Book Review: Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley

I got an e-book review copy of Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, which is a great book by blogger Danyl McLauchlan, by asking the publishers for one on Twitter. I read it over the next week and then didn’t review it for a month, mainly because I am not very good at reviewing things.

Part of why I’m not a good reviewer is that I am inherently suspicious of criticism and reviewing, especially when so much criticism reads like a laundry-list of ways the critic would have done the book/movie/whatever better, and also because so many reviews are self-indulgent diatribes that say more about the shortcomings of the critic than what they’re reviewing, like the one I am writing now. Part of the problem is that I have an attention span of about a nanosecond when I’m doing anything that isn’t playing a good videogame or reading, which is why I desperately seek those activities out at the expense of much else in my life, and why I looked at Twitter several times while writing this sentence. (Twitter is a website written by ten million people, nine million of whom are arseholes and all whom are writing about Donald Trump.) I also have a bad writing habit of aimlessly beating about the bush for several paragraphs when I should be getting straight to the point.

I am a bad critic. I’m a terrible reviewer. I loved Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley.

That’s the review done, but you can read the rest of whatever this is if you like.

I reviewed the electronic book version of Mysterious Mysteries, which was fine. It has words in much the same way as real book does, which makes it easy to read, and I read it on my Kindle, which is an excellent device but after years of use has some dead pixels in the lower left-middle of the device. This was a bit distracting at times, but I still managed to read the book, which is great.

I wanted to pull bits of text out of the book and write profound things about them, as if I was writing a proper review. The problem with reviewing the e-book version is that it’s hard to flip through to the places that I liked (there were many) so I tried “highlighting” them, which is a feature Kindle books have. It allows you to be yanked out of the narrative of whatever you’re reading because a dozen or so strangers have spotted a particular profundity. Because I didn’t know how to use the highlighting function properly it meant that I skipped to random chapters of the book whenever I tried to highlight something, which turned Mysterious Mysteries into an accidental hypertext novel. Fortunately, it kind of suited it, because the book is weird and great. I managed one successful highlight. It reads:

“The beams of light picked out rolling eyes, webs of undulating flesh, contorting orifices.”

Isn’t that wonderful? That’s from the best drug-fuelled orgy scene I’ve yet read, and I’ve read a lot of Harry Potter fan fiction.

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley has a plot, which is good. By the end of the book it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, which I didn’t mind at all. It has many jokes, which are deeply funny. There are lots of profound bits too. I related deeply to the depressed narrator called Danyl (one of three narrators: the other are a lunatic called Steve and a dog) who’s accidentally sort of quite good at some things but maybe not as good as he thinks he is, and is sad a lot of the time. I liked how the Aro Valley is depicted as a rotting, damp, squalid shithole full of crazy people. It seemed almost like a real place. I also liked the crowbar called “Lightbringer.”

I read a lot of the book on public transport and the jokes kept making me laugh aloud, despite the social pressure that exists on buses to silently stare straight ahead and listen to music as the driver plots to – one longed-for day – drive their passengers into the depths of the ocean. If my laughing offended anyone on the bus, fuck you.

One of the many benefits of Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley (which is an excellent book) is that you will learn a lot about science and maths, or at least I think you will, because I don’t actually know anything about maths. It is entirely possible that Danyl was making it all up. I am fairly sure that the stuff about the malevolent sentient Platonic Ideal mathematical universe is made up. Oh, and Danyl also frequently uses “they” and “their” as a third-person pronoun which I liked a lot.

Here is a bulleted list of things that are in the book in no particular order and written from memory:

  • Danyl
  • Maths
  • Mathematicians
  • A chapter written from the point of view of a dog
  • Antagonist(s)
  • A giant
  • Gorgon
  • Steve
  • Drugs
  • Cultists
  • The Aro Valley
  • An orgy
  • A spiral
  • A local body election
  • A dog
  • Clever and funny satire
  • Mindmaze (the thing in the book is not actually Mindmaze, the excellent minigame from Microsoft Encarta 95, but I couldn’t stop thinking of it as that.)

The book (which is very good) reads like a frenetic mash-up of Douglas Adams, Dan Brown, and HP Lovecraft. I’ve never actually read any HP Lovecraft, but I’ve read enough pastiches and know enough pop culture to feel like I have. I have, however, read a shitload of Douglas Adams and Dan Brown. Readers of Adams’ latter-day career Dirk Gently books will find a lot to enjoy. So will readers of Dan Brown, but for different reasons. I should probably say something semi-fashionably haughty about Dan Brown at this point but I’d rather not. I honestly quite liked Angels and Demons.

