The Sound of Breaking Glass by Kirsten Warner – 2018

Sound-of-Breaking-Glass-cover-1Christel is married to Ted and they have two children, Jim and Maisie. Christel works in TV – making reality TV shows that emphasise people’s suffering.  Christel is a rape survivor. Christel was taken advantage of when a teenager. Christel’s father was scarred and traumatised by the holocaust.  Christel is losing her mind.

The sound of breaking glass is an extraordinarily powerful novel about the persistence of trauma and the effects of the abuse of power.  In Auckland, Christel is negotiating a career in a high-pressure work environment while raising two young children.  She is accompanied by a shape-shifting alter-ego The Big C(ritic), who takes on myriad carefully described personas.

When, partly for work reasons, Christel gets involved in a feminist movement which aims to raise awareness of the evils of plastics and their long-lasting damage to the environment, she creates a large Golem-like man out of empty milk bottles as part of the campaign.  But the Milk Bottle Man takes on a life of his own, threatening Christel’s relationship with her WASP (Women Against Surplus Plastic) colleagues, her work colleagues, her family, and with her own grip on reality.

Through Christel’s hectic activities we find out about her past, the mysteries of her family, her turbulent adolescence and what she might be psychologically running away from.  The sources of pain in her background are referred to by archetypal labels: Artist, Karate Man,  Teacher.  Through the reader’s knowledge of history, Christel’s discoveries of her father’s experiences are vivid and truly shocking.

Despite the almost cathartic intensity of this book, it has an underlying humanity that enables you to believe in Christel’s journey – and marvel not only at the horrors humans are capable of but also their powerful ability to endure and even flourish. You should read this book.

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The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti – 2018

Imaginary lives of James Pomeke“Wanderer, freak, sailor, philosopher, Native boy in English costume, English boy in native costume. Exhibitionist, lover, clown, Maori boy, Man of the world.” – Hemi (James) Pōneke is recuperating in a house in Victorian London – and recording his story for “My future, my descendant, my mokopuna”.  A future that must be better than what he has experienced – as appearing at first to be aged, we discover Hemi is young and has spent all his short eventful life looking at the world through the eyes of ‘the other’.

Hemi is the son of a Māori chief, placed with missionaries as a child when his mother and sister are killed, and his father is leading men into battle. Hemi becomes used to putting on an act to survive – moving from place to place, always managing to escape being treated as completely ‘other’ by dint of his understanding, intelligence and education.  But Hemi witnesses what might happen to him if he does fall into that dangerous category, and latches onto a visiting artist, hoping to go to the golden city of London.  He wants to learn and be accepted, but also to stay true to himself: “I had not the spiral markings that my father had worn, but I am sure the same ink runs through my veins”.

In London he sees both sides of society: The gentile home of the artist, with the sister who “was unfailingly kind to me, but was tied to the house”, the supportive father who is quietly disapproving of his son, and the artist for whom Hemi is a project more than a friend.  And he also gets to know the demi-monde of ‘freaks’, misfits and performers.  Hemi belongs in both worlds “the right side of the city and the wrong side of the river” and in neither.  Placed (willingly) on display as part of the artist’s exhibit on New Zealand in the Egyptian Hall, Hemi is both the object of the gaze of privilege, and in a position to watch and wonder at the people who come to gawp.  People who maybe think the same of him as he did of the animals he had seen on display at the London Zoological Gardens: “I did my best not to think what it must be like for them if they had any measure of intelligent perception”.

Hemi is well looked after in the artist’s family yet is free to follow his own path.  He is befriended by the beguiling Billy Neptune and Billy’s male-dressing girlfriend, Henry.  He becomes acquainted with other ‘exhibits’, both genuine and bogus, and with the range of individuals who accept each other as who they are, not by to which group they belong.  For this is Victorian London, and theories of classification and progress are flourishing.  And all categories and sub-categories are ranked according to an ascendancy that culminates in the ‘white heterosexual male’.  A fortuitous schema in an age of colonial consolidation and an ongoing having to deal with ‘the other’.

Hemi still maintains “a mix of admiration and horror” for the world he has found himself in, and values above all his education, but increasingly he realises the depth of prejudice and blackness in the hearts of men – after all slavery is a recent memory, and “Slave labour is still slavery”.  Hemi is a blank canvas: “To be orphaned is to wear a plain cloak”, and as he is working out the world and discovering himself and his desires, he gets into more and more dangerous territory.  Finally, a sequence of terrible events leads to him setting out to sea, the third section of his tale – where on board there are more opportunities to explore the power plays among men, and the heartbreak of regret.

