Nothing to See by Pip Adam – 2020

The aftermath of abuse – of alcohol, from the hands of men. The aftermath lasts decades, lasts a lifetime, is slow, is boring. It changes lives, it changes life. It never ends, it colours everything – you must stay vigilant. It is the life of Greta, of Peggy, of Margaret … just some of the women. All who are living in the aftermath recognise one another; they all cope in different ways. They support each other, keep each other out of danger, tell each other they are lucky to still be fighting, help each other try to make sense of their lives.

But their lives don’t make sense anymore. I can’t say how all the women are connected – their lives are the result of trauma when things fall apart, of the occasional moments of feeling safe, when things fall back together. 1994, 2006, 2018 – Greta, Peggy, Margaret, they age, survive, tell each other it is worth it: “She’d thought she was living a life – she’d tried to tell herself that – but really it was nothing.”

The important thing for the women is routine: going to AA meetings, learning to take care of themselves – to cook, to clean, to keep busy. Greta and Peggy get volunteer work in an op shop, they get work in a call-centre. Working from home is ideal for Margaret, moderating Internet sites, doing some programming. A Tamagotchi appears and provides some anxious company.  

The women have a flair for IT work, but their lives and their backgrounds mean they have problems with getting jobs, with getting social welfare, with getting credit cards from banks. They are always on the outside, always trying to fit in – learning language and responses that will make the least impression. When they are young, they are heartbreakingly naïve. You feel sorry for them but don’t want to leave their presence.

As they age, they manage better, go to a different city. But evenness has its downsides; when things come together, the clarity makes them lonely, bone-achingly lonely. They have Diane, their long-term AA support person, who always manages to calm them down. But their social circle is very small, the possibility of returning to alcohol is a constant. Over time there is just Heidi and Dell, and Heidi goes to extreme lengths to look different, not look like a woman living in the aftermath, “They hugged each other and Heidi poked her finger gently into Margaret’s forehead. ‘Don’t let them live rent-free in your head’.”

Nothing to see is hypnotic, it gestures to so many things. It is about anyone who is living a marginalised life, whose group is seen as homogenous, who are not seen as individuals. It is about lives defined by alcohol or abuse, those who are non-binary and don’t fit the social norm, those ‘on the spectrum’ who find life online more calming than life-in-person … And it is about a person’s relationship with themselves during the long post-trauma journey.

The novel is a tense read, even though the lives it describes are predictable. The women must constantly be on guard against alcohol, against any man who walks behind them in the dark. Their lives are boring but exhausting – and their IT skills puts them in a distant virtual, manipulative, and dangerous universe. The transitions in the women’s lives are brilliantly written – both mundane and spectacular.

Despite the sombre themes and sad lives, there are moments of beauty in the book. Greta and Peggy talking small delights in the world. Their enjoying playing world-building games together. Their wondering if they are living in a simulation – it would explain so much: “The simulation was flawless, but the narrative was full of causal fallacies and cliché.” And wondering, if it is a simulation, who are the non-player characters?

Nothing to see is sad, engaging, original, and has some of the most compelling characters I have every read. Superb!

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Bluffworld by Patrick Evans – 2021

Bluffworld is a funny, horrifying, thought-provoking read, set in academia in an alternate Christchurch. If you have ever experienced the liberation of information-free decision-making, wait till you read about the helium float of meaning-free discourse! Thomas Flannery, our narrator, sits on the toilet writing his personal bildungsroman Bluffworld – although there’s not much personal development to report. We follow him through his career and along the way we learn the difference between bluffing, bullshit, and horseshit.

The English faculty of the College of Arts, where Flannery works, is the epitome of colonial snobbery and sloth. The hierarchy threads through the faculty, continues offshore, and peaks at the “fantasised Oxbridge life”. When the university builds a new campus, the faculty academics are delighted to stay in their “diminutive mock-Gothic” Oxford, they are a “strange combination of gentlemen’s club and sheltered workshop”. Flannery exists among, and by, bluffing and skiving, and the disparaging of indigenous writing and knowledge – a vilified faculty member dares to champion “Pacific writing”.

The faculty is predominantly male – and puerile ones at that; the book is smeared with scatalogical references and off-colour humour. A colleague says of Flannery’s trick of lecturing on the classics using only the first chapters, paragraphs, or, in the case of Moby Dick the first three words, that he had “turned ejaculatio praecox into a mode of literary criticism”. It’s not surprising it was written on the toilet, many key scenes occur in the loo, and the end of life for the books is … well read Bluffworld. 

It need hardly be said that the blokes are a misogynistic lot. When Flannery makes a serious misstep in judgement, he is puzzled why the women of the faculty are as angry as the boys – “I hadn’t had a relationship with any of them, had I – ?” It is only at a distance we read of a woman aggrieved, a woman despairing, and in one case, Sally, a woman having a successful career and relationship post-Flannery.

Appropriately, Bluffworld is full of plagiarisms, the cover is à la Discworld, the section headings are all stolen. It has copious footnotes, by a second narrator, which are disparaging, pointing out examples of plagiarism and bad grammar (our man has problems with direct and indirect pronouns). They explain references and words to the reader – often fussily and unnecessarily: ‘Meccano’, the card game ‘Snap’. They mark non-English works as those to “Ignore”.

The writing is reminiscent of other styles as well, the English faculty has the quirkiness of the academia of Robertson Davies, and as the book progresses, and things get more bizarre, we end up in a Soviet era style satire, with the university buildings shapeshifting while inhabited, and committees and subcommittees being formed with the members having no idea what their mission is. With the dissolution of the faculty, the staff pose in academic gowns for tourists, take guided tours, sell baked potatoes from a cart, and lecture standing on a box outside Cathedral Mall. Flannery helps a colleague, Bevan, in his bookshop, selling books from the faculty library – their stock gradually becoming overwhelming and giving them rashes and coughs. 

Somehow Flannery has absorbed enough knowledge to bluff a few book sales, “like Post-it notes that had stuck to me as I passed” – after all he did unwittingly absorb some Hungarian while having an affair with Lára, the Hungarian wife of a colleague. But basically, Flannery’s career is a steal. He also lives in other people’s houses, and he feels himself turning into various of his colleagues. He looks in the mirror and sees “not Everyman but Anyone”, he catches his reflection in a dark window and looks “Like a narrator, like a writer. So Jeremy Irons”.

