The Stone Wētā by Octavia Cade – 2020

We are in a dystopian future where governmental and commercial interests have ensured the suppression of scientific information about climate change. Any efforts to inform humanity about the gravity of the ecological situation, and what might be done to halt the inevitable advance to catastrophe, is immediately and violently suppressed. The only hope is to hide such information in remote places around the world, and off world, so at least there is a chance of life on Earth having a future. The only people who can do this are those people in society who are less likely to be viewed as intelligent agents: women.  

The Stone Wētā is a wonderfully conceived book. The book is organised around life forms which live in extreme environments and which have evolved to adapt to violent changes in climate, and who are now facing unprecedented rapid alterations which challenge their futures. Each is the study subject of a woman who is part of the cell-like network caching information, and each woman has a story that echoes the behaviour and defence strategies of their study subjects. The book is full of amazing scientific information, this makes the reader consider the wonders of the natural world, and what is at stake if we don’t do everything we can to stabilise, and improve, the climate.

The story of the women is low key and secret, with them having to be suspicious of everyone, never knowing if those reaching out to them are genuine or whether they have been planted to draw them out as part of the network. Each woman has retreated; to high mountain, arid deserts, or distant forests, to be alone in a large library – both to make it easier to spot enemies, and easier to find places to cache the information. They tend to be with other scientists who don’t know what they are doing, but who if they did would probably be sympathetic, and sometimes this proves to be right. Very few of the women know who the other operatives are, they all tend to find their own way of camouflage: vapidness; being totally focussed on non-climate-based science, being under the control of a husband.

The caching network is inspired by the librarians of Timbuktu, who saved many precious ancient texts from the ravages of Al Qaeda. One of the librarians has a niece, who regrets not having supported her uncle and his fellow librarians more, but who sees how their work could be expanded and applied to drives of electronic information: she is Sand Cat, who is well equipped to initiate the network: “When the sand cat moves, it slinks low and short-legged across the ground and when startled it freezes, crouches down and, if approached during the night, closes its eyes so that the light cannot be reflected back from the tapetum lucida behind its retina.”

Bodies are found; people are killed; we travel to Mars; there are enormous lethal explosions. But the action is all viewed by the women from their clandestine positions, wondering what it means for their project. This means that while the story progresses, the tension builds and adding to the tension is the knowledge that for the network to be successful, there will be more violence before things can improve. But the end of the novel nicely indicates that inflicting violence has consequences that must be faced to allow you to carry on. The book emphasises the need for cooperation and for action to be taken on behalf of the many, rather on behalf of the few of just one species who call Earth home.  

I really enjoyed reading The Stone Wētā, it is refreshingly novel and genre mixing, and it makes you think how close we are to the world being pushed into the horrific situation depicted.

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Katipo Joe by Brian Falkner – 2020

Joseph St George is enjoying his life as the son of British diplomats in late 1930s Berlin. His only regret is not being allowed to wear long trousers like his older friend Klaus, and not being old enough to join the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth. But then things change suddenly – his father is arrested. Joe is shocked and worried, but he has good mates at school and enjoys bullying other kids as much as his friends do. He even joins in when they decide to harass the local Jewish baker, but when Joe sees brown-shirted soldiers beating the baker and making him and his wife clean their own blood off the cobbles, he can’t help but intervene.

Klaus comes and helps Joe to defend the baker, which is probably the only reason the brown-shirts stop, and the boys get away – Klaus is Martin Boorman’s nephew. Joe and Klaus become blood brothers. But soon after Joe and his mother must flee, and his mother seems to have extraordinary skills at evading followers. They have a nerve-wracking escape, and afterwards Joe is sent to New Zealand out of harm’s way. Joe doesn’t appreciate the peace of rural Aotearoa and can’t stand the idea of being away from all the action, so he stows away on a vessel taking food to besieged Londoners. He has an adventure on the high seas when the boat comes under fire from German U-boats.

Once in London, Joe befriends a group of kids and they help him trace his mother, who appears to be up to some strange goings-on. London during the Blitz is getting a bit too much for Joe when he manages to escape – by being kidnapped! He eventually ends up being enlisted into MI5, Joe’s fluency in colloquial German making him a valuable asset. After rigorous training, including how to kill people, he is sent on a top-secret mission to Paris. Joe finally gets to be a member of the Hitler Youth and re-unites with Klaus.