I also liked Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley. It was very good and very funny, so you should reward Danyl McLauchlan for this by buying it and, optionally, reading it. I think there is a decent chance that you will find it funny and very good also.

If you want to read something informative as opposed to what I’ve just written about Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley (it’s good!) I recommend this piece by Elizabeth Knox.

Horoscopes for 11 July 2016

You’re interested in everything today! Look around you. Isn’t life wonderful? Oh, look, The Void! Stare into it. Let us know if it stares back.

The moon is in your quadrant this month, and as we all know, this makes you fantastic at differential equations. If you’ve been looking at engineering as a career, now might be the time to take the leap. Lucky numbers: Pi, Tau, E.

Taurus’ are notoriously poor Pokemon trainers, which is why you can only find Pidgeys and Zubats even when there’s a lure out. Our advice: don’t bother, or hand your phone to a friend with a different star sign. They’ll have better luck.

For the next week you prove inexplicably attractive to bees. Avoid flowering plants and beehives whenever possible, as they will try to crawl into your ears to access the sweet, sweet nectar they believe lies within. Bee-ware!

Fuck! Where are the fucking keys! Shit, you’re going to be late! Again! You’re useless, you are! This is the last straw. Whoever your loved one is, they’re leaving. Don’t expect to find anyone new, either. There’s no-one out there for you.

Pretty much the same as Sagittarius, but with birds of prey instead of bees.

Your raging libido should settle down a bit this month. Watch out, lest it settle too low! Sexual dysfunction and genital paralysis is a real possibility. We suggest generously applying honey and seeking out an ant’s nest.

Air signs face a real danger of asphyxiation over the next few weeks. Avoid pillows, cushions, and all sources of carbon monoxide.

Good news, Libras! The portents for plastic surgery are excellent this month. There’s never been a better time to get that chin tuck you’ve been hankering for.

Cancers have a far higher cancer risk than other signs (it’s in the name) so inquire about preventative chemotherapy with your local Mexican health clinic.

You’re an asshole.

Pisces feel right at home in all the rain we’ve been having this month – it’s their fishy nature coming out to play. This month, take this one step further this month and get in the ocean. Stay there, if at all possible.  

Birds in Hats

morpilot-webThanks for checking out my Birds in Hats! 

If you’d like to own one, you can purchase prints at my shop, If you’d like a bird on a shirt, you can get those here. Email me at josh (at) if you’d like a custom print (different sizes etc) that isn’t offered in my shop. 

If you like the birds but you can’t get a print, that’s cool – I’m currently entered in a competition to win a year’s salary to work on my art, so if you could vote for me here that would be awesome! All you have to do is hover over the pictures on my profile and click on the heart icon to vote. Thanks so much.

I’m also taking commissions. Prices for paintings start at around $200. Email me at josh (at) and we can suss something out.

Malice through the looking-glass

Back in 2014 – right around the time I was getting married – I did some research and interview work for the project that eventually became the documentary Tickled. Which is why I have this URL, in fact. Anyway, Tickled has been having an interesting time of it. As well as rave reviews they’ve been getting all kinds of attention, including having the subjects of their film show up at an LA Q&A session. I wrote a piece for The Spinoff about it, and you can read it here.

A short history of New Zealand’s punitive approach to gardening

The following are excerpts from Ask That Garden by noted horticultural historian Dick King, reprinted here with permission of the author. For further personal accounts of New Zealand’s gardening ban, please refer to these reddit threads

The idea of restricting private vegetable gardens and orchards due to the many economic and health risks they pose, and allowing only licensed farmers to grow and sell produce is not a new one, with the first confiscations of Maori gardens taking place in the 1860s under Governor George “Gardener” Grey. Despite early legal restrictions on gardens, many flourished in New Zealand’s temperate climate, with citizens growing kumara, feijoas, chokos, Chinese gooseberries and other Kiwi fruit staples well into the late 20th century. Others preferred decorative or “ornamental” gardens, with plants like carnations or daisies, which have historically been subject to only minor restrictions and have never been formally banned. Private vegetable garden ownership was never fully banned in New Zealand until the tumultuous events of the 1980s…

… after the 1981 Spring Bok Choi riots, about which more hardly needs to be said, Prime Minister David Lange was cautious about allowing further gardening activities. With New Zealand public opinion on the resumption of gardening split, after Muldoon’s hastily-called Snapdragon Election, Lange was invited to debate an earnest American private horticultural advocate, Jerry Falwell, at the Oxford Club. The moot: Personal Gardens are Morally Indefensible. It looked for a time like Lange had met his match as the Falwell led an impassioned defense of the role private gardens played in winning World War Two and in the balance of power in the postwar period.

