A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh – 2019

Madness of sunshineAnahera returns to the West Coast town she escaped from eight years ago.  Her successful life in London has come crashing down, and she is hoping for some peace and quiet in Golden Cove, despite some bitter memories of the place.  But what she finds is a morass of misogyny, abuse and murder.

Recently widowed, recently devastated by finding out she didn’t really know her husband at all, Anahera arrives home knowing “no one could be trusted.”  And she has no intention of trusting, or getting near, anyone.  She finds her friend Josie, now running the local café, but doesn’t take up her offer of accommodation, preferring to be by herself in a remote cabin.  The remote cabin that was the scene of the trauma that caused her to flee Golden Cove in the first place.  Before heading out to the cabin, she briefly meets Miriama, a young woman who is working in the café while waiting to take up a photography internship in Wellington.

Another person Anahera meets as she arrives is Will, the local cop.  Will has been scarred, emotionally and physically, by the disastrous outcome of a case in Christchurch and has been in Golden Cove for three months.  He is a caring and careful cop and he keeps his violent temper under control.  He likes his new post, with a huge geographical spread but few people. His work is mainly routine: generally keeping the peace, checking in on the elderly. That is until Miriama goes missing, and he has to co-ordinate the search. And when people start linking her disappearance with those of three tourists some years earlier, he realises he may end up investigating a serial murder.

Will asks Anahera to help him by picking up information from the locals, who still regard him as a bit of an outsider.  Almost everyone in the town falls under suspicion, and when it appears Anahera fits the serial killer’s victim profile, tension builds even further.  Through the novel, Anahera and Will slowly reveal their own demons and ghosts and start to move towards an acceptance of the past.  There is a romance arc to the novel that is classic and works well.  The turbulent weather and treacherous geology of the area successfully adds an almost Gothic feel to the tale: “The crashing thunder of the ocean was his only accompaniment as he walked, the rhythm a steady beat that was a dark pulse.”

Golden Cove gets its name from the hope of the founders that they will find gold in the area, they didn’t, and the bitterness of failure still runs through the population.  Most of the locals are either waiting to get out, haven’t got the money to leave, have returned due to disappointment, or are rich enough that they can live behind locked gates and enjoy the views.  Anahera’s friend Josie is one of the few exceptions who seem content with their lot.  For most of the novel the plotting is tight, and the reader is constantly guessing and changing their minds, about the crimes, the motives, the suspects.  There are a few lapses, we lose Josie towards the end, and can an internationally successful classical pianist really be one who is self-taught on the local church piano?

What I found really disturbing about The madness of sunshine is its no-punches-held descriptions of a totally misogynist society.  The women are all victims, either due to their looks, their desire for security or their ignorance of their plight.  Women who are in abusive relationships almost choose their abusers, or they can’t ask for help as it would make them look weak.  The men are all predators, from on the one extreme, psychotic personalities, to on the other, just generally good blokes down at the pub who will banter: “Go grab Miss Tierney of the big blue eyes and big tits and heat up the sheets.”  Miriama’s beauty is endlessly described, she glows like the sunshine, she is the object of everyone’s desire.  Ironically her beauty not only makes her a target, it helps in her search, for the mainstream media are only interested in beautiful women.  Miriama’s skill as a photographer is briefly described, suggesting insights into character that she lacks in her relationships.

The objectification and abuse of women is pervasive, intergenerational and occurs when women are known to the abuser, as well as when they are complete strangers.  Rather than considering changing society it is the women who should learn survival skills: “She had no intention of getting into a vehicle with an unknown man.”  There is an argument for portraying societal misogyny as a way of highlighting the problem, and one for role-modelling more positive roles for women.  For me, The madness of sunshine just misses out on both counts.  When you do find the motives for the crimes, they are so extreme, you long for more supporting backstory – otherwise the crimes are pointless examples of the discarding of women, and “that was a thing too many men had done to too many women across time.”

“No one was born without the capacity for joy in the soul. Life leached it out of them, drop by drop”, Anahera thinks at one point.  She and Will stand as examples of this, and of the possibility of redemption and the regaining of joy, but I finished the book worried sick about the women left in Golden Cove!

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Shooting Messengers by Kevin Berry – 2020

Shooting messengersPI Danny Ashford lives in Quake City with his cat, Torquemada.  It is a city the government and most services have abandoned, where crime is rampant and where aftershocks continue, and where the remaining police force is “undermanned and under-brained.”  When journalist Deepa Banwait arrives in Danny’s office asking him to help her hone her investigative journalism skills, offering a postal worker shot on his rounds as a case to start with, Danny reluctantly agrees.