Katipo Joe is a rip roaring adventure story; we first meet Joe on the torpedo-threatened cargo vessel, and apart from when he is being billeted by a lovely young woman during his training, he is never really out of danger for the rest of the book. Joe soon finds out that there is a huge difference between the life of the spies he reads about in his adventure books and the life of a real spy. And he ends up confused and guilt-ridden rather than feeling himself a hero. And this is where Katipo Joe is so good; at pointing out the blurriness around goodies and baddies, and the sometimes-horrific things people do to further what they see as the greater good.

The book is poignant in a way, we see glimpses of the childhood and friendships Joe might have had, had not things gone insane. And you really do get a feel for the surreal as Joe wanders around London: him seeing a zebra wandering through Camden Town; seeing his mother shoot someone; seeing the immediate ghastly results of the bombing of London, and the long term results, with many of those he meets having lost people. There is a great scene in a bomb shelter when Winston Churchill’s rallying speech receives a less than enthusiastic response. For Joe “The world is a crazy place and it is slowly driving him insane.”

Through the book there is a clear demarcation those who have enlisted to fight and innocent bystanders, and what motivates Joe is that the latter are as much in the firing line as the former. And what distresses him is that the indiscriminate killing is happening on both sides. And there is a shocking act by Joe that really gets you thinking through the rights and wrongs of it all. But this is all background to a thrilling read, and Joe acquits himself extraordinarily well, he reminded me of Alex Rider. And it appears this is not Joe’s last outing – a series is in the offing. The book is suitable for older children and YA readers, and is illustrated, and has a glossary and bibliography.

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A Trio of Sophies by Eileen Merriman – 2020

Ever since Sophie Mac first arrived at Eastbrook High School, feeling excluded as her solo Mum had no money for things like nice shoes, she has always stuck with the first two girls who befriended her: Sophie A and Twiggy (Sophie Twigg). The trio of Sophies are tight friends, that is until Sophie A disappears, and Mac starts writing a diary …

We read Mac’s diary in reverse for a good part of the book, counting down the number of days till Sophie A disappears. But the diary entries also flash back to earlier events, the events that led up to the disappearance, and include nightmarish dreams which add to the complexity of the narrative. And after day 0 the story continues in its tangled and tense way.

Sophie A has the looks Mac wishes she had, and Twiggy the money. Mac works part time at a supermarket, and makes a bit of money off Twiggy, helping her with her schoolwork – she is the bright one of the three. They are in their last year of school and Mac has an interest in being a forensic pathologist, which adds a background of bleakness to her outlook. There is another moving force in the lives of the Sophies, an English teacher, James Bacon. He first encounters Mac when she is out running, and not realising she is a school student, he draws her into a relationship. But soon after he gets a job at her high school, and all excuses for continuing the relationship are gone.

James is manipulative and violent – but he is Mac’s first relationship and all her peers, such as her friend Will, pale in comparison. After Sophie A’s disappearance, Twiggy drifts away, leaving Mac along with her thoughts and fears. Mac has become proficient at lying due to her having to keep her illicit relationship secret, and she finds she is adept at fabricating the past – after all, memories are malleable. A Trio of Sophies deals with coming of age, honesty, jealously and most of all the destructive results of teacher/student relationships, where the adult has such power over the student. Mac is not the only victim of the relationship; her weaving of a convincing and false reality leads to others being hurt terribly. And even while she is plotting her revenge on him, Mac still sees James as her first love, he still has power over her.

The structure of the novel is excellent, complex and mind bending. And the reader is finding out crucial information right up until the end. It is an engrossing read, and occasionally you get a glimpse of the innocent last year of high school which might have been had Mac not gone running that fateful day. A Trio of Sophies is marketed as a young adult novel, and would suit the older range of that category, and adults.

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The Devils You Know by Ben Sanders – 2021

Should you be judged by your intentions or by the consequences of your actions? This is the question throughout The devils you know, from the rightness of taking a job, pursuing a fixation, or invading a country. Vincent decides to leave New York after his protecting a workmate ends up with three people in hospital and his house being blown up. He decides to take a “High pay, low stress” job protecting a California supermarket magnate, but things quickly start to get complicated.

