The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald – 2019

thenancysA small-town murder mystery with lots of suspects, dull police, amateur sleuths, a bundle of local secrets and lashings of glitter.

Tippy Chan is 11 and living in Riverstone, South Otago: “Main Street was busy today … I counted seven people on the footpath.”  Her Uncle Pike and his new partner, Devon, have arrived from Sydney to look after Tippy while her Mum goes on a cruise.  Tippy and her Mum are still having a hard time after the death of Tippy’s Dad.  Uncle Pike is larger than life and has his own demons to face on returning to Riverstone after many years.  This could be a domestic tale of small-town tragedies – but one of Tippy’s mates, Todd, ends up in a coma and one of her teachers is beheaded – and Tippy and Pike are big Nancy Drew fans – so enter The Nancys.

Tippy, Pike and Devon plot and snoop and interview and draw unpleasant conclusions, while the police think they have the right person in custody.  The Nancys not only want to find out who the murderer is in their midst, they want to free an innocent person.  And they partner up with some unlikely allies, such as local journalist Lorraine, who for some reason was loathed by Tippy’s Dad and still is by her Mum.  There are clues galore and the reader can guess, and re-guess along the way.  There are thrills, and there are creepy bits: The murderer seems to be leaving origami flowers dotted around; texts received might not be from who they say they’re from.

McDonald portrays Pike and Devon as flamboyantly gay, “They’re from Sydney” explains Tippy.  “Really living the cliché”, their presence in Riverstone makes a gaudy splash and gives confidence to others in the town who feel they are alone and that they don’t belong.  They certainly help Tippy, who has dressed in grey since her Dad’s death and who still feels guilt that she didn’t cry when he died.  And they literally transform Tippy’s neighbour’s granddaughter Melanie – voted “most likely to survive a zombie apocalypse” by Tippy and Todd – into a contestant in the Show Queen pageant at the local A&P show. Melanie wants to enter to cheer up her grandmother who is in an abusive relationship – and she might have other motives as well …

Tippy is a great character, she is 11, she worries her mates are sexist, Todd sends her text Tits 4 real!!!! Sam, her other friend, laughs when Pike says words like penis, and cheers Tippy up by asking questions such as “do bats poo upside down?”  She is delightfully young; she doesn’t know her apes from her monkeys, Pike and Devon’s innuendo-laden banter just flies right over her head, she has an aversion to the smells of adults.  But she is also mature enough to want to do the right thing and has the heart-breaking tendency to blame herself for things that happen to those she loves.

The Nancys is a romp of a murder mystery.  It is also about just being who you are and feeling OK about that and knowing it is OK to feel sad sometimes, and about celebrating the best of people while being a bit relaxed about their letting us down occasionally, unless that entails unrepentance, abusiveness or cutting people’s heads off.  In some ways The Nancys is a traditional murder mystery, in others it is refreshing and novel – not least by having an 11-year-old main protagonist in a book written for adults.  We learn a lot about Tippy and her family through the story and I felt happy for her in the end when she realises “… that this was my life now. The old everyday normal was gone.”

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Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka – 2019

PurakauAfter reading some works you just see the world differently, maybe for a moment, maybe a few hours or days, maybe permanently. Pūrākau was such a work for me.  Pūrākau is a collection of contemporary writings relating to Māori foundation stories, stories that are ancient and resonate through the generations.

Right from the editors’ introduction we are in the world of myth and legend, and wherever we are from we are ready to recognise multiple layers of reality, the importance of the health of the natural world, young women who must be allowed to disappear before dawn or go back to the sea, the shapeshifters and the tricksters, the warring brothers, the heart-breaking tragedies and the longing for redemption.

Whiti Hereaka’s prologue gently takes us into the dark, into a place where the stories can be told, and what stories they are! Arranged into groups that help the reader navigate, they are a combination of already published and newly commissioned works and are all fresh and engaging – e.g. Hereaka’s Papatūānuku, newly separated from Rangi and worrying about her newly wayward sons: “They were so cramped before, living on top of one another really. It was no place for growing boys.”

The writing styles differ, some biographical, others set in the timeless other-realms, some in the vivid ‘now’, others in the futuristic world of science-fiction and future technology, and many placing traditional elements in a contemporary setting.  One strong theme that emerges through all the re-tellings is that of the power of women: “Wāhine carry the stories, they carry the kawa, they carry the songs” – Renée in Te Pura, Warrior Taniwha of Te Wairoa.

