Death of an Agent by David McGill – 2019

Death of an AgentWe first met Dan Delaney as a young wannabe detective holding the fort on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour in 1935, then again back in Wellington after having been a POW in the Second World War, and then in Auckland in the mid-1950s.  He is now an Auckland vintner, and reluctantly down in Wellington again – “What possessed anyone to live in this godforsaken city?” – to visit his ex-POW mate, now radio personality, Ru Patterson, and Patterson’s daughter Hine, Dan’s goddaughter.  It is Easter 1965, and the worst thing about Dan’s trip is the weather, until he accompanies Ru to a party for planning anti-Vietnam War protests, and a woman is found dead in a hot tub and Ru is discovered in a compromising position.

The dead woman is an Australian agent, working under the radar in New Zealand, as the Australians and the Americans are beginning to think New Zealand is the weak link in their ANZUS Treaty partnership. And Henry Cabot Lodge is on his way to New Zealand to talk to Prime Minister Holyoake about getting New Zealand troops on the ground in Vietnam.  And Australian spies aren’t the only ones trying to infiltrate the anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-Vietnam War groups – the New Zealand SIS are also active, slightly laughable, considered ‘clowns’ by the activists, but they are just the agents they know about.

With Ru in hospital, Dan stays in Wellington, hovering on the periphery of the growing protest movement, and getting a bit concerned about Hine’s flatmate, Oliver, a skinny theatrical type, who appears to be getting overly-friendly with his goddaughter.  He would have been happy though to quit the city and get back to his family in Auckland, and to pruning his vines, but then he, Hine and her strange flatmate are arrested.  And Dan’s old colleague, and far-from-favourite person, Detective Chief Inspector Milton, gives Daniel an ultimatum: Feed him information on the planned protests, or Ru and Hine will suffer the consequences.

The hectic environment of Wellington is well-described: The art scene, the café scene, the experimenting with drugs, and the still raw memories of war experiences.  The stories being spun about the ‘yellow peril’ and the ‘domino theory of communist expansion’ creating hysteria among some, scorn among others.  Political theories of communism, socialism, nationalism are being openly debated, and we have a Prime Minister who you can just call in on and be invited in for a cup of tea.  Among the array of characters there is tension building between those wanting to take peaceful protest action and those in favour of taking a more aggressive stance.  And an anarchist group has gone missing, and the threat of direct action against Cabot Lodge is of concern.  Having no useful information about when and where an attack may take place is driving the SIS, the Police and U.S. agents to distraction.

The characters are complex: Dan is not sure what to think for most of the novel but then “He realized he wanted for the first time in his life to stand next to this thin line of unlikely protesters” – unfortunately at the time of his epiphany, he has a more important role to play.  Ru does not feature much in the novel, being in hospital for most of it, but Dan finds out that he has entered a pretty dodgy relationship with a local gang, uses drugs and that Hine is totally aware of this.  Oliver is very conflicted; privileged but abused, he has taken refuge in self-harm, religion, and a desire to act in the theatre.  He is committed to stopping the various groups that are threatening his idealised world, and his Catholicism – that is until he realises that there is something more real and down to earth to adore – Hine.

The novel is full of cultural references that will resonate with anyone who lived in New Zealand, especially Wellington, during the mid- to late-1960s.  At times I felt there were a few too many historical details added, and an over-abundance of adjectives and quotes – there is even mention of the dreaded short story about an earwig; the cause of my not being able to sleep with my ears uncovered since I was at high school – although it is attributed to Dahl, and I am sure it was by Oscar Cook.  But this slight over-enthusiasm for the times and background aside, there are some very thrilling moments, and the politics are fascinating – especially considering recent events in New Zealand – when we are once again realising sections of our community are being dangerously swayed by myths of imminent threat.  Another great New Zealand read and although it is part of a series, it can be read as a stand-alone.

 

 

Posted in #yeahnoir, Book Review, Historical | Leave a comment

A Mistake by Carl Shuker – 2019

amistakeHeart surgeon Dr. Donald Effler once said that to be great, a surgeon must have “a driving ego”, “a passion for perfectionism.”  In A mistake, Dr Elizabeth Taylor is an exceptional surgeon with both these traits, but as a woman these attributes, seen as great in a man, are seen as aberrations by her superiors, her colleagues and her junior staff.