Vincent is a jandal-wearing surfer with a lot of baggage from his past deployment with the military and special ops. His military disillusionment was complete after he read the Wikileaked CIA report on the use of torture. He is averse to guns, yet he seems to end up surrounded by them. Vincent is a big reader – at one point he uses Philip Roth and Martin Amis as protection, literally. He is writing a screenplay and is prone to a bit of philosophising, “…if a life’s got too much grey area, it doesn’t matter if you run it forward or back – it looks the same ethically”. Early on he decides he’s had enough of the supermarket magnate, but then things turn very bad and the magnate’s daughter, Erin, becomes the target of some very nasty people when she is set to inherit her father’s millions.

Erin is not unused to being a target, her first book outed drug crime families. But her second book, in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has brought on another level of fury. She is dropped by a publisher and some of her public speaking gigs are cancelled. She has a difficult ex-husband who is not keen on her talking to her only son, and she is barely in contact with her father, who dislikes her politics. But when she discovers her father and some of his staff seem to have been embroiled in something extremely unlawful and dangerous, and that people are after her for 30 million dollars, she is determined to find the truth. And she asks her father’s ex-bodyguard for protection, jandals and all.

Vincent and Erin’s enquiries proceed apace; there are thrills, a mystery, and the attraction between two people with similar outlooks but totally opposing views. Vincent is a great character, tough and deadly, yet self-conscious when around Erin. And their discussions about war, with her clarity and his “boots-on-the-ground perspective” are superb, a counter to the social media-driven “abandonment of the middle ground when it came to political discourse.” There is a penultimate moment when you get to imagine the narrative taking a turn away from the reality of the situation, but then the reality comes crashing in again.

There are other complex characters in The devils you know: Locke, the U.S. Marshall, realising he’s got everything worth living for yet wondering why he is fixated on catching one scumbag. Beauden, who runs Bluesmoke, the agency Vincent is working for, and who is slowly falling apart as the story unrolls. And the psychopath Andre, happy to be what he is: “All these levels to life. Money, people, the power and authority they got. You have to know where you fit in, what your score is. And I only got one side to my life and that means one way to measure it. So what am I worth if I let you out of here having said that I won’t?”

The plot of The devils you know is satisfyingly wound up, but the joy of the book is in the characters and their ponderings, Vincent looking out a window at night: “The whole city like something biological, a brain map: every neuron glowing, some of them with bad ideas”, wondering about the contrast between civilian killing and wartime violence where you kill and move on and there are “No white sheets, no numbered markers by the drops of blood”. The descriptions of locale and action are sharp and visceral and through the book the California wildfires get closer and closer, adding to the tension.

I have really liked Sanders’ writing over the years, and The devils you know is a great addition. Read it and see if you agree!    

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More by Andrew Harris – 2020

A cure for a deadly epidemic, a religious leader rallying all to empower women to turn the tide on endless population growth – who is determined to stop both these worthy initiatives? And what does the murder of a star soccer player, an off-the-grid religious cult, and a pet food manufacturer, have to do with the plan?

Hannah and Lawrence and their partner Kitty announce an effective treatment for a deadly disease. Hannah and Lawrence are also excited about their upcoming nuptials. But not long after the wedding ceremony, Kitty’s fiancé Anderson, who has an addiction problem, comes to a rather sticky end. Hannah reluctantly leaves Kitty and goes with Lawrence to spend their honeymoon in Rio. Kitty is left to mind the business and Hannah and Lawrence’s dog, who has been reacting strangely to his new dog food. And then an even bigger problem descends on the research company. Meanwhile things are going well in Rio, Hannah has an invitation for an audience with the Pope, whose visit will coincide with Carnival, and Lawrence is scheduled to watch a soccer match with no less than Pelé. Then things start to go perilously wrong.

In the UK, Detective Sergeant Steve Mole and Maria Li, forensic technologist, are looking into the gruesome murder of a research scientist. Their investigation takes them in strange directions, with them ending up on a remote island, home to the The Church of The Perfect Love community. Their questions are initially met with relative civility, but then things start taking a nosedive and they find themselves headed to Rio on a vessel with some dangerous cargo. Later we find out that back in the U.S., Kitty is on the trail of a suspect linked to the attacks on the business, and that trail leads … to Rio.