“I can smell the fertiliser on your breath,” Lange retorted, famously…

Winning the debate did what Lange and his anti-private-horticultural cohort had hoped; it turned public opinion decisively against private gardening. The time of the Anti-Garden Policy, which continues to this day, had begun. It would later be codified in law as the New Zealand Garden Free Zone, Disengardenment, and Horticultural Control Act 1987. Foreign ships carrying fertilisers and private gardening materials were effectively banned from docking in New Zealand.

…Meanwhile, a domestic program of mass uprootings was set in motion under Finance Minister Roger Douglas. Small gardens and orchards were bought by and absorbed into the Crown, in a wholesale deprivatisation campaign. Under an amnesty program that continued into the early 90s, private gardeners could apply for a Public-Private Gardening license, or PPG, and many new legal gardening businesses sprung up in this time. Unfortunately, the harsh requirements imposed by the Government struck down many fledgling legal gardeners, and many became unemployed or absorbed into the new Crown growing operations. The Anti-Garden policy was continued essentially unchanged under the subsequent National government, despite internal schisms between party MPs, many of whom had possessed gardens under the pro-private horticulture Rowling and Muldoon regimes.

…Helen Clark’s Labour government looked to liberalise gardening, with edible pot plants with a diameter of less than 30 centimetres decriminalised early in her tenure. However, a step to legalise fruit-bearing shrubberies proved a step to far late in her nine-years-long reign and she was defeated by staunch anti-Gardenist, National leader John Key.

…The hopes of underground gardeners were raised with the election of Maggie Barry as the MP for Botany. Barry had formerly been the long-time host of Maggie’s Garden Show, which saw her showcasing sumptuous overseas gardens on New Zealander’s TV screens every week. Many suspected her of private horticultural sympathies, and when she was named Conservation Minister in 2014, it was expected she would begin liberalising the longstanding anti-gardening policy.

Sadly, Maggie “Crusher” Barry has been nothing but a disappointment to horticultural progressives. She set a new low point early in her Ministerial tenure when she earned her nickname by crushing a Datsun belonging to a Nelson teenager who’d constructed a secret, almost certainly harmless, inedible bonsai garden in her car’s boot. At the same time, she crushed the dreams of many Kiwi teens who had dreamed that the National Government might soften its approach to gardens…

These excerpts were originally appended to this article on The Spinoff, also by me. However, today’s journalistic climate necessitates snackable, shareable media, so it was politely suggested that the article was much too goddamn long already and I should post this sort of dreck somewhere else. So I did. 

Meth removal, but for ghosts

The fledgling meth-testing industry is enjoying record patronage, with landlords and Housing New Zealand rushing to find out that pretty much every house in New Zealand is infested with meth. I read a article about one meth tester and realised it would be much better, and also about as accurate, if I replaced every incidence of the word “meth” with “ghosts.” 

Taranaki woman Karen Baker talks about testing houses for ghosts 

In the last few months business has become busier and busier for Taranaki ghost hunter Karen Baker.

The Stratford woman started in the ghost testing industry about a year ago and to begin with she was having a hard time convincing real estate agents to test houses.

Now, they are phoning her.

Karen Baker, of Detect-Ghosts NZ, with one of her pieces of equipment for ghost testing, which has just picked up a reading of an astonishing 2982 microcröks
Karen Baker, of Detect-Ghosts NZ, with one of her pieces of equipment for ghost testing, which has just picked up a reading of an astonishing 2982 microcröks.

“When I started talking to real estate people in Taranaki they said it wasn’t a problem here,” she says.


“If we go back a couple of months people would say ‘I don’t really think we have a problem, there’s no point, we don’t need to test.’ Now, as testing is coming through, people are finding more and more properties that have got ghosts.”

“It’s a problem in New Zealand. In Taranaki, well, it’s certainly here. I know of two on Frankley Rd alone.”