The women are wise, they are measured, they are terrorists and warriors, they often make the best of their tragedies, such as Patricia Grace’s Rona in Moon Story, or Tina Makereti’s Pania in Shapeshifter, who is still a wonderful presence even though imprisoned in bronze.  Waitaiki was confined in Pounamu and her story is told in Nic Low’s Te Ara Poutini.  Not only are they imprisoned, women are deserted, betrayed, beheaded … but they are also vital agents – when Tāne finally manages to create the first woman, Hine, Makereti (in Skin and Bones) has her say “I’m so glad you figured it out. I’ve been waiting for ages.”

Other constant themes that make the stories timeless and relevant, are the pollution of the natural world and the mistreatment of animals.  Hatupatu slaughtering Kurungaituku’s animal friends in Ngāhuia Te Awektotuku’s Kurungaituku, the sad story of Hora-ngā-rangi and Teu-ngā-rangi, the two toroa in Ihimaera’s telling of Pourangahua bringing potatoes to Aotearoa (The Potato).

In The Potatio Ihimaera likens his writing to kūmara “which I could offer to people to enjoy”. In his Niwareka and Mataora, he likens his writing to tā moko “the difference between writing and Māori writing is that without the inspiration of tā moko, the inscriptions of our stories would only be superficial and easily wiped away.”  I could only read Pūrākau from the point of view of a pakeha New Zealander and a lover of foundation stories, I am sure there is much I missed and very possibly things I misinterpreted.  But I found this collection deeply engaging and its effect on me won’t be easily wiped away.

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Whatever It Takes by Paul Cleave – 2019

What-Ever-it-Takes-669x1024In Paul Cleave’s Whatever it takes we have moved away from his ‘gateway to hell’ Christchurch to Acacia Pines, a small isolated town in the U.S.  Acacia Pines is a sawmill town, surrounded by a “Green Hole” of forests, with only one way in and one way out.  Deputy Noah Harper lost his job, his wife and his home in Acacia Pines when he broke all the rules in order to do ‘the right thing’, and now 12 years later he’s back intending to do ‘the right thing’ once again.

The novel starts in a bloody mess and through the novel Noah gets up to fight again more times than Arnie in T1.  His is an extremely flawed character, with a tendency to violence that is quite marked.  But he is a compelling anti-hero that you would like to think would be on your side in a fix.  And he does think his way through most situations, weighing up the pros and cons, and always makes decisions for the ‘right’ reasons – but of course he doesn’t always work the equations out correctly.

Noah made a promise to a seven-year-old girl, Alyssa, before he left Acacia Pines, a promise that brings him back when his ex-wife contacts him to say Alyssa has gone missing.  Alyssa’s uncle, a priest, is on his death bed and convinced something bad has happened to Alyssa, despite the local sheriff – Noah’s ex-partner Drew – having evidence that she has just left town unable to face her uncle’s slow demise.  What is great about small town stories is that when people return, they know everyone, and they can create a rich place and history for the reader to become immersed in.  And the reader can suspect the motives and actions of people a little more clearly than the main protagonist.  Is Noah the only character with good intentions but suspect methods?  Who can he trust?, and what the hell is going on in that little town?

The characters are great, Noah of course but also Drew, his ex-partner, Maggie, his ex-wife, Conrad his nemesis and Conrad’s dad Sheriff Haggerty, who as an ex-sheriff dragging an oxygen tank around still wants to run Noah out of town.  There are many more the reader gets to know, and you are constantly wondering who is bad and who is sort of good.  But it is a Paul Cleave novel, so you know the line between the two is like ink in water, and the characters keep developing as you read.  But there are some things you can hang onto – Noah loves his three-legged cat Legolas, and he did make that promise to a seven-year-old girl, a promise he intends to keep regardless at what messes he finds himself in.

The writing is smooth, a little humorous to counter the violence, and very suspenseful.  I read it in one go as I just had to know what was going on.  There are clues throughout, and I did feel smug guessing one plot twist – but was totally unprepared for the main reveal!  And as with many good thrillers, you end up knowing more about how sick humans can be in the real world than you ever really wanted to.  “What kind of world is it where shitty things happen to good people? … The only one we have.”  Another great thriller from Paul Cleave.

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Rufus Marigold by Ross Murray – 2019

Rufus MarigoldGraphic Novels can be beautiful, informative, funny, moving and sad.  Rufus Marigold is all of these.  Rufus Marigold is the alter ego of the author, and he is living with anxiety.  He is depicted as a hybrid man/chimpanzee – successfully placing Rufus as ‘other’ but also as ‘familiar’, for we see Rufus’ world through the distortion of his anxiety, where he is an outsider, un-liked, a failure.

