The Second Grave by Ian Austin – 2018

The second graveDan Calder is settled in New Zealand after his hectic time in The agency, the first in the Dan Calder trilogy.  He has settled down with Tara Danes (from The agency) and they have adopted a dog, Jet.  Dan is doing contract work for the Police and all is calm, until he gets a call from his old mate Nick Hetherington.  Then Dan flies back to the UK to help Nick, whose daughter, Amber, has been arrested and accused of unlawful killing, possibly murder.

The second grave is a hard read; it is set in a milieu where sex workers are called, toms. prossies and whores.  It is a world where blokes pack off their women folk to keep them out of harm’s way and are always surprised when a woman appears to have a brain – although in one case that’s probably because “you live with a detective for long enough and something has to rub off”.  Women are criticised: “Mother’s God-awful dinners”, sexually abused, infantilised: “We need to be able to do what we have to do without me worrying about you and the girls”, and we are informed by doozies such as: “The majority of men sleep on the side of the bed closest to the bedroom door, a trait dating back to prehistoric ancestors guarding the cave entrance”.

So that is the context for the story – Dan leaves Tara and heads to England and to the aid of his old partner and friend Nick.  The title of the book comes from the Confucius quote “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  And Tara realises that Dan’s eagerness is as much about seeking revenge on his bête noire Detective Chief Superintendent Jim Allen, who is in charge of the case, as it is about helping his friend Nick – but when she says she will go with him, Dan says no – who wants the voice of reason with you when you’re on a mission?

Nick’s daughter has been framed for the murder of a sex worker, Anna Rofe.  Anna is a “typical tom” who won’t be missed, even one of the ‘good guys’ thinks it’s not too much of a problem mishandling her murder investigation – and one of the ‘bad guys’ complains that the killing of “worthless slags” shouldn’t be counted as murder at all.

Dan is calm on the surface, and spookily talented in his trade (he occasionally goes into meditative trances when mentally sifting through information).  He and Nick methodically go about their work of finding out what really happened to Anna and why Amber is in the frame, in order to exonerate Amber.  But Dan is also a wreck with demons, as we found out in The agency, and when we find out more about his background in this novel, we realise he really has got serious demons lurking in his past.  And his black and white view of the world may be as much about self-preservation as prejudice and testosterone.

There are no surprises in this novel, the reader knows who did what to whom, and why.  We understand where the corruption is and how some of the players got sucked in.  We also realise quite early on that Dan’s take on others is not as dead accurate as he thinks.  The tension in the novel comes from seeing how Dan and Nick can work it out in time, and how much additional damage will be done before the culprits are caught.  The writing is tight, and the suspense builds nicely, a deadline being given by the date of Amber’s next required appearance at the Police Station. The pacing and dialogue flow, although Austin uses the device of having Dan and Nick explain their techniques to Amber as a way of letting the reader understand ‘the craft’, and this occasionally intrudes into the narrative.  As with The agency, there are some very moving scenes.

There is an effective confusion in The second grave between the good guys and the bad guys.  The methodical actions of Dan and Nick are echoed by those of one of the gangs carrying out a liquor heist.  There are very bad cops (one, Binder, almost Shakespearean in his willingness to do anything to advance his career), and there are bad cops that turn out to be good cops, and good ex-cops who turn out to have done bad things, and there is a disregard for women (except as ‘Madonnas or whores’) on both sides of the divide.

Dan’s two satori moments come when Amber starts blaming herself for one of the appalling events in the novel, and then again when he realises he may have misjudged someone.  Both moments lead us to believe that there might be a genuinely brighter future for Dan, a more open and nuanced view of the world, maybe we will see that when we catch up with Dan and Tara in part three of the trilogy, Frozen summer, due out later this year.  The second grave could be read as a stand-alone, but I think would be better read after reading the The agency.


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Sleeps Standing Moetū by Witi Ihimaera and Hēmi Kelly – 2017

Sleeps standing“You didn’t know about the women and children at Rewi’s last stand?”  Sadly, no – the bravery and technical brilliance yes, but not the stories of sacrifice by all the defenders, regardless of age or gender.

