The Tally Stick by Carl Nixon – 2020

It is the late 1970s New Zealand, a car goes off the road into the dense forest, slipping “between the trunks like a blade”, and plummeting into the river below. Rain takes all traces away. In the car is a newly arrived family from England, taking a West Coast drive before the father takes up his new job in Wellington in two weeks’ time. Twenty-three years later the body of the eldest child, Maurice, is found, but his skeleton shows he lived for four years after the family’s disappearance. His father’s watch, a leather dog collar, a large amount of money, and a wooden tally stick have been found with his remains. Where was Maurice for those four years? And what happened to his parents and the other three children, baby Emma, younger brother Tommy, and twelve-year-old Katherine?

It is almost impossible to write a detailed review of The tally stick without ruining the plot. It is a compelling mystery, the effectiveness of which depends on the reader not knowing anything of what is going to happen. The story is told from multiple timelines and points of view, yet it is well structured and the different narratives weave around each other. We see through the eyes of some of the surviving children, as well as through those of their Aunt Suzanne, both when she makes four trips to New Zealand early on, trying to find her sister and her sister’s family, and then years later when she manages the repatriation of her nephew’s remains.

The tally stick is about so many things, and many of them link to the meaning of the stick – a record of unpaid debts. It raises the question of what, if anything, people owe each other, what must be earned and what should be freely given. It is about what you owe your family, at what point you may give up on them, follow your own path and disassociate from them. And if connections last through the years, what are you connected to? How do people change in different environments?

Maurice resists change, he is judgemental, seeing people who are different as stupid and “not civilised”, he says long words to himself to prove his superiority, he makes shrines to vengeance. Katherine is a more attractive character, always seeing the goodness in people, paying due respect to the dead and the damaged. Her eyesight is weak, and she sees spirits in the forest, reads meaning into the sightings of birds, and she makes shrines to the benevolent deities. She tries to pray but her words “seemed more likely to be heard by God when you said them in London.” We see Katherine change the most, as her name diminishes: Katherine, Kate, Kat.

There are other characters the car crash survivors encounter, and they are ambiguous. We suspect them and fear them, but eventually we understand them, to a degree. The colonial experience is somewhat echoed, by the survivors encountering people who have been shaped by a completely different world. And in there being those that adjust and those that can’t, but who are therefore changed in a darker way. Those from the UK often must ask for clarification, what is a Crunchie, what are the wop-wops?     

The writing in The tally stick is evocative, you can smell the native bush, see the birds, feel the soggy forest floor. There is much that the reader must fill in for themselves. It is a read full of conflict, violence, and dread, but there is also beauty and kindness, and the switching back and forth gives it an inevitability that puts the characters in the frame of a morality play. I am not going to say anything else about the story – you will have to, and should, read it yourself.

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The Silence of Snow by Eileen Merriman – 2020

The silence of snowJodi is a new doctor, working at Nelson Hospital, feeling out of her depth: “I keep worrying I’m going to kill someone.” But helping her out is handsome Rory, the anaesthetist with an appealing accent. Jodi’s controlling fiancé, Fraser, is living in a distant city and is dismissive of the stress Jodi is under. The silence of snow is set-up to be a medical romance and sure enough: “Kissing Rory had been like kissing a wolf – dangerous, and forbidden, and bound to get her into trouble sooner or later.” Things start to look good for Jodi and Rory, but this is Eileen Merriman, who wrote Moonlight sonata, so you know there is something wrong with this picture …

The silence of snow traverses some of the same themes as A mistake by Carl Shuker, considering the type of personality you need to have to cut people open, inject them with potential poisons, and make life and death decisions under stress. And as in A mistake, at the heart of The silence of snow is medical misadventure, and the fact that although such misadventures are the result of chains of events, the official processes try to find one person to judge, while the guilt weighs heavily on all in the chain. But The silence of snow is a slow reveal, and unlike A mistake, only gradually do you learn the whole story.