Quake City is an alternate history Christchurch, with the suburbs, roads, eateries and newspapers all re-named: Crumbledon, Crumblo Street, getting quakeaways from Coffee and Cheesequake, The Richter Mail …  All parts of the city, from the Red Zone to the ganglands to the affluent neighbourhoods, are crumbling, cars are down sink holes, school mums love their SUVs because they pass gently over the ubiquitous potholes.  And in the crumbling police force, the incompetent Inspector O’Toole sees serial killers everywhere – but as the body count rises, with the victims all linked by their delivering things, it might just be that O’Toole is right.

Danny and Deepa have a compelling relationship, they met on a previous case when Deepa saved Danny’s life.  Danny starts out a bit tetchy with having to work with a partner, but his discomfort starts to fade when he finds he’s looking forward to seeing Deepa smile.  Danny has an ex-wife and a feisty daughter, Lizzie on the scene, but increasingly he finds he is liking being with Deepa, and when it becomes obvious that she too is ‘delivering’ news, they both get very intent on finding the killer.

There are things about Quake City that hinder the investigation: security cameras don’t work, narrowing down suspects by looking for violent tendencies and mental illness doesn’t narrow things down much, and Danny’s initial profiling skills are way off.  But on the other hand: speed cameras don’t work, so Danny and Deepa can zip about, and as all the skilled cops have abandoned the city, O’Toole is happy to have Danny and Deepa help out.  The pair have extraordinary access to information, both illegally and due to the police not being that tight on network security.

The tension builds along with the body count in Shooting messengers and the resolve is climactic. There is a noir-ish vibe to the book, main players who don’t mind acting a bit dodgy, and lots of murder.  But all this is nicely undercut by the almost cartoon-like descriptions of the city, by Danny driving a Suzuki Swift, and by his self-deprecating comments.  I would have liked to see more of Danny’s daughter, “I want to be a private dick like you” Lizzie; she fades out, as does Deepa’s background story, and that of Danny’s parents.  The initial attitude to mental illness is quite superficial, as was Danny’s apparent understanding of it, but then despite his ‘Imposter Syndrome’, he mysteriously becomes a bit of an expert.  Danny and Deepa are great characters and these problems with the narrative let them down a bit.  But the DI and journalist will be back solving crimes in further Quake City investigations, and I will be interested in following their progress.

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The Manger, the Mikdash and the Mosque by David McGill – 2020

The manger ...1975, Dan Delaney, now ‘damn near 60’, travels with his devout wife, Jas, and two daughters to ‘… this busy city on a hill in the middle of nowhere, the centre of everywhere’ – Jerusalem.  There he encounters kidnappings, bomb threats, old betês noires, and his own worst nightmares.

In some ways Dan has come a long way since we met him on Somes Island in 1935: he has been a POW in WW2, had one surprising outcome to a marriage, and has had many derring-do adventures and saved many lives, some of them of high-profile people.  But in other ways he is the same Dan, always slightly on the outside of things, always trying to do the right thing.  He is now married to Jas, a former police officer, and he and his son are vintners in Oratia.  His younger daughter Maria is a renegade and has reluctantly joined the family pilgrimage, having been in what her parents saw as a dangerous relationship with a teacher.  Dan’s other daughter, Ali, is devout and keen on biblical archaeology, and she and her mother are ‘in religious anticipation mode’, in fact Jas ends up succumbing to ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ and loses it a bit.

From the moment their plane lands, Dan and his family are in the thick of it – coming to the attention of Israeli soldiers, partly due to Maria calling one of them a Nazi when they object to her taking his picture.  They stay in a hotel run by a Muslim man, Omar and his son, Mohammed, a hotel which is oddly bereft of other clients, and they soon make the acquaintance of a Catholic priest who is a bit of a drunk.  Dan is surrounded by a cacophony of clashing religious and cultural views in this ‘religious shark tank of a city’, and he ends up suspicious of everyone.  It is the mid-1970s and the strongly-voiced views are shocking: Father Quinn of Muslims: “Scratch the surface and they are still ruddy camel jockeys”, Jas of Maria’s revolutionary views: “extreme left-wing nonsense about us being the colonial oppressors of Maori, Abos, Pacific Islanders …”

Although Dan is amazed at how much he remembers of his religious upbringing, he finds Jas and Ali’s religious fervour bewildering, he has more sympathy for Maria’s enthusiasms, joining her in making swiping remarks that annoy Jas.  But when bomb threats are thwarted, Maria disappears, then more of his family are kidnapped, and a plot to destabilise (literally) the region is uncovered, the family unites to protect each other and the city.  The confusion and energy of Jerusalem and the other holy places is well captured, the markets, the Abrahamic religions-resonating countryside and most of all the many many places of worship.  Even with the hostilities and history the city has seen, there is still freedom for each of the faiths to worship.  To worship and to contest and to lay claim.