The imaginary lives of James Pōneke is a tender look at human potential and the prejudices by which it is thwarted.  It discusses how we see each other: so rarely as who we are, but almost always as what we are. How we approach each other seeking how useful the other can be and knowing what we already know about the other ‘type’, never in the spirit of discovering what might be wonderfully unique about the other person.  On an individual level this is a tragedy, on a societal level it is a catastrophe:  it is “the darkness that sits in the hearts of men and is so beyond us to control.”

This novel really moved me, from its cover of a Victorian Cabinet of Curiosities to its sad ending, including the understanding that “We’re all of us deviants” and the incomprehension of how often we might look “into another man’s eyes and don’t see nothing there.”  Hemi is narrating to a better, kinder future – a non-existent future – one even he doesn’t believe in, so touchingly betrayed by the repetition: “that we are better now, that we are better now.”  Highly, highly recommended.

 

 

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Death Actually by Rosy Fenwicke – 2018

death actuallyMaggie Potter is an independent funeral director in picturesque tourist village Queenstown.  Her life is not what she had dreamed for herself, but she does have her son, her recently-returned-from-the-UK daughter, and her firm circle of female friends.  But when one of her friends is diagnosed with cancer, her daughter starts acting oddly, and an annoying Doctor seems to always be where she is, Maggie is confused and feels stretched to look after everyone.  Maggie’s life may not be what she had dreamed for herself, but it turns out no-one’s is …

I was a way into this book before I realised it wasn’t a thriller – as Hot flush, Fenwicke’s first novel, had been.  Just as the menopausal super-powered heroine in Hot flush was out fighting injustice, I thought who better to go on a mystery murder quest than an undertaker, sorry funeral director, in small population/high visitor numbers Queenstown?  But Death actually is about female empowerment in a different way. It is about the importance of acceptance, friendship and just going with whatever life – often read “men” – hurls at you.

The male characters in Death actually are almost tokens: there is the good son, the shallow actor, the misogynist TV celebrity chef, the “is-he-too-good-to-be-true” doctor.  But the women are complex, messy and run the plot.  Maggie was deserted by her husband and moved to Queenstown with her two young children when her parents died.  Her older brother promptly abandoned her too, so she set about taking over the family funeral business.  She made good friends, especially Elka, a high-class chef, and Betty, an older wiser woman.

The novel starts shortly after Maggie’s daughter Kate returns from London, and with the death of Betty.  The story rips along with Nick, Maggie’s son, often providing the linkage between plots – as he is a delivery guy for Elka’s restaurant and catering business.  The structure is very much ‘slice of very action-packed life’ – with lots of sub-plots: the famous movie star who is determined to do his own stunts while filming scenes in a jetboat, the obese ex-ski champion Lizzie, the story of Kate and the arrogant celebrity chef who refused her assistance to allow her to stay in London, but who has mysteriously followed her to New Zealand, and that of Jilly, whose death leaves her luxurious Lake Hayes house on the market.  And throughout the book are the threads of Elka and her cancer diagnoses, and of Ben, Elka’s doctor, and his on/off relationship with Maggie.

Death actually is a pleasant read but doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects like rejection, terminal illness, suicide, obesity and death.  In fact, the aspects of the story I found the less compelling were those tracking the typical romance novel arc between Maggie and Ben.  Where it shines is in the unexpected developments and the ability for the characters to re-adjust to circumstances.  For the most part the flow is good, although there is a tendency to recap a few times towards the end of the novel, rather than take us through the events as they happen, but by then it is clear how things are going to settle so this doesn’t interfere too much with the flow of the book.  Death actually would definitely be an appealing read for fans of, for example. Katie Fforde, and very possibly for a wider audience as well, so give it a go!

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Eye of the Songbird by Michael Munro – 2018

Eye of the songbirdSadie Rosenberg is hanging down a crevasse in Antarctica, refusing to cut free her friend Bill who is hanging beneath her, making it impossible for another friend, Sean Tomasin, to haul her to safety.  Sadie and Sean, and a large Antarctic diamond in their possession, are saved by another geology team headed by Kirk Barnby – Bill and two others of Sadie’s group perish.  Is Sadie “A protestor, political lobbyist, a greeny activist, an internet whistle-blower, internet pirate, a low-level diamond thief … diamond smuggler … terrorist”?, is she even Sadie Rosenberg?  And who is Kirk – a geologist, a soldier, a government agent?  And whose side is Sean on?