There is a good deal of mistaken identity throughout Bluffworld, one possible reason for Flannery’s success is that it isn’t really him who is meant to advance. The reader starts to wonder if some of the characters even exist – is Flannery’s fellow student Manatine real? He is and he isn’t there a lot of the time. His association with drugs adds to the confusion, and his name suggests the manatees who confused sailors when they were seen to resemble mermaids. Manatine “made sense, as long as he was speaking. When he stopped, he made no sense at all.”

“Has anyone ever said anything original?” Amidst the fun is the message about knowledge being a cumulative process; building on previous thought, adding to it and re-shaping it in a new environment. Enriching ideas with indigenous knowledge, with new experiences. Plagiarism is theft, and when what is being plagiarised is European writing and you are in a far-flung colony of ‘home’, the theft unmoors the works from their meaning and context. People will start believing in anything once communication stops gesturing to the “Lacanian Real” – once it becomes untethered from an underlying reality.

Flannery is the villain of the piece and also the victim. There is a parallel drawn between the academic split with relevance and the followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who committed suicide so they could be taken up into a spaceship that was travelling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Flannery becomes seduced with the “vision going forward” “scholar-managers” nonsense of Super-Iggo, the Vice-Chancellor brought in to corporatise the university. Listening to Super-Iggo’s stoner-type verbiage gives Flannery a hard on, the jargon enters the sex talk between him and Sally. But it isn’t Super-Iggo who actually does the reorganising, it is a small drab man with food stains on his tie who does the dirty work. 

Bluffworld is laugh-out-loud funny, but despite its ridiculousness and its cynicism, it has a serious theme. Sally ends up fronting a show for Viscera Entertainment, and in one relentless grilling of a former colleague of Flannery’s, she explains the demise of the humanities is due to bad communication, because “no one reads the stuff, no one practises what it preaches anymore”. She points to the National Library’s culling of over 500,000 of its humanities holdings. The suggestion is that we are losing links to our literary heritage by failing to carry that heritage into the present time and place, a move which would have enabled the people of Bluffworld to adapt in a wise, not meaningless, way – to not end up with a university totally comprised of administrators.   

“It’s our heritage.” Flannery witnesses books going to be pulped, there is a moving honour roll of titles soon to be gone: Pacific, European, American – Art, Poetry, Philosophy, Literature. Once written knowledge is devalued, all that is written becomes suspect. Flannery knows he is guilty, knows what a loser he is; when Sally is interviewed on U.S. TV about a book she has written, he knows it will be about him, and knows how awfully he will be depicted, because he knows how awful he has been. When he hears there will be no more in-person lectures at the university, he mourns the loss of the intimacy of student/teacher relationship – something he never bothered nurturing.

We leave Bluffworld with Flannery ready to take off in the helium bubble of administration, untethered, but far from free. As I say, Bluffworld is a funny, horrifying, thought-provoking read – and possibly set in a not so alternative reality!  

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The Freedom of Birds by Stephanie Parkyn – 2021

Europe, the beginning of the 19th Century. Hopes of an enlightened age arising from the French Revolution have been dashed by The Terror. Napoleon has forced the French domination of most of continental Europe. The lands are far from settled – the citizens not agreeing that “the French had given them equality and freedom”. The unrest means Napoleon’s army is always on the hunt for more men and boys. Amidst this backdrop of colonial unrest, emerging nationalism, and bloody conflict, three young people are growing up, searching for who they are and to whom they belong.

Rémi and Pascal have spent most of their lives in the Comédie-Italienne in Paris, orphans who looked to Gianni, master of the commedia dell’arte, as their father. Pascal is a costumier, set-maker, and lute-player. Rémi is an aspiring actor – those readers who know the author’s Into the world, will recognise Rémi from the brand on his arm, inflicted by his mother Marie-Louise before abandoning him, as proof he was her son. Marie-Louise has returned to Paris, and she seemingly kidnaps the boys and throws them “into a den of wolves”.

Saskia is a contortionist in a Russian circus. Abandoned by her mother, she looks to bare-back-rider Svetlana for comfort. Saskia is kidnapped by a priest, “Father”, and held in slavery. When the boys are released (they had been hidden from those searching for fresh troops for Napoleon’s army), they flee Paris. When Saskia gets her chance she also flees, and the three meet up and become travelling entertainers: a storyteller, a contortionist and a lutist: “You couldn’t get more freedom than the life of a travelling storyteller.”

The three performers have political and civil unrest roiling around them, they are telling French tales to increasingly nationalistic audiences, and Rémi is always pushing the boundaries with his storytelling. It is also the time of “these word thieves” – the Brothers Grimm. Stories being set down in books is a threat to storytellers, and it determines which stories and which version of those stories will persist. “We must be able to perform our stories or how will we remember who we are?” However, Saskia finds the concept of stories in books alluring, it would mean she would no longer be dependent on men to tell her tales, she could read them herself – if only she could read.

Saskia doesn’t know where she is from, and when she does discover the truth about her parents, it brings no peace. Like the boys, she has a facility for taking on personas, sometimes she is Sebastian, well aware of the dangers of being a young woman on the streets. She is tough and adapts to wherever she finds herself. Although Saskia doesn’t know who she is, whose tales are hers, she does recognise Little Red Ridinghood as “A lesson for girls not to stray” and she wonders “where were the tales for young boys, warning them not to become wolves”? Once she learns to read and write, she determines she will write her own stories.

Women’s art features a lot in the story, full of rage, betrayal, and ongoing struggle. In Venice, the wealthy and political Colombina re-stages The Taming of the shrew to highlight the subjugation of women, casting a bearded actor as Kate, making him bow down in submission at the end. She alters the end in her staging of the Italian version of Romeo and Juliet, asking if blood feuds can ever be overcome and true peace be achieved – resonating with those wondering what the splitting up of the alliances shoring up Napoleon’s empire will bring. The boys are used to being Frenchmen in French territories, but slowly they start to be viewed as colonisers – Napoleon’s fortunes are beginning to turn, “All my life I had lived in a world where Frenchmen were hated and feared, but never powerless.”