The characters are all complex.  The soldiers perhaps having the clearest motive: protecting their land and people, and sometimes stretching the rules to do so.  The mercenary motives of the conspirators are also straight forward: they are for hire by any of the many factions.  But the Second World War and the various more recent Middle Eastern conflicts are still raw memories, and they have led to more complicated motives and allegiances.  Dan is still struggling with the trauma of being a POW in a concentration camp during the war, he is extremely sympathetic to the Jewish population, but also aware of the plight of the Palestinians.  Father Quinn in one of his more sympathetic moments talks of ‘Arabs reduced to being serfs in their own city.’  Quinn may be a drunk priest, but he is living with the burden of ‘one hundred percent casualties’ among the Australian airmen he ministered to during the war. Also, many characters are acting out of fear of their loved ones being hurt, it is no surprise that Dan notices he had yet to see an Israeli smile, but that the Arabs were always smiling, if sometimes a bit hollowly.

Much of the book is based on the author’s trip to Israel in the mid-1970s and his descriptions are personal ones, the reader even gets left-over memories in an Appendix. He uses Ali’s expertise to explain much of the history and intricacies of the religious building complexes, and most importantly how many of the places of worship are built over fragile tunnels – a terrorist’s dream and claustrophobic Dan’s nightmare.  The time, 1970s but with Israel still quaintly in the 1960s, is indicated by movie references (some more subtly inserted than others), dress styles, cigarette-smoke filled meetings, and a Kibbutz full of idealism from all corners of the globe.  Dan is constantly comparing Israel and New Zealand, at one point deciding ‘a kibbutz was like a holiday camp on Waiheke.’  And a parallel is drawn between Peter Fraser and the Labour Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, who makes a sympathetic appearance in the novel.

There is one odd glitch in the novel, where we hear of a murder before we have been introduced to the character and before he has been killed, but for the most part the helter-skelter pace keeps the reader reading, and guessing.  Dan progresses from a bit unsure, through traumatised, onto tearful and fearful and finally to a sort of awareness, realising at one point it was ‘… a monumental mistake coming here to this unholy land’ and that military officials and his enemies know more about him that his wife does.  But for poor Dan there is a satisfying resolution with some good news at the end, leaving him looking forward to getting back to his vines, but also looking forward to returning to ‘The revealed centre of the world for so many religions.’  An interesting and at times gripping read.

 

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In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare – 2020

the clearingYou never escape a cult. This chilling thriller is told from two points of view: Amy, a teenage member of a messianic cult, who is instrumental in the abduction of a young girl, and under the thrall of Adrienne, the cult mother.  And Freya, with the tragic background of having had one child taken from her due to her being suspected of hurting him, and now desperate to protect her second son, Billy.

In the Clearing is about the insidiousness of child abuse and how it can echo down through the generations.  The novel is set in a remote town in the Australian bush, where people keep to themselves and you never know what might be going on in your neighbourhood.  The atmosphere is tense and oppressive from the beginning, when we read in Amy’s diary of the abduction of the young girl who will be renamed Asha.  We then meet Freya, who is still traumatised by having had her first son, Aspen, taken from her.  She fakes her way through life: “I have to make myself cry to show them how upset I am”, she works as a yoga teacher, she visits a counsellor, and the only person she really trusts is Corazzo, an ex-cop who knows what she has been through.

When Freya hears a child has gone missing, that her ex is in town; when she comes across a young couple on her property, and a white van parked in her road, her anxiety levels go through the roof: “All problems out here in the country begin and end with dodgy vehicles parked in quiet streets.”  The story cleverly switches between the experiences of the children in the cult, and Freya’s increasing concerns that something will happen to Billy – her sections are titled with a countdown to an event, adding to the building tension.  Also building is the reader’s suspicions of who might be the guilty ones: Is Amy really telling the truth about the Clearing? Maybe Freya did hurt her first son, maybe she is still hurting Billy – she certainly has a temper.

Back at the cult, the control of the children is truly horrendous; toes cut off, hands crushed in doorframes.  And even more disturbing when you read it is based on descriptions of an actual cult. The reader wonders how some apparently respectable citizens have become such monsters.  “Now do you see how it feels to have that power over another creature?”, is that the key, is it the craving for power that has lead to the capture and abuse of the children, or a genuine devotion to the cult mother?: “Protect the Queen.”  The control of the children is complete, with warnings against “deviant thoughts.”  Can children ever really reclaim their lives after that level of abuse, ever learn to be honest after being frightened into lying for so long?

“Some snakes kill in this way, simply by squeezing; some snakes don’t bite at all,” In the Clearing is a roller coaster ride of trying to work out who is who and what is going on, and even when the reader gets an inkling, you are never really sure …  The writing is compelling and quite disturbing: “I take Asha’s hand and tenderly kiss the bruises and scratches from when she tried to hammer her way through the corrugated iron of the Shed.”  And the book is quite moving as well, despite the readers doubts about Freya, there are also her tangible concerns for Billy, and the book is backgrounded with the thoughts of the agony parents must go through when their children go missing.  An excellent thriller!