From the start the young medics are all tired and stressed, they drink a lot, don’t sleep much, and it really did make me consider the few times I have ended up in the ED of Nelson Hospital! For quite a while you worry for the patients who end up under the characters’ care, as their concerns seem to mainly revolve around their relationships. But this view evolves along with the story, and as Jodi becomes more confident and proficient, she and the reader get to know and care for some of the repeat patients. And then there is Rory …

Rory is waiting for the outcome of an investigation into a tragedy which haunts him and gives him nightmares, whenever he manages to get to sleep. He is always taking painkillers to “take the edge off”, and longs for the “absence of sound that comes with snow falling on snow.” Merriman manages to make Rory’s life splitting in two believable. He wants a life with Jodi, plans to travel back to Scotland with her, and at the same time his life is spinning, or rather drifting, out of control under the beckoning of the syringes of the “chalky white substance.” He is full of self-loathing yet gets good at slick lies, he looks down on other addicts, and he himself doesn’t know what he is aiming for: temporary or eternal peace? And the reader (at least this one) becomes divided too, in part highly judgemental, and yet understanding the attraction of the euphoria of silence, of the peaceful moment of waking from drug induced oblivion.

The novel describes the conundrum of people under great stress in an occupation that offers them free access to addictive drugs – it is chilling how Rory has such facility with the technical effectiveness of the various drugs he takes. And Jodi becomes aware of, and complicit in, the blurring of the edges around “do no harm.” Rory’s story becomes situational, with binge drinking “hardly an odd behaviour amongst junior doctors”, and doctors who work extremely long shifts “might as well have been drunk.” Jodi’s father asks, “does medicine attract more of the types of personalities that are prone to anxiety and depression, or does it create anxiety and depression?” There is a clinic in Dunedin which specialises “in doctors with addiction and mental health issues.”

The writing in The silence of snow becomes totally immersive, I live in Nelson and could imaging the settings in and around Whakatū perfectly, I even had a look to see if Gin Lane actually existed! The use of quotes from the poems both Jodi and Rory love, is poignant, especially when Jodi ends up reading aloud one of their favourites, The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock, at a particularly difficult time. Although the pacing is measured, it is still a roller coaster ride of a read. And has absolute gems like one of the doctors sharing a ‘fact of the day’ with Jody, that whales who sing in the wrong key get lost and are alone in the ocean. A beautiful metaphor, for “[i]t only takes one slip-up” for a life to drift off key, and drift away, even from those you love. And in the end The silence of snow is a love story, just not the type you thought you had in your hands at the beginning. A lovely, awful, and thought provoking read.

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The Murder Club by Nikki Crutchley – 2020

Evil “doesn’t always lurk in city centres after dark. It mows your lawns, frequents your local pub, takes its kids to school and contributes to communities.” Journalist Miller Hatcher is back, back in small town New Zealand, where: “Any ambition she held was now buried by past failures and mistakes.”

Miller is counting her days sober, but her thoughts are never far from alcohol. She has moved to the small town of Lentford, not far out of Hamilton, and misses her job with prestigious First look magazine. She pushes the boundaries in the Lentford leader, with articles on school bullying and period poverty in between those of local houses of interest and the Christmas Parade, but “… the readership wasn’t overly interested in the big issues.”

Miller is scarred, literally and figuratively, by her past. She believes Lentford is where she deserves to be, not where she wants to be. She doesn’t feel part of the community, but she values her few friends and is heading towards some level of contentment, she even has a bit of a crush on a local printer, Jay. But then a young woman is murdered, and the murderer reaches out to Miller via a letter asking her to tell his story, asking for her to make him a household name, as he plans to kill again.

Kahu Parata (from the first Miller Hatcher outing, Nothing bad happens here), arrives to take the case, he is now a Detective Sergeant and grieving over losing his wife to cancer. But Miller is confident the case will be resolved soon: “That’s what Kahu did. Caught the baddies.”

