Addressed to Greta by Fiona Sussman – 2020

There is a little bit of all of us in Greta Jellings. Maybe in her tendency to talk too much, or her nervousness about meeting people. It could be in her knowing that she looks shifty to security cameras and in front of officials. Or perhaps it is in her concerns about her body size (“Mirrors were such a disappointment”), her fearfulness, or how her head is full of the admonishing voice of Nora, her dead mother. Or is it in “Her inability to act in synchrony with her heart”?

Greta is living a life “ruled by etiquette”, she is proud of her decades of loyal service to the same small business. Her best friend is Marilyn Munroe, a chicken, even more so after her neighbours move to a sterile high-tech home where the only book to be found it one on the virtues of tidying up. Greta loves books, she takes advice from Paddington Bear, Madeline, Dian Fossey, Kenneth Grahame. She is a technophobe, suspicious of mobile phones and microwave ovens. She is naïve, she has never travelled, she has a therapist, and at heart she is lonely, and sad that she lives in an age where touch is “… the prerogative of lovers and parents and pets.”

Walter very nearly ousts Marylin Munroe from her place in Greta’s hierarchy, he is her best friend, they love each other, but Walter is gay, living with AIDS and has cancer. Greta takes all this in her stride – whenever she has allowed herself the thrill of anticipating that things will work out for her, reality has always intervened. After Walter dies, he leaves her a mystery trip, one of indeterminate length, where each destination will be revealed on the eve of the next leg of the journey. For Greta “Spontaneous arrangements were just too stressful,” but in memory of Walter, and with the encouragement of Holly, her new neighbour, Greta cuts all ties and takes off.

Addressed to Greta takes us on Greta’s mystery trip, we see the details of the streets of New York, London, and Kigali through her eyes, from taxis, trains, subways. We take her first flight with her, we are embarrassed for her, astounded by her, and eventually come to agree with the flight attendant on that first flight, that “The world needs people like you.” Her mantra for her journey is from one of Walter’s letters, “No one is watching.” And when her fears, mostly stemming from sensationalist news items and movies, allow her, she takes that mantra as permission to push her boundaries. Yet she still finds “It was one thing to speak her mind, quite another to retain composure in the wake of it.”

“As for Greta Jellings. Who was she? That depended on who was asking.” She is charming, disarming, and hilarious, she is also racist, prejudiced and a total wuss. Her redemption is in her ability to learn, to overcome her naivety and gauche reactions, some of which are laugh-out-loud, such as arriving at her Kigali hotel, “Good afternoon and welcome, madam. She curtsied. Why on earth had she curtsied?” And yet there is a lot that is tragic about Greta’s encounters, such as the forgiveness displayed by the Rwandans after the genocide, a forgiveness she can’t find in herself for the atrocities she reads about, or those closer to home – a gay son rejected, and gay friend beaten, a gay father denied access to his child.

The person Greta might have been when travelling is demonstrated in her fellow travellers, their colonial arrogance, their clumsy unthinking attempts at being charitable. In Rwanda Greta continues to react disproportionality to events, and chimpanzees, with very amusing consequences, but she also realises how many of her fears are groundless and pointless, “Greta fretted not infrequently about what the turnout would be to her funeral.” Addressed to Greta is a novel about a woman discovering things about her family, about the people she loves, and about herself. And it poses the question, will she change because of this new knowledge, or slip back into her comfortable “conveyer belt of commitments”?  

Addressed to Greta is also a love letter to New Zealand, a country Greta realises is “a treasure she was hankering for.” The book reads as though written by someone who loves Aotearoa and who wants others to as well. Sussman has made Greta, although from an English family, a born and bred Kiwi (although she would never have had a hamster, she might have had a guinea pig), and as well as sending her on a rite of passage to enable her to re-consider her situation, priorities and friendships, the journey also leads her to a deeper appreciation of her own country, “It felt good to be home.”

