Iceland by Dominic Hoey – 2017

IcelandThis is an absolutely riveting debut novel.  Told from alternating points of view of two young artists, one a musician and the other a painter, whose gifts are thwarted by drugs, violence and a corrupted world view.  Zlata is a singer/songwriter who comes from a loving and supportive family, Hamish is the artist – and tagger – who is from a dismal background and who is knee-deep in self-loathing.  The two spy each other across a crowded room and in another world their love may have managed redemption.   But in Auckland with a widening gap between the haves and have nots, where drugs are pushing the natural us/them tendencies to grotesque levels, and where artistic success is seen as a cop out – there is not all that much room for redemption.

The narrative of the novel not only alternates point of view, but also tense – Zlata speaks in the past tense and Hamish in the present – so there is a sense of looming tragedy throughout.  The descriptions of a warped sense of reality provided by drugs and alienation that leads to terrible acts, allow those acts to be at once understandable and reprehensible.  And this makes the reader – at least this one – both conflicted by and engaged with the characters.  Hamish’ world view has collapsed to almost nothing – everyone and everything he encounters is stink, he can’t accept the help of friends, and the tension in the novel is whether he is going to allow Zlata to soften his rigid outlook.

Zlata is not that different from Hamish, but she does have the sliver of a sliver of light within her, which makes her the stronger of the two characters.  All of their cohort are described fully, as is Auckland and the other physical environments in the book.  The pivotal event that sends the endless round of bad decision-making flying off course, is a terrible crime that is really just a fluke, emerging as it does from a routine of posturing, drugs and violence.

The writing in Iceland verges on the poetic, but doesn’t tip into pathos, the characters are robust enough to mostly deserve the bad things that happen to them.  Hamish’ self-pity only makes sense from within his world view: “There’s nothing as hopeless as being broke.  Everyone gets a say in your life.  You’re not allowed secrets, you can’t act on your impulses, you have to turn up when you’re told, stand naked with your fucking hand out” – none of which describes the observed Hamish at all.  And Zlata with her fraction of hope: “I gorged myself at least three times and drank so much beer I was staggering by the time the shadows grew sharp. I was raw inside from where the drugs had eaten away at me, but I was happy.”

Iceland is a sad and hopeless tale about diminishing hope and expectations – but one well worth reading for its beauty and its insight.


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Hot Flush by Rosy Fenwicke – 2017

EHot Flushuphemia Sage has been receiving strange letters over the years – from her deceased aunt, the woman who raised her when her mother ran off.  The letters have been spookily aware of Euphemia’s circumstances at the time she reads them, and they speak of strange powers that she will possess once she hits menopause.  Euphemia is looking forward to seeing if the letters are true, but unsure how she will use such powers – her life being relatively uneventful.  She runs a consultancy business with her golf-crazy husband, and has two daughters, one a police detective and the other a cyber-whiz who works in the family business.  She finds enjoyment in her family, her work, running, and in Petal her pug.  But that all changes when the hot flushes start.

Euphemia’s annoying but efficient receptionist turns out to be running a loan shark business along with her obnoxious husband – using the Sage’s business to target clients.  And an old school rival, Jane, ends up at risk of having her legs broken by the loan shark’s heavies.  When Kenneth, Euphemia’s husband, goes off on a golf trip with a group that includes Jane’s husband, Euphemia thinks she has everything under control and can help Jane.  But that is before she sees Jane beaten and bundled into a car at gunpoint – and before the heinous baddies take Petal as an additional hostage.  After that, things go from terrible to dire, and Euphemia can’t go to the Police, so from the Police point of view she is starting to look like part of the problem.

Hot flush is a great romp, you find out more and more about the characters as you read, and the story is unveiled layer by layer, with things turning out to be not at all what they first appear to be.  Greed, manipulation, and playing the long game, all underpin the story.  The writing is very funny, and it is great having the drivers of the plot for the most part being strong women – and having ageing, change of life, and mitochondrial inheritance focussed on in a positive way.  There are also unanswered questions and lots of unfinished business, which promises there are more adventures of Euphemia Sage to come – excellent!


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Nothing Bad Happens Here by Nikki Crutchley – 2017

Miller Hatcher is getting over a relationship and the recent death of her mother, with theNothing bad happens here help of alcohol, when she gets the opportunity to write a feature story that might land her the job of head reporter for the national magazine she works for, First Look. Sergeant Kahu Parata is a local cop at the small Coromandel town of Castle Bay, where Miller will hopefully write her masterpiece.  Kahu knows all the locals and turns a blind eye to some of their misdemeanours, and he is annoyed when a team from Auckland are sent to work the case that Miller intends to cover – the discovery of the body of a missing tourist, Bethany Haliwell.