There are two other stories that run in parallel with the tension-building main thread:

Cassie is obsessed with finding out who murdered her mother, and her obsession has ended with her being institutionalised in a treatment facility in Lentford. She decides to stay on after her release, hoping to find out how her mother’s remains ended up buried on the town’s outskirts – Miller decides to help by running Cassie’s story.

Logan’s sister was murdered when he was twelve, and he was the one who found her body. A lifelong fascination with her murder has led to him starting up a True Crime Enthusiasts Club, the ‘murder club’, complete with planned tours of local murder sites – Miller agrees to help by running Logan’s story.

The Murder Club is narrated through oppressive unseasonal heat, sudden short downpours, the smell of lawn clippings and heat, with Miller often in small fuggy rooms with cloying smells. She is surrounded by small time pettiness and gossip. When she becomes party to information about the current murders, she, a journalist, does a better job of discretion than one of the local cops, who loves to be the centre of attention at the local pub. The town has no shortage of possible suspects, and as each falls under suspicion, the locals don’t hold back in judging, exaggerating and embellishing.

The plotting in The Murder Club is superb, the stories all gaining momentum and interweaving. Cassie ends up in an abusive relationship with another woman, also an ex-patient of the facility, Logan seems to pop up all over the place, and there is the awful knowledge that as the letters keep coming, so will the murders. And of course, Miller and the reader knows that eventually the murderer will come for her in person.

The theme of the novel I particularly admired was the consideration of the ethics of “… the public deserves to know – don’t they?” The desire of the murderer to be notorious, the commercialisation of murder via the murder club tours, the immediate adoption of a soubriquet: The Scarf Killer. Do journalists do the right thing by telling the ‘other side of the story’, giving the deceased a voice, or do they commodify them and their stricken family members into victims? There is a powerful scene where, during a trial run of the club tour, they are at a murder site when the victim’s mother arrives to place flowers, and she confronts Logan in disgust. And why should we know about the perpetrators? As one of the murdered women’s mothers says of the murderer at a vigil: “He doesn’t deserve to be known.”

Also handled well is the story of the murder of women at the hands of weak and self-obsessed men, men who see themselves as victims but somehow noble. All the young women have varied stories and various reasons for being in Lentford, a small town where everyone feels safe until … they’re not. And there is a great moment of fury during the vigil, when a woman reacts to the mayor saying the women should take precautions to keep themselves safe – furious that the response to women being murdered is to advise them what they should do to avoid it.

The Murder Club is a tense, scary, atmospheric read and I really hope we meet Miller Hatcher again!

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Over Your Shoulder by CJ Carver – 2020

Over your shoulderThings were so topsy-turvy I was beginning to wonder if anyone could be taken at face value anymore”, Nick Ashdown’s world has hurtled off the rails. He was watching TV with his wife, Susie, when they saw a news item about a man acting heroically in the face of a lone-wolf shooter. But it wasn’t the possibility of random violence that had shaken Nick, it was the fact that the hero was his younger brother, Rob, who had died in a boating accident 12 years before.

Over your shoulder rockets along as we travel with Nick as he faces reveal after reveal about the past, and about his present, and faces the possibility that his little brother might not be a hero, but a murderer. Nick is so unprepared, so content with his life in the picturesque coastal village of Bosham. He is a graphic designer working not far from home, Susie does weekly commutes into London for her civil service job, his parents don’t live far away, and everyone knows him and his family down at their local.

The reader starts picking up clues along the way as we go on Nick’s journey, and we see things from Susie’s point of view as well as Nick’s. There is a great stereotype reversal in their relationship – Nick would like to have kids and become a stay-at-home dad, but Susie is ambitious, focussed on her career, and she is strong-willed: “I couldn’t imagine many wives letting their husbands continue what others might call a reckless undertaking.” Nick finds himself neck-deep in a world of drug smuggling, big money, chilling villains, possibly dodgy cops, and extreme violence.