There are big questions asked in Addressed to Greta, such as “What is it about man’s intolerance to difference?”, and there are warnings about not jumping too quickly into judgement of others. It is a delightful read, although the narrative frayed a little bit towards the end for me. But most of it is funny and charming, and often sad. The most treasured message I took away was how important it is to not squander the privilege of choice. As Greta would blurt, “Gee whiz!”, read this book, I think you will love it as much as I did.

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The Forger and the Thief by Kirsten McKenzie – 2020

Florence 1966, a magnet for tourists and art students, a paradise full of art treasures, leaky buildings full of history, their walls displaying famous paintings, their hallways home to famous statues. Florence 1966, the war still present in the injured begging in the streets, the destitute turning to crime to survive, tattoos concealed on arms – and the Arno brooding in preparation for a deluge, a deluge that will swirl five people together and make apparent their crimes, and expose the misogyny and skewed priorities of the art world.

The forger and the thief is backgrounded by the Arno flood, which took many lives and works of art, some even today awaiting restoration. The reader’s insight into this maelstrom is provided by five disparate but entwined characters, and the spirit of the river herself, “dashing and crashing, teasing the gods until they threw their hands up in anger.”

American Richard Carstone is in Florence for the wedding of the woman who, before his brother’s accidental death, was his sister-in-law. Julia also happens to be the woman Carstone thinks he should be marrying. We hear more about Carstone’s nothing-to-be-proud-about past as the story unfolds. Another American, Rhonda Devlyn, is escaping from an abusive relationship, wondering “Would Florence deliver the peace and the security she deserved?” Rhonda is one of those invisible women “slipping unnoticed into middle age, losing her looks and youth …”

Helena Stolar is an art student, and apart from her work-experience assignment, she is trying to trace a lost family treasure. Italian Stefano Mazzi, is a cleaner, “No one ever sees the cleaner.” Mazzi has a traumatic back-story and a plan. Antonio Pisani is a disgraced policeman, lazing his way through the day, relying on the work of his partner, Rosa Fonti, for results. After all, Rosa is there to be used, her just being “a woman in a workplace not designed for her kind.”

Carstone looks down on the Italians, “Foreigners so jealous of his country, that they liked nothing better [than] to get one up on Americans”, and the Italian characters despise the Americans, their lax approach to security and ensuing outrage when robbed, “Who travels to a foreign country and leaves their handbag hanging on the back of their chair?”, their failing to properly appreciate the art they have flocked to see, “Were their eyes incapable of taking in the beauty?

Despite the suspicion between the nationalities, the one thing they have in common is their view of women as property, people there to serve their men. There are posters everywhere of a young woman who is missing, or are there posters of many women? “So many beautiful girls come to Florence, for employment or to study. After a time, they blend into one.” Contrasting with this real-world suppression of women is the adulation they receive when they are painted on canvasses or sculpted from marble, it is no coincidence that Helena’s thesis is “the Changing Depiction of Women in Frescoes in the Italian Renaissance.” There is a strange and spooky concretisation of the transition of objectified artists’ models to actual objects in the book, “Art is pain and only genuine artists can harness that pain.

The book starts with rushing water, and as we get to know the characters, they are constantly battling downpours, leaks, and soggy clothes. The visitors are assured that all is under control, the leaks and rising water merely “part of life as a Florentine.” But the more we learn about our dubious five, the higher the water rages and soon they are “in an apocalyptic rainstorm, without a clue what to do next.” We see the other sides of our people, the sides, both good and bad, that emerge in a state of emergency. And we also see the priorities of society, with people from all nations, the Mud Angels, rushing to the Uffizi, “focussed on saving the historic buildings and their contents. No one cared about the poor living nearer the commercial zone, left to fend for themselves.”