Miller in her sensitive state, and Kahu with his local knowledge, end up trying to get justice for Bethany amidst the prejudices and complacency of the locals, and the arrogance and impatience of the outsider cops and journalists.  The only place Miller can find to stay is a local retreat, Haven, and when another woman goes missing from there, the possibility that the murderer is still around the town increases.

Nothing bad happens here creepily highlights the level of danger women face in our society – how so many people can become suspects when harm is done to a woman, and how often women don’t feel able to come forward and speak out about abuse, but just put up with it as part of life.  It also – echoed in its wonderful title – deals with the tendency of tourist spots to downplay local danger in order to maintain business, the irresponsibility of the press when boosting circulation comes before reporting facts, and the way people are drawn to gruesome tragedy at the same time as being repelled by it.

It is a well plotted mystery, and just when you think you have guessed the final twist you are gazumped with a totally unexpected scenario.  The characters are great, and are given enough background to give you a chance at understanding some pretty outrageous behaviour.  I particularly liked Miller, she rapidly moves from being just one of the visiting journalists to being a concerned human being, and at times works more like a PI than a journo, and her compassion for the victims stops the story from just one where the female body count keeps clicking up.  The writing is very straight forward, but this in a way works nicely against the complex plotting.  A good New Zealand murder mystery.

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Know Me Now by C.J. Carver – 2017

I have enjoyed the C.J. Carver Forrester and Davies series from the first installment, and I am thrilled to be part of this Know me now blog tour.  The date list for the tour is at the end of my review.

know me nowIn Know me now, partial amnesiac Dan Forrester is back, back in another adventure for our enjoyment, and also back with his wife, Jenny, and their daughter Aimee. The family is eagerly awaiting the imminent birth of Dan and Jenny’s second son.  Dan is also dealing with the sudden death of his father, Bill, who was visiting Germany when he had a massive heart attack.  In the midst of making arrangements for the repatriation of his father’s body, Dan hears that his 13-year-old godson, Connor, has also died.  Connor’s death is being dealt with as a suicide, but the local doctor in the Scottish village where he died is not so sure.  Two deaths so close together – and as the delightful DC Lucy Davies says: “In my job, we don’t believe in coincidences”.

C.J. Carver certainly does believe in coincidences, the local GP who is suspicious about Connor’s death is none other than Dr Grace Reavey – one of the main characters in the first Dan Forrester outing Spare me the truth.  I have come to realise that through this series Carver is weaving us a maypole of connections between her central characters.  Given her skillful plotting, I am sure there are more reveals and connections to come, and with Dan’s dodgy memory, goodness knows what he has forgotten from his past!

Dan wants to go to Scotland to look into Connor’s death, but is thwarted when he is told his father’s death is unnatural, and he decides to go to Germany instead.  Dan asks Lucy Davies to go to Scotland in his stead.  In Germany, it turns out Dan didn’t know the whole truth about Bill’s work after the war, or about the project his father and his close friends had been involved with.  As with the previous two installments of the series, we have some great plotting, and large picture conspiracies – this time involving some pretty precocious post-war research.

And we have thrills aplenty.  Another character back from Spare me the truth, is the sinister Sirius Thiele – the centre of some truly scary scenes, and of another tantalising ribbon being wrapped around the coincidence pole.  Dan, Lucy and Grace are all back in fine form.  And when Lucy gets into a bit of a hole, and gives herself the advice regarding her supervisor DI Faris MacDonald that I have been yelling at her for three books now, I whooped for joy.

If you haven’t read any of the series, Know me now could be read as a standalone novel, but my recommendation would be to read them from the beginning (Spare me the truth, Tell me a lie then Know me now) and that is a strong recommendation!

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Treachery Road by John Rosanowski – 2017

A gentleman with an alcohol problem is in Sea View Lunatic Asylum on the hills aboveTreachery Road the Hokitika goldfields.  He has been making a nuisance of himself in Hokitika and other gold mining areas, trying to gather information about the infamous Burgess Gang – Richard Burgess, Philip Levy, Thomas Kelly and Joseph Sullivan.  The man is obsessed with the case, Burgess, Kelly and Levy having been hanged years before.  As an ex-journalist (hence the alcohol problem) he has stumbled across information that makes him doubt the evidence of Sullivan – the fourth member of the gang – evidence that was used to convict the other three.  Once he realises he will be held in the asylum until he can prove his ravings about the case have a logical and fact-based foundation, he sets about to record his research and his findings.  Not a straight forwards task when: “The reader should be aware … that members of the criminal classes can be consummate liars”.