Amidst Nick’s adjusting to this new and dangerous world, is his confusion and anger over Rob. Nick and his parents have grieved for him, Rob’s wife has re-married, his children have a new father. Through the book Nick is constantly taken back to the times when he and his little brother were growing up together: “I wanted to go sailing with him. Have a pint with him. Go walking along the shore, identifying the waders probing in the mud for shellfish and crabs, chatting about nothing in particular alongside the sound of curlews. I wanted to see my little brother and give him a hug. After punching him first, of course.

Nick finds a strength and resilience he didn’t know he had, and he discovers one of his biggest weaknesses is his inability to lie effectively. And as the twists continue, even those readers who have picked up clues along the way will be surprised at the climax! The plotting is excellent, and the coda after the main reveal gives the novel much more substance than it would have had with just a ‘got ya’ ending, and the extra twist at the end keeps you thinking for quite a while after you have finished reading.

Another excellent thriller from C J Carver, have a read!

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Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam – 2020

SSprigsprigs is a thoroughly effective, and thoroughly devastating, description of privileged white males in a society created by and for them. A society where they feel entitled and where the pressure on others to fit in creates compliance and, in extreme cases, monsters. And where social media gives the monsters a platform. The novel is full of deflections, excuses, PR, and reputation-protecting, in response to a specific, horrific, act: the gang rape of a 15-year-old schoolgirl. It is a story of the silencing of a voice, the only voice that matters: “And it was my story and nobody was asking me about my story, they were telling me my story.”

Sprigs starts where most of it continues, in the thick of high school rugby culture, with the St. Luke’s First XV preparing for and playing the final game of the season. We are immediately surrounded by racist and homophobic banter. We meet the boys, including Richie, a Samoan boy in the elite college for his rugby skills, “their ‘token’ as he was semi-affectionately known.” We meet the privileged kids whose influential fathers are Old Boys, some on the school board, all with financial or political influence.  We meet the staff, including Karim Hussein, the maths teacher, at a total loss about rugby, and who we later learn eats his lunches cold so not to offend the other teachers with the smell of warmed cumin. We meet Denver the Principal who has risen to his level of incompetence and who delegates most things to ‘Klap’, his overworked and alcoholic Deputy Principal.

We first meet 15-year-old Priya Ganain when she is watching the match with her new in-crowd girlfriends. She agrees to go with them to the after-game party. She is excited and terrified, she must lie to her parents about where she is going, her first experience of alcohol is a full bottle of Chardonnay given to her by one of the ‘friends’. The party is all a bit of a blur, Richie is nice to her at one point, then the alcohol and events take over. We lose her again and we learn of the crime via toxic e-messages, via boys who take what happened as a bit of lark, via those who are appalled by what they have done. And there are those who do not know what has happened but who gradually hear rumours – and then they see the video.

It is Hussein who first brings the video to the attention of Klap and Denver. But the boy whose phone he has confiscated has a very influential father, and the phone itself is locked. From then on nothing is done appropriately. In fact, nothing is done at all to deal with the incident, it is all to minimise, deflect and confuse. Denver gets legal and spin advice. There is media and police involvement. The former patchy and thin, the words of the journalist, Brigid Kelly, being carefully trimmed by ‘legal’ to avoid defamation, and her work being controlled by a male editor only interested in the “hashtag metoo”. The Detective repeatedly given the role of responding to those coming to the police to give information, and to talking to Priya initially and eventually, is Detective Ling, with no experience with juvenile crime but maybe to her superiors the credentials of being a woman and having a foreign-sounding name.

I was wondering if we would ever get to find out how Priya was, and then we did, which was harrowing. Mistrustful of everyone, and in many cases rightfully so, she finds herself on the one hand not believed and the recipient of constant abuse and threats of violence, and on the other an object of pity, or the focus of a ‘cause’ that she feels has nothing to do with her. All Priya wants is for none of it to have happened. She is Tamil, and her family are angry, but they have learnt not to show anger publicly. Priya has grown up knowing not to cause trouble, not to trust the police, to try and blend in when not at home or at the temple. She learns things about her family, things that surprise her and give her a context for what has happened to her, but she learns nothing that will help. When she first ventures out, she walks around with keys between her fingers and a stone in her hand, always keeping an eye out for anyone following her or getting too close.