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The Snow Thief by C.J. Carver – 2020

the snow thiefThe snow thief is a murder mystery set in Tibet.  It is a book about reincarnation – of people across and throughout their lives, and of communities as they spread, come into conflict and change.

Shan Lia Bao, Police Supervisor Third Class, “knew her old life was over” when she lost most of her family and was sent to Tibet in disgrace, along with her grandmother-in-law, Fang Dongmei.  She is living in a blurry grey world of grief when she hears a young boy has been found dead with a broken neck.  As she begins to investigate, and links more and more similar deaths, she becomes convinced there is a serial killer at work.  A theory that makes her unpopular with her colleagues in the Ministry of Public Security, and even more so with the officials in the Public Security Bureau.

Shan knows “Not to trust anyone, least of all a fellow police officer”, and she finds the Tibetans a mystery, they eat oddly, drink oddly, live oddly, and observing a group of Buddhist pilgrims she finds it “hard to imagine a belief so strong you would suffer for it.”  In her previous life as a Police Supervisor First Class in Shenzhen, Shan accepted as routine police practices such as the torture of scapegoat prisoners, she and her husband Jian just longed for a future life in Australia, where “Sydney represented freedom.”  But she ended up in Tibet where, even though she knows it is impossible to tell who is corrupt and who might be on your side, she is just intent on keeping a balance and ensuring peace: “The last thing she wanted was the Tibetans to have an excuse to rampage through the city.”

As the story unfolds, Shan and the reader learn about the complexities of the Tibetan political situation and find that no one is really who or what they appear to be, on either side of the conflict.  Names change, even Shan finds she has a second name, allegiances change, everyone and everywhere is going through a series of incarnations.  The Tibetan buildings are falling apart, but so too are the hastily erected Chinese constructions.  As she becomes more aware of her crumbling surroundings, and gets drawn further into uncovering a conspiracy, Shan notices the anomaly of having a Tibetan quarter in Lhasa and finds “for the first time she could see why some Tibetans hated the Chinese so much.”

A compelling dimension of the story is the active role that absent characters play: Shan’s agonising memories of her dead husband Jian, the palpable presence of a dead Abbot for one of the young boys, Tashi, the Dalai Lama’s supreme influence on the Tibetans from his exile in India, the overwhelming influence of ‘Beijing’ on the Chinese officials.  This all adds to the complexities of the events happening in the ‘here and now.’  When Shan picks up clues about a long trek of a group of Lamas, and discovers their route matches the locations of the bodies of the murdered boys, she is nonplussed.

The extreme beauty and challenges of the Tibetan land is artfully portrayed, the “Thousand, millions, trillions” of stars, the agonising cold, the treacherous paths and deep, deep snow, the air “crisp and clear as crystal”.  Gradually Shan emerges from the pain of her experiences and finds something she is willing to suffer for.  And Shan’s is not the only transforming character; the head of the dreaded PBS, Tan Dao, is a monster who feeds stray dogs and saves stray children, and who discovers his own reason for transformation and self-sacrifice.

The snow thief reminded me of the lovely Inspector Shan Tao Yun series by Eliot Pattison, similarly set in Tibet and with a disgraced ex-Chinese policeman solving the cases, and similar regarding the complexities of the Chinese/Tibetan conflict.  The snow thief is less partisan, there are embedded monks, lineages from the time of the Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959, there are Chinese Guanxi networks that can work in your favour, or the opposite.  At one stage as Shan Lia flies over the Tibetan Plateau she looks for sign of the scores of Chinese mines that are supposed to be polluting the air; and finds nothing – wondering if the rumours are true.  And Tan strongly thinks the Western media is biased and unfair in its portrayal of the Chinese in Tibet: believing “Westerners had a Tibet complex.”

Shan is a sympathetic detective, not through ideological sympathy, but through having experienced unravelling grief.  She understands the motives behind activism, that “Tibetans, their culture, their beliefs and spiritualism, were about to be annihilated”, but this is not what motivates her, she just wants to find a way to prevent violence and bloodshed.  She does think about reincarnation one night, and wonders if you are reincarnated in order to get to see someone else’s point of view, she wonders about a young man whose life she ruined during her life in Shenzhen, but then decides she doesn’t understand it at all and turns on the TV.

There is plenty of action in The snow thief ; Shan falling of mountainsides, being attacked in monasteries, but it is the endless insecurity of who to trust, and not knowing what is going on, that keeps the tension high, that and the wonderfully complex characters.  The snow thief is a moving and compelling read, maybe Shan Lia will be back one day?

