Tag Archives: PenguinRandomHouse

A poem from Owen Marshall’s new collection, View from the South


Insect in Amber


My father had a piece of kauri gum with
an insect entombed within its amber glow.
A slender fly, buckled in futile agony
as the resin gradually engulfed it and set
fast. He kept it on his desk, a talisman
from a Wekaweka boyhood and an oddity
no doubt. Hundreds of years may well have
passed since this incidental tragedy within
the cloistered Northland bush, yet thin, black
lines of the body are preserved within the
jewelled translucence that caused its death.




©Owen Marshall View from the South  Penguin Random House 2018


Owen Marshall, novelist, short story writer, poet and anthologist, has published over thirty books. Awards include the Deutz Medal for fiction, the New Zealand Literary Fund Scholarship in Letters, fellowships at Otago and Canterbury universities and the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in France. He is an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature, a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and has received the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury.


Penguin Random House page



In the hammock: reading Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy




Fiona Kidman This Mortal Boy Vintage, 2018


Fiona Kidman’s marvelous new novel features Albert Black – the ‘jukebox killer’ – the second-to-last person to be hanged in New Zealand. He had left his impoverished but loving family in Northern Ireland in the 1950s to seek a better life. He was barely an adult.

Having read extensive research material, Fiona recreated the events and relationships that led to Albert’s controversial execution. I knew the ending but I kept hoping the Irish mother or the anti-hanging supporters would change the outcome. Not possible. So I read the novel – so beautifully detailed, so alive in rendition – in  a state of sadness at human behaviour. I am not talking about what seems to be murder in the heat of the moment after physical attacks.

I am talking about the way we treat people – who are claimed as different – as inferior: those from other countries, with different coloured skin, different accents, who make sexual choices other than heterosexual. Albert Black loses his name and becomes ‘Paddy’ because his Irish identity is not worthy of attention. It seems like the legal system, the judges, the media and general public were swayed by cultural scorn.

I might have had ongoing heartache as I read but I also absorbed the pulsating life Fiona created. The dialogue, the characters, the locations, the signs of the times – these all work to make a sumptuous depiction of a particular place in a particular time. I just loved it. I was born in June in Auckland one month before the jukebox event took place on 26 July 1955. Were my parents talking about it in their rented Point Chevalier bungalow?  What did they make of the case?

The execution bothered Mt Eden’s Prison Superintendent, the defence lawyer, friends Albert had made, to the extent public disgust at the death penalty saw the campaign against it work towards change. The new Labour Government of 1957 -1960  (in contrast to the fierce support of previous PM Sydney Holland) commuted death sentences to life imprisonment. In 1961 a National Government introduced legislation to abolish the law and allowed non-party voting. With ten National Party members, and those from Labour, the law was changed.

This is the kind of book that makes you reflect deeply upon how we do things today – how our prison system works to advantage or disadvantage, how difference still contributes to a lack of societal or cultural privilege.

Some books stick to you. This compelling novel is one of them. Beautifully crafted, meticulously researched, with ample attention to the grittiness of life and both the kindness and cruelty of people. I adored it.


Vintage author page

Video clip: Fiona talks about the novel

Reading Jacqueline Woodson’s brown girl dreaming in one glorious gulp


brown girl dreaming Jacqueline Woodson, Puffin Books, 2016 [2014]


‘If someone had taken

that book out of my hand

said, You’re too old for this


I’d never have believed

that someone who looked like me

could be in the pages of the book

that someone who looked like me

had a story.


from ‘stevie and me’



When I was doing my Italian Doctorate, I felt compelled to read books that fed into my research – anything else was a guilty pleasure I could not settle upon. So for years I lived off a diet of Italian narrative and nonfiction with a smattering of poetry.

Now I am writing a big book on New Zealand women’s poetry, I am also time-poor for anything outside my research reading. I have a huge stack of New Zealand poetry books I want to read and share on my blog and it is slightly overwhelming that I can’t work through them at my usual pace.

When I hand in my manuscript to Otago University Press in March, I plan on spending a month reading fiction, especially New Zealand fiction, because that tower of next-to-reads is wobbling to billy-oh.

But this weekend I felt that in order to recharge my writing batteries, I needed to read something that required nothing more than that glorious abandonment within the world of a book.

Something that would require nothing but daydreaming on my part.

I picked brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, USA’s current Young People’s Poet Laureate. Jacqueline has written numerous award-winning books for readers of all ages.  This book, a memoir in free verse for young readers (and everyone else!), was a 2014 National Book Award winner and a New York Times bestseller, along with other honours. She was the 2013 United States nominee for the Hans Christian Anderson medal.

And now  – I loved it so much I want to share it, just in case it will find new readers in Aotearoa.

The memoir tracks the life of a young, African-American girl growing up in the 1960s and 1970s (Jacqueline).   The book-length sequence of poems brings family in close, makes place reverberate with exquisite detail and recognises the way young readers can navigate significant issues. This book is grounded in what it means to grow up face to face with a societal intolerance of difference; a grandfather who is open to human connections and goodness within all, a grandmother who raises her grandchildren Seven Day Adventist, a mother who takes them from Ohio to South Carolina to Brooklyn, a father who disappears.

How does a young girl cope with a fire in belly that is fuelled by words, the magic of words, the power of story to imagine and liberate and soar when she has such trouble reading, unlike her brilliant quicksilver book-hungry sister?

How does she cope when her grandmother sill insists on sitting at the back of the bus and bypassing Woolworths becuase she does not want to stand out and be stared at?

How does she cope when she is not quite sure what to make of a God irritated by the other Gods? Or what it all means? God and religious edicts.

How does she cope when her mother leaves them behind for awhile she moves to New York? Before they get to move there too.

How does she cope when everyone thinks her stories are lies and lies just lead to thieving?

Reading this book is an absolute joy because it reminds you of exactly what matters in this grumpy old world.


The lines are quicksilver and luminous.

You are carried into heart.

You are carried into voice; vulnerable and strong.


The book is a tonic, a perspective reminder, a world-widener and I couldn’t stop reading until the last page.


‘But I just shrug, not knowing what to say.

How can I explain to anyone that stories

are like air to me,

I breathe them in and let them out

over and over again.’


from ‘the selfish giant’


Penguin Random House author page

Jacqueline Woodson website