The story ranges across Europe: Paris, Marburg, Venice, Milan … In Venice each of our characters finds love, and each finds conflict in their relationships. Although Rémi is one of our heroes, he is also an egocentric child in many ways. He sits for Colombina to paint him, and feels embarrassed and belittled by what would be a common arrangement for a girl sitting for a male artist. He is shocked that Colombina would put her politics ahead of her romantic feelings, put her love of place, people and heritage ahead of her love for him. This after his seeing the gaps in the city left by Napoleon stealing artworks and irreplaceable manuscripts. Given Rémi’s abandonment it is easy to understand his self-absorption.  

A theme through the book is the abandonment of children. There are mechanisms to enable women to leave their children where they will be found by churches. Young boys are routinely rounded up as fodder for war. “Some noble families married their unwanted daughters to God”. In Venice “The hospital has been taking foundling children for hundreds of years”. Sometimes the mothers left signs with their children, hoping for a later reuniting – a card ripped in half, a brand …

The characters are rounded and interesting. Rémi’s tale is written in the first person, Pascal and Saskia’s stories in the third person. Pascal is more sympathetic than Rémi, his main interest for many years being Rémi not himself. When Pacal does find someone else to love, circumstances tragically intervene. And there’s Saskia – always dreaming of the circus, until her dreams finally pack up their tents and “She saw the wagons rolling away”. Saskia who has more courage than all of them, putting herself in terrible danger to save the one she loves.

“We are cowards … we do not want to go to war”, comments Pascal. But Saskia does go to war, as do other young women for one reason or another, and they see the horrors of the battlefield first hand. Rémi, Pascal and Saskia each dream of ideal pasts: in the Russian circus, in the Comédie-Italienne. But as they grow and find out the truth of their childhoods, their dreams fade. All three eventually realise how unfair they have been in their disappointment in their mothers, their realisation that mothers have reasons for their choices, if they have a choice at all – women too want agency and freedom to move.

The Freedom of birds speaks of amazing women who the young people meet along the way, each of whom deserves a novel of her own: Katherina in Marberg who had sung for Mozart; Columbina in Venice a painter and director; Margot in Paris with her tragic history and eternal hope; Natalie in the French countryside helping a waif who washes up at her door. There is a great use of anthropomorphism in the novel too; the “skinny dogs” and “goats” who would gather to hear the stories in the town squares, the priest is a “crow” or “raven”. Colombina’s paintings are of therianthropes, half human, half animal. Saskia longs to be a vila from the tales Svetlana would tell her – a woman who can shapeshift into a falcon or owl. The reader worries about Henriette the horse.

The writing is plain and simple storytelling, much as Rémi would perform, allowing the story to entrance the reader: “Besides a story was so much more than truth.” The evils of colonialism are laid bare, despite a few good outcomes there is the plundering, the massive loss of life, and the imposition of an alien set of values: “Napoleon may have emancipated the Jews in all his territories, but overcoming prejudice was a slow business.” A subjugated people will always rebel. And the novel emphasises the importance of art and storytelling in rebellion: “If we lose our art, who are we”. It is stories that give us hope when all seems lost: “The Innamorati were always reunited in the end.”

There are some genuinely moving pieces in the book, such as the denouement of the performance of Guilietta e Romeo, starring Saskia and her lover Cristo. And there are the horrific scenes of war. There are the tensions and squabbles between the three young people, their reunitings, and their partings. Those readers who have read Josephine’s garden will recognise the setting of Versailles and the background of Malmaison. And if they are anything like me they would have gasped at the exquisite reappearance of the “orange ape”, she too deserves a novel of her own.

“The question for me has never been: Where do I belong? It has always been: Where will I go next?”, The Freedom of birds is a sweeping picaresque novel of political turmoil, the desire for freedom, the role of art, and most of all it is a tale of friendship. It is a standalone novel but is enhanced by having read Into the world and Josephine’s garden.

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Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka – 2021

Kurangaituku graces us with the story of Hatupatu and the bird-woman from the female perspective. It tells of the coming into being, and fading from existence, of the universe, the natural world, and the individual. It asks why we learn about the death of Maui and not the violation of Hinenuitepō; why we are taught history from the male point of view. It demonstrates the power and destruction of language and shows how ‘love and creation’ are just ‘revenge and destruction’ seen from another perspective. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.

Kurangaituku emerges from the void of Te Kore into the dark of Te Pō. With the cleaving of the sky from the earth, there is light, and she exists among the birds of Aotearoa, the birds whose consciousness sang her into existence. With the Taupō eruption, she is entombed. She emerges after millennia to find another type of creature has arrived in the forest – the Song Makers – the Māori. “I had admired the birds who had adapted to their niche in nature, but the Song Makers could adapt the world to suit their needs.”

Lurking near the edges of human society, Kurangaituku learns to weave and to carve, not recognising the rules of male and female. She experiences language, and although “… it is an act of love to learn a language, an act of becoming”, she is re-formed by those from whom she learns her language. As the birds sang Kurangaituku into existence, so too the language of humans starts to agonisingly transform her into the pain-wracked female form. Her transformation is both physical and literary – her claws that are ideal for weaving are told as claws for attacking; she is portrayed as a warning.

The Song Makers don’t grasp “that all creatures that dwell in the forest do not just live there, but they make up the forest”. Kurangaituku’s eating of the brains of birds to understand their experiences is seen as monstrous, whereas hunting and eating birds for food is seen as necessary. The collective existence of the forest is riven into those with power and those without, those with standing and those without, the concept of Mōkai, slavery, emerges. The relationship between Kurangaituku and Hatupatu is complex, loving, abusive … “He named me Kurangaituku. And I was undone.”

Kurangaituku proceeds as in a love story, but she is an innocent, unused to lying and deceit: “How could anyone treat a person that way, with so little regard? If I had been a person that would have made him monstrous.” She recognises Hatupatu as a thief and a murderer, he inflicts on her the most horrific death – but she struggles with desertion. “If only our relationship has been hunter and mōkai.” She exists in the love of their meeting in the forest – “But that is an illusion, a game we all play – the idea that any of us can truly understand what it is like to be another … Just as this story was never really mine. It can only ever exist in the space between us.”

There are many times in the telling of her story when a sphere, a rock, an eye, expands to encompass everything and then contracts to be an individual. The geography of the land is a part of Kurangaituku, as it is with the patupaiarehe, those beings akin to the corporeal and ambiguous Sidhe of Scotland and Ireland and not to ethereal butterfly-like creatures called fairies. There are many types of creatures, all part of a whole. But as Kurangaituku is entombed, so too is Hatupatu, there are many times in the telling where there is a searching for cracks in rocks, many times a searching for entrances to new realms. And in those realms we discover new creatures, and experience the loss of others.