Baker, who runs the business Detect-Ghosts NZ, has been in the news recently for finding a mysterious spectral presence in a young girl’s Housing New Zealand bedroom in Marfell.

But the 52-year-old hasn’t always been a ghost-tester. Her background is in water divining and she says she sort of fell into ghost-testing at the advice of a friend.

“I got into it, not because I decided I was going to do this, but because I realised there was very little information and the guidelines weren’t that clear. I felt that we needed to improve what we did,” she says.

“It’s taken me awhile to realise I was going to make this a business. I started providing support, technical support, and looking at ways to improve the situation.”

The first piece of ghost-testing equipment Baker bought was a hand-held Ectoplasmic Organic Compounds meter, which she says costs about $10,000 and therefore isn’t used by many testers.

“I looked at air testing because these units can pick up real low-levels of anything that is volatile, so if you have any levels of ectoplasm, I should be able to pick it up,” she says.

If Baker picks up any contamination in a property further testing can be done, the most accurate of which is the occult laboratory test.

To do these Baker takes a 100-square-centimetre template and holds it against a wall, rubbing it with gauze that has been soaked in methanol, while chanting the appropriate chants.

The gauze is then put into a ghost trap and sent off to a lab. The test results come back within 10 days.

After that, Baker has the task of telling people if their home is contaminated with a class-A phantom or not.

“I’m picking spectres up in a lot of very different places,” she says.

Although she doesn’t want to reveal too many details about the contaminated properties, because of confidentiality, she says there are properties in Opunake, Stratford and New Plymouth that have tested positive for ghosts.

“As well as the tests, I also look for signs of hauntings, and obviously there’s plenty of signs. The house starts to talk to you.

“Crazy art is one. Murals. I went into this garage in Opunake and saw one and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s pretty out-there’. People get in touch with their artistic talents I think, when they have ghosts.

“So that was one of my clues when I went into the property in Opunake. I take a test, it comes back and they have ghosts.”

Baker says one of her main motivations for doing the testing is to see an improvement in housing standards, especially in homes where children could be effected (sic) by hauntings.

“Children are really good at seeing dead people, because they react more. But I don’t think we use them as testers,” she says.

“Most of the symptoms are respiratory to begin with. Kids end up with chest infections that won’t go away.

“Most importantly, if you’ve got children, [watch to see if] they’re constantly ill or sick, [or] they have respiratory symptoms. Some children can develop rashes and sores that don’t go away or can’t be healed.”

There are also other symptoms, she says.

“You may suffer from insomnia. You may, when you arrive at the property, after half an hour, get a headache, or you may feel sick and every time you leave your property you may feel better.

“If you feel better after you leave your house then you might want to consider doing something about that and perhaps checking it out.”

What standards are in place for testing?
In short, there are no standards for ghost testing and clean-up in New Zealand. However, there are Ministry guidelines. While they don’t explicitly confirm a safe level, they establish an acceptable level post-remediation: less than 0.5 microcröks of ectoplasm per 100 square centimetres.

What about standards for testers?
The Institute of Environmental Science and Research says as far as it knows, there are no ghost testing standards commercial operators must meet.

Are standards coming?
Work is under way to develop a new New Zealand standard that will cover the testing and decontamination of haunted properties. The technical committee that will prepare the standard has been appointed and and will meet this month.

I’m renting a house: who’s responsible for testing?
If landlords rent out a property that is haunted, they are breaching their obligations under the Residential Tenancies Act 1986, as well as other legislation such as the Building Act and the Health Act.

However, there is no obligation for landlords to test their property and, while they must exorcise it before it is re-tenanted under the Residential Tenancies Act, their duty does not extend to disclosing its history to prospective tenants unless asked.

How much does it all cost?
The costs of sorting out ghosts vary wildly. Costs for detailed testing range from $249 to $10,000, while decontamination can range from $2000 to $50,000.

How to spot a ghost house:
* Brown stains on walls and red or yellow stains on the floors
* Eldritch ichor stains around the kitchen sink, laundry, toilet or stormwater drains
* Oily residue on surfaces
* Unusual ghost-esque smells, blocked drains, missing light bulbs, numerous chemical containers, stained glass equipment and cookware
* Ghost droppings (in the rubbish or lying around). Occult paraphernalia including the Necronomicon and non-Euclidian geometry on the property

Source: Housing New Zealand