreality of our 2020 lockdown, Jeune simply and succinctly captures life. Her own of course, but also yours, or mine, or theirs, rendering all lives ours; uniting us all through the beautiful, mundane, extraordinary, human condition.

After the Tampa | Regional News

After the Tampa

Written by: Abbas Nazari

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Margaret Austin

“Everyone has heard about refugees, but hardly anyone has ever met or got to know one personally. It’s time they did.” Thus writes Abbas Nazari in the prologue of his story After the Tampa.

You won’t be able to claim ignorance after you’ve read this extraordinary account of a young boy’s escape from Afghanistan and the Taliban, and his journey to Aotearoa.

The tale unfolds like a drama. Settings range from Sungjoy, a tiny rural spot in Afghanistan, to the unseaworthy Palapa, then the giant rescue container ship the Tampa, to a new home in Aotearoa. Characters in the drama include Nazari’s family, chiefly his magnificent dad, defiant Tampa sea captain Rinnan, Australian pre-election PM John Howard (regrettably), and just halfway through the narrative our own Helen Clark, with her offer to take 150 of the refugees stranded offshore of a country that refuses responsibility for them.

But the script of this drama is the most astonishing thing. By script I mean the tone and voice of the narrative. Nazari’s writing is powerful, and its power derives from its simplicity. I do not mean that as criticism. It is the absence of any overlay of bitterness, negativity, or complaint that makes this narrative so compelling.

Facts speak for themselves, and if we are aghast at the acts of the Taliban, the unsanitary conditions endured by seven-year-old Nazari and his siblings, and the appalling attitude and behaviour of the Australian government of the time, our reactions are mitigated by Nazari’s practicality and sense of reality.

Once settled in Christchurch, Nazari’s aptitude for learning recalls an early incident in Afghanistan, when, following his elder brother to school, he corrects the teacher’s pronunciation. Should it come as a surprise then, that this boy should go on to university honours and a Fulbright scholarship, spend time in Washington DC, and write this book.

“Opportunity is a charging bull,” he wrote, while still at school, “and it was up to us to wrestle it by the horns”.

Well wrestled, Abbas Nazari!