The stories of the five characters and the river are cleverly wound together, allowing the reader to slot the pieces together. There is tension both from the schemes and plots as well as from the rising waters. I found some of the similes and metaphors hurdles rather than aids to the narrative, for example “more scrapes down the side than a water buffalo in Africa”, “security guards who’d arrived slower than a sloth on heat.” But the descriptions of the art works and art world are great, “… vials of crushed gemstones, powdered beetle carcasses, and foreign seed pods.” You can smell the oil paint and feel the flakes of paint.

By the end of the book, the reader has got to know and understand the central characters, and the fact that I found it ended too abruptly is probably testament to my wanting to stay with them a bit longer. The forger and the thief is an enjoyable soggy read, with dollops of history thrown in.

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Doom Creek by Alan Carter – 2020

Good to have you back, Sergeant. We need a sheriff in town.” Sergeant Nick Chester is once again living up the Wakamarina Valley with his wife Vanessa and their son Paulie, “getting a taste for the simple life.” That is until the bodies start piling up, the whackos from the U.S. move in, and Nick finds himself fighting fires on all sides, professionally, personally, and at one stage literally. And until Vanessa starts to think moving back to gangland Sunderland might be a safer location than “Your dumb, cute, decent little country.”

Nick’s still a bit of a grump: “The logging is creeping further up the valley and goldminers are sniffing like blowflies around a wound”, but he’s grown to like Havelock, and as the story progresses we learn how much the locals have come to like him. Constable Latifa Rapata still sits alongside him in the Havelock police station, beneath the giant fibreglass mussel that shows “we’re part of the community.” Nick is pretty unimpressed at being told to babysit a film crew who are shooting an historical drama up his valley, but when a body is discovered in the local Four Square coldroom, and another one is revealed at the filming location when an earthquake causes a landslip, Nick and the reader know that the relative peace of New Zealand as “a village masquerading as a country” is about to be shattered.

One theme in Doom Creek is the potential for danger when groups decide to create their own reality, whether a white male supremacist reality overflowing from the U.S., a white male religious reality setting up on the West Coast, or even a family deciding to go off the grid up the end of the remote Wakamarina. And the actual danger when such a group has the confidence to start pushing out the boundaries, literally and figuratively, of their control. “Truth is though, I feel like this has been coming ever since Cunningham sucker-punched me that day in the bakery”, Cunningham lives at the heavily guarded “hunting lodge-cum-resort”  down the valley from Nick, he is an arrogant American who gets under everyone’s skin, even that of the unrufflable Latifa. He has the confidence of being a henchman for James Oliver Bryant, a U.S. oligarch with dual citizenship, billions of dollars, and international influence.

Cunningham and his gang also have lots of assault weapons, astoundingly legal in New Zealand, leading Nick to presciently wonder, “what will it take to change that?” The Christchurch Terrorist Attack is not mentioned in the book, but the milieu which enables such atrocities is. I read it as the turmoil of the U.S. election was still playing out, as news services were cutting away from a presidential press conference due to the president telling lies and inciting community violence. As well as his Wakamarina fortress, Bryant, a White House insider, is also developing an “adult wellbeing retreat” in the Sounds, Māhana, which is guarded like Fort Knox, and which turns out to have some pretty creepy customisations. So, Cunningham et al. loom large as suspects. Some odd coincidences popping up in the police investigations, also lead to an equally culturally appropriating Whakakitenga religious community on the West Coast, widening both the geographic and time-line scope of the investigations.

Doom Creek is a police procedural, and there are lots of cases running in parallel, between which Nick flits. There are plenty of dangerous incidents and more suspects than mussels in a Havelock chowder. Even Nick falls under suspicion at one point, and he is not sure he’s not guilty. Doom Creek is also a good old whodunnit, with clues enough for the reader to get there before the main cop, “… something nags at me but I can’t grasp it,” though to be fair, Doom Creek is also character driven, and Nick has some close-to-home concerns that are an increasing distraction. All the characters are detailed and interesting, many sympathetic and some downright scary, “If you believe in the End Times, like these jokers do, then the only rules are the ones you write yourself.” And there are side eyes towards some in N.Z. government agencies, who are suspected of being more in league with like-minded overseas organisations than with the “leftie virtue-signallers” in Wellington they work for.