One of the disturbing things in the novel is the lack of support, and even abuse, Priya gets from some of her school friends. And the horrible non-engagement of the female teachers at St. Luke’s, turning to victim-blaming as an immediate response. One of them having been tasked with taking the boys’ sex education classes, has to water the content down to avoid tricky subjects like masturbation and condoms and sex, “Not her problem she thought, as she packed away her things, She’s done her bit for the year. Sex ed.: tick.” The police take the school computers for analysis and “The amount of porn on there was ridiculous.”

For the boys, the role models of successful men are everywhere, they are the ones who think men’s work is more important than that of women, who believe that anyone slightly outside the image of a ‘good kiwi bloke’ is fair game for, at best, constant put-downs, at worst physical violence, and that when any of their own are in the firing line they rally. They do not let all their hard work count for nothing just because “The boys got carried away.” The role models go proactive: “Defamation is actually a lower threshold to prove than sexual violence”, the justice system is just part of the system of privilege.

What is really moving about Sprigs is how easily Priya’s story is commodified, the video going viral, the online articles attracting comments, the talk-back shows being draw into the deflection campaign. The ‘story’ becomes just that, a story for clicks and attention, the person at the centre becomes lost. There are some who try to rally around Priya, but that just turns into another thing again, it is all action aimed at the school and the boys, not in providing a caring community for her. Tim, the boy whose farm was the site for the party, tries to do the right thing, Deputy Principal Klap does not do the right thing, but does refrain from doing the wrong thing. Richie, weighed down by guilt and regret, tries to reach out to Priya to apologise, but what happened was unforgivable, and he is left just wanting to be back with “… friends and teachers who looked at him as a person and not a marketing opportunity.”

Sprigs is not sensational, it is a careful portrait of an unequal society, and how inequalities affect less-privileged individuals through their social life, their years of education, their interaction with officials in the community, and through any experience they may have of the court system. We leave the book with the voice of Priya, a young woman who we have come to know and whose voice we finally hear. I think everyone should read this book.

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Clearing of the Mist by Owen Clough – 2020

Clearing of the mistClearing of the mist is the third part of Clough’s Whispers of the past trilogy. In the first part, best mates Bob, Shane, and Sam, get transported from 2014 to 1863 when they wander into a mist during a DOC pig-culling trip in Tongariro National Park. In the second part, Shadows of the mind, Bob, who has returned to ‘now’, and who has received a message from Shane that he is happily married in late 19th Century Aotearoa, starts to research what has happened to Sam. In this final instalment, we mainly follow Sam’s story from his own point of view, and in the process get an overview of a time when “The British Empire was at the height of its power … and had its nose in a lot of countries.”

Clearing of the mist starts with Bob filling the reader in on some of his research, which is like listening to a keen genealogist relating what they’ve learnt of their forebears, “This is pretty involved, so I hope you’re getting the drift.” In the 1860s, Sam was knocked unconscious during an affray in Auckland and regained consciousness on the HMS Esk, where he is called Lieutenant Samuel Mack, having no memory of who he is or where he is from. We know Sam married Bella, his nurse on board the Esk, and that he ended up becoming Lord Selkirk of Shadymore in the U.K. But Bob is stymied in his research by all mention of Lord and Lady Selkirk drying up around the end of the 19th Century.

The bulk of Clearing of the mist is told from Sam’s point of view, with the story occasionally interspersed with third person narrative. The reader learns of Sam’s story via a journal he keeps with the intention of getting it to Bob in the future. It is a tale of “The known world”, at the height of colonial sensibilities, where Sam is welcomed and assisted by Englishmen as he travels through Egypt, Rhodesia, and South Africa. His children are scattered through the Empire, and in the ‘new world’ of the United States. Sam has 21st Century views of many things, although initially not knowing why. He is egalitarian and a conservationist: “I am all for preserving wildlife, while the majority want to have a stuffed head on the wall.” Yet Sam is also an ex-soldier, and his story is full of derring-do. Whilst in Rhodesia there is an incident involving the Matabele (the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe) who we glimpse briefly and long to hear their story. But this is Sam’s story and he is injured, suffers a great tragedy, and falls into a deep depression. While taking a talking cure and aided by his having received a knock on the head, his memory starts coming back.