The Maungatapu Murders is a well-known case in New Zealand, with four men and a horse killed on their way to Nelson from Canvastown, and another man, an old whaler who had been working as a farm labourer, travelling from Pelorus.  The murders took place in 1866.  In “These more enlightened days of the 1890s”, the ex-journalist intends to find the truth about the case using the methods of his hero, Sherlock Holmes.  He uses his two volumes of Conan Doyle’s stories as his text book, and he writes to journalist colleagues and friends to assist him in gathering information – much as Holmes sends out his Baker Street Irregulars.

There is always a challenge when presenting large amounts of historical detail in a novel. Making the job easier for Rosanowski, is the fascinating material he is working with – he peppers his story with the actual press clippings from the day, and matches their phrasing in his own writing.  The framing of the ‘author’ of the story being in Sea View is also a great idea, as the possibility of unreliability hovers around him, and when he finally faces his drinking problem, he is spurred to be even more logical and scrupulous.  The only small complaint I had with the style was the footnotes, most of which I found unnecessary.

Knowing the bare bones of the story, it was really amazing to read how the justice system connived to get Burgess, Kelly and Levy convicted, the role the media played in determining the outcome of the trial, the pressure from the public who had decided the ‘facts’ – especially when the people concerned didn’t behave as they ‘should’ – and the story of guilt became self-perpetuating, for example when the new field of phrenology was enlisted to support the verdicts, folding all the prejudices and anti-Semitic sentiment into pseudo-scientific jargon.  I was reminded of Steve Braunias’ The scene of the crime, a non-fiction books making the same disturbing points (minus the phrenology) about well-known current cases.

Rosanowski does a great job of laying out all the information, and the description of the executions is genuinely moving, with the despair of Kelly, the bluster of Burgess and the resignation of Levy as they face their deaths.  Well done too is the following of Sullivan through to his death in 1881- wandering unwanted and shunned wherever he went.  Treachery Road hovers nicely between fiction and non-fiction.  And brings to life a period of history through the details of a murder case that has always captured the public imagination.

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The Easter Make Believers by Finn Bell – 2017

Easter make believersA hostage crisis in the small Otago town of Lawrence in the South Island goes horribly wrong.  A woman is shot, her children traumatised, four guys are fatally shot by police snipers, and another is killed by an explosion that blows the house to smithereens.  Not only that, the father of the house has been taken hostage, and he and his kidnapper have headed into the bush.

Enter Detective Nick Cooper and Detective Tobe White. They are initially called in due to the extent of the crisis, but they become deeply involved when they realise all the dead men in the remains of the house are local gang royalty – and Nick and Tobe work for the Gang Intelligence Centre.  They start leaning on gang affiliates, hoping to encourage them to put pressure on the fleeing gangster, Remu Black, to turn himself in before he does anything nasty to his hostage.

Nick and Tobe end up doing search and rescue shifts in between trying to come up with theories of what might be going on.  Things are not making sense, none of the usual reasons for large scale gang activity play out in this small-town hostage situation.  And Nick is pretty shaken, having been at the heart of the action rather than “called in either well before or long after the bad things happen” as usual with gang intelligence.  Nick is a pretty damaged individual all round, living with the fall out of a nasty event in his youth.  But he is a dedicated cop, just like his partner who won’t retire as “I don’t think he knows how to do anything else, or even how much of him would be left over to go and do it”.

There is much time for Nick and Tobe to ruminate on the traumatisation of innocent and trusting children, the effects on people and society when bad things happen to good people, and to what extent it is OK to do bad things for good outcomes. And the story is well played out; the reader starts to realise the truth of the situation long before the two detectives, as the reader is privy to the goings on in the bush.  And the reader is also aware of the approach of a seemingly human-activity-sparked weather bomb that is working its way up from the Antarctic.

There is great suspense in The Easter make believers, and the predicament the detectives end up in really thrilling.  Nick: “A harsh kind of honesty that can come with getting yourself this exhausted” – you really care for these people.  The only disappointment for me was that the nuanced and measured lead up to the final denouement was suddenly dropped at that point, and a wall of words explains what is happening, rather than the reader working it out from the action.  And black/white statements like “These people won’t change, won’t listen or ever feel sorry” appear.  I much preferred the bulk of the novel, where things were grey and messy, allowing sympathy for people like one old gang patriarch, whose frozen body is crying tears, “as tears have salt in them, it lowers the point at which they freeze”, and the cops commit to their job on the side of the angels, “an ugly job where you have to do bad things to mean people”.  Another great read from Finn Bell.