“Perhaps if I wasn’t so inquisitive, if I didn’t have a need to accumulate knowledge” – in another wave of exploration Kurangaituku forges into the afterlife to seek an explanation for her experiences from Hatupatu. In this ouroboros of a novel this is both before and after her time in the forest. We travel through the geography of Māori cosmology, and through the geography of the female body. Kurangaituku is a stranger in a strange land – there are none like her to welcome her to the underworld – but there is beautiful Hinenuitepō, who re-shapes her in human form, and with whom she sits in the waters of the womb.

When Kurangaituku reverses her journey time has passed again, colonisers have arrived in Aotearoa. They have made a monster of Hinenuiotepō, and her children no longer go to her after death: “I could have wept for her then. Not because she had lost her power, but because she believed she had, that she no longer had any control of her narrative.” This novel is all about the real power of words, how they create, how they destroy. We talk ourselves into being through our stories. The author addresses the reader as a lover – a creature feeding on the stories the author has presented.

“Would Te Kore have evolved into Te Pō without the potential for more?” There is the urge to keep moving, but within the swirling events there are moments of quieter research and reflection. There is the examination of the woven panels and the carvings of the whare, the consideration of creation stories and the placing of characters. But the story can’t not be told, “… life doesn’t seem to respect dramatic pauses.” In passing there are the cries: “If only, if only, if only.”

The physical book Kurangaituku is beautiful. It is printed tête-bêche, and the central tellings of Hatupatu and the bird-woman interweave as they pass each other from opposite directions. In whichever order you read the book the story works, and whichever way you read the events the story changes. The proof of Hereaka’s words is in the readers’ hands: words are power, Gods are immortal until men stop telling their stories.

As Hilary Mantel did for Thomas Cromwell, Hereaka has given the opportunity for redemption to a usually reviled character. Like Ursula Le Guin with her The wife’s story, Hereaka has shown us the depths of our preconceptions. But Kurangaituku is so much more than objective observation. As I read, I was reminded of the whakatauki: E koekoe te tūī, e ketekete te kākā, e kūkū te kererū. There are many voices, many points of view. And the tragedy at the heart of the novel is the silencing of the voices of the birds, of the women, of the colonised: “It is a privilege to be heard – and not one many are allowed.”

“I had come all this way following Hatupatu, hoping for a chance to balance our story. To avenge my own death by his hands, to satisfy utu. And now I was left here on my knees with a mouth full of dirt.” I don’t have the words to express how good this book is – read it!

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She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall – 2021

Our protagonist is a woman in her late thirties, whose name we know only from the sleeve notes – Alice. We learn through the novel that Alice has had a not-too-unusual upbringing, that she is a very bad judge of situations, and that as a child she had an invisible friend called Simp – the kind of friend who advises eating all the chocolates, or burning down the house. Simp has returned – Alice’s boyfriend has left her, her best friend Amy is starting to drift away, and Alice is facing the question that we all face: “Yes, it was a mountain of shit and it was avalanching down on our heads. But what was I to do about it?”

Alice lives in a future adjacent to ours – there is a king, there are only two universities left in Aotearoa, water is severely rationed. The inevitable result of the inability of wealthy nations to tackle the climate crisis has led to world-wide disaster. The New Zealand Government has been almost ruined by the last pandemic and has agreed to accept huge numbers of ‘wealthugees’ – those privileged enough to escape their own countries, and too selfish to use their wealth to help anyone but themselves. The population of Aotearoa has increased by half a million in the last eighteen months.

There is rioting in Palmerston North, people are being killed, the wealthugees are ‘assimilating’ by creating a parallel Aotearoa and bunkering down in it – extolling the culture, environment, and safety of their manufactured paradise, deforesting to build ideal fenced forests. The Government has agreed to sell a piece of DOC land in the Wairarapa to developers – ancestral Māori land. The developers are the same company responsible for the destruction of Juukan Gorge in Australia, and who use child labour to mine for cobalt for iPhones in the Congo.

We first meet Alice as a bored employee in a university enrolment department, where she has worked for fifteen years. “I’m not an activist, I’m an observer”. She acts out her boredom by spilling sauerkraut on people, basing her right to criticise others on her confidence in her own superiority: “The power imbalance was like sniffing petrol fumes – bad but so good.” She fantasises around her own compulsion to hurt people. She is surrounded by students from “the most anxious generation the world had produced”, she works alongside new employees who want to quickly advance to positions of power. She sits stagnating in the middle, finding it impossible to do small talk in the time of apocalypse. She is one point off being a genius, and lives with the albatross of unfulfilled potential hanging around her neck.

“This was the world now, a living cartoon”, Alice is at once obsessed with eye makeup and the well-being of the plant growing through the crack in the bench top in her grotty house. She lives downstairs from her estranged mother, separated by a sheet of plywood – they communicate using Morse code. Her friend Amy, whose life she prides herself on saving, is an overachieving mother of three, a prolific fruit preserver, and exercise fanatic. Amy’s husband has become involved in the Wairarapa bunkered community development – an association Alice cannot fathom.

Then Alice meets an unusual wealthugee, Pablo, who wants to enrol in the long-gone Russian Literature course at university. They become involved, Alice not sure if she should worry about his tendencies to strangulation or saying things like “We’re going to kill them all”. It appears Simp was paying attention during Alice’s abandoned psychology studies, and she provides a soundtrack of possible diagnoses. Alice is more sociopath than psychopath, there’s a good amount of laziness to her condition. Then Pablo’s fifteen-year-old daughter arrives. She is like Alice but over the threshold of genius – Erika is aware and active. Alice finally gets the trigger she needs to develop a real personality – but “Hang on a minute, you never said anything about bombs”.

She’s a killer is a brilliant analysis of the present condition of cognitive dissonance. All those who pretend things are normal when they are patently not; hanging onto things known to cause others damage, whilst expressing deep concern for the damage done to others – “No one wanting to take the blame.”