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The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman – 2020

The secrets of strangersPeople are caught up in a hostage situation in a London café.  At the heart of the crisis are five people, they hear each other’s stories, they form a little community in the centre of the chaos – and the reader gets drawn further and further into events.

A rough sleeper with a tiny windfall and a lawyer on her way to defend a client decide to start their day with a coffee from Tuckbox; a carer from a rest home coming off a night shift goes there to meet her daughter-in-law and grandson.  The café owner is attractive and friendly with all his customers, all are fond of him and sad for him, as he has recently lost his wife, Harriet, to cancer.  Harriet’s son, Sam, calls in to the café, and then leaves.  Everyone’s day is unfolding as usual – until Sam returns …

I won’t say anything more about the plot, as it unfolds cleverly through the book, and the reader is always on edge wondering what will happen next.  The plotting is great, but what is at the heart of this novel that keeps the reader engaged, are the characters, and their slowly revealed stories.  Neil is a rough sleeper, his dog, waiting for him outside the café, his only friend.  He was a teacher and an addiction has led to his life on the streets.  Abi, the lawyer, is motivated, a ‘problem-solver’, and trying to cope with a series of unsuccessful fertility treatments.  Mutesi, the carer, is the opposite of Abi, she is considered, gentle and caring, and her memories of the Rwandan genocide drive her empathy and her fear.

Outside in a room down the street is the police negotiation team, and Eliza is the police negotiator.  Eliza has her own problems, an increasingly intolerant husband, especially since the arrival of a second child, her socially awkward elder son …  But nothing would get her to change her job, her “chance to reach into the tragedy and change its course.”  Of course, negotiating is like “defusing a bomb: cut the wrong wire, use too much force, and it could be all over.”  And the tension and coffee consumption continue to mount up in the negotiation room.

In the café, the feelings that they are all there by pure chance and the anxiety to leave, slowly change with the cups of tea and plates of café food: “Now we’re travelling together for a while.”  Some of the characters start feeling they might be there for a purpose, that they are part of the problem, could be part of the solution.  Abi realises at once point: “She can’t possibly be bored.”  They begin to establish a community, and they hear each other’s and Sam and Robert’s stories.

Each person in the café finds their inner strengths, and their connections to each other.  For Neil: “It’s been a long time since another human being has looked him in the eye, called him by name and voluntarily touched him.”  For Mutesi she feels she might finally know why she had been spared, her chance to show that no matter how bad things seem, there is always something worse and always a chance for redemption.  The tension moves from her Rwandan experience of “Every moment laden with the threat of death” – to the lower level but deeper tension of helping a man struggling with his own actions, and how his frustration might not end up hurting those around him, but himself.

Sam is a complex character, haunted since losing his father, haunted by a two-faced puppet that scared him as a child, haunted by the memories of his own temper.  We feel his regrets and his uncertainty: “Three paces, swing around, three paces, swing around”, and his ‘wired-ness’ builds as he knocks back Ritalin pills.  And we are with him when he realises that “he likes all three of these people” and that he’s “really trashed the changing room this time.”  Robert’s back-story is one of the most chilling descriptions of passive aggressive behaviour and gaslighting that I have ever read.  We experience how people’s initial judgements of people and situations can be so inaccurate.  And the awful dullness of not knowing what will happen, Abi: “She’s watching the setting sun touch the face of a murderer.”

The atmosphere is great, the tension is compelling and there is humanity in dollops, and I urge you to read The secrets of strangers!

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Wife after Wife by Olivia Hayfield – 2020

Wife after wifeHarry Rose is a super-rich, super-privileged British businessman.  Having inherited his fast-track rise to his position as head of the Rose Corporation, he has encountered setbacks but has almost always had things his own way, and he has been living the life of royalty.  We first meet Harry in 2018 looking out his office window, his personal world about to crumble – but looking back over his life and deciding his conscious is clear.  But the windows are literally rose-tinted …

Wife after wife is a clever and engaging re-telling of the romantic career of Henry VIII, prefaced with an amusing cast of characters – a nice amuse-bouche before savouring the rich story.  In the mid-1980s Harry marries his pregnant girlfriend Katie Paragon, over 30 years later in 2018 he eventually must either face up to his failings or lose his 6th wife, Clare Barr.  In between we read of his serial dalliances and marriages, against a backdrop of personal tragedies, commercial triumphs and some dodgy dealings.

His empire is based on celebrity magazines and eventually TV channels and online media.  He is a mix of caution – not initially being convinced that “personal computers would ever take off” – and bold moves, employing people with an in on the zeitgeist. He steers the company through near recessions, the GFC, #metoo and Brexit.  And as his business weathers the ups and downs of the commercial world, he slides though his various relationships with the smugness and self-righteousness of white male privilege.

