No One Can Hear You by Nikki Crutchley – 2018

No one can hear youZoe is back in her home town for the funeral of her estranged mother, who has apparently been suffering from memory loss and who has left odd notes around indicating that young women have been disappearing from the town.  It is only when Faith, a woman with whom Zoe was briefly friends at high school, returns for another funeral, that Zoe starts putting all the pieces of the puzzle together.  And the two women set out to find the truth and save the missing women.

Crutchley has plonked her novel firmly into the debate about the depiction of women as victims in mystery/thrillers, and she has done so while making her strong characters female and putting all the male characters under suspicion.  The plotting is complex and very clever – the reader does start to suspect every man and worry for every woman in the novel.  I read the book while New Zealand was reacting to the murder of yet another young woman – so the argument about whether such novels depict reality was moot.

Zoe is a great character, leaving her cushy job teaching at a high school in Auckland, in response to the school’s white male sense of entitlement, she returns to Crawton with ambivalent thoughts about her mother’s apparent suicide.  We find out about her far-from-ideal childhood, nicely contrasted with that of her best friend, Alex, the ‘boy next door’, and feel for her as she discovers her mother was idolised by many in the town, to the extent that some of them had been covering up her memory lapses.

We also follow the ghastly experiences of the taken women, both historic and current.  Faith is working at a restaurant in Wellington, still traumatised by her abduction; Aroha is a young woman living in Crawton with a useless father and missing Lillian, Zoe’s mother – the only person she could talk to about her problems; and Megan had been homeless when she arrived in Crawton, where Lillian sorted her out with a job at the Crawton Tavern.  All women find themselves affected by the conspiracy around them.  There are some good male characters too – all for one reason or another falling under the reader’s suspicion, sometimes just because they seem so nice and supportive!

The title No one can hear you refers to the women being held captive in remote locations, but also to the authorities being deaf to complaints laid when the complainants are female, getting a bit forgetful, being from a marginalised group, have been in trouble in the past, etc. etc. etc.  The novel is not a pleasant read, but certainly gripping, and truly ‘thrilling’ in parts, and it is a satisfying read; just when I was thinking the conspiracy was a bit unbelievable, a brief comment had me convinced.  All in all, another great crime novel from Nikki Crutchley.

 

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – 2018

The tattooist of AuschwitzLale was a bit of a lad in Slovakia, fond of women and fine clothes: “Always dress to impress”, but when he ends up in Auschwitz/Birkenau in 1942 he must use all his charm and cunning to survive – and he does, he does well, and then he falls in love …

The tattooist of Auschwitz started out as a screenplay before being ‘kickstarted’ into a debut novel.  It is very simply written and it is not the writing that keeps you engaged – it is the incredible true story of Lale and Gita, the young woman he falls in love with, and the other inmates of the camp – Jews, Romani, Poles – all those people whose “futures have been derailed and there will be no getting back on the same track.”

Morris creates a world within the camps that has all the usual rivalries and kindnesses to be found when groups of people live together; the dislike of new comers, the suspicion of those who appear better off than you, but also the incredible generosity that people are capable of, both from those held in the camps and from those civilians who visit to do their work.  There are also fleeting kindnesses from the guards, but very fleeting, their behaviour unfortunately typical when people are given free reign to hate and vilify another section of humanity.

Lale is given the job of tattooing the numbers onto new arrival’s forearms, first as an assistant and then as the official Tätowierer for the camps.  And that raises all sorts of moral questions for Lale – is he a collaborator?  Is he complicit in taking away people’s identities?  If he doesn’t do it someone else will – someone maybe not so gentle, someone who won’t use his position to help others?  And being the Tätowierer’s assistant is how he first saw Gita, where he first got his absolute determination to make sure they both survive.

Questions about what the right thing is to do when you are in the most surreal of circumstances pepper the novel: another young woman, Cilka, becomes the sexual plaything of the Senior Commandant of Birkenau, we learn later she was charged with being a Nazi conspirator and sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour in Siberia.  Jakub is required to torture his fellow Jews, we don’t hear of his fate.  The ‘why didn’t the Jews rise up and overthrow their captors’ question is briefly dealt with: “we have fists, they have rifles – who do you think is going to win that fight?”

Lale comes to live by the motto “To save one is to save the world”, and in the three years he is held he does what he can for those around him, and especially for Gita.  It is a remarkable story, at the end of the book there are sections on Morris’ research and on Lale and Gita, including photographs.  The tattooist of Auschwitz is a timely read given the Trump administration’s rumblings about ‘Muslims’, the current apparently wholesale incarceration of Uighur Muslims in China, and the treatment of Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the ongoing insanity of punishing people for who they are not what they have done.

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Heaven Sent by Alan Carter – 2018

Heaven sentCato Kwong and his new wife Sharon Wang are blissfully married, if not a bit sleep deprived, with an infant daughter, Ella.  But when Kwong starts working on a series of murders among the Fremantle homeless community, he gets more and more involved, and then the murderer appears to be working his way towards Kwong. Gradually his precious new life starts to look very shaky.