Alice mentions starting to read Anna Karenina from the epigraph, and the epigraph to She’s a killer is a key, Jung defining fate as an exterior expression of an unconscious inner situation. Alice’s lack of empathy and lack of urge to fulfil her potential can be seen as the general malaise that allows global crises. For much of the book the urge to make a difference is framed as pointless and unnecessary – and then Alice starts to wake up: “… it felt like I’d been asleep for a very long time.”

It might sound like She’s a killer is a weighty read, but it is very funny. For those from Aotearoa, the reference to the aging politician who is still around, and who is in fact a cloned “puppet belonging to the dying generation of boomers” will resonate. The drama school students bowing down before the acting deities. The extreme scenarios are funny, yet they are worryingly believable – Pablo having to return to China to help negotiate with rogue Chinese dissidents to free his ex-wife, a sex-blogger, who is being held hostage as she is suspected of being part of the government’s propaganda ministry – an inventive way to get Alice alone with Erika? Or all part of the conspiracy?

The two-degrees-of-separation of Aotearoa makes the coincidences in the plot believable – a key player ends up being a person we meet in Alice’s first job – but also adds to the sense of manipulation. You feel, like Alice, you are being played. And the book makes you feel, like Alice, defensive: “Well, I’m glad my personal failure is of use to someone.” Whilst asking the hard questions, the novel is also liberating: the runner who realises she can just stop training; Alice realising what a gift of privilege it is to live long enough to develop lines on your face; accepting that much can be explained by “Most people are scared of free will”.

Erika is a great foil for Alice, she is what Alice might have been, may yet be, had she been one point more intelligent. But is that a good thing? – “I wondered what else was in there. Curare-tipped arrow? Garrotte?”. Is what Alice has become involved with “… just another self-interested interest group – with guns”? This is one of the central questions of the novel, are there such things as “Ethical killing. Expedient violence”, or are they yet another expression of colonial oppression? What other solution is open for those “running from their lives, then wondering where their lives went”.

She’s a killer portrays us as “the predators – outside the predator proof fence”, even more of a statement given I read the book as COP26 failed to make any meaningful plans to rescue our planet. There are descriptions in the book that gesture to what is at stake, not for humans of privilege, but for the earth – a sighting of a stag in the night; the description of a fragment of virgin forest: “Those hills were still fully possessed of themselves.”

In many situations fences are a declaration of war – but what will Alice do about it? Her life is flashing before her, Erika points out a passage of Tolstoy: “I have discovered nothing. I have only perceived what it is that I know” – but what will Alice do about it? A superbly challenging book – read it!!!

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Loop Tracks by Sue Orr – 2021

Charlie Lowry was fifteen-years-old in the late seventies – full of dreams and fantasies, and concerns about her peeling toenail varnish. She wanted boys to notice her, and they sometimes did, but for her fascination with words – she was always one for the funny pun – they didn’t see her potential for glamorous romance. One night at a party, a boy did notice her – and she thought she had achieved her dream. But instead, she found herself in a situation that could only be resolved by a quick trip to Sydney, or by her ‘going up North for a while’.

Many years later Charlie is living in Wellington with her grandson, Tommy. She has given up on her wish to study and apply her flair for linguistics, due to experiencing bouts of vocal disfunction. She teaches five-year-olds at a local school. The realisation that Tommy has formed a relationship with a fellow maths student at university, and the unexpected return of her son, Jim, leads Charlie to reassess her life. She considers what information she has shared with her son and grandson, and whether it is time to reveal more. And also whether it is time to be honest with herself about her traumatic past.

If all this sounds a bit heavy going, it isn’t – Loop tracks is honest, compassionate, and compellingly written. It look at generational relationships. It considers what power the State has to interfere in an individual’s life decisions – whether those be decisions a woman makes about her body, or about the agency of some to choose to end their own lives. It considers what right males have to put young girls into situations they have no ability to manage – we see the power to do so developing in the five-year-old bullies in Charlie’s class. And Loop tracks eventually confronts the State’s power to curtail freedoms to protect citizens from a deadly virus, and the obligation of individuals to comply. It highlights the decisions, sometimes immediate, spontaneous, and unconsidered, that send lives on paths that might otherwise have been avoided or missed.

In one section of the book, Charlie goes back to accompany her younger self as her mother takes her to the doctor, her mother suspecting Charlie is pregnant, Charlie thinking that is ridiculous. The reader confronts the absolute naivety of the young Charlie, how impossible for her to relevantly answer her father’s plea: “What were you thinking, Charlie?” Charlie finds herself on a flight bound for Sydney, there being few options for safe abortion in Aotearoa in 1978. Her parents have fallen into debt to fund the trip – her mother leaves the airport jealous of her daughter’s chance of an overseas flight. The reason Charlie makes her decision to leave the plane on the tarmac is pathetic, as in full of pathos – and it is a decision with life-long consequences.

Jim is a monster in many ways, he is a drug peddlar, a manipulator, he carries memories of the bodies of dead young women. Jim is a reason for Charlie to regret her decision to get off the plane. Jim’s son Tommy – abandoned by Jim as a child – is a reason for her to celebrate that same decision. Tommy is beautiful and a wonder to Charlie. He is a mathematician and “… she’s a words girl. Numbers are not her thing.” Tommy is socially awkward and has no filter to his emotions: “he’s so literal, people find that difficult”. He has sudden bouts of fury: “Rage, reflection, remorse. That’s the order, the only way he can process the hard stuff.” Charlie feels she must protect Tommy until someone else can take over. Despite the sacrifices she has made for him, she knows Tommy has no empathy for her – he is brutally judgemental.

Jenna is Tommy’s friend. Her sister, Suzie, plays Loop Track music. Tommy is entranced by the building repetition of Suzie’s music the way he was, and still is, absorbed by Charlie’s old Spirograph machine. Suzie, who we never meet, also knows Jim – and Jim’s dark shadow grows over Charlie’s family. Charlie’s friend and workmate, Adele, is a moderating element – pointing out to Charlie that she is prone to spying on Tommy and Jenna; that she is still trying to control Tommy’s decisions; that she seems not to be acknowledging the reality of what happened to her in 1978.

The arrival of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown and the Euthanasia Referendum of the same year, pulls the novel into tight focus. Tommy tracks the outbreak, and becomes engrossed in arguments about his responsibilities to protect life at both ends of the life cycle. And his logical un-empathic approach is a challenge to Charlie and her beliefs. The isolation of lockdown (she is both with and apart from Tommy) allows Charlie to become aware that she is lonely, she longs for “the hot rush of human touch”. Lockdown provides yet another set of opportunities for Charlie, and decisions that will either fulfil or deny those opportunities.