A mistake is about fallibility and culpability.  Humans have developed so far beyond simple mistakes that lead to predictable outcomes, in fact when one of these does happen in the book, I was hoping that Shuker had made a mistake himself and that the awful predictable consequences weren’t going to happen, but in such a meticulously written novel I knew that wasn’t the case – simple mistakes have simple causes and the mistakes can be forgiven, or not.

With the development of complex medical interventions, complex engineering, and complex human relationships, the scope for “complicated problems, and complex problems” expands, “And then there’s just chaos.”  Woven throughout A mistake is the story of the tiny ignored potential that led to the catastrophic launch of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, where five astronauts, one payload specialist and one civilian school teacher died.  Elizabeth refers to it as “The most beautiful story of error.”

Integral to the story is a new monitoring system soon to be imposed on hospitals, where surgeons are named, and the outcomes of their surgeries made public.  This is supposed to urge surgeons to achieve better outcomes, but of course it could also lead them to turn down operations where the chances of a good outcome are slim or lead them to re-categorise deaths.  And the new system ignores the fact that complex problems require complex solutions, and multiple actors.  Throughout the novel, Elizabeth is writing a response to criticism of an article she and a colleague have submitted to a prestigious medical journal, pointing out these dangers.

A mistake starts with a graphic description of a young woman, Lisa, being operated on, the operation being carried out with the deceptive nonchalance of experts carrying out their speciality.  Elizabeth is sleep deprived and constipated, but in her element, her preferences creating the atmosphere in the theatre.  We know something is going to go wrong, and when it does Elizabeth is superb at managing the problem.  All would have continued as usual, if the young woman hadn’t died early the next morning.

Shuker is wonderfully hands off in ‘telling’ Elizabeth Taylor, the reader is left to piece together her history, and decide when she is being ironic, when she is presenting her beliefs.  Elizabeth goes for a hair-raising drive at one point, is that her ‘controlling the universe’ gene, or a death wish?  She gives outrageous advice to female colleagues who want to succeed, is she being ironic or is that what she has had to do to advance?  It is a very effective device, and doesn’t mean Elizabeth isn’t nuanced.

Although regretting the young woman’s death, Elizabeth apparently feels no culpability for it, placing the cause as the original sepsis the woman presented with.  But when she is sitting on the loo going over her reaction to the crisis, who is it who considers:  “While a kilometre away in the morgue the wound did not heal and the body did not recognise itself, nor gather itself to itself, nor rise again”?  And when she gets an advanced copy of the new software, she plots her outcomes and watches the ‘dot’ that is her move from mid-stream to out in space as she includes and omits Lisa’s surgery … repeatedly.

The mistake in the operation was that of Richard, Elizabeth’s registrar.  But mistakes are complex and operations the work of teams, and Elizabeth led the team.  When Elizabeth discovers a complaint has been made and an enquiry started, she is clear that the responsibility is hers.  She considers her response to the mistake was effective, it was a controlled response, never chaotic.  She sees her job as not only being the lead agent, but also fixing the errors of her team – nicely paralleled with her inability to live with a tiny flaw in her house, in the only wall that she hadn’t gibbed herself.

When the fallout from Lisa’s death leads to another tragic death, Elizabeth is offered absolution of sorts, but it is an ‘out’ of playing the system, and Elizabeth has never been able to play the system – never able to stop from speaking out at meetings, in conferences – a fact that puts her off-side with colleagues of both genders and all levels.

A mistake is an insightful look at the pressures on medical professionals – pressures which are hugely heightened for women.  It looks at the idealised reality of medical monitoring systems as opposed to the complexity of the world.  And it exposes the conundrum of expecting our surgeons to be cautious and keep us safe whilst also allowing them to be cavalier enough to cut us open.  I thought this was a great book, read it and see what you think.