Eye of the songbird is a novel that shouldn’t work, and I suspect it won’t for every reader – it is an ideological dialogue fest, with every character intelligent, articulate and well-rehearsed.  There were times when reading that I felt like Kirk reading a manuscript Sadie sends to him: “He read. Got weary. Read more.” But these times were fleeting and somehow the endless series of dialogues in this piece of Cli-Fi work.  The writing is intelligent and manages to present arguments in a nuanced and subtly developing way.

Eye of the songbird isn’t a thriller in the sense of adrenalin action – Sadie is being pursued, and some of her pursuers have serious damage in mind: “First I’m defending the environment, then everybody’s personal information, and now my actual existence”, but that chase is just part of the discussion, as is the fact that for most of the novel we are guessing whether she truly is the head of a vast subversive organisation, under the alias Songbird – our concerns in that regard are more that she appears to be involved in some pretty shady dealings, so is she of ‘the end justifies the means’ side of the room?  i.e. “To sustain a fight over time you probably need to become the thing you’re fighting.”  Or is she “… a vault of independent thought outside the state’s orthodoxy”?

So, maybe not a conventional thriller, but what was thrilling for me was the endless discussions, arguments, and posturing, while the degradation continues – the novel being like a metaphor for our present predicament.  The characterisation is front and centre – after all every utterance is a narrative of held views.  But the main characters, Sadie, Kirk, Sean, a freelance journalist, Eva Madison, and a politician, Murray Sutherland, do evolve.  We get the views of passionate environmentalists, jaded warriors, disillusioned politicians, and successful global businessmen.  All talking past each other, not really disagreeing, just not holding the same world views or priorities.  And the views and priorities of those in power, or of those funding those in power, have the advantage: “Environmental activism is not subversion” … it is “The outcome of officials like you not seriously coming to the table.”

We know Kirk Barnby works for a New Zealand outfit linked to a UK government agency, and that he has moments of PTSD vulnerability.  He has been sent to check out Sadie because: “The charmless weren’t short-listed for this operation” – a tactic that backfires when Sadie and Kirk have an instant attraction: “From the crevasse had emerged two life-changing entities – the diamond and the woman beside him.”  So, Eye of the songbird becomes a kind of romance novel – amongst all the positioning and arguing, where does love fit, especially between two people who are suspicious of how much they can trust the other?  “There’s a personal truth in every man’s point of view” and Sadie and Kirk spend a lot of the novel trying to determine each other’s personal truth.

The novel travels widely – Antarctica, New Zealand, London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and the descriptions are great, or chilling as in the depicted efficiency of the slaughter house.  There are charming moments such as Sean teaching Rana, an agent working for a Russian oligarch in Turkey, how to speak ‘Zild’.  And the dialogue often is witty: “You probably use your mobile phone to coordinate protests against the extraction of materials used to make mobile phones”, “Philosophy goes in, politics comes out – like food and shit.”

The main thrust of the novel is in the irreconcilability of its political arguments, for example the wildly off the mark “What’s all this primitive mysticism around nature anyway?  A tree’s a tree – not some Lord of the Flies god” in the face of simple truths, “You can’t eat money or drink oil.”  And the clever use of: “It’s not quite our land. We just happen to live on it” – an argument often used to suggest raising refugee quotas, but in Eye of the songbird used as an argument for welcoming foreign mining interests.  And even if environmental groups could mobilise the masses with arguments of truth and consequences, there is the concern that: “Shutting down the free world’s economies, while others rack up all the smog and sludge, won’t get rid of the problem” – so some pretty apocalyptic conclusions.  And there is a truly chilling possibility that emerges towards the end of the novel, and hints in the final scene back in Antarctica that the possibility is a probability.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and its endless array of views: “… society is a tool for individuals to get on with their lives”, “The price of living in a free society is learning how to be offended” and my favourite: “Humans can be the dumbest of dumb animals. Even a flower knows its purpose better.”  A great debut novel – read it and see what you think.

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The Floating Basin by Carolyn Hawes – 2016

WELCOME TO MY SECOND POST IN THE NGAIO MARSH AWARDS BLOG TOUR 2018

The floating basinA man’s body is discovered in the floating basin; a murky tidal estuary on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Ru Clements, a local detective, investigates and discovers the sad secrets of the town he now calls home.

The floating basin is an absorbing portrait of a small New Zealand settlement, and like the paintings of one of the characters has “… a dreaming sense of something half civilised and half nature.”  The constant references to ambient smells add to the visual descriptions evoking the human smells of “… boiled vegetables and oily stewy meat” and the stink of the damp rotting of buildings on the edge of estuaries, of swamps, of civilisation.  With Elsie the giant eel always slithering under the surface …

All the characters in this novel are complex, rounded and a mystery to each other.  Ru, who “preferred life on the ground floor, closer to crime and where he felt he had more control over things” is not so much estranged from his wife Coe as inhabiting a parallel world.  They both ignore their teen-aged daughter, Meaghan, her taking second place to the guilt and regret over a lost son.  And this non-prioritisation of females is at the heart of the mystery of The floating basin.

