The Burning River by Lawrence Patchett – 2019

The_Burning_RiverThe burning river is a great piece of dystopian fiction, set in an Aotearoa that has been devastated by global warming and pollution. Van, Hana and her daughter Kahu set out on a quest to try and bargain for place of safety, a “place to shelter and then stand.”

Van is a swamp dweller, a whāngai; taken in by Matewai’s people, the Te Repo, when his people were killed, and he had to flee. For the inhabitants of the various areas in the region live on constant alert, knowing what keeps them safe is trade and shaky alliances, and that “there’s always people coming down from the north.”

Van and Matewai’s son Rau are grieving for Rau’s wife, when they encounter a ‘fetch’; a young woman who has come from the Whaea who live on elevated land, and who have negotiated a ‘gap’ so Van, Rau and the fetch, Kahu, can travel safely through the valley lands fiercely guarded by the Scarpers. Van has been to the Whaea place before, when he took part in the Summer’s Day ritual and met Hana, who has been occupying his thoughts ever since. This sets the scene for him to find out more about himself and take on the quest, along with Hana and Kahu, to try and save the Whaea.

The burning river is an atmospheric, tense and nervous read. You are transported to a strange but familiar land. It is Aotearoa, with familiar bush species and familiar bird species, but where ‘the burners’ slash and burn – and we see and smell their fires, and the swamps are full of dangerous biting insects, presumably because global warming has allowed diseases and their vectors to flourish here, where people scrape by with no modern technology, and where Van makes a living mining and working with ancient plastic.

Many of the human groups are matriarchal, maybe reflecting what a mess the blokes made. And the predominant culture is Māori, probably reflecting what a mess the colonisers made, but also the fact that when people are forced to live by their wits, the indigenous in any land will have the edge. And although the groups are separate and antagonistic – there is a strong relationship between the Whaea and Te Repo, a history to explain their antagonism yet a connection that drives Whaea to desire being buried in the swamp, and to hold Summer’s Day rituals, possibly to avoid in-breeding in the group.

People in this novel have to take care of the basics: “water and waste” – keeping one pure and the other separate; making sure you can negotiate, or if that fails protect yourselves; make sure you always have something to trade: items, skills, knowledge; making sure you are courteous and understand the ‘others’ customs; and, know your lineage, your ‘waters’, so you know who you can extend the group to and trust if greater dangers emerge: “The whole world is new. We’ve all got to adapt.”  The burning river gives us an uncertain and recognisable future, as well as an optimistic ending that almost allows you to forget that “there’s always people coming down from the north.”  A great read.

 

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The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox – 2019

The_Absolute_BookTaryn Cornick is a lover of libraries, a valuer of ‘just in case knowledge’, and an observer: “She was always studying the world, not rapt or curious, but patient and dutiful, as if the world was something she’d paid good money to see.” Taryn meets a man with whom she enters into an agreement – to avenge the death of her sister, Beatrice.  And Taryn’s world will never be the same again.

Taryn ends up going on a quest to find a scroll which is a key to a language capable of commanding nature.  The absolute book is a wonderful journey into other worlds, a journey that has the reader drawing parallels and lessons from these other dimensions to try and understand our own world better – and better understand how things are going so horribly wrong.  At the heart of the journey is Taryn’s love of libraries as repositories of knowledge: our heritages and stories that hold the promise of global rebalance.  Taryn has written a best-selling book on the subject: The feverish libraries, about the threats to libraries “from silverfish to austerity measures.”

The worlds Taryn visits are gloriously described; the seemingly idyllic Sidh – a bucolic paradise with no biting insects, the bland repetitive purgatory with its occasional communal construct that may offer release – a hospital, a railway line.  Taryn’s quest is one she has no faith in or control over; she is possessed at times; she is constantly finding out new layers of more disturbing information – what keeps her going much of the time is her hope that she may once again see Beatrice.  The Dante reference sits alongside myriad references from literature, creation stories and mythology – Knox is as loving of literature and heritage as Taryn.

Taryn’s companions are as revelatory as their environments: Jacob, a young policeman who is suspicious of Taryn and ends up embroiled in, and bewitched by, her quest; Neve the beautiful but cold Sidhe; and Neve’s nephew Shift “even less human than his inhuman aunt” – he is hard to focus on, a shapeshifter, the Little God of the Marshlands, and he is one of the most intriguing of the characters in The absolute book.  Humans, demons, gods, demigods, angels, all populate the novel – emphasising the message of the dangers of forgetting or ignoring our various heritages or judging each other not by who we are but what we are.