The structure of More is very clever and effective, with most of the book being two chunks of the two stories, then as we speed up to the denouement, the stories alternate, first by chapter, then by section, adding to the tension. There are all the elements of a good thriller, kidnapping, protagonists not sure who to trust, helicopter rescues, and the blowing up of significant buildings and public monuments.

The themes of the book are the mindless destructive consumption of resources and of unhealthy food, overpopulation, and the tendency of humans to become addicted to what harms them. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest to make way for beef farms to meet the ever-growing U.S. craving for burgers, is a common story, but in More it is given a more sinister twist. And there is a suspicion that corporate greed is behind a lot of the mayhem, after all if you make your money from ill people you don’t want them to get healthy: “I’ve no doubt some drug companies would kill to preserve their market share”, but there is also the individual hubris that goes along with religious fanaticism to consider.

The religious conspiracy involves ‘angels’ who use the apocryphal Book of Enoch as their inspiration. A short while ago it might all have seemed a bit far-fetched. But given our current situation with the willingness of so many to believe dangerous conspiracy theories lightly clothed as religious righteousness, it almost sounds feasible! More is part three of the The Human Spirit Series, and there are plenty of links throughout for those who have read the first two installments, but it can be read as a standalone novel. I found it thrilling and thought-provoking.

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Caught Between by Jeannie McLean – 2020

Tova Tan is part Māori and part Chinese, “I feel caught between Mum’s whānau, who I don’t know, and Dad’s world where I don’t belong”. This cultural mix makes life tricky for Tova in Aotearoa – where racism is alive and well. When her landlady and her landlady’s daughter are found murdered – Tova falls under suspicion. But, unbeknownst to her, she has someone on her side. Constable Finn McIntosh has his own reasons to be a bit cautious in trusting his police colleagues, and he tends to get a bit goofy around Tova.

Two kids find the first body, the daughter, Jasmine Dunn. They find her by a sea wall near some mangroves. KK is a bullied kid from a caring home, Jacob is from an abusive home who “watched too many gangsta rap videos, imitating their staccato inflections, the sway of shoulders and the use of racist terms”, and insists that KK keeps his mouth shut – but KK can’t help but alert a passer-by on the way home. Tova comes back from a six weeks teacher placement in Tauranga to find that someone, presumably Jasmine, has been using her flat, and that the Dunn’s house upstairs is open, empty, and has been spotlessly cleaned. She eventually calls the police to report the missing pair.

Detective Pavletich from Henderson police has already put together a team, including Finn, to investigate the girl’s death, and on the first day of investigations, her mother’s body is found in some sand dunes at O’Neill Bay. Finn knows Tova from a case back in Counties Manukau, investigating the death of her mother, well known actor Areta Amahua. Tova was convinced her mother’s death wasn’t a suicide. But Detective Senior Sergeant Hammond Harris insisted it was. Tova got the reputation of being unreasonable, and Finn, who didn’t think the case was being investigated properly, moved “out west” to Henderson. Until Tova appears as a person of interest in the Dunn murders, Finn had been keeping a low profile.

There are reasons apart from the prejudice of the previous case that Tova is of interest; she doesn’t disclose she had an argument with Jasmine before leaving for Tauranga, her BMW has been seen in the neighbourhood near where Jasmine was found, and Tova models part time to make money to fund her teacher training. And when she tells the police Juliette Dunn worked in an aged care facility, and it turns out she in fact ran several brothels, it seems a small step to conclude with no evidence that Tova was probably one of Mrs Dunn’s girls. Tova’s car however was a gift from her wealthy father, Malcolm Tan, one she never used. Tova has distanced herself from her father after finding out as a young girl that he had a wife and son in up-market Mellons Bay. Her half-brother, Richard, is a lost soul with a drug habit, and has access to the car. Tova is instinctively reluctant to say too much to the police, and her father tries to get her to make use of his creepy lawyer, Mr Zhou. One of the police remarks, “Maybe Tan runs gangs … He’s a rich Chinese, isn’t he?”