Sam meets folk from New Zealand while at a reception at the invite of Queen Victoria, and as the story progresses, these people aid in Sam’s recovery. At the reception he is also told of a scandal regarding the Prince of Wales, a great friend of the Lord of Shadymore, and Sam is asked to assist by protecting the woman at the heart of the scandal, which propels him into another adventure. Sam and his New Zealand friends decide to take Blanche, the wronged woman, to New Zealand, as Sam and his son have decided to try and return to ‘the present’ via the mist in what is now the Tongariro National Park. Blanche proves herself to be a woman more than ready to meet the 21st century. Their journey is beset by dangers from a group of low-life baddies, working under the direction of a secret arm of the British Government. Both the baddies and goodies have secret agents, so the journey to New Zealand, via Egypt, and from Auckland on to the mysterious site of the mist, is wall-to-wall excitement and danger.

Clearing of the mist is an old-fashioned romp, yet as I was reading it, I started to see it as a description of colonial expansion, and the conundrum of people living outside their own space (and time). Sam ponders the mysteries of time travel, he has lived in the U.K. for 30 years, the same amount of time he had lived before the time slip, but what is the ‘when’ he will arrive back to, and how long will have passed in the ‘present’? This echoes the old view of the ‘time slip’ between ‘home’ and the colonies. The sad scenes of departure are reminiscent of family members leaving for ‘ends of the earth’ even today, not knowing if they will ever see each other again. And the scenes of re-union reminiscent of those between people once close who have no idea of lives lived apart, yet still feeling familial and friendship bonds. And of course there is the total outrage of colonisation, from the casual mention of being “wrapped up like an Eskimo”, to the baddies’ use of the adjective ‘darkie’, and the staff at Shadymore meeting the M­āori leader Te Ruru Maniapoto: “Once they realised he was well spoken and not a savage, they relaxed.” There is the initially jarring ”upper-class English accent” of Peri, one of the Māori contingent. And Clough has Sam grasp only the revenge aspect of the complex Māori concept of ‘utu’, and hints at continuing cannibalism.

The Māori in the book are wise, fiercely loyal, and mysterious. As Blanche says of Te Ruru’s mother, Rita: she “smiles her secret smile, as though she sees my soul – in a nice way, of course.” The Māori know and are respectful of ‘the mist’, and there is a nice suggestion of true things which are interpreted by those not in the know as ‘myth.’ Sam recognises that as his people have brought dangers not only to the bush and the native wildlife, they have also brought danger to a unique relationship between a people and their land. Even those of the time recognise: “The Maori have been treated poorly, and land has been taken from them willy nilly.”

Clearing of the mist is an interesting read from lots of aspects, it is an adventure story, and a glimpse of colonialism with a slightly modern lens. The two time-slip eras are close enough to each other for the metaphor of colonial expansion to work, we read of Queen’s Wharf, the BNZ and Britomart Station, realising they are earlier manifestations of what springs to mind. When we eventually learn of the ongoing communication between the two times it is cleverly done, adding to the story of government oversight, engaging “a couple of random Maori”, explaining the sangfroid of the BNZ teller receiving a parcel in 1893 to be delivered in 2020, all echoing the improving communication between ‘home’ and the colonies over the 30 years of Sam’s experience. There are links between characters throughout the story, becoming quite complex with the involvement of time travel, and working within time, e.g. one of the ‘baddies’ is linked to Sam in his 19th Century history.

The historical references in Clearing of the mist seem pretty accurate, although New Zealanders did not start calling themselves Kiwis till the 1st World War, and Sam’s accent wouldn’t have been matched by the colonials he first met in the 1860s. Clough has obviously had fun writing the book, and there may even be mention of a music-teacher forebear of his in the story. I read it as an e-book, which had some odd spacing and struggled with macrons, either using a circumflex or missing them out altogether, presumably hard copy editions would not have these issues. The tale spans 1863 to 2026 and is an interesting end to a fun trilogy.