There is humour in The absolute book, much of it from the juxtaposition of worlds: Taryn travelling through the Sidh and worried she will be late for a speaking engagement; her arriving through a ‘gate’ to a message welcoming her to British Telecom.  But the themes of the book are deadly serious – the colonising of others’ land, environmental degradation, the deals made that have enduring consequences, beings like the Sidhe, who know they are doing wrong but “their habit of living meant they just kept on living with it.”  The absolute book is conditionally optimistic: There is hope if we can remember that “… today doesn’t always know what tomorrow will need”; if we can remember, and make decisions, knowing “none of this is about us”.  Taryn doesn’t escape her punishment but there is a tantalising description of where she may go at the end of the book …

As I was reading The absolute book, I was beginning to think we were living in purgatory where it “wasn’t forever living with your mistakes; it was forever defending your decisions.”  It is an insightful book and resonates on so many levels.  I am a quick reader, but it took me a long time to read this book, as there is so much in it – I am sure I have missed a lot, so I will read it again.  I recommend you read it too.

 

 

 

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The Julian Calendar by William Henry – 2018

The Julian calendarA year in the life of a young man, Daniel Jamieson, as he recovers from a love affair, befriends an older man, and has various other romantic experiences.

Daniel had a ‘love of my life’ relationship with Bridget, an Australian nurse, when they were both living in England.  Bridget returned to Australia, and Daniel to New Zealand, heartbroken.  Their relationship continues throughout the book, via letters and via Daniel’s imagination.

Daniel decides to exorcise his haunted thoughts by returning to the U.K., he is a freelance photojournalist and free to move around.  He agrees to visit Julian Marriot, an uncle of a friend from varsity.  Julian is in is early sixties, gay, a retired editor.  He and Daniel begin a deep platonic friendship that becomes the basis for both men to consider their other relationships, past and present.

Julian introduces Daniel to music, relatively well-known romantic pieces that most readers would know.  He is a gentle funny sad man; a gay man in the 1990s, not completely ‘out’, losing friends to AIDS.  He is attracted to Daniel, and to Daniel’s attraction to women.  Julian is struggling to find romantic companionship, though he does have some loyal friends, and an on-again-off-again relationship with Stefan, a man struggling with his sexual orientation.

Daniel has a couple of relationships though the year; with Sarah, a woman he meets though a short-term temping job, who is as obscure as Bridget in her inner turmoil.  And finally, with Ruth, another New Zealander he coverts in a bookshop and later bumps into.  And of course, there is the ongoing problem of Bridget – the cause of much discussion about love and longing with Julian.

The book’s narrative alternates between Daniel and Julian, and you see incidents from both their points of view.  The book is an homage to the actual relationship between the author and an older man, and is a fine description of the time, and of the complexities of male relationships.  I understand why they were missing, but I longed for some inclusion of the inner thoughts of the women – who are all obscurely complicated, a bit clingy, ‘surprisingly’ accepting.

The Julian Calendar is a genteel read – a little frustrating at times, a tad preachy regarding the state of the world, but full of nostalgia and quite poignant.

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The Fell by Robert Jenkins – 2019

The fell

This is an extraordinary novel, a bildungsroman set for the most part in a boarding school reminiscent of Gormenghast, where an unnamed narrator makes his way in a community of violent, abandoned teenaged boys.

The Fell is short for Feallan House, situated in the town of Cutter.  Cutter includes a few elements of the author’s hometown of Nelson but is more reminiscent of literary Valparaiso or Brest!  The narrator is sent to The Fell after an awful event in his unnamed hometown, where his sister, Lilly, is sent to jail.

The narrator is haunted by these early life events, has lovely memories of life with his lifeguard-father and hears Lilly talking to him through the soundwaves of a smuggled radio.  He makes friends with a shambly group of misfits in The Fell, including a ghost and animated marionettes – and the bulk of the novel is made up of their testosterone banter, their alcohol and drug-fuelled nights, their survival-type exploits, their first loves, and their loneliness: “there is no hell worse than being ignored and shunned and lonely.”

“I think maybe we were lacking sufficient and significant adult supervision at a critical juncture in our development” says one of the narrator’s close friends, Johnny – and a truer thing was never spoken.  Most of the adults in The Fell are corrupt and mean, as seen though the eyes of a troubled boy.  There are some exceptions, but they are the minorities in both senses of the word: “They were really nice people, as criminals and gangsters and illegal immigrants usually are.”  There is one ‘good’ teacher, an African, Mister Solomon Sesay, “on the edge of being mad”, who tries to temper the narrator’s leaning towards violence.

The narrator and his gang want to break Lilly out of jail, just one of their many plans to be heroes, but how do you go about being a hero?  In one planning session with Johnny: “… we didn’t know what to write or what makes a real-life full-time professional hero so we gave up and made a list of people to kill instead.”  And The Fell doesn’t shy away from violence, or the ease with which boyhood fantasies can seep into reality.  The novel has a Lord of the flies feel about it at times.