The victim found in the water, Richard Irwin, is a relative new-comer to the area, having bought a retirement property with which he subsequently became very unhappy.  Initially the owner of the sub-divided farm, Lewis Scott, falls under suspicion, but Irwin lived in the area many years ago, working for a local accountancy firm, and it emerges that there are several people who would wish him harm.

Ru is assisted by local colleagues and some brought in from outside, and many want the case wrapped up quickly.  But as various characters come under suspicion, the focus always slips to someone else.  And stories emerge of complaints made but ignored, of parents minimising daughter’s concerns and the fact of very few people being willing to take a woman’s words seriously.

The descriptions of stalking are very scary and the effect of male decisions on female lives ring true.  Chris Munro, Jasmin Hornby, Dorothy Birtles, Zona the accountancy firm secretary – all affected, none listened to, as “no-one bothered with the complaints of young women”.  And the physical details are finely drawn – “It was the irony of it – in the face of major bleeding and death – a spot of blood from someone else’s pinpricked finger.”

The West Coast humour comes through in the novel: one character getting his nickname because “I won the whitebait filleting competition”; another straight laced conservative couple being described as “Just a couple of middle-aged hippies.”  There are nice touches such as mis-spelled wording on t-shirts, and Lewis Scott not sure at all about his children: “… She’s three’ Or was she four? Maybe she was at school? She could have been eight. Did he have more than three children anyway? He felt his brow furrow.”

I occasionally found the language a bit odd “… my foray into this place”, “… and almost shamefully humanoid”, “… a face so smooth and shiny, it almost seemed oestrogenic.”  But much more often it was artful: “It was the kind of music Bill often played in the bar, it skirted around the walls and vanished for a time, to reappear in a faint and regretful manner, as though to forecast there are some things in life that will never be completed.”

The floating basin is haunting and sad, with great atmosphere and the hint of more Ru Clements novels to come, it has been shortlisted for Best First Novel in this year’s Ngaios and is highly recommended!

Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018 finalists

 

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The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney – 2018

The Quaker‘The Quaker’ is the nickname given to a serial killer who has taken three female lives, ruined families, stymied the police, and terrorised a city.  The city in question is the “disintegrating city” of Glasgow in the late 1960s, and the prevailing culture of male prejudice, misogyny and corruption has been complicit in ‘The Quaker’ getting away with his crimes.

The character of ‘The Quaker’ is based on the real life, and still unidentified, serial killer ‘Bible John’, who killed three women after they had been dancing at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom.  In The Quaker, McIlvanney sends DI Duncan McCormack in some time after the murders, to write a report on the team who have failed to identify ‘The Quaker’, with a view to closing down the investigation.

McCormack is despised by the demoralised team, and initially more interested in getting back to his mission of bringing down the city’s gangster king pin, John McGlashan.  But as the book progresses, McCormack finds that McGlashan has been replaced by ‘The Quaker’ in his mental priorities.  And when ‘The Quaker’ strikes again and a man who McCormack considers the wrong man is taken into custody, he starts investigating the murders with vigour.

A breakthrough comes when McCormack considers the victims as persons with agendas, rather than objects for male adoration, disparagement or use, people who might talk about other things than their boyfriends “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? That’s all we’ve got to talk about.”  And when he realises his own shame: “And now we’d done the same, thought McCormack. None of us brave enough to look her in the face.”

A parallel storyline in The Quaker is provided by Alex Paton, a ‘peterman’ or safe cracker, who returns to Glasgow from London for a job and ends up embroiled in ‘The Quaker’ inquiry.  He provides some delightful passages, such as his realisation “… he was happier than he’d been in months” when on the run in the highlands, or his nostalgic wishing that Glasgow was still the city it was when he was 19, but: “There was no train that could carry you back to last week, never mind 1959.”

The Quaker is a sprawling novel, with McCormack grasping for understanding: “Who said it was a pattern?”, with thoughts flickering at the edge of his mind, wondering if he is right in considering “Murder as a work of art. A species of code.”  At one point he realises he has been reminded of prehistoric ‘bog people’ when looking at the photograph of one of the victims, people whose deaths historians weren’t sure were “murders, executions, or ceremonial killings.”