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The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey – 2017

Catherine Chidgey recorded and transcribed a year of her life, and using just those foundbeat_of_the_pendulum_front words – from conversations, from the Internet, from TV and movies – wrote The beat of the pendulum.   The title comes from a Proust quote, where he described novelists as ‘wildly accelerating the beat of the pendulum’.  There is an actual pendulum in Chidgey’s novel, it is of the old style that needs adjusting occasionally for it to keep time accurately, and the year of the novel – 2016 – had to have a second added to make it a full year.  Time may be adjusted for accuracy, but it is inexorable.

In 2016, the year of the novel, Chidgey’s daughter was gaining speech and a personality, while her mother, Pat, was starting a decline into living with dementia.  It was a year when Chidgey and her husband, Alan, were constantly considering where their family were going to live, should they move or stay in Ngaruawahia, where is the best place to create daguerreotypes?  It was a year of bureaucratic change at the institution where Chidgey teaches creating writing.  It was the year her previous novel The wish child was out for critical assessment, the year she considered bidding on a Byron mourning ring.  A year she was beset with various ailments, injuries and food intolerances, a year of cats. And a year in which she battled with the Internet, her answerphone and her GPS navigation system: “You have reached your destination.  No I haven’t.”

Is The beat of the pendulum a novel?  Her dialog and narrative is found, her structure is given – days and months of the year.  Chunks of narrative are from machines, ‘Recalculating route.’  ‘Unlike. Unfollow. Unfriend.’  ‘Would you like to access your set-up options?’ But as she tells her creative writing class (in the context of another project): ‘I think the craft of it lies in that editing process, looking at it with an analytical eye and seeing how you can rearrange the raw material to come up with something original.’  And The beat of the pendulum is refreshingly original – and a wonderfully engrossing read.

It is also a brutally honest read, Chidgey has nightmares about receiving bad reviews of her writing, but freely criticises the works of other authors.  She doesn’t edit out comments that she wonders are appropriate: ‘The Holocaust on ice.  Is that too much, or is that okay?’  And she takes us to her various therapist and doctors’ appointments.  We are told the story of Alice, her daughter, and all the complicated family ties arising from that, plus the complexity of her and Alan’s family networks.  Much of this is repeated due to her Mum needing to have things repeated with her failing memory.  And here is where the heart of this novel is for me: Chidgey’s relationship with her Mum.

Many readers of this novel will empathise with having a young child, some of those with having their partners being the main caregiver.  Many will know what it is like to live with food allergies or chronic illness.  There will be writers who read this novel and know what it is to have insecurities as a writer, and a few of those will know what it is like to be a successful writer, and they will share the wish that the New Zealand media gave accolades to authors returning from book fairs and festivals the way they greet sportsmen (usually men) returning in triumph.  But the one thing almost all readers will have experienced, is a relationship with a parent or parental figure.  And increasingly, a great many of these will have experienced that person falling into the confusing world of dementia, and eventually having to help them into residential care.

Another creative writing lesson: ‘If you’re writing a character based on a real-life figure, you have to be sensitive.’ The relationship between mother and daughter is so gently revealed in The beat of the pendulum.  The conversations, the shared jokes and shared memories.  The failed attempts at April Fools.  The patience at having to repeat and repeat and repeat. And the heart-breaking scenes of sorting through Pat’s belongings, asking her if she wants various items:  ‘Yes, I’m never going to be going out with bags now.’

The cruelty of a disease that steals memories.  In another creative writing class Chidgey talks of writing being an example of the ubiquitous graffiti ‘I was here’ – and that the value of writing is in reaching an audience, in moving someone, because ‘It proves that someone’s noticed our little scratch on the wall’.  I am sure there will be those who will resist The beat of the pendulum, ‘Siri, what is creative non-fiction? I didn’t quite get that’.  But I am also sure that most readers will find this novel delightful.  Parts are laugh out loud funny.  Who can’t love a book where a women’s baby daughter gives her a bilingual Proust for her birthday?  Or where a whole paragraph is online auction feedback?

The beat of the pendulum is the documenting of a year of memories, maybe a way for the author to resist time’s passing as her baby grew into a girl starting to create her own memories.  A way of capturing those of her mother’s memories lost to dementia.  A way of both accelerating and slowing that beat of the pendulum.  Whatever the reason she did it, it has resulted in a great novel.




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