What I really like about Carter’s Cato Kwong series is that each installment deals with a social issue.  Heaven sent looks at homelessness, its causes, the prejudices around it, and its use in political bartering and grandstanding.  Carter approaches the problem in an inclusive way – the homeless are agents, they are varied, they are people who suddenly find themselves on the edges of the society they once enjoyed: “You don’t have to be a junkie or a fuck-up to find yourself homeless in WA.”

We meet the workers in various authorities that work with the homeless, some are the people that abuse them, some fall under suspicion.  We meet a journalist who see the homeless as his key to writing fame, and who enters into a dangerous dialogue with the murderer to further his story.  We meet various of Kwong’s colleagues, the ones about to retire, the ones on the lookout for advancement.

As Kwong’s world is appearing before our eyes, the killings continue, and we are party to the thoughts of the killer: he’s male, he has grudges, he has father issues – none of which narrows down the list of suspects in the macho world of Western Australia, with its crumbling boom towns and its visions of “Freo 2020” – where unscrupulous developers are comfortable paying for old buildings to be burnt regardless of the fact that a few homeless people might go up in smoke in the process.  It is a world with characters we are familiar with from previous Kwong stories, even Nick Chester from Marlborough man makes a brief appearance.

Against this rich backdrop is the personal story of Kwong and his relationship with Sharon, a couple who one minute are as one and the next find themselves “Like tiptoeing through a minefield.”  They withhold information from each other, they are terrified at what is happening, they feel their new life slipping away.  And Kwong’s son from his first marriage, Jake, appears – he is ‘male, he has grudges, he has father issues’ – and his presence is another burden for Kwong, yet another thing for which he finds he has limited time, yet copious guilt.

Heaven sent has great characters, especially the women: Sharon: “I can do this shit and I can do it with you”, Tess, an old colleague of Kwong’s: ”had suffered firsthand from men, violence and alcohol – a mundane reality in Australia”, Naomi, the journo’s sister: “the smarter of the two and the one with the real writing talent.”  And Kwong himself, brave at the frontline but too scared to talk to his wife or his son. And his colleagues, like DI Mick Hutchens, almost at retirement, relegated to a hashtag wielding social media cop, a bit of an embarrassment, yet loyal to the core.

The plotting of Heaven sent is gripping, as time is running out both to catch the killer and rescue Kwong’s family, and time is running out for Kwong to decide if he is brave enough to deal with depression, anxiety, life … Heaven sent is an excellent murder mystery, with a social conscience and a great sense of place.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

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The Man Who Would Not See by Rajorshi Chakraborti – 2018

The man who would not seeAbhay is a writer and primary caregiver to his daughter, Mira.  He lives a comfortable life in Wellington with his wife, Lena – “… simply the daily opportunity to play. That’s one of the biggest things I owe New Zealand …”  But Abhay is haunted by an incident from his childhood in India, where he and his half-brother, Ashim, got lost when they wandered away from their father at a train station. As a result of the incident, Ashim was sent away to boarding school and his full sister, Aranya, opted to move with him, leaving Abhay feeling guilty for causing the break-up of his family.

When the two brothers meet up at a wedding in Calcutta 27 years later, Abhay is overjoyed to get a chance to reconcile with his brother, and invites Ashim and his daughter, Tulti, to visit him in New Zealand for Christmas, at Abhay’s expense. Setting up a wonderfully rich opportunity to explore cultural differences, childhood guilt, the reinvention of history, and the once-removed life of a writer.

Apart from the opening sequence of the childhood incident, The man who would not see is written in the first person and in the past tense, alternating between Abhay and Lena.  Ashim comes across as calculating and devious in the narrative, but it becomes clear we might not have the most reliable of narrators – there are some murky suggestions about Abhay’s past, and Lena naturally wants to protect her family as she gets more and more suspicious of Ashim and his hold over Abhay.

The novel plays with childhood guilt, and with where a person’s loyalties and attentions should lie after they start a new life away from their birth families, or away from their birth country.  How much hold do families have over a person, and should those connections ever trump concerns for immediate loved ones? The answers to these questions are seen through the lens of intercultural marriage and the hazy memories of childhood.

The characterisation in the novel is great, Abhay’s character in particular is finely drawn – perhaps as there is much in his history that is drawn from the author’s background.  He is a wonderful mixture of cultural biases and expectations, and as an author is always observing as well as doing, to the extent that he can decide what to say then observe himself saying something quite other. He is also infuriating at times in his martyred narrative of sacrifice with no acknowledgement of his advantages or the adjustments that others have made on his behalf.

Another great character in the novel is the boys’ sister Aranya, who we never ‘meet’, and as Lena says: “of whom no one in her family could draw me a clear picture.”  We find out enough intriguing snippets about Aranya’s story that I found myself creating a narrative for her and really wanting to meet her, giving the novel real depth.  Mira is another person who we get to know in an oblique way, but who feels very present as we read.

The man who would not see is a suspenseful read, as the past tense allows for Abhay and Lena to know and hint at the bad things that will happen as they tell the story.  There are many unexpected turns, especially when Abhay goes to Calcutta to discover the details of what happened to Aranya. It is an engrossing read that raises interesting questions about loyalty and identity in an increasingly globalised world. The only concern I had was with the resolution, which is probably due to my own cultural biases and expectations!  Read this novel and see what you think.

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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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