Right from the outset we are given the level of Rufus’ anxiety – he is so traumatised by the phone ringing he ends up eating from the can of cat food he is about to dish out!  And the nightmares continue – meeting people on the street, at work and gulp! at job interviews!  All the other characters in the novel are drawn as human, except for a coach/trainer, who is portrayed as a man/orangutan, a person Rufus hates for being so confident and whose friendly interactions he is offended by.

One of the funniest/saddest moments is when he finds in Søren Kierkegaard a kindred soul, only to discover he died over 150 years ago.  And one of the most disturbing is his inability to deal with a medical emergency when walking through a park.  He can’t even manage suicide when he is confronted by a pigeon on the roof he intends to jump off.

The graphic novel elements of the book are superb, easily navigated, easily read, great use of separating pages and wonderfully illustrated. Amid the funniness and extreme situations there is a clear message about how debilitating anxiety can be, despite how supportive and caring those are around you.  It will be a kindred book for those who suffer extreme anxiety, and an informative and reassuring read for those who do so in a milder form – which is just about everyone, including chimpanzees.

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Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall – 2019

Pearly GatesPearly Gates is a very important man, in his own eyes.  He has been the Mayor of a small north Otago town for some years, and at the beginning of the book he is considering running for a third term.  He was almost an All Black.  He runs a successful independent real estate business.  But all is not well with this picture.

Pearly Gates is a study in white male privilege, Pearly (nickname since childhood for Pat Gates) is gently sexist, gently snobbish, and only does service or favours for the benefits it will bring him.  He is judgemental and critical of most of those around him.  He is suspicious of new things and confident in his own views of the world.  He doesn’t know why his brother, Richie, doesn’t admire him more for his achievements, while also, puzzlingly to himself, gently begrudges his brother his life on the family farm and his good relationship with his son.

Pearly considers himself a success: “He found his own life of unfailing interest and accepted that it might well be instructive for other people to be informed concerning it.” He believes he handles things deftly and fairly, and when things go slightly awry, he always has a view that will put others at fault.  His relationship with his son, Kevin, however is a worry, living in Auckland and only contacting Pearly and his wife, Helen, when needing money.  But the reader only gets Pearly’s disgruntled and feeling-a-lack-of-gratitude angle on the relationship, and there is enough hinted at to imagine there would be a whole other side to the story if we were to hear Kevin’s voice.  Pearly’s relationship with his daughter and her family however is perfect – they are on the other side of the world living in Wales.

Another slight irritation for Pearly is that there is another likely candidate for the mayoralty, Philip, his deputy.  Philip is younger greener and has a following.  And Pearly’s decision to do something to ensure his own victory starts his own trajectory of assured primacy on a wonky course.  Annoyances start building up: His knowledge of how he won the election, the arrival of Andrew, another high achiever (but in Pearly’s eyes a lesser man) to the local school reunion, Pearly’s life is starting to be punctuated with acquaintances’ illnesses and deaths, and a series of anonymous and abusive phone calls starts, which seem to find Pearly wherever he is.

Pearly’s wife, Helen, is his sounding board, and increasingly her responses to his concerns are quire cutting, reminding him he is just the part-time Mayor of a “tin-pot small-town”.  Pearly wonders longingly about his Father’s love letters his Mum kept, but he doesn’t consider such things relevant to his relationship with Helen, admitting “he had protected himself with a semi-facetious mode and the emphasis on the outer life”.  Helen is planning on going back to work as a nurse at the local hospital, and with Pearly’s gently patronising manner, I was hoping she would gently take off with her best friend, Alison.

Another support for Pearly’s ego is Gumbo, another childhood friend, who is faithful to a fault, and who is kept by Pearly as both support and a show of class magnanimity, Gumbo being a groundskeeper at a primary school.  And it is Gumbo who is at the heart of an event at the school reunion which the novel slowly builds to, an event that forces Pearly to be somewhat more self-aware.  Aiding this moderate re-evaluation is Andrew, who, not being quite the person Pearly had remembered from school, surprisingly becomes Pearly’s ‘confessor’.

Pearly Gates is a novel about a time in transition, climate concerns, random acts of arson, abusive anonymity, and the realisation that you should be accountable and genuine whoever you are and whoever you are with.  I don’t know that I hold out much hope for Pearly, but I appreciated being part of his life for a while.