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Fake Baby by Amy McDaid – 2020

Fake babyWhen you lived in the city it was strange to think that underneath you, under the immense stretch of hard tarseal and grey concrete, there lay dirt and rocks, vast networks of roots, indestructible creatures and ancient worms, and far below them plates that collided over oceans of magma.” Three damaged people stagger around an Auckland that is dark, wet, polluted, each haunted by a past tragedy and unable to find a way forward.

Jaanvi has lost a newborn son, is still in shock, and when she discovers a ‘reborn’ doll, she bonds with it and discovers it “was the only thing in her life that made sense.” Lucas is leading a predictable and narrow life running a pharmacy, when a pharmaceutical error throws his life, and his perception of himself, into turmoil. Stephen has led a violent and troubled life, has a history of medication and institutions, and his fear of his dead father has turned the father into a threat to everyone, a threat that can only be overcome by Stephen.

The three troubled people only converge tangentially, their stories are discreet, but their environment is shared: isolation, lack of connection, the medicalisation of social problems. Outside their traumatised views are shops, coffee bars, work-dos, inane TV ads and game shows. The world the three navigate is full of kindness as well as cruelty, there are as many people who want to help as who want to harm. As many who want to give, money, shoes, assistance, as want to take away hope and dignity. All three characters want peace, want freedom from their mistakes, from their memories, from their circumstances. But during the nine days of the novel “Freedom smelled like stagnating flowers in a vase.”

Lucas is a bit of a misanthrope: “The other commuters were both offensive in their body odour and infuriating in their constant sniffling. No one covered their mouth when they coughed.” His life is disappointing, he refrains from defrosting food for dinner on his birthday, thinking he will be full of cake from work, but no cake eventuates. His bipolar mother is a major influence in his life, his ex-girlfriend Margaret a puzzle and a regret. He uses the internet to find dates, a process that leads to lying, misrepresenting and loneliness. But things turn worse for Lucas, the ‘Licensed Drug Dealer’, when he discovers a dispensing error, and things start swirling out of control.

One of Lucas’ employees, Ayla, lives for affirmation through social media and is guided by new-age messaging Authentici-Tea teabags. Ayla is friends with Jaanvi. Jaanvi is lost in her grief, we see glimpses of her and her husband, Mark, before their son’s passing-away, he triumphant over assembling a cot, both knowledgeable about the meanings of names. But they are either side of a divide in their grief, Jaanvi is self-harming, Mark putting on a front for his work colleagues: “Andrew winked at Mark. As if to say, Women! Aren’t they silly?” As Jaanvi stumbles through her story we get glimpses of what happened during her days in the neo-natal ICU (an environment the author is familiar with, working as a new-born intensive care nurse when not writing). In her wanderings, Jaanvi and the doll, James, encounter Stephen.

Stephen’s is perhaps the hardest story to follow, as his split from ‘reality’ is the most extreme. He is a rough sleeper when not institutionalised, and he sees people and the world though the lens of his disturbed past. We learn some of his story from his encounters with his various younger selves. Through it all, the reader can discern intelligence and kindness, and as with all the main protagonists, a wish to be understood and included, a wish for calm.

Jaanvi meets another of the many rough-sleepers in the story: “‘It’s weird how some people want to be scared when they’re safe and safe when they’re scared.’

‘I don’t want to feel anything.’

‘There’s always that.’

Fake baby is a snapshot, it starts at a random time and ends similarly, with characters mid-journey. It sounds like a depressing read, but although incredibly sad it is also very human, there is a glimmer of optimism running through it, and it is not without humour. I was intrigued by some of the elements in the book – I looked up ‘reborns’, they really are a thing – and well-portrayed is how easily our communities, both small and large, can be fractured, leaving us adrift and not feeling real anymore. A great read.

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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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