Loop tracks is a brutal book in many ways, but it glows with humanity. It suggests the importance of being honest about memory, about beliefs. It emphasises being kind to yourself, but also the importance of thinking beyond yourself when considering the decisions you make and the paths you choose. A very powerful Aotearoa read.                

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Two Truths by Dana C. Carver – 2020

If you love books about secret societies,  The holy blood and the holy grail–type conspiracies, ancient treasure hunts, von Däniken–adjacent human origin stories, New Age science and history, and grand unified theories of, well, everything … Two truths is the book for you. A woman and her three daughters set out on different quests to find the ‘truth’, all for different reasons, and possibly searching for different truths. They discover a power that could be the salvation or the end of humanity.

Renee had an experience with a strange (but literarily familiar) man as a teenager that changed the course of her life. She dissented from that course eventually, but had to pay a price, and in doing so fulfilled the prediction of the man: that she would have three daughters. Scott, Renee’s husband, has prepared the eldest daughter, Brett, for a life as part of The Order, an elite exclusive cabal. Sara is a social-media-addicted teenager, slightly goth, naturally dismissive and rebellious. And Hadley, the youngest daughter, floats through life with her head full of bible verses and dreams

Sara bumps into Penny, the daughter of a colleague of her father’s, at the colleague’s funeral. Penny, with whom Sara becomes slightly besotted, warns Sara that their fathers had discovered something that had put them in great danger: her father had been murdered and Sara’s father was next. Dismissing the claims, Sara explains that she is being bundled off to New Zealand: “Do they speak English there?” All but Brett, who is estranged from her family, go to the far-off country.

It is in Aotearoa that Scott dies, but not before realising he has been cultivating the wrong daughter. Sara becomes intent on revenging Scott’s death. Hadley, who is brought back from death at the accident that kills her father, loses her ability to speak and her will to live. Renee takes the girls back to their home in Cincinnati, where Sara searches out Penny. Sara and Penny start on a quest to find out about the deaths of their fathers. Hadley meets up with a mysterious man and eventually “She had found the Truth, and in doing so, had lost her religion”. Renee gets involved with Jonas, a beautiful young basketball player. And Brett becomes more and more embroiled in the machinations of The Order: “Silly game or not, she had no other option but to play it.”

To say anything else about who, or what, everyone is; or, how the quests of the four women come together, would be to spoil the plot. It covers so many familiar tropes it is fascinating to read how they are all woven together. There is the power-hungry triumvirate of The Order, the Catholic Church and the “money launderers” – AKA big business tycoons and their political henchmen. The seemingly inevitable development of hierarchies: of beings, of classes, of blood. The spiritual quests of individuals who fall by the way, as they fail to see that their goal is right before their eyes the whole time. The dangers of actions that are taken “for the greater good” …

Chapters are told from the point of view of different characters, which gives the narrative great texture. From the outset you are in a strange but oddly familiar world – Hadley being accompanied by a ghost and an angel, Renee acting on her attraction to Jonas – who is reminiscent of the biblical Nephilim. The use of biblical texts to prove the ancient use of nuclear technology, and the genetic manipulation of humans. Saint Germain still wandering the streets of Paris. And there are the more sinister themes: older men coaching teenaged girls. The head of the secret society using sex to manipulate his followers: “The only answer is to submit.” The casual suggestion of eugenics.

The mistake the two fathers made was in intending to enlighten the uninitiated masses by informing them of what they had discovered. We learn there are those who are living lives that have lasted for millennia. Those who have lived through many lives – some who remember them, some who can be encouraged to remember them, and those who will always be ignorant. These latter are the Masses. There are parties who think “The Masses pose a threat”, and there are parties who think the Masses are our only hope: “This is the world I love, the world I see every day and that most people walk by without noticing. If you do not love what the world is in its simplest form, you will not be able to save it.”

There is whimsy to some of the writing: “The countertop was bright orange and the curtains were yellow and pulled back with a piece of lace. On the wall was a black clock shaped like a cat, with eyes that rolled back and forth with each tick.” However, the themes are dark: the attraction of suicide – Ernest, Renee’s initial awakener in this life, commits suicide; Hadley must be constantly encouraged to focus on life, not death. And insanity is always hovering, as a place to hide – Renee “how easy to blame delusion.”

The two truths of the title refer to an empirical truth and a transcendental truth – and the confusion as to which is the more powerful, the more dangerous. The paradox flows through the text – one of the ‘higher level’ beings is always cooking, gardening, or making things from wood. Humans are cast as both the playthings of the gods, and those some gods love so much they can’t desert them. The story works its way towards a great reunion as the climax – and there is a challenge – which way will be chosen? Power and exclusion, or the realisation of connectedness and opportunity for all?  

I read this book as COP26 is being held in Glasgow. Once again, the world’s leaders are discussing how to address the ecological and climatic disasters the ‘money launderers’ have wrought. It would be good to think when asked the question posed in The two truths – “And do you know what each of us will choose?”, they would choose the better path. Yet as Renee observes of herself and Jonas, they have become aware of so much “Yet we stroll on an autumn evening as if nothing is different”. An interesting, entertaining, and enjoyable read.


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Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan – 2021

Crazy love is about addiction, art, love with no boundaries, and the burden of mental illness. It is sad, beautiful, frustrating, and tantalising. It is about survival and despair and mundanity. It is about Vicky Miller and the destructive love of her life, Billy Cooper. It is semi-autobiographical and totally charming and totally worrying at the same time. It is extraordinarily honest, and a perfect example of how messy life can be.

Vicky had a far-from-ideal upbringing: “Weird to have such a disappointing mother be disappointed in me”. She has a microsecond stint in the army, where she learns to make a tight bed, but doesn’t find Richard Gere (it is the 1980s). A post-abortion infection means she returns to her hometown, Napier. After some dead-end jobs, she washes up in Art Deco ‘Dire Straits’ – a living complex full of the unemployed, partially employed, and dodgily employed, all with no families to fall back on.