Caught between is complex, with Tova trying to work out what is going on as well as the police. Neither are making much progress, with some members of the public preferring to talk to reporters rather than to the police. Pretty soon two heavies start throwing their weight around, and everyone seems to be involved in ways Tova can’t work out. Even Jacob’s parents, who appear to be connected to the same heavies that her brother is mixed up with, are connected to Tova in a way she could never have imagined. Through it all she just keeps going, one step at a time, protecting the innocent, trying to find out who the bad guys are. Meanwhile Finn is doing the same, partnered with colleagues who are all too human, one reacting badly to danger, one desperately wanting to fall pregnant, one possibly addicted to gambling. And Finn is wonderfully fragile too, staggering on through attacks and injuries, often needing to have a wee, finding himself back at high school with “Don’t pick me first” in his mind at a police debrief, and then there’s Tova – he drives past her at a bus stop at one point, “He resisted the urge to wave.”

The novel is viscerally written, you can smell the environment, feel the injuries. It moves along nicely as a great complex puzzle and then it turns into a nail-biting hostage thriller. Throughout all are the questions – who is innocent, who are the bad guys – and why are they doing bad things? And there is the juxtaposition of those burdened by expectation and those burdened by having no one expecting anything of them, the divide between wealth and the privilege and difficulties it brings, and the often-insurmountable challenges that come with deprivation. Tova’s finding out what really happened to her mother reveals yet more complications for her, and she finds more and more she wants to trust Finn. The romance angle is delicately woven through the narrative, adding texture but in no way holding up the action. The story unfolds through the points of view of Tova and Finn, nicely bracketed by that of KK. KK and Jacob’s stories background the novel, with them doing the right thing against appalling odds. A really great read.

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Sister to Sister by Olivia Hayfield – 2021

We first met Harry Rose, head of the Rose Corporation, in Wife after Wife, a great re-telling of the ‘romantic’ career of Henry VIII. Harry has now taken early retirement with his fifth wife, Clare. His eldest daughter, the devout Catholic Maria, is running the business, while his favourite daughter, Eliza, is finishing her studies at Oxford. Eliza is getting concerned about Maria’s moves to push the Rose brand into increasingly conservative directions, and she is keen to enter the world of big business, “I want to change the world.” The stage is set for Eliza’s rise to power, but there is an ambitious Scottish cousin waiting in the wings …

Sister to Sister is another delightful romp taking 16th century events and plopping them in the world of big business, privilege and the lives of modern women. Eliza is the heir to Harry’s empire, and is beautiful and desirable. But from the experiences of the women around her, she knows that love can be as much about avarice as affection. She has a staunch group of supporters in her Oxford friends: Will Bardington, a gifted wordsmith, Frankie Mallard, a keen sailor, Leigh Walters, good with figures, and the mysterious Kit Marley. Kit is beautiful, androgynous, prescient and Eliza’s closest friend and ally. Rob Studley is Eliza’s main love interest, a charmer she has known since childhood. Rob is devoted, and willing to put up with Eliza’s scruples regarding relationships with married men. But is Eliza ever going to be ready for marriage, when “Marriage meant compromise; it meant adapting, putting your partner first”?

As with Wife after Wife, Sister to Sister is full of references to Tudor life: An ice cream van plays Greensleeves; an ex-girlfriend “looked like Anne Hathaway”; Eliza’s pet project is a new production company, RoseGold, that will launch “A new golden age of British drama” onto transatlantic TV screens; an unsavoury man, Philip Seville, who inveigles himself into Maria’s affection is head of Hapsburg Inc., and has a holding company called Armada; when the Scottish cousin buddies up with another unexpected character, Eliza is worried “It felt like . . . an alliance”, etc, etc. It is very funny, but underneath is the cut and thrust of big business – the sneaky trading of shares to get control, the use of spies, the use of women in strategic places, the convenient deaths.

The ‘problems’ of privilege are aired, always being in the public eye, the dangers of the paparazzi, the risks of letting your true feelings show when it could be used as ammunition. And the scandals aren’t all trumped up by the media – there are lots of secrets lurking about, many concerning unexpected family relations, all of which have an impact on Eliza, Harry and Rose Corp. There’s even an unpleasant surprise from the colonies!