Sleeps standing Moetū is a small but complex volume; a history of the Battle of Ōrākau (one of the most significant battles in the New Zealand Wars in the Waikato), a summary of depictions of the battle in history books and other cultural media, some eye witness accounts, a set of photographs (including some stunning portraits, one lovely one of a young Witi Ihimaera), and at its heart a novella in parallel text, the te reo version by Hēmi Kelly.  The novella is a beautiful piece of historical fiction.

Sleeps standing Moetū is a story within a story, a young man returns to New Zealand from Australia, with his Waanji bride.  They are expecting their first child and wish to call him Moetū.  After asking permission to do so, Simon is given the story of the ancestral Moetū.

Moetū’s story is told mainly from inside the Ōrākau pā.  Rewi Manga Maniapoto had stood up to the British troops many times before the Battle of Ōrākau and “Ngāti Maniapoto have the primary right to tell the story of Ōrākau”.  So Moetū is a 16 year old boy from the Rongowhakaata people of Tūranga, Gisborne. Their chief at the time was Raharui Rukupō, an ancestor of Ihimaera.

Moetū insists on joining others from his tribe when Rewi calls upon his allies to take a stand with Ngāti Maniapoto.  Those that responded are from Waikato, Raukawa, Tūhoe, Taranaki, Rongowhakaata, Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou.

Moetū is tactical and brave, he quickly comes to the attention of Te Haa, the leader of the Rongowhakaata warriors, Rewi and Ahumai Te Paerata, the woman who is leading the women in battle.  Moetū is given responsibility in the fight, and eventually the task of keeping the children safe throughout the battle and after.

The question of why did they go to the pā and why did they stay and make a stand is addressed: there was no safety anywhere at the time. British troops had attacked villages, so why not at least be somewhere fortified?  And when the British offered safe passage for the women and children: “If our husbands and brothers are to die, of what profit is it to us that we the women and children should live?”

The story of the women and children of the Battle of Ōrākau is extraordinary, the children fought and died alongside the adults, and the women alongside the men.  Even when fleeing, the children threw peach stones to spook the Forest Rangers’ horses.

And the women are wonderfully described:

Kararaina: “She was short and slim but with broad shoulders like a man’s.  Her eyes were black and her hair was glossy and wavy and long, down to her knees; she gathered it up and tied it with a red ribbon – her one vanity.  Some called her pretty, but she was not one who thought much about her looks.”

And her sister, Whetū: “The voice belonged to a striking young woman standing on the main parapet of the pā, holding a musket. Wearing a plaid skirt and dogskin cape, and a hat to keep the sun out of her eyes, she fired off a warning shot.”

As the battle progresses the plight of the combatants becomes dire, hardly any food, no access to water, diminishing artillery and suffering great losses of people.  There are more reinforcements willing to fight alongside Rewi and Ahumai Te Paerata, but the soldiers will not let them through and they are reduced to yelling encouragement over the enemy lines.

Little do the British know how under-resourced are those in the Pā – at one point the women respectfully take on the clothes of their dead men and walk around to make the defenders look plentiful.  They are all committed: “Let us abide by the fortunes of war. If we are to die, let us die in battle. If we are to live, let us live defending the pā.”

The framing story works well, it is told from the point of view of Rua, descendant of Patu, a very young child who is orphaned during the Battle of Ōrākau, and who fights alongside Moetū, and who is later adopted by him and Kararaina.  Simon, the Australian, is from Rua’s uncle’s side of the family, an uncle who was stationed with the Army in Malaya and who stopped and stayed in Australia on the way home.  Rua’s sister Hūhana also contributes to the story-telling.

Rua looks out cartoons and articles about the battle to show Simon, filling us in on some of the details of the battle without the research seeming dry or over-detailed.  The women of the present are strong too – insisting on healthy food at Simon’s farewell, putting up with jibes about their weight etc, but all dressed up for line-dancing at the farewell – still doing things their way.  Hūhana assuring Simon that he can learn the end of Moetū’s story: “the plane won’t leave until I tell the pilot he can go”.

But the beauty of the story is in the battle: in the echoing of the story in the clouds above the pā, in the moments of sacrifice and bravery, in the characters’ love for each other, for those who have chosen to make a stand and fight, in the purity of the dedication: “Don’t ask me to look into the future, Moetū, The past is still with me, and there’s the present to take care of.”