Crazy love evokes the 1980s with song lyrics interspersed in the narrative and descriptions of the unique fashions of the time. It is an interesting time in Aotearoa’s political history, but Vicky is only mildly interested in politics – she is too disenfranchised to take much notice. She does write to Robert Muldoon to voice her frustration at only having enough money for one pie a day – she gets a response: $1 for one extra pie. It is a funny/not funny moment but also prefigures the struggles Vicky will have later, with a bureaucracy that, in aiming to help all, struggles to help each. Like many women in a society where social support reinforces female financial dependence on partners, Vicky must put up with a ‘loser-boyfriend’ to survive.

The reply to her letter to Muldoon heralds the unconnected arrival of Billy – and her life is never the same again. Billy is beautiful, “…this punk, he had my attention”. He is a punk, but in a stylish way. He is a high-flyer with big plans. Billy is unpredictable, unreliable, a bit of a grifter, with mercurial moods. He is enticing, and Vicky and Billy get married. Vicky knows that Billy’s successes are mostly mirages. However, initially they do find financial success as a married couple. They have a lovely big house, plenty of money, and two children. They both have the continual need for affirmation, but their financial stability satisfies that.

The reader looks back on this time of success obliquely. Vicky enjoys writing poetry. She raises her children and helps Billy with his business. “Billy and I had big plans over the years. Some succeeded, some didn’t.” Then it all crumbles. Fortunately, the children have left home. Vicky and Billy move to a house with Dawn Raid hideouts under the floorboards and in the roof cavity. Vicky finally admits that the exciting rhythms of Billy’s life: “He’s my yoyo man”, are due to serious mental illness. Vicky is small. She knows she is vulnerable. Due to the many dangerous situations she has been in, she has learned the art of running away. She doesn’t run from Billy.

We pick up the current narrative with Billy living like a wild man outside in the garden, with Vicky inhabiting the house. She finds official help is hard if not impossible to find. She finds out who her friends are – almost all women – the men are afraid of Billy. Billy’s behaviour is manipulative, passive-aggressive, and often pathetic. It makes you wonder if all abusive partners have a serious mental illness! “We are the beautiful-bold. Strong as long as we are together. Billy and I. Only, he has been such an arse lately.” Vicky has always known Billy has viewed her as a wife to look after him while he flourishes. At one point she proves to herself she could kill Billy if she wanted.

Vicky starts writing a novel, it is a long process – she is working on Purgatory, a novel I still think about often even though I read it seven years ago. She is functioning well, while she lies for Billy and complies with his illegal flurries. He is overweight, smelly, yet still strangely attractive. She decides if he commits suicide, so will she. Her children are ciphers for the way she sees herself and Billy. The son is ‘eat-and-run-son’, always leaving and far away yet emotionally closer to her than to Billy. The daughter is ‘surly-girl’, always judging and blaming Vicky. “What if I was to blame for stopping Billy from being the wondrous Billy he used to be?”

“He forgets he’s not the young punk who took on a carload of young dicks sassing him at the burger bar in Napier.” When Vicky decides she is damaging Billy more by covering for him that by asking authorities for help, she provokes a response that illustrates the lack of help for those with mental illness – a ‘riot squad’ arrives. Despite Billy almost avoiding it through his charm, he ends up in an acute mental health unit. They communicate via haiku-like missives. Vicky is alone, grieving for the baby she lost before joining the army, for her beloved dog, for the cat she left behind in ‘Dire Straits.’ She wonders if splitting from Billy would be the best thing for him.

Move to the present: Billy is still Vicky’s “Strange man. Strange, strange man.” He is a conspiracy theorist, but he is taking his medication. During Covid (“a hoax to disguise the fact that there are intergalactic space travellers on earth for negotiations …”), they panic buy wine and tealight candles, not toilet rolls. They have survived, and will continue to survive, as they have the most astounding unconditional love. The reader is left puzzled yet comforted, and at the same time very uneasy, “the perimeter is never secure, really, is it?” A powerful piece of Aotearoa fiction/not fiction.

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The Last Guests by J.P. Pomare – 2021

“Someone else is out there, watching, waiting. Terrorising us.”

Lina is an ambulance driver, dealing with emergencies for a living. She is also dealing with Cain, her husband of seven years, who is still having nightmares after returning injured from serving in Afghanistan. Lina worries about money and about her marriage. Cain wants easy money not “a boring job”. Lina agrees to his easy-money scheme of renting out her family lakehouse at Tarawera via the WeStay app. Lina uses another kind of app. to take desperate measures to save her marriage …

Cain’s injuries were sustained during a botched special forces raid. He and his mate Axel were to testify at the enquiry, until the man facing charges – their comrade, Trent – committed suicide. Cain was seen as a hero, until the enquiry put a shadow over his tour. He has turned to gambling in the past to make money when his personal-trainer business failed to take off. And Lina fears that’s what he is doing again. He wants to be a hero again. He wants to be her saviour.

Lina spends her life proving she is not like her alcoholic mother, “I’m nothing like her”. She was raised by her grandparents in the lakehouse, and carries her memories, both good and bad “Mum turning up, eyes bloodshot, haggard. The screaming. Grandma sweeping up the broken glass”. She is also haunted by a miscarriage she had when she and Cain lived at the lakehouse. She knows a baby will give her a chance to prove she is not her mother. And will give Cain purpose, a reason to move on from the war.

When they list the lakehouse, Lina and Cain engage in ‘innocent’ online stalking of potential renters – finding how easy it is to see their personal details. They have sex, both enjoying imagining Lina is one of their guests. The reader already knows there is a far more sinister form of surveillance going on in WeStay houses – and Lina finds out the hard way, when she visits a WeStay property in Auckland. She ends up being pursued by someone, someone who has information that could ruin her marriage. They also, symbolically, have her heirloom wedding ring.

Lina and the reader end up suspecting everyone, even those trying to help. She falls into a nightmare of demanding honesty from Cain – and getting more than she bargained for – while keeping secrets from him. She thinks all her decisions are for the best, but many come back to damage her. Her medical training (she was in med. school before dropping out to be a paramedic) means she is inured to death and injury similar to the way Cain is – “Soldiers being blooded by killing prisoners. You’re never the same, I’ll never be the same.”

“Even the best photos of the view miss the smell, the air” – the lakehouse is idyllic, but turns to a house of horror for Lina. She is put in extreme danger but gets help from a very strange source. And she, not Cain, ends up the hero. In the aftermath they have to suffer journalists and interviewers. The media is not out for truth, but for click-bait and public attention. Cain and Lina see the ‘good bloke defence’ potentially obscuring the crime. Then when Axel and his wife Claire travel with them to the lakehouse, Lina starts to realise the nightmare might not be over. She still has some big decisions to make. “Everything is wrong.” What decision will make their world right?