And that is one hell of a question. The Quaker is a work of fiction, so we get the Who and the How of the mystery in the end. But Why do men murder women in such horrible ways?  Why are men ashamed when their wives and girlfriends intrude into their domains, as the police are at a farewell function in the novel?  In The Quaker, we only hear women’s voices when they are dead; through the investigation their voices are seen as a distraction from the solid information a man might be able to provide.  And victims, women who are wives and mothers, are dismissed: “They were Magdelenes, officer. Women of low morals.”

As I started reading The Quaker, I was appalled and angry, and then I began to realise the “disintegrating city” was being depicted as an organism, a sick organism where a few powerful males are dictating the terms of belonging, resulting in the police being more interested in results than the truth, and all the blokes trying to safely fly under the radar, be “one of the lads.”  McCormack is no exception, he knows what it’s like to have to hide the truth to be accepted, but he does develop as the novel progresses.

The Quaker is a complex and disturbing read and extremely atmospheric: full of Scottish terminology, abandoned tenements and middens.  The plotting is skillful and it has a satisfying ending, and is a novel that will haunt me for some time to come. Towards the end McCormack comes out with the saddest line in the book: “And the woman? I don’t even know her name. Do you even know her name?”

 

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All Our Secrets by Jennifer Lane – 2017

WELCOME TO THE NGAIO MARSH AWARDS BLOG TOUR 2018

Jennifer Lane & book

All was going pretty OK in the small town of Coongahoola, NSW, but then Gracie’s Dad moved out, the Believers arrived, and one by one the River Children started disappearing.

Coongahoola is home to 11-year-old Gracie, who lives with her Grandma Bett, her Mum, her philandering Dad, brother Elijah and infant twins Lucky and Grub.  The town’s only claim to fame is a notorious River Picnic held some years before All our secrets starts. Nine months after the picnic, a cluster of River Children were born, including Elijah, and many of these children don’t resemble the fathers they live with.

The River Picnic was down by the Bagooli River, which is where Martha Mills saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, and that’s what brought members of The Believers cult to Coongahoola. And when the River Children start to go, one by one, Saint Bede, the cult leader, falls under suspicion.  So Gracie is mortified when, after her Dad moves out to live with “Fat Frannie”, her Mum takes up with the cult and gets friendly with Saint Bede, making Gracie a pariah at her school – despite her, her Dad and her Grandma Bett being outspoken in their opposition to The Believers, and Saint Bede in particular.

Gracie negotiates her way through ostracism at school, losing her best friend, losing her brother (when he is sent away to the safety of Queensland), the separation of her parents (“I wouldn’t have minded listening to Mum yelling and breaking things if only I could’ve heard the sound of Dad’s boots too”), and of course the horror of the children disappearing and then their funerals: “Grandma Bett said that no one’d felt like organising another funeral so they just followed the same programme [as for the last child]”.

The structure of the novel is great, with many plots woven seamlessly together, and Lane uses the device of seeding the bad things that are to come, with Gracie telling us the story retrospectively: “I feel terrible about that now, especially after what happened later.”  Gracie is pitch perfect in her concerns and priorities: “I didn’t really want another thing to worry about, what with Nigel being murdered, Dad living with Fat Frannie, Mum liking St Bede, and the angry red spots on my chin”.  And the other characters ring true too, especially Grandma Bett with her practical Catholicism: “Then we knelt and clasped our hands together like Grandma Bett did when praying for the children or Ethiopia or for the washing to dry.”

Gracie takes her Grandma’s and her Mum’s religion as it comes, being made to sing carols for Grandma Bett “It was bad enough being the girl who wore a second-hand school uniform without also being the girl who sang Christmas carols on the side of the road.” And going to The Believer services with her Mum: “Walking up the aisle was like walking into something out of a movie, but I couldn’t think what movie. Star Wars, maybe”.

Gracie’s Mum and Dad are dirt poor and distracted, but very human.  As too are the various idiosyncratic folk around the town – many of them falling under suspicion of being the serial killer.  The reader realises before Gracie and the others do who the actual murderer is, and all is resolved and explained – even that crazy River Picnic.  The narrative is funny and scary, and towards the end is very sad: “Laughing seemed a thing of the past.”

As Gracie looks back she isn’t without self-recrimination: “really, when I thought about it, I was pretty gutless”.  But of course, she wasn’t, she was an achingly self-conscious 11-year-old girl with fierce loyalties, a tissue thin outer shell, a crush on the boy next door and the feeling that the world rested on her shoulders.  Gracie’s characterisation is a wonderful achievement and the novel has a perfect ending!

All our secrets is a stand-out debut and has been shortlisted for Best First Novel in this year’s Ngaios. Highly recommended!

Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018 finalists

 

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