The story is told from the points of view of Eliza and Harry, but the focus is on Eliza – “Write your name across the sky, my darling girl,” says Harry. We feel her insecurities, her confusion, her ambition, her passion, the moments when “She was overtaken by an awareness of her solitude”, and the moments she finds herself: “I expect absolute loyalty. I work only with people I can trust.” And there is a lovely sense of security in her relationship with Kit. Based on Christopher Marlowe, Kit is a vivid character, who has a fiery relationship with Will, with whom he ends up working in the RoseGold arm of the company. And it is through Kit that we get a taste of real magic and moonlight, “some of us exist outside of time.”

Sister to Sister is a great read, it is quite poignant to think what some people will give up for power and prestige, and those they are willing to lose along the way. I think it is preferable to read Wife after Wife first, but Sister to Sister could be read as a stand-alone, after all the back story is very familiar!

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Answering to the Caul by Ted Dawe – 2020

Andrei Reti was born with his amniotic membrane covering his head, a caul. He grows up having been told this means he will always be protected from drowning. He has multiple escapes from water, and often sees first-hand how water can destroy and take lives without such protection. But Andrei doesn’t see his protection as a blessing, as for every escape he knows the caul will take a “huge price”, he considers it has “infected my life”. In the midst of life, how do we tell a blessing from a curse?

Andrei spends all his time reading and Answering to the Caul has a picaresque feel, with Andrei moving from town, to country, to city as he moves through the various stages of his life. He lives alone, in small families, in big families, in shacks, in posh houses, in tropical resorts. Andrei always feels different from those around him, rather than experiencing his life he “hungered for the narrative” and wants to understand the arc and denouement of each chapter. He feels cursed and having learnt that “… what goes up must come down. It encouraged me never to strive … it just wasn’t worth it”.

Andrei’s outlook makes him a passive character. His story often involves crime; a dairy heist, illegal betting, arson, growing drugs, buying drugs, selling drugs for medicinal and recreational purposes. But Andrei sees the crimes as expressions of lost love, of guilt, of providing for your family, “Drugs were just money in a compact form”. He doesn’t really engage with events on a mundane level, he undergoes various initiations and the weight of the caul means he always expects the worst, “I believe that like fruit in a fruit bowl, all good things turn bad if you leave them long enough”. The most shocking crime in the book is the one perpetrated by his school mates. And amidst all the tragedies in Andrei’s life we learn that he “can’t write about the worst things”, so, unsettling as things are, we are getting an edited version.

Andrei and the reader are aware of him as a minute person in a vast universe, just a small part of the pattern he is trying to discern. There are some lovely descriptions of environments, the New Zealand bush, the beach, the farm, the starry sky. Andrei’s separation from the world is enhanced by his connection with the dead, those whom he has known, and those he hasn’t, through dreams, visions and objects. His dead mother mixed with Botticelli’s Venus, a dead cousin reaching to him via a doll. For him life is a mix of fantasy and fiction with the odd intrusion of reality.

The plotting of Answering to the Caul appears straight forward but becomes quite complex and satisfying. The writing is at times steady and at others thrilling, there are periods of time just passing and those of frantic activity. With Andrei’s living in a half-world of fiction, his first-person narrative is almost Dickensian at times. He refers to himself as “a sluggish fellow … an unpromising young fellow”, and he drops in phrases like “Let me digress here for a moment”. It is a book about growing up, about grief and fate, and about the burden children can carry when they feel guilt for events that are in no way their fault. Even the end of fleeting moments of beauty appear to Andrei as “yet another Eden I had been expelled from”.

Andrei is the central passive character in the novel, with some vivid active characters as his foil. There is Antares, the young woman Andrei meets who is creating her own reality, she shares Andrei’s affinity with stars, water and reading, they run a bookshop together, until the caul draws him away. And there is Dallas “with his green cat-like eyes”. For a brief happy time, Andrei had “a fallen warrior at my disposal” in Dallas. And it is news of Dallas which finally breaks Andrei’s episodic journey forward, calling him back to the answer to his always present question: Is there a plot to my life, or are events just random?

Intrigued? Read Answering to the Caul and find the answer. With a young main protagonist, it is suitable for both adults and young adults.