The last guests is a gripping thriller in a world where ease of surveillance has lead to voyeurism being a commodity, and where a dulling pragmatism leads to people doing extreme things to secure their ideal lives. It is a tense read, and the reader is guessing the whole way through. Lina is a complex and interesting character – who makes morally ambiguous choices. Excellent!

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Crocodile Tears by Alan Carter – 2021

Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong, now part of the Major Crime Unit in Perth, is dealing with two, apparently unrelated, mutilated bodies – one an ex-cop one an ex-schoolteacher. Sharon Wang, his wife, is a federal agent, working nights at the international airport. She deals with an unruly passenger off a flight from Darwin, who is later discovered hanging under a bridge in Freemantle, with Kwong’s details in his pocket. Rory Driscoll (who we first met in Bad seed) leaves his quiet life as a “simple fisherman out Woop Woop”, when his name appears on a hit list along with three others, and he has no idea why. Kwong, Wang, and Driscoll all work separately and then together to try and work out how all is connected. They end up in the murky world of corruption, conflict atrocities, retribution, big business, and unholy alliances.

Kwong is “looking older, carrying a bit more weight, had some grey at the temples”. Due to their work, he only sees Sharon briefly each day. Ella, their daughter, is at the quicksilver terrible-twos stage. Kwong keeps going by using anti-depressants more frequently than prescribed. It shows – as Sharon observes: “Sometimes you seem like the old you. Other times, I don’t know. You seem flattened out. No edges, no highs, no lows. Not present.” He wonders why he is still on the job, but this latest case is intriguing, he keeps getting text messages telling him he is on the wrong track – and has no idea who is sending them.

When Kwong finally sees Driscoll “he detected a certain mellowing with age, nothing specific, but not quite the man he recalled”. Driscoll has been dragged into the story and is finding it harder and harder to discern who the good guys are, who the bad guys, and who the ‘not-quite-so-bad guys’. It is a confusion Kwong and the reader shares with him. The two men progress through complicated territory. In each of the Cato Kwong novels, a social issue is explored. In Crocodile tears it is the involvement of governments in inciting or suppressing internal conflicts in other countries, the aftermath of atrocities, the role of business interests in controlling government policy, the dangers arising from governments outsourcing their security work, and the migrant crises that arise from international conflicts.

The conflicts in question are the many that took place in Timor-Leste – the struggle for independence from Portugal in 1975 and then from Indonesia in 2002. The ongoing struggles arising from outsiders trying to make a buck and enjoy their positions of privilege. Kwong discovers the connection between his victims goes back to their volunteer work in Timor-Leste, and then their later work at the Christmas Island Detention Centre – holding asylum seekers, plus ‘501s’, ex-prisoners awaiting deportation to Aotearoa or the UK. There is also a connection between Sharon’s unruly passenger and one of the people on the hit list with Driscoll – both connected to Timor-Leste. The connections keep falling into place, but clarity takes a long time to emerge.

What starts to become clear is the far from noble role that Canberra has been, and is, playing in the region. That massacres and atrocities were committed, and the skulduggery continues. And that Kwong and Driscoll have no idea who they can trust – or whether they can even trust each other. Driscoll, when trying to keep safe the ‘hit list’ group (all but him due to be witnesses at a Hague committee on Timor-Leste) finds they are being tracked – but by whom, and how did they always know where the group would be? Kwong starts to think he is being used – but by whom, and for what? Sharon has her fair share of action – “Give me some credit. Why’s it always about you?” – when she tries to investigate the man she dealt with at the airport, and becomes a person of interest, and embroiled in violence.

All the clues lead to a past militia-leader and long-time liurai (district lord). He is a man guilty of heinous crimes, who turned out to be on the wrong side of history. But he is now connected to people in high places. He is certainly guilty of past crimes, but is he guilty of Kwong’s cases, or has he been set up? “It had spooks written all over it – but whose?” And for some does it matter if he is guilty of current crimes or not? Those who feel safe in the present often leave the past behind, however there are those whose lives have been so damaged they can’t forget the past. For some it is all a game, but “The game didn’t seem so great once you saw it from the point of view of its innocent victims”.

Kwong and Driscoll are not friends, but they do arrive at a partnership: “Should you be telling me this?”, “Probably not, I think it might be an official secret”. Driscoll’s controller, Aunty, “a taxpayer funded mandarin”, is an ambiguous character – Driscoll comments: “Sometimes Aunty, I wonder if you’re making this up as you go along, do you even know whose side you’re on?” Kwong proves good at left-field distractions in times of crisis. But both men are wondering why they are doing what they are doing. Those who have been immediately and involuntarily damaged have a clearer view – they want revenge, or they are “trying to see a way forward that doesn’t involve violence. We’ve seen enough.”

Crocodile tears involves an endless circle of Big Oil, private and corporate greed, and personal retribution. There are the dangers from “The pathological need to win at all costs” and the numbness of an age where “Nothing is shocking anymore”. With a horrible twist on the modern phrase, amorphous alliances are described as heralding “a less binary future”. In the face of implacable power, going back to Woop Woop or taking your kid to the beach seem sensible options. At the heart of the novel are the personal stories we hear along the way.

Crocodile tears is phenomenally well plotted, and it is a darker read than the previous Kwong outings. There is plenty of action – bombs exploding, throats being cut, guns being held to heads – and the voracious crocodiles are never far away. The story ranges through Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and Timor-Leste. Although a hard political thriller – full of agency abbreviations; ASIO BIT AFP PNTL DFAT … – the novel is an intelligent and moving read. Carter has presented some clear messages, for example asking if remaining “silent and inactive if you really despise the things governments do in your name” is conscionable.

This is the last in the Cato Kwong series, and it is a fitting ending. Although I would have liked to follow Sharon Wang in her new position in the AFP – maybe she’ll pop up in a future series. Crocodile tears is reviewed here as Alan Carter was part of the #YeahNoir scene for a while and continues to be part of the Kiwi mob. I think the takeaway line of the novel for me would be: “All this knowing and still the world would turn as it always had.” A great read.

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