And the aftermath when “Neutrality was over everywhere.”  A great reminder of some of the powerful and appalling and history of New Zealand.



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A Risk Worth Taking by Brynn Kelly – 2018

A risk worth takingA risk worth taking is the latest roller coaster read in Brynn Kelly’s Legionnaires series.  A year has passed since Edge of truth, and Samira Desta is in hiding after her whistle-blower fiancé, Latif, has been murdered.  Latif used to work in a company owned by the series’ arch villain, Senator Hyland, and he passed on information concerning Hyland’s nefarious deeds to Tess Newell, the tele-journalist who featured in Edge of truth.  Hyland is also the father of socialite Laura Hyland, who hired Holly Ryan to be her body-double in the first in the series, Deception Island.

What Holly, Tess and Samira have in common is a pairing up with members of a platoon of French Foreign Legionnaires.  Holly was kidnapped (to prevent his son being harmed) by Rafe Angelito.  Tess was being held under threat of online execution when legionnaire Flynn was thrown in to the execution threat to enrage another country. And Samira had a one-night stand with legionnaire medic Jamie Armstrong at the end of Edge of truth, and he comes to assist her when her cover is blown when she is hiding out in a remote cottage in Tuscany at the beginning of A risk worth taking.

Samira is a computer whiz, she builds impenetrable online security systems, then tries to hack them to test their strength.  She is Ethiopian and the daughter of globe-trotting diplomats, she is not like the fearless Holly or Tess, she wants a quiet life and has panic attacks.  Jamie is an ex-neurologist and surgeon, he is all quick repartee on the outside and as cool as steel in an emergency.  But there’s a reason Jamie is no longer a surgeon, no longer socialises with his confreres, and is averse to entering into anything that looks like a long-term commitment.

Once Samira is flushed out of her Tuscan hideout, she flees to London, where Jamie catches up with her.  They are relentlessly pursued by Hyland’s goons, and we find out about Samira and Jamie through their exploits – e.g. Jamie when there is a sequence in a London hospital where he once worked, Samira when she knows about diplomat protocol.  When they discover that Hyland is headed for Edinburgh they head north, Jamie, the Scotsman, travelling back to some bad memories.

Samira can’t believe what is happening: “This was not her life. She’d dropped through a wormhole into someone else’s world, someone else’s skin” – nor what she and Jamie are planning to do: “Everyday people going to everyday Sunday places – markets, churches, Christmas shopping, visiting a friend to collect evidence that would take down the future American president …”

Samira and Jamie have the usual sizzle between them that we have come to expect from the other books in the series, and again this is used to highlight the vulnerabilities and insecurities of the characters: Jamie all hard legionnaire, but a mess inside, Samira a sophisticated geek but capable of extraordinary bravery and action when required.  And other characters from the previous two installments play roles, appearing like old acquaintances and reminding us of the earlier stories.

Kelly’s pacing is great, her apparent facility with geek-speak impressive and her characters all have histories and depth.  Hyland is a bit of a caricature of a villain, but his extreme corruption creates the dangerous scenarios our feisty women and their staunch legionnaires thrive on.  This novel could be read as a stand-alone, but is probably more fun if you have read the previous two.

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Rotoroa by Amy Head – 2018

ROTOROA_front_coverRotoroa is the story of three quite different people who all end up in the same place for a while. The time is significant: New Zealand in the 1950s, post-war, emerging rock and roll, six o’clock swills, the bridge going up in Auckland and mushroom clouds appearing over atolls in the South Pacific.

Lorna is a young woman who is not used to making her own decisions: “people didn’t usually ask her opinion”, and who easily falls into religion along with her parents – her mother with a bad back, and her father prone to bouts of shell shock.  Religion offers Lorna an identity of sorts, even if it is as one of the lesser gender.  She realises late in the novel that “Quite a bit of her life so far had been spent in rooms with stacks of spare chairs.”  When her naivety leads to a teenage pregnancy, Lorna’s life choices reduce even further.

The Salvation Army seems to offer Lorna the chance of a relationship and a role in life. She is drawn to other options, e.g. the new rock and roll “Get ready it said.  Something was about to start”, but she opts for security and ends up serving in the Army’s facility for alcoholic men on Rotoroa Island along with her husband, Paul.