“He didn’t really do alone”, Harry needs people and needs them to prioritise him at the centre of their lives.  Cassandra, Katie’s friend advises Katie to pander to him: “I know from bitter experience what happens when men feel ignored.”  But when Katie’s depression becomes too much for Harry, he finds solace in Merry, a fling for him, the world to her.  And then he meets her sister, Ana Lyebon and “… Merry’s flame had gone out, and now she was just another girl fighting to be noticed.”

Ana is smart, beautiful and irresistibly not interested – “there really was nothing like the thrill of the chase.”  But one by one the relationships fail, due to Harry’s self-obsession and lack of empathy, and his ability to always make himself the victim, as Katie points out: “You always try to do the right thing. You twist things until you can justify your actions.”  Janette the secretary provides the attention he craves when Ana becomes too independent, an online relationship keeps him amused when he is lonely after Janette.  Caitlyn is younger, from a lower-class, irresistible – and hers is perhaps the most tragic story.  And finally, there is Clare Barr, who, when Merry and other spurned characters return for revenge, gives Harry the ultimatum to come to terms with his part in the demise of all his relationships or be alone.

“You know what they’re like. Idiot boys”, there is an acceptance of the bad behaviour in men that is absolutely not tolerated in women, there is the assumption that women’s success is either due to ‘casting couch’ behaviour or purely from the indulgence of men – these misogynist assumptions travel through the decades with Harry and his mates.  As does the North – South snobbery, and the droit du seigneur assumptions: “now he could start the serious business of wearing her down, until, like every woman he’d ever wanted, she’d be his.”

“He loved them all, Eliza. Unfortunately for them” Terri, one of Harry’s editors and often the voice of reason, tells Eliza.  Harry is well portrayed as a charismatic figure, not at all one-dimensional.  There are lots of allusions to the historical Henry: ongoing battles with weight, Harry’s corporate portrait depicting him in a ‘power stance’, injuring his leg in an accident etc., etc.  There is lots of fun with the Henry VIII themed presents, pubs and photo shoots – such as when Ana feels queasy when she stands next to the execution memorial in the Tower of London.

Wife after wife is a great idea well executed.  All the characters are cleverly re-imagined; Ana’s daughter Eliza being a brilliant redhead with a bright future, and Katie’s daughter Maria being a dour devout Catholic, the greasy lawyer Tom Cranwell, Janette’s love of needlework … The women are all interesting and active agents, and end up supportive of one another, “… when women need someone to rely on, it’s never a man.”  Oddly enough this romp is also a great history lesson – I kept looking up the historical figures to find the connections with their modern versions – Anne of Cleves (Anki from Cleveland) is particularly evocatively done.

Wife after wife is also a very moving read as you are faced with the frustrations and tragedies of the women and their children.  Olivia Hayfield is the pen name of children’s author Sue Copsey, and Wife after wife is her first adult novel.  Hopefully there will be many more, it is altogether a great read, so give it a go!

 

 

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Shakti by Rajorshi Chakraborti – 2020

ShaktiWhere do divisive thoughts come from?  Why do extreme nationalism and xenophobia take hold in a community?  Why is misogyny, homophobia and intolerance so rife?  Playing out in Bengal in recent times, Shakti asks us to consider the role the manipulative power of reality TV and social media plays in instilling ultraconservative views, and then asks what would happen if that manipulative force could extend into minds, manipulating us from the inside …

Shakti is full of people who are not what they seem; when we first meet the main protagonist, Jaya, she is a male ‘agony aunt’, Chandra Sir, hiding her identity to save her job as a teacher in a conservative girls’ school.  Of course, the woman who pretends to be a man is being written by a man, so the ‘masks’ are already multi-layered.  ‘Chandra Sir’ is approached by a young girl, Shivani, who is experiencing strange powers, and when Jaya misses some clues, things do not end well for Shivani.

Then Jaya’s friend and part-time housekeeper, Arati, has a religious encounter with a snake goddess, Manasa, who gives her a choice that could lead to her finding her long-lost child, Tunituni, and she asks Jaya for help – but how can you tell if your instructions are from a god or a demon?  The price Arati ends up paying is complex, political and very familiar.  And then Jaya joins Shivani and Arati when she discovers she has been given her own power – but is it a power or a curse?

Jaya is set on a whirlwind path to help Arati and atone for her part in Shivani’s fate, and it rapidly becomes apparent that “nobody doles out superpowers for free.”  As we follow Jaya, we experience a deeply misogynist society, where all men are predators: the father, the neighbour, the doorman, the grocer … And all women have experience of abuse, of themselves or those around them – and many carry the guilt of having ignored the abuse of others due to fear for themselves or their situation.  Poverty leads people to do horrendous acts and provides a layer of scapegoats for those better off.