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The Unreliable People by Rosetta Allan – 2019

Unreliable peopleIdentity is at the heart of this amazing novel, mainly set in post-perestroika Russia and Kazakhstan.  The Koryo-saram are ethnic Koreans, people Stalin termed The Unreliable People, descendants of those who fled to Vladivostok from Korea, who were then deported to The Kazakh SSR by Stalin, and then after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, ended up living in Kazakhstan. They share history and stories from each of these places: Are they Korean, Kazakh or Russian? 

Identity is explored through the story of Antonina, an art student in St Petersburg in the mid-1990s, just a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Antonina is enrolled in a high-end Art Academy, but feels drawn to the Centre of Nonconformist Art, where her friend Tatyana lives and works.  Antonina is working on two exhibitions, one for her grades at the Academy, another an expression of her Koryo-saram identity designed to be a brief installation at the Centre.  The theme of parallel lives and realities weaves through the story.

We first meet Antonina in the 1970s, when she is abducted from her bedroom by a mysterious woman, who tells her stories and teaches her dances as they travel on a train away from her home – a train that crosses the “screaming bridge” where the ghosts of those who died in the deportations roam “for eternity in search of their loved ones”.  But the woman, Katerina, finds she can’t carry out her plan and sets Antonina on her journey of memory and mystery.  Who was the woman?  Did Antonina ever go on that train-ride with her?  Whose are the stories and dances she knows?

The book centres on Antonina’s journey, but we also follow Katarina, and learn of the sad events of the Koryo-saram community in the late 1930s.  Running through the parallel stories are lovers separated, actions regretted, children lost or abandoned.  The shadow of the Soviet State falls heavily over events, the paranoia, the queuing, the suppression of individuality and identity, and the racism of state policy, a racism that emerges on a personal level once the mega-state loses its grip and ethnic independence emerges.  Through the experiences of Antonina, the reader discovers, and is appalled by, the history of the Koryo-saram people.

The use of Antonina’s art is a nice way to express many of the themes of the novel, and provides a link between Antonina and her mother, a potter who makes ethnic pieces in Almaty, formerly Alma-Ata, and who sends parcels of clay to Antonina in St Petersburg.  The centre-piece of Antonina’s creation for the Centre exhibition is made from frit, fused glass, that forms a rough surface that Tatyana is continually snagged by, Tatyana who is an embodiment of confused identity, who wants to be with Antonina.  And it is at the Academy exhibition where we see another side to the rough Konstantin, the black marketeer with whom Antonina boards, when he arrives with a limp bouquet of tulips because they “are from Kazakhstan.”

The link between the two main characters and storylines is quite rapidly revealed, which on one level sits oddly.  But on another level the resolution parallels the first meeting between Antonina and Katarina – fleeting and ghost-like.  The first meeting led Antonina on a trajectory where we become part of her story, and the second meeting leads her to where we leave her to merge into the story of her people, the Koryo-saram,

The Unreliable People is full of interesting characters and tragic history.  It is a history that makes the reader consider the plight of displaced people of all places and times, and to ponder the complexity of identity.

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Soul Etchings by Sandra Arnold – 2019

Soul etchingsI love short short story collections and Soul etchings is a superb example.  A collection of evocative snippets, about loss, grief, missed opportunities, women stuck in mis-matched relationships, misunderstood children, murder and over-obsessive inanimate objects.

When I reviewed another short story collection: Frankie McMillan’s My mother and the Hungarians, I wrote “The stories work like magic; your brain telling you a story based on snippets” and it is the same with Soul etchings.  There are 57 stories, all complete, but as you read them there are links and connections: The child full of wonder who is denied her experiences, the loss of a child through cancer, the missed opportunities to connect with those who have passed on, the unfair father, the fathers who want sons and not daughters.

One of my favourites in the collection was The day of the horse, with its lovely, but tragic, twist, on “crying wolf”, with the hearer at fault not the messenger.  Soul etchings is a collection embedded in our time, with our difficulties with connection, the solitary carrying of burdens, the attraction of the artificial rather than the natural, and the failure to see hope and wonder around us.  It is full of those brief moments that are etched onto our souls and which impact the rest of our lives.  It is both confronting:

“Until the day Briony came home from school and found her father dead in the kitchen she hadn’t paid much attention to detail”

And evocative:

“She wrote in shafts of sunlight striking the scrubbed white wood of the old kitchen table.  Head bent over her book, words streaming from head to hand to pen to paper”

I devoured this collection and highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

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