Jim is an alcoholic with awful memories, a gambling addiction and a wife and children to feel guilty about.  He steals to fund both his addictions and will say anything anyone wants to hear to be left alone so he can get another drink to dull his senses.  His life and portrayal in the novel is a blur, with the women around him in focus and unable to help.  He too ends up on Rotoroa, attending AA meeting and church services occasionally, tending the gardens under Paul’s supervision, and experiencing the anti-climax of fishing: “the pleasure of eating it would be tainted by the kill”. Jim has lost control of his life, with decisions, sometimes literally, decided by the flip of a coin.

Katherine is an older woman who is leading a full life as a journalist and author, she has travelled widely and is a “time traveller”, like those in the rest home in which Lorna spends time serving, the residents’ memories amazing the young cadet.  Katherine has been writing a series of articles on the Rotoroa facility, noticing the changes in its regimes, and starting to feel the isolation of the men to be part of their problem, feeling they need to be connected to the outside world.  She suggests the next article be written from the point of view of the women in the men’s lives, a suggestion that is promptly relegated to the women’s pages.

You feel for all three main protagonists: Jim, whose faith is in the power of alcohol to help him forget his life, Katherine who we realise is coming to a time of frailty, and young Lorna, whose occasional feelings of the swell of individuality are easily calmed.

Katherine’s faith is different from Lorna’s: “I always think that kind of beauty lifts us above our own suffering”, she takes solace in nature and in those moments when she knows she has been blessed, such as when seeing orcas in the sea off the Coromandel coast.  Lorna has a received faith, “‘My joy is in abandoning myself to Him’. She had noticed that the other female cadets talked like that” – she worries that God might know exactly what she is thinking. Lorna isn’t totally naive, she delivers a sermon to the patients on the island, talking of how it is not just they who are supervised, we are all supervised, all monitored and controlled.  She feels her insignificance: “The only way she could avoid saying anything wrong was to say nothing, but that meant going unrepresented.”

Rotoroa is a beautifully written snapshot of a transition time in New Zealand history, and of the transition in people’s lives; into old age, away from opportunity, into possible futures. It is understated and powerful and I loved it.

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The New Ships by Kate Duignan – 2018

The new shipsPeter Collie is mourning the death of his wife Moira.  In this fragile state he discovers that he was ignorant of much of Moira’s past, and even of her recent life.  The tense relationship with his son Aaron, Moira’s biological son that he has fathered since birth, is almost at breaking point.  And he makes some very bad decisions that threaten his career as a lawyer in a prestigious Wellington law firm.

Duignan’s depiction of Peter is deft and thoroughly believable.  He makes terrible decisions, doesn’t ask pertinent questions, and doesn’t give up important bits of information … i.e. he is completely human – he is dogged by “the problem of hope”.  Peter’s story is framed both by a romantic purchase of his youth: a copy of Chagall’s lithographs of Daphnis and Chloe, and the story of Chagall’s flight from occupied France.  Placing Peter’s, and everyone’s life, in the hands of the fates – especially as the book is set at the time of the Twin Towers and its aftermath.

Shortly after Moira’s funeral, Aaron returns to his actor’s life in London, but once back in London he disappears.  Peter is frantic about his son, whilst trying to re-engage with his job, deal with an arch mother-in-law, Claudia, and his ailing parents in Wanganui (the book uses the spelling of the time).  He also decides to sell their Castlepoint holiday home, and suddenly is facing the prospect of his long-deceased daughter from an earlier relationship still being alive – as he says “I am not at my best these days, I’m simply not at my best”.

It would be so easy to make a mess of this book, with so many complex storylines, but The new ships is elegantly structured and you never feel lost.  Through the book we are asked to consider the role of political protest, the choices that at the time feel the right ones to protect those we love, but in retrospect might be seen as desertions, and the private feelings of resentment one can feel towards those close to you – spouses, parents, children.

I don’t really want to say much about what happens in the book, it is full of the gently unexpected.  Peter’s grief is palpable “bawling my eyes out in the car on a side street in Berhampore.”  He is reduced by events: Captured in a discovered painting, finding out one of his brightest work protégés has suffered a career-ending injury, even finding his real estate has shrunk.  And realising that he thought one of the most commendable thing about his and Moira’s marriage was that each could draw a “veil over what each of us held private.”