Posted in Book Review | 4 Comments

The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy – 2018

The ice shelfJanice Redmond has had a terrible childhood; neglectful parents, constantly being moved from one school to another, being abused by various men, and nowhere she lived had a fridge …

Thirty years later, Janice, along with her big green fridge, is on her way to an Arts New Zealand awards ceremony, where she will receive her Antarctica Writers Residency, which she will take up the next day, and for which she was waitlisted and is a late recipient. Janice is used to this, used to residing in “makeshift liminal spaces”; she was waitlisted and then a late admission into her creative writing class.  She is used to not being the first choice and narrowly missing things.  She narrowly misses out on receiving a break-up settlement by one day, misses out having her first work, the spineless Utter and terrible destruction being considered ‘a novel’ by one page.

But Janice is a “glass-half-full kind of person” and tries to see all her setbacks as opportunities to nurture her writing.  And she embarks on documenting her gratitude to the various people in her personal and literary life in the Acknowledgments for the novel she will write after her time on the ice, but which she has already written: The ice shelf.  And that is where The ice shelf starts, middles, and ends.

The ice shelf is a wonderful piece of metafiction, telling us about Janice’s history, her warped sense of herself and others, the snobbish and cliquey New Zealand literary scene, and the continuous low level angst of living in a New Zealand where the weather is being disrupted by climate change, and “a piece of ice shelf the size of New Zealand falls off the polar cap every day.”  Janice gets her only sense of self-worth through social media, her minute circle of ‘likers’ and ‘RTers’, and she posts and tweets in an upbeat way throughout her various disasters – many of which are of her own making, fuelled by vodka and orange.

As Janice battles through windy Wellington with her fridge, and recalls and experiences her life, she starts to edit The ice shelf, gradually whittling away her work and herself.  Her narration of her painful childhood, and her existence on the far edges of the literary scene, are funny but tragic.  Her naivety is the source of much of the humour in The ice shelf, making her an unreliable narrator: “If the Meeting was populated only by men, that wasn’t the result of any kind of prejudice, it was just because the women hadn’t finished the washing up yet.”

And so, it is a bit of a shock when you end up feeling sorry for Janice, seeing the cliques that shun her through her eyes, and along with her “begin to cruise among the angular haircuts and commonplace objects pinned to lapels” in the Kōwhai Room of the National Library, waiting for the awards ceremony.  You are concerned about her as she prepares herself for Antarctica “the cold expanse that lies not too far away from our islands and perhaps even closer to the New Zealand psyche”, as she gets inspiration about the New Zealand character from The cinema of unease, as she worries that she might have warmth that will threaten the ice, or that the ice will take her last piece of warmth.

Janice has no community to bounce ideas off to get a sense of who she is and why she writes, and as often happens with excluded people, her whole life has become this one thing, trying to validate herself as a writer.  And through the novel we tragically see that validation melt away like ice on a warming planet.  I loved The ice shelf, see what you think.

Posted in Book Review | Leave a comment

Crystal Reign by Kelly Lyndon – 2018

Crystal ReignChrissie has got everything: a devoted husband, three lovely children, her health and a self-owned business.  She coaches her daughter’s netball team, is a martial arts practitioner, and has lots of friends.  Hardly the person you would pick as a meth addict, but a moment of insecurity and weakness leads to a downward spiral that ends up ruining her life and the lives of all those around her.

Chrissie and Dave met in the Navy, and they live in Auckland, where Dave works for another ex-Navy mate, Marty, in his construction business.  Dave is also a martial arts expert and teacher, and he coaches his son’s soccer team.  They are at a party when Chrissie takes the fatal first step towards addiction, and Crystal Reign documents the horror of methamphetamine addiction with no pulled punches.

Chrissie’s deterioration is gradual at first, with her assuring Dave she is in control and her use will stop.  But then she is more the drug than she is herself and her behaviour traumatises the children and makes Dave feel helpless for the first time in his life – well the first time since suffering from his father’s alcoholism when he was a child.  Dave had vowed he would never put his own children through that, but his first reaction to Chrissie’s behaviour it to turn to his father’s best friend, Jack … Daniels.

The opening of Crystal Reign is so horrific that it is possible non-New Zealanders will see it as over the top – but New Zealanders will recognise it as a version of true events.  The story is told backwards and forwards in time (chronology markers provided by key sporting events and classic rock concerts), the point of view does get a bit wandering in parts, but the plotting it solid and you really are in suspense as to what is going to happen to the central family that is losing everything.  They have few friends who stay loyal to them, but those that do are remarkable.