There are moments of beauty as well, the intensity of a young boy’s first love, in the narrator’s case with Melody Grace, a fabulous character full of energy and wisdom.  The fireworks of youth that knows it is finite: “For one week the trees blaze and light up the world and then it’s over and things change and this is like youth and love and life.”  And the moment when Johnny talks of listening to the dying heartbeat of stags when he has just shot them: “It’s like God dies with end of a heartbeat.”

The alternate time/place feel of The Fell works well, you don’t know where/when you are, which makes you long for a different reality for the boys.  And they do too, one going off to the “Foreign Legion”, Melody Grace leaving for “Cadiz”, the narrator’s friend Majid inviting him to Arabia where “… if by Allah’s will we are not to be holy warriors, we can drink tea. Peppermint tea.”  It is as though their dreams are the only things they have to look forward to – apart from Johnny, who is white and from wealth.

The Fell is sad and tragic and makes you want the world to be different, even though the world described is extreme and unreal – the resonances are all too real. Unrealised potential, misunderstood possibilities, uneven playing fields of opportunity …  And you despair for the narrator: “… it seemed like all my life I was made of sand and took the shape of everyone I got blown up against but I had no shape of my own and however hard I clung to that shape it always went away and the winds came and I was nothing again …”  I highly recommend this book.

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When it All Went to Custard by Danielle Hawkins – 2019

When it all went to custardWhat a delightful book.  Jenny’s neighbour Andrew seeks her out to tell her he has found her husband in bed with his wife – the rest of the book deals with the fall out of this infidelity.  It is an entertaining read, which considers why we make life choices, and how to stay above the morass of insecurity that often bubbles beneath us.

Dave, Jenny’s husband, moves out, leaving her living on the farm that has been in her family for generations.  She has two young children, Nathan and Lily, a needy sister living down in Wellington, and parents who still help Jenny but who are thinking a proper retirement with money from selling the farm is an attractive proposition.  There are men around her who are keen to help, but some of them are more interested in taking advantage of a woman on a valuable property.

Despite finding out Dave’s infidelities have been plural, Jenny wonders whether she should take him back, for the sake of the children.  And this is at the heart of the novel, Jenny is actually quite relieved when she finds out about Dave’s affair, as she got together with the idea of him rather than getting to know him, believing farmers were “by definition quiet, capable, manly men with understated senses of humour and the ability to fix anything at all with duct tape, number eight wire or both.”  She has been living her life for the sake of others for a long time, and wonders if she has finally been given a chance to live a life that is right for her.

The neighbour bearing bad news, Andrew, plays a Darcy-like character, grumpy and taciturn, but he does provide his brother, Harry, to help on Jenny’s farm, and the pair of them end up providing some trustworthiness in her life.  Jenny is a great character, with the very feminine trait of blaming herself for everything and failing to see how competent she is in her multi-tasking life.  She is great with Lily and Nathan, has a part-time job as the Building Control Officer in the Council, manages to organise a jumble sale for Lily’s school’s fundraiser, can whisk up meals, has a fabulous garden, oh, and she manages a large beef and sheep farm.

There is a bit of a puzzle in When it all went to custard, as there is a solution to Jenny’s problems, which the reader perceives before the characters, which adds a nice element to the novel.  It is also a very funny read, laugh-out-loud in places, such as when her loud doctor rings her in the middle of a farm management meeting, or when she is discovered playing air guitar with Lily.  Another aspect of the book I loved was Hawkin’s descriptions of Jenny’s love of the land: “In the paddock below them the pet lambs, released from leading class, raced across the hillside in a mad twilight game of tag. The air was soft and golden and full of the clamour of birds settling down for the night.”  This book is a therapeutic read, not shying away from difficult situations, or gruesome details of farm life, or the sadness of unexpected changes in people’s lives, but letting you know that for the characters that deserve it, things will work out OK.

 

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One for Another by Andrea Jacka – 2018

One for anotherOne for another is a classic Western set in Idaho in the 1880s.  It is full of great characters, balances colonial racism with the recognition of indigenous wisdom and is also a cracker of a murder mystery.  The novel introduces Hennessey Reed, a woman who runs the local bar and brothel, who has an alcohol and drug problem, who is a ‘sensitive’ and who has a stubborn streak a mile wide.

The novel is lusciously written, in un-contracted English that sends you to a different time, even if you do have to read some sentences a few times to parse their meaning: “Nathan alleged facial hair unsanitary.  I was not the only person with self-preserving reluctance to disagree with this opinion – or any other he held, for that matter.”  The small-town West is a setting familiar from movies and TV programmes and you immediately immerse yourself in the environment.