In the past Jaya has ignored abuse around her in fear of losing privilege, even spending a period ingratiating herself with her abusive father.  In the past Jaya has also done unspeakable things to protect those around her.  But has Jaya been given a power now due to her ability to ignore evil, or due to her once being a perpetrator of it?  And what political role is she being asked to play?  Is it as part of a conspiracy to align Bengal to the right?  What will be her reward?

Shakti talks about Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia in India, and the efforts of Modi followers to infiltrate left-leaning Bengal, the “PM” even makes an appearance at one stage.  But, “Turn it into a hashtag and see what people say” – the messages of divisive politics and using ‘fake-news’ to polarise people applies to many countries, and misogyny and gender intolerance is universal.  The political machinations and methods feel familiar to the reader, what is novel is the idea that those methods might spill into mental manipulation that approaches, and makes use of, religious experience.

Jaya is a wonderfully complex character, she herself doesn’t know if she is genuine in her mission to use her superpower for good, or if she just likes being powerful for once – knowing that the haunted, the broken, the rapist, the torturer – “each can be lured further into hell by the promise of more power.”  She is not above using sex to get information from men, sometimes not that successfully: “I feel like a rubbish honey-trap. This is what happens when you try to bypass spy school.”

Jaya decides not to navel-gaze: “I was desperately seeking shelter in make-believe about other lives in order to avoid looking front-on at my own.” She gets addicted briefly to being able to relive her memories on demand, until she realises most are fabricated as there weren’t that many good ones, and gets back on track with her mission – but does she know what that is?  Even in wanting to do good is she being manipulated? After all she ends up on a fake reality TV show aimed as sowing sectarian unrest, and she struggles to see how she can turn the tables on the producers without harming any ‘innocents.’

Perhaps just helping people one by one as she goes along for as long as she can is the best she can do – but even her power is not under her control: like an Internet shutdown: “We’re large groups of ‘gifted’ women at the mercy of men who can switch off our powers whenever they like.”  Despite the gender flip of power – the book opens with a young man walking confidently through the dark at night, to fall prey to a woman – Jaya is still very much in a male world, not knowing “who are ‘we’ who are ‘they’?” and where people who, “by sheer coincidence, happen to be women – have to obey men like you.”

Shakti is a political thriller, and a deeply disturbing one, one where the reader struggles to ‘touch bottom’ as to who is controlling the conspiracy, whether there is any rational objective hope, how sense can possibly prevail when “the most lasting evil is that in which no one is innocent.”  And the real-world resonances are clear – as I write this review, there is breaking news of sectarian violence and multiple deaths over amended citizenship laws in India.

To make sense of our dystopian reality you almost have to believe in the sort of supernatural/invasive manipulation that is at the heart of Shakti – let’s hope that the other shakti mentioned in the book, the “Real Shakti, deeper than any magic” in comparison to which “everything else is just a means, or a shortcut or a trick” can prevail.  Shakti is gripping, meticulously written, thought-provoking and the cover of the NZ edition is luscious – I loved it, read it and see what you think …

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Moonlight Sonata by Eileen Merriman – 2019

Moonlight sonataMoonlight sonata starts like a typical slice of New Zealand life novel, with a family meeting up for the Christmas/New Year break in a seaside home, with the usual tensions and jealousies. But this book turns into a much more complex, and emotionally difficult story, a story of ongoing parental bullying and forbidden love.

The story is told from the point of view of some of the protagonists: Molly, frustrated with her work-obsessed husband, Richard, worried about her teenage son, Noah, and glad to be back with her twin brother, Joe.  Molly is right to be worried about Noah, their family has recently moved to Melbourne and Noah hates it there, is sick of hearing his parents fighting, and is enjoying the company of his many cousins, especially 15-year-old Lola.  Lola is an aspiring cricketer, is annoyed with her over-protective mother, Kiri, and struggling with her recently diagnosed diabetes.  Joe, who arrives back from the Middle East, is an exotic and exciting uncle, a critical brother-in-law and a beloved twin brother.

These are the characters from whose point of view we read the story, but there are lots more siblings, cousins, parents and children holidaying and struggling with each other.  Some of the characters are more rounded than others, but all are believable.  The story jumps back and forth from the present through incidents in Molly’s life, and the times and places are evoked with clothing (legwarmers!), trends (dying to see Footloose) and behaviours (changes in the drugs of choice), and you never feel lost.  And the New Zealand summer by the sea is captured perfectly: the sand between toes and in bedsheets, the sunburnt noses, the voracious appetites, the wet hair …

To tell the story would be to reveal the secrets of the family, the reader guesses pretty early on what they are, but the tension is still there.  What intrigues the reader are the anecdotes of shared history that give context to what has transpired, and to the decisions that have been made. The book highlights that experiences of childhood and youth influence adult outlook and behaviour.  The facts and consequences are there for the reader to ponder.  The story gets very tense, and a summer storm builds as does the danger to the characters.