Dave and his eldest daughter Megan are great characters, and through the events they end up supporting each other and the two younger children as mates rather than as father and daughter.  Dave is flawed – his ‘locker room’ banter with Marty quite awful – and there is always the worry of how he will use his lethal martial arts skills in dealing with some of the ghastly people that Chrissie has become entwined with.  We lose track of Chrissie for large parts of the novel, and the story is focussed on the devastating effects her addiction has on her family, friends and work-mates.  The effects on the two younger children are particularly chilling.

There is lots of information about meth addiction in the book, and you find out about the legal processes, the rehabilitation options, and community support groups.  But none of this is dry or cumbersome, there is a bit of clunky early history added near the beginning, but that is helpful in filling out Dave’s character.  Oddly enough there are some funny bits as well!   Crystal Reign is not a pleasant read, but it is a compelling one and one that gets beyond the stereotypes of meth addiction in New Zealand, highlighting the frightening scope of the problem.

Posted in #yeahnoir, Book Review | Leave a comment

Teeth of the Wolf by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray – 2018

Teeth of the wolfWhat a great genre mix-up: police procedural, horror, urban fantasy and cli fi all bundled together with a bit of romance thrown in!

Teeth of the wolf is set in a not too distant future, in an Auckland that is broiling hot and algal bloom stinky, where petrol use, and therefore driving, is severely restricted, where coffee is grown “down in the Rimutakas and the Kaimai Ranges”, where there are “… a million tiny struggles to survive in a city slipping into the sea”, and where the explosive atmosphere is pushing the violent crime rate through the cloud-roiling  sky.

Penny Yee is a scientifically minded young woman who runs her own forensic science business, Matiu is her haunted brother, not long out of jail, not yet totally extricated from his bad-guy cronies, still haunted by possibly really real demons, and Penny’s driver.  As the body count rises, it is obvious something seriously wrong is going on – something to do with missing pregnant women, micro-greens, and demons who have possibly “slipped sideways through a portal to some other dimension …”

As things get creepier for Matiu, Penny is determined to explain all the odd happenings away in a neat scientific manner – even when her DNA machine explodes, spitting out un-human results; even when she starts seeing glimpses of Makere, the demon with an uncanny resemblance to Matiu.  If things aren’t hectic enough, Penny’s lab technician seems to like her, and her parents have a suitor lined up for her, and Matiu seems to be getting odd vibes from his parole officer.

Matiu’s troubled biological mother, Penny’s Aunt Marama, is also swept along in the conspiracy, but is she central to the plot, or just a diversion?  And there is Penny’s dog, reacting off the scale every time he catches sight of Matiu’s old crime buddy, Simon Kingi.  But then Penny did call her dog Cerberus – and Penny is short for Pandora … and in Pandora fashion we end up with mysteries on multiple fronts, all of which get resolved in the end, in both a scientific and a far from scientific way – oh, did I mention the bog body?

Teeth of the Wolf is the second in The path of Ra series but can be read as a stand-alone.  It is a wild ride of a novel, and there just must be more to come!

 

 

Posted in #yeahnoir, Book Review | Leave a comment

Underwater by Helen Vivienne Fletcher – 2018

UnderwaterBailey and her young sister, Tilly, have been taken by their Gran to multi-generational Pine Hills Resort to try and get over a traumatic experience.  They could stay in a cabin together, but Bailey opts for splitting up by demographic, and she enters the world of teenagers on their annual break – bitchiness, crushes, pranks and jealousies.  But Bailey also has her young sister to worry about, and the lasting effects of that terrible night …

Bailey used to be a competitive swimmer; she would literally submerge herself in her passion: “I never remember anything except the water.”  Her father used to criticise her for it – saying she used the water as a way of cutting herself off from her family.  But after the awful night when her parents were murdered, everything changed.  Realising that being amongst people she didn’t know meant she could lie, the lie she tells is that she can’t swim – not because she doesn’t want to; she doesn’t want people to see her scars.  She knows that people always want the gory details, but after that “they didn’t know what to say, and things got weird.”

Bailey makes friends: Adam who is there with his little brother Jack, and who has a lot in common with Bailey; Freya her cabin-mate; Amber and Jenny who have the cabin next door; and Clare, the most complicated, destructive and wounded of her new acquaintances.  All these people come to the resort every year, and it leaves Bailey playing catch-up, and vulnerable to mis-information.