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Addressed to Greta by Fiona Sussman – 2020

There is a little bit of all of us in Greta Jellings. Maybe in her tendency to talk too much, or her nervousness about meeting people. It could be in her knowing that she looks shifty to security cameras and in front of officials. Or perhaps it is in her concerns about her body size (“Mirrors were such a disappointment”), her fearfulness, or how her head is full of the admonishing voice of Nora, her dead mother. Or is it in “Her inability to act in synchrony with her heart”?

Greta is living a life “ruled by etiquette”, she is proud of her decades of loyal service to the same small business. Her best friend is Marilyn Munroe, a chicken, even more so after her neighbours move to a sterile high-tech home where the only book to be found it one on the virtues of tidying up. Greta loves books, she takes advice from Paddington Bear, Madeline, Dian Fossey, Kenneth Grahame. She is a technophobe, suspicious of mobile phones and microwave ovens. She is naïve, she has never travelled, she has a therapist, and at heart she is lonely, and sad that she lives in an age where touch is “… the prerogative of lovers and parents and pets.”

Walter very nearly ousts Marylin Munroe from her place in Greta’s hierarchy, he is her best friend, they love each other, but Walter is gay, living with AIDS and has cancer. Greta takes all this in her stride – whenever she has allowed herself the thrill of anticipating that things will work out for her, reality has always intervened. After Walter dies, he leaves her a mystery trip, one of indeterminate length, where each destination will be revealed on the eve of the next leg of the journey. For Greta “Spontaneous arrangements were just too stressful,” but in memory of Walter, and with the encouragement of Holly, her new neighbour, Greta cuts all ties and takes off.

Addressed to Greta takes us on Greta’s mystery trip, we see the details of the streets of New York, London, and Kigali through her eyes, from taxis, trains, subways. We take her first flight with her, we are embarrassed for her, astounded by her, and eventually come to agree with the flight attendant on that first flight, that “The world needs people like you.” Her mantra for her journey is from one of Walter’s letters, “No one is watching.” And when her fears, mostly stemming from sensationalist news items and movies, allow her, she takes that mantra as permission to push her boundaries. Yet she still finds “It was one thing to speak her mind, quite another to retain composure in the wake of it.”

“As for Greta Jellings. Who was she? That depended on who was asking.” She is charming, disarming, and hilarious, she is also racist, prejudiced and a total wuss. Her redemption is in her ability to learn, to overcome her naivety and gauche reactions, some of which are laugh-out-loud, such as arriving at her Kigali hotel, “Good afternoon and welcome, madam. She curtsied. Why on earth had she curtsied?” And yet there is a lot that is tragic about Greta’s encounters, such as the forgiveness displayed by the Rwandans after the genocide, a forgiveness she can’t find in herself for the atrocities she reads about, or those closer to home – a gay son rejected, and gay friend beaten, a gay father denied access to his child.

The person Greta might have been when travelling is demonstrated in her fellow travellers, their colonial arrogance, their clumsy unthinking attempts at being charitable. In Rwanda Greta continues to react disproportionality to events, and chimpanzees, with very amusing consequences, but she also realises how many of her fears are groundless and pointless, “Greta fretted not infrequently about what the turnout would be to her funeral.” Addressed to Greta is a novel about a woman discovering things about her family, about the people she loves, and about herself. And it poses the question, will she change because of this new knowledge, or slip back into her comfortable “conveyer belt of commitments”?  

Addressed to Greta is also a love letter to New Zealand, a country Greta realises is “a treasure she was hankering for.” The book reads as though written by someone who loves Aotearoa and who wants others to as well. Sussman has made Greta, although from an English family, a born and bred Kiwi (although she would never have had a hamster, she might have had a guinea pig), and as well as sending her on a rite of passage to enable her to re-consider her situation, priorities and friendships, the journey also leads her to a deeper appreciation of her own country, “It felt good to be home.”

There are big questions asked in Addressed to Greta, such as “What is it about man’s intolerance to difference?”, and there are warnings about not jumping too quickly into judgement of others. It is a delightful read, although the narrative frayed a little bit towards the end for me. But most of it is funny and charming, and often sad. The most treasured message I took away was how important it is to not squander the privilege of choice. As Greta would blurt, “Gee whiz!”, read this book, I think you will love it as much as I did.