Moonlight sonata is a read that is on the one hand very familiar and comfortable, and on the other completely original and tragic.  Merriman is well known for her YA writing, and Moonlight Sonata is a smooth transition into adult fiction – read it yourself and see what you think …

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Josephine’s Garden by Stephanie Parkyn – 2019

Josephine's gardenWhat does it mean to be a woman in a time of revolution, a time of colonial expansion?  Was Rose de Beauharnais an extraordinary woman or a woman in extraordinary times?  She hailed from exotic Martinique, narrowly survived the reign of terror, married an unpleasant young soldier for the security of her children, eventually rose to be the Empress of France – but who was she?  Josephine’s Garden is a wonderful depiction of a woman in a time of chaos.

Josephine’s Garden starts with Rose fearing the arrival of a messenger – will she have to leave her precious garden at Malmaison?  Will losing her husband mean losing her life? for “Who am I if not Bonaparte’s wife?”  The ambitious reclusive soldier she married has become an Emperor, Napoleon I; he funds her house, her garden, his influence provides her menagerie, gets rid of her previous obligations, even gives her her name: Josephine.

We look back over Rose’s life, from the dark days of the reign of terror, when the heroes of the revolution were sent to the guillotine, through the “joyful madness” of post-revolutionary Paris, and on through the unimaginable cruelties of French expansion under Napoleon – to a time when “There were no young men left in Paris.”  And the cruelties weren’t just the slaughter of sons, brothers, husbands, but the pillaging of art and science institutions.

We see the world from the points of view of three women – Rose; Marthe Desfriches, who marries the biologist Jacques Labillardière, and whose misery in his cold presence leads her to seek revenge for the death of a young man lost in the war: “What must it be like to be married to a man who could not conceive of your thoughts at all?”  And there is Anne Serreaux, wife to the gardener Felix Delahaye, who gardens alongside her husband, bears children, is the envy of both Rose and Marthe, but who longs to be leading a simple country life, and who bears a terrible breakdown all on her own.

And there is the other Rose: raised in a man’s house, imprisoned on his death, but visited by Labillardière bearing a bouquet and whispering “… simply because our society cannot accept difference.”  She ends up living in his offices until she is part of a political arrangement which sees her sent to Empress Josephine in Malmaison.  She is always dressed impeccably, has exquisite manners and notices everything: “Marthe watched transfixed as the ape turned her head to her and lowered her arm to point directly at Marthe’s heart. I see you” – Rose is an orangutan, alone of her kind, a shadowy reflection of the lives of women – owned, with no choices, left alone and treated well enough – as long as they look pretty and behave – before they just disappear from your mind.

There are moments of joy for both Rose de Beauharnais and Anne, especially in the pleasures and triumphs of creating the garden.  And Rose does end up falling in love with Napoleon, but his interest drifts elsewhere when she can’t bear him a son – if women can’t have children, they have no purpose, unlike men, whose childlessness is seen as dedication to their interests.  There is little joy for Marthe, except perhaps in wandering the streets of Paris, finding a distant connection to the homeless, injured and destitute, wondering “What terrors am I capable of?”

There are resonances in the history as well, once the horrors of the revolution have occurred, where are the boundaries of what people ‘should’ do?  Once there is a regime of terror, how does a state recapture civility? “He promised to make France great again.”  And the lawlessness and entitlement are not just on the national scale – Napoleon takes a hunting party to the lake at Malmaison to slaughter Rose’s swans, he is unfaithful to her in rooms where he knows she can overhear.  Rose herself ends up bargaining with her daughter’s happiness, trying to turn what Napoleon wants into an advantage for her and her children, for she realises quite early on: “What I want is of no importance to Bonaparte.”

Josephine, the public persona of Rose, treads a fine line to remain a good propaganda icon, and not fall into the trap of scandal.  When an artist is trying to work out how to portray Napoleon’s atrocities without giving offence, the solution is to have the image include Josephine submitting before him – the ideal of a beautiful woman submitting to a powerful man.  Napoleon himself appears to have an idealised view of her: “We are both driven to be the best and brightest stars.”

Josephine’s Garden is lavishly written and totally engrossing, and it gets very tense: there are assassination attempts, people being hidden in basements, unpredictable tyrants, lines being crossed – such as people being executed without trial for political expediency, and the external threats of illness and poverty.  And there are the commonalities of the women’s experiences which eventually draw them together in the garden, the miracle of a garden where trees, plants and animals flourish where they don’t belong: “No one else has a garden such as this.”

I just loved this book … read it and see what you think …

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