Underwater is a ‘teenagers dealing with issues’ novel, Bailey sorting out what sort of relationship she wants with Adam, and shyness, sexual orientation, self-harm and gender difference all get an airing: “I guess they don’t realise the things that impress girls aren’t the same as the silly things other boys are impressed by.”  But beneath all of this is the slow burning dread of finding out what happened that night in Wellington, the consequences of extreme violence, the inability to talk about traumatic experiences – not even to counsellors, the guilt, the regret, and the nightmares.  And the realisation that your focus might be wrong, that a vital clue to what happened that night might be right there in front of you.

As well as being party to Bailey’s thoughts, there are clues to her state of mind: Seeing red board shorts at the pool as blood in the water, telling Tilly unbowdlerised versions of fairy tales, considering self-harm as a distraction … “… memories are like being underwater. You can see the real world, but it’s so remote you don’t feel connected to it” – like remembering how her mother used to wake her up in the night each year at her birth time – and turning seventeen and recognising for the first time “I had missed the moment I was born.”  Taking on the mother role for Tilly adds another veneer of sadness for Bailey.

I found myself wondering a bit about the existence of Gran and Tilly when they were apart from Bailey, Tilly and Jack spending a lot of time on the jungle gym, and I was hoping Gran wasn’t alone swigging G&Ts in her cabin.  But apart from that, Underwater is an absorbing read, there is a truly upsetting climactic scene, and the horror of what Bailey and little Tilly have lived though is skilfully revealed.  Another YA novel that will appeal to a wider group of readers.

Posted in #yeahnoir, Book Review, Young Adult | Leave a comment

QuByte by Cat Connor – 2018

Hand sanitizer anyone?  You will want some after reading the latest in Cat QubyteConnor’s Byte series, QuByte, which deals with biological terror threats.

Special Agent Ellie Iverson (nee Conway) from Delta A, an elite force within the FBI, gets involved in disparate cases – the links between which are a bit of a puzzle: Her FBI Director Cait O’Hare has been killed, as have heads of various intelligence agencies, and the Trump administration’s isolationism makes working with overseas colleagues a bit tricky.  And then there’s the kidnapped monkey, and the hit and run of the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who had managed to sneak out a file hidden in a song that talked about the theft of a mysterious infectious agent, and the proof is in the contaminated bottled water that has been distributed to high-end hotels.

Delta A is a close-knit team, extremely professional, prone to cutesy nicknames, and with an ESP link that could be the result of long-term familiarity, or not … Ellie has a form of lexical synaesthesia, where she doesn’t taste words but sees them floating, crawling, slinking … and she is also in the habit of seeing yellow fluffy ducks and visualising metaphors.  Oh, and her most useful brain-storming partner is an imaginary friend.  We see the world through her brain.

The plot is driven, and all the Delta A team, including Argo the trauma dog, end up at O’Hare’s ranch house, surrounded by an armed biker gang, which is just par for the course for Ellie, except this time her husband and infant twin daughters are there.  QuByte is about a big conspiracy and the dangers of “… the ‘alternative facts’ brigade’s propaganda machine”, and there is a more personal kind of dread: “How well do we ever know someone?”, and the toll of ongoing harassment “… living with constant harassment isn’t one thing.  It’s bullying. It’s undermining. It is disbelief wrapped in pain.”

Connor quite optimistically misses New Zealand off the list of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance countries that are in line for the planned biological attacks, as it’s “not a strategic country for terrorists” due to its “isolation and small population”.  And there is an idealistic plea for people to: “Not just listen but hear what’s said.  And then act on the knowledge instead of pretending it’s not our problem as humans inhabiting the earth with other humans.”

Ellie has a knack (with some spooky help) of solving riddles and codes, the biggest riddle is whether the death of her friend and boss, Cait, is connected to the other killings, and whether all of the killings are connected to the clear and present danger of the biological threat.  And QuByte has a curious ending, where at least one mystery is solved with a very mundane solution but the others? … “Pollyanna has left the building” and we might need to wait for the next Byte to fully understand the mystery.  An exciting and intriguing read.

 

Posted in #yeahnoir, Book Review | 1 Comment