But there are also affirmations: his love for Aaron, his tenderness towards his parents, his efforts to ‘do the right thing’ over the years.  Peter’s voice is male, compared at times to Orpheus, who travelled to the underworld in an attempt to retrieve his wife, but who was also eventually pulled apart by women, women who are “pulling things apart simply in order to get some relief from ceaselessly having to keep their households together.”  Once Moira and Geneviève (his previous major relationship) are dead, Peter is free to consider what his relationships might have meant, and how he might have hurt the women he loved, earlier on with his casual infidelity, and later with his money and privilege.

The book moves around in time (from the 1970s to 2002) and place: houseboats in Amsterdam, cold flats in London, India and Pakistan on the other end of the phone, Venice hotels, Mytilene on Lesbos, various North Island locations.  The world is always in conflict, people keep secrets, they lie, struggle, fall in love, and try and work out their place in the world – and how much control they have over that.  At one point The new ships nicely counters the fatalistic view of life with a recalling of Plato’s suggestion of the transmigration of souls – a type of Karmic justice.  But Peter wants none of it: “Just give me the implacable, impersonal Fates, measuring out the thread and making their arbitrary cut.”

I think The new ships is saying we can try and determine our lives but in the end we are defined by those around us: our family, friends and even our casual acquaintances.  A lovely book.



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The New Animals by Pip Adam – 2017

The_New_Animals“All this sweet hope lost. Lost to time, to dust, to heat. Like the dinosaurs’ hopes, like the fish that left the sea, like the fish that stayed in the sea knew they wouldn’t see one another again” – but can hope be regained?  Is there somewhere we can start again?

The new animals follows a group of people who work for an Auckland cutting edge fashion house through the day and night prior to an unscheduled photoshoot.  The company is the creation of three young males, Kurt, Cal and Tommy, who represent “the new sincere, the anti-irony” generation who respect their parents, and who live online where they believe they are “part of the global conversation.”

Carla and Sharona are the previous generation – they are ‘old’ – in their 40s – one a contract hairdresser and the other the woman who creates the fashions.  The young men treat them like shit, complaining that they “would bitch and moan about the way they ran things and where did they go to get paid?”  When Kurt talked to women he “sounded like he was talking to a small child he was trying to coax down from a tree”.  And Tommy “wasn’t talking to Sharona, he was talking to everyone else in the room, well, all the people who had penises”.

Carla on the outside is “polite and engaged” but inside she is an insecure wreck.  She escaped for a few years and now she is back and “didn’t want to look naggy. That was the worst thing a woman could look, especially an old woman”.  All the women are on edge, and Sharona momentarily tips over when Cal “wanted to cut the hem off the T-shirt … he doesn’t even know you can’t leave an unfinished edge on a weft-cut knit.”

Carla has a friend Duey, the only calm one, and the only one not sure about young make-up artist, Elodie: “Duey wasn’t sure she could be relied on as much as everyone thought. Young women were strange.”  All the others are in Elodie’s thrall, in awe of her youth, and don’t realise she is using them to get information – information about where Carla had been when she escaped for all those years …

This is where we realise The new animals isn’t about the fashion industry at all: “everyone thought what they were doing was making the difference, when really, when everything went to shit, it became clear it was just money. You really couldn’t do anything wrong when there was a lot of money around.”  If you have money you have a chance, if not you are a victim, a victim to bosses, to climate change, to homelessness.

Fashion is a metaphor for the disposable society, those things we reject when they go out of style, not when they wear out.  And for the money gap: “There were people sleeping in the street … The bright, bright shops keeping the merchandise warm and the people outside them under cardboard and newspaper.”  Shoes are $1000 shoes, a necklace is a $4000 necklace.  I also really, really had to read the descriptions of Carla’s dog Doug as though they were symbolic of all “the intense boredom mixed with nerve-electrifying stress” wrapped up in an aggressive, frustrated, potential killer bundle of muscle.  The alternative was too awful.

