Self-conscious, but frivolous fun

Craig Cliff - A Man Melting (Random House), reviewed By Kylie Klein-Nixon ***1/2

Kiwi fiction has a reputation for falling into a couple of categories - earnest or worthy.

There is a cross section of NZ fiction that is both earnest and worthy, and that is the wheelhouse of some of our greats - our Witi Ihimaeras, and our Patricia Graces. The point is, rarely is New Zealand fiction for adults frivolous and worthy.

We don't really do frivolity, as a nation. It's not our thing. Our thing is glowering men alone in the wilderness, staunch women holding down the fort, disaffected urbanites in search of meaning.

It is not imaginary friends named Groucho who, in the grip of existential crisis, abandon their makers to find themselves. That gorgeous insanity is the pervue of Craig Cliff, a young writer from Palmerston North, and his first collection of 18 strange and wonderful stories about being a Kiwi in general, and being a creator, specifically.

In the first story, Seeds, Cliff literally asks who he is to judge how his characters choose to behave, in a sense, wiping his hands of the results. And it's all a wild ride through Cliff's subconscious from there.

Knocking down that 'fourth wall' - the line between us and the creator - is jarring and probably shows a little 'first-time author' self-conciousness, but it is also pertinent.

From a man who finds meaning in his watery dissolution, to a dissatisfied academic isolated in Africa, to the careful son of an embattled sceptic, A Man Melting is full of metaphors for finding your limits, the sacrifice of self expression and staking a claim on your place in the world.

But there are also suburban moa sightings, iguanas as weapons and a man who carries a paddling pool with him to catch his own run off. Frivolity rules in the Cliff Universe.

It's hard to lose yourself as a reader in first person narrative, and so many of Cliff's stories here are in that voice. But Cliff's deft use of language and clever thematic threads - elements from earlier stories pop up in those that follow - will pull you into the stories, and his oddly charming characters will keep you there.

"Nothing made sense. I felt strangely elated," Rachel Dawn says in Unnatural Selection. Sums up my feeling about the whole collection.


Kyle Mewburn The Story of Bo and the Circus that Wasn't (Scholastic) Reviewed by Kris Dando ****

Bo the sheep dreams of being an acrobat  only problem is he's afraid of heights and he lives in a land where circuses are forbidden. But he works hard to realise his dream and gets help from his friends.

The story began with a sentence from award-winning Kiwi children's author Kyle Mewburn and each week he would chose a contributing line from those put forward by several hundred Telecom customers. He said it was an ``exciting and interesting'' project to be involved in.

The Story of Bo was funded by Telecom, with proceeds going to the company's children's foundation.

Illustrator Donovan Bixley has done an amazing job, the pictures jump off the page with their vibrancy and style, immediately capturing the interest of our two-year-old. He especially loves mention of the 'sheepachute'.

It hasn't become a staple for nighttime reading like The Little Yellow Digger and Hairy Maclary series - the sentence structure is a bit up and down; it's quite hard to get any momentum built up and quirky voices going. But that's a minor annoyance in what is an excellent kids' book.

I think it is a book I'm probably keener to read than Master Two but it is a story that's firmly in the rotation. Highly recommended.

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