Most of the book is written from Hennessey’s point of view.  She lives in the wonderfully named Melancholy, where the local law is Raff Cooper, and there is history between the two.  She is a tormented character – “I am tired, Raff … I am tired of death. I am often tired of life” – with a solid backstory, which you piece together as you go along.   There are lots of interesting characters, all with their stories, including Lizzie, Hennessey’s close friend, who along with her husband, Clay, runs the local general store.

The characterisation and plot hinge on the problems of living in a remote and unforgiving environment, where the women especially are living isolated lonely lives.  The line between despair and insanity is dust thin.  The crimes that Hennessey and Raff are struggling to solve are vile – the torturing and murder of young girls.  There are plenty of suspects, and as the search for the perpetrator drags on the tension builds when a girl of special importance to Hennessey, Lizzie’s daughter Evangeline, disappears.

One of Hennessey’s most loyal friends is Raven, her wolfhound.  She is not that popular with some people in the town, especially as it is moving from being a gold rush town to one in which “the trappings of civilisation had begun to take lodgings.” But she has her supporters, most of whom either work at or frequent her establishment – the Fleur-de-lis.  Raff is initially reluctant to let her help with his investigation, but as time wears on he “conceded if the Devil himself were to appear on his doorstep to offer an opinion, he’d be motivated to listen with undivided attention.”

One for another is an absorbing read with great plotting that keeps you guessing.  You can taste the dust, feel the mud and visualise the Western scenes: “Raff walked slowly to where his horse rested the tip of a rear hoof, dozing in the afternoon sun.”  You really get to know Hennessey, but there are also questions about her and her past that lead you to look forward to reading more about her and her exploits in Melancholy, Idaho.

 

 

 

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The Lost Dead by Finn Bell – 2019

The lost deadThe lost dead is a psychological thriller, not at all lacking in thrills but also working hard to round out the characters: the Rarua brothers, young Sophie, Eustus Grey and her fellow cops, and the psychopath: Charles Atkins – The Accountant.

The story opens with Tarana, Nikau and Googs Rarua – the older brothers already jaded by their lives, being hated by their West Coast community, being constantly let down by their father.  But Googs is still hopeful about their escaping and “going up north together.”  Fast forward ten years and we start learning about the warped views of The Accountant and find out the Rarua brothers have a plan to score some money and get Googs to a scholarship interview in Christchurch, which will enable him to finally escape their life on the Coast.

Given that the brothers’ plan involves stealing from drug dealers, things are bound to get complicated.  A new cop makes a right/wrong decision and the boys end up having to flee the Coast, but Googs wants to say goodbye to his girlfriend Sophie in Moana first.  Which is where they are, along with Sophie and The Accountant, when the earthquake and landslide hit.  The reader finds out about the methods and identity of The Accountant, and when the cops arrive things have got pretty topsy-turvy.

The main theme through the novel is an analysis of “the right thing to do”, and how that often depends on who you are and what choices you have: “Doing good things for other people means nothing, it only matters if doing that good thing actually costs you something and you still do it.” Key to pulling this off in the middle of a thriller is good character building.

The Rarua brothers have the odds stacked against them: “No getting out. No getting clean.”  Bell has done a good job of presenting them as decent blokes who just can’t get a break.  As Tarana and Nikau explain to Googs about mana: “when you’re born, you get given as much of it as your parents got.”  Googs is a smart cookie (nick-named after the search engine), and he gets it: “Mana’s like karma working backwards.”  The brothers decide: “Doing bad shit doesn’t count if you got no choice.”

Eustus and her fellow cops Sheryl and Caldwell walk a similarly fragile ethical line.  Caldwell is a highly educated city cop who has been sent to the remote West Coast due to breaking the rules for the ‘right’ reasons, but he finds himself in an area where his colleagues expect him not to follow strict rules, in order to get the best results for their small isolated community.  All the cops have found the Police Force to be somewhere where “Your choices can’t match your ethics.”

Bell’s attempts to get inside the head of a psychopath are most successful when the character moves into delusion, believing nature is arranging things just for his ends.  The Accountant’s methods are chilling and calculating, and the tension in the novel doesn’t come from any understanding or sympathy for him, but from just wishing he gets caught soon enough.  And there is one aspect of his methodology that has you wondering …

I read The lost dead really wanting to know what was going to happen. And there is a fair amount of trying to guess what has already happened – in a great device Bell has Googs working out the latter, linking all the clues dotted through the text.  The environment of a small remote community where drugs are a scourge is well depicted, as is the addiction to violence, on both sides of the law.  While the brothers are drawn sympathetically, my favourite character was Eustus, finding herself in one of those weeks “where every single day is its very own special kind of bastard.”  Another good read from Finn Bell.

 

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