Clear headed Duey knows “The world was ending … It wasn’t just cynicism, or because she was old. It felt like the end. They’d all be underwater, soon enough. There was nothing anyone could do about it.”  And all through the novel the sea is leaking in: “The fountain at Mission Bay was going, the water, the water, the water. Carla looked away from it and down at her phone. In Duey’s periphery it looked like she was diving into the sea.”

Elodie is young, unknowable, estranged from her politician father who thinks whatever the world’s problems “someone will find a way to tidy it up.’  And Elodie wants to escape the way she thinks Carla did: Carla who came back: “Cold, wet, naked. Quietly, without any attention, and she’d fit back in again, eyes fucked, skin awful, bung feet. She’d come back, washed away the salt, got dressed, and fallen back in line” – but Elodie won’t make the mistake of returning.

Elodie gets what she wants by being nice, appearing optimistic and being young.  And she heads for the sea, believing in nothing but “fate and natural selection”.  But after Carla, Sharona and Duey’s rebelliousness, and Kurt, Cal and Tommy’s vacuous outlook, does Elodie’s vision reach beyond the journey away?   We love and fear the ocean as we love and fear our origins, the cold of the sea takes our thoughts away, but our curse on the land is taking over the sea.  No, poor Elodie is as lost as all the others, and her destination, as we guess where that is towards the end, is the real-world horror we have conjured up by our rituals of excess.

Can hope be regained?  Is there somewhere we can start again?  Probably not, we just do whatever small thing we can and read amazing books like The new animals!

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Sodden Downstream by Branavan Gnanalingam – 2017

sodden_downstream_coverSita is on a zero-hours cleaning contract and is the only wage earner in her family.  Her husband, Thiru, is currently only able to contribute a Work and Income benefit, and her son, Satish, is still at school. So, when her boss demands she turn up for work in Wellington, despite a cyclone, road closures and no public transport, she leaves Naenae and heads South.

Sita is an Everyman on a journey, talking to those she encounters on the way.  Sita is a Sri Lankan refugee who finds the speed and slang of Kiwi English a mystery and she feels herself a “village bumpkin who didn’t know how New Zealand operated”.  At one stage in her journey Sita circles back to Naenae; another member of the Sri Lankan community picks her up and drops her back home – Sita is too embarrassed to explain her predicament. Financial and racial snobbery is alive and well within the community as well as outside of it.  Sita has dark skin – you wouldn’t see her in the dark unless she smiled quips a co-worker – Sita doesn’t understand.  And Sita feels inferior to those Sri Lankans who arrived as immigrants as opposed to refugees and who have made comfortable lives.

Sita is frail and in chronic pain from injuries she sustained in the Sri Lankan civil war: “There was so much that made her feel like she was a dandelion seed floating in the wind, waiting for someone else to rip it apart to make a wish”.  But somewhere inside Sita is a tough core, and she is determined to make a good life for Satish, and to make up for his early experiences in Sri Lanka, for which she feels responsible.  She is calm in the face of those things she can do nothing to stop, unlike Thiru who is petrified by his helplessness.  Sita repeats things to herself to keep herself on track, and to keep her memories at bay.  Memories that force their way through sometimes, and when she is alone and walking in the dark they rush over her like a torrent.

The water of the cyclone that soaks Sita as she travels is just one source of cold, wet and fear.  The swollen rivers she passes menace her as well, with their threat of bursting their banks and engulfing her – at one stage the water is described as having “paws.”  But the people she spends time with on her quest provide warmth, they are also on the periphery of society – those who aren’t don’t register her, or only enough to hurl abuse at her out their car windows.  Sita’s fellow travelers know nothing of Sri Lanka apart from cricket, they know nothing of the horrors of the war.  But they know what it is to be marginalised and financially powerless: the kid who can’t get a break from the Police, the homeless men, the prostitute, the transgender woman, the man just out of prison, the Māori mechanic who is used to casual racism – they are all in one way or another disenfranchised and poor.

Sita feels she should be grateful that New Zealand allowed her and Satish in to be reunited with Thiru, but she also knows that those in power don’t “give a shit” about her.  One homeless man offers her advice: “Don’t ever let them make you feel grateful” – but then he comments he is living on the streets and advises she might not want to take his advice.  Sodden downstream is a wonderfully moving portrait of an individual, a great description of what it might be like to be a refugee in a country whose language and rules are a mystery, and a really really good read.



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