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The Forger and the Thief by Kirsten McKenzie – 2020

Florence 1966, a magnet for tourists and art students, a paradise full of art treasures, leaky buildings full of history, their walls displaying famous paintings, their hallways home to famous statues. Florence 1966, the war still present in the injured begging in the streets, the destitute turning to crime to survive, tattoos concealed on arms – and the Arno brooding in preparation for a deluge, a deluge that will swirl five people together and make apparent their crimes, and expose the misogyny and skewed priorities of the art world.

The forger and the thief is backgrounded by the Arno flood, which took many lives and works of art, some even today awaiting restoration. The reader’s insight into this maelstrom is provided by five disparate but entwined characters, and the spirit of the river herself, “dashing and crashing, teasing the gods until they threw their hands up in anger.”

American Richard Carstone is in Florence for the wedding of the woman who, before his brother’s accidental death, was his sister-in-law. Julia also happens to be the woman Carstone thinks he should be marrying. We hear more about Carstone’s nothing-to-be-proud-about past as the story unfolds. Another American, Rhonda Devlyn, is escaping from an abusive relationship, wondering “Would Florence deliver the peace and the security she deserved?” Rhonda is one of those invisible women “slipping unnoticed into middle age, losing her looks and youth …”

Helena Stolar is an art student, and apart from her work-experience assignment, she is trying to trace a lost family treasure. Italian Stefano Mazzi, is a cleaner, “No one ever sees the cleaner.” Mazzi has a traumatic back-story and a plan. Antonio Pisani is a disgraced policeman, lazing his way through the day, relying on the work of his partner, Rosa Fonti, for results. After all, Rosa is there to be used, her just being “a woman in a workplace not designed for her kind.”

Carstone looks down on the Italians, “Foreigners so jealous of his country, that they liked nothing better [than] to get one up on Americans”, and the Italian characters despise the Americans, their lax approach to security and ensuing outrage when robbed, “Who travels to a foreign country and leaves their handbag hanging on the back of their chair?”, their failing to properly appreciate the art they have flocked to see, “Were their eyes incapable of taking in the beauty?

Despite the suspicion between the nationalities, the one thing they have in common is their view of women as property, people there to serve their men. There are posters everywhere of a young woman who is missing, or are there posters of many women? “So many beautiful girls come to Florence, for employment or to study. After a time, they blend into one.” Contrasting with this real-world suppression of women is the adulation they receive when they are painted on canvasses or sculpted from marble, it is no coincidence that Helena’s thesis is “the Changing Depiction of Women in Frescoes in the Italian Renaissance.” There is a strange and spooky concretisation of the transition of objectified artists’ models to actual objects in the book, “Art is pain and only genuine artists can harness that pain.

The book starts with rushing water, and as we get to know the characters, they are constantly battling downpours, leaks, and soggy clothes. The visitors are assured that all is under control, the leaks and rising water merely “part of life as a Florentine.” But the more we learn about our dubious five, the higher the water rages and soon they are “in an apocalyptic rainstorm, without a clue what to do next.” We see the other sides of our people, the sides, both good and bad, that emerge in a state of emergency. And we also see the priorities of society, with people from all nations, the Mud Angels, rushing to the Uffizi, “focussed on saving the historic buildings and their contents. No one cared about the poor living nearer the commercial zone, left to fend for themselves.”

The stories of the five characters and the river are cleverly wound together, allowing the reader to slot the pieces together. There is tension both from the schemes and plots as well as from the rising waters. I found some of the similes and metaphors hurdles rather than aids to the narrative, for example “more scrapes down the side than a water buffalo in Africa”, “security guards who’d arrived slower than a sloth on heat.” But the descriptions of the art works and art world are great, “… vials of crushed gemstones, powdered beetle carcasses, and foreign seed pods.” You can smell the oil paint and feel the flakes of paint.

By the end of the book, the reader has got to know and understand the central characters, and the fact that I found it ended too abruptly is probably testament to my wanting to stay with them a bit longer. The forger and the thief is an enjoyable soggy read, with dollops of history thrown in.

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