Somehow Doom Creek manages to convey the beauty of the South Island bush, even with all the mayhem playing out. The violence is shocking, as is the realisation that although some of the victims may get some sort of justice, the perpetrators of other crimes have the protection and techniques of the untouchable: “Look, bullshit and bluster, disrupt and distract. It’s the political strategy du jour.” And through the plot winds Nick’s unfolding personal situation. Doom Creek is a great read, and despite its serious themes is amusingly written. Although there is the possibility of his leaving our shores, I hope, along with the Havelock locals, that we haven’t seen the end of Sergeant Nick Chester.

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Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – 2020

My Country, Right or Wrong” – the slogan that sits on the lintel above the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp in Remote Sympathy. But is it a call to blind patriotism? – the harbour for those ‘just following orders.’ Is it a question asked by the worried, those citizens making small ripples in the tide of acceptance and blind-eye-turning? Is it a gambler’s toss, wondering which way the dice of history will fall? Each is a possibility in this extraordinary novel of the potential for evil lurking within us. Lurking within our tendency towards being accepted, being comfortable, being safe, and towards our having the slightest suspicion that those experiencing deprivation must somehow deserve it. As the sign on the Buchenwald gate reads: “To Each His Due.

In 1930, Dr Lenard Weber is determined to find a way to cure the cancerous tumours that took his father, and he is inspired when visiting an art installation of the human body, realising that “ … the body wasn’t a collection of separate parts, each performing its own solitary task, but a circuit, a machine, an exquisite and collaborative machine.” He starts to work on an electricity machine to resonate in remote sympathy with a stricken body. He also embarks on a relationship with Anna, a young woman he meets at the exhibition. And eventually they marry and have a daughter, Lotte. They live happily in Frankfurt, until their life is destroyed due to Anna being Jewish.

Greta Hahn is entranced by her husband, the older, and impressive, Dietrich Hahn, and they dote on their son, Karl-Heinz. They are living a nice life in Dresden, with Dietrich on his way up the ranks of the SS. Greta is becoming used to having servants and beautiful things, when Sturmbannführer Hahn is appointed head of supplies and logistics at Buchenwald. Greta’s family is uprooted and moved to a purpose-built villa, one of a number built to house the elite staff of Buchenwald, not far from Weimar. Weimar is full of monuments to its glorious history as the birthplace of such figures as Goethe and Schiller. Buchenwald is hidden up in a forest on Ettersberg mountain. When they cleared the forest to build it, the Goethe oak, a tree that the writer liked to visit, was spared, and fenced off: “… the inmates called it Buchenwald’s first prisoner.”

The story of Remote Sympathy is told by Greta (via an ‘imaginary diary’), Dietrich Hahn (via interviews relating to his post-war trial – some sections taken verbatim from the trial of Otto Barnewald, on whom Dietrich’s character is loosely based) and Lenard Weber (via letters to Lotte). It is also told via “The Private Reflections of One Thousand Citizens of Weimar.” This last because, just as Weber observes with a body, atrocities are not the result of individuals performing their own tasks, they are a circuit, a machine, an exquisite and collaborative machine. All narrators are drawn into the concerted effort, Hahn justifying his thieving and distancing himself from the operations of the camp, as he was just in logistics. Greta enjoying the privileges of her position, and taking advantage of the facility of ordering, and re-ordering, luxury items which are made to order. She looks at the views from her window, and she has picnics with her neighbour, Emmi Wolff, and their children, only glancingly puzzled by the smell, “… fatty and smoky and too too sweet.” Weber is entangled too, stealing food for his fellow inmates and wolfing it down himself, continuing to provide hope to Greta, when he doubts there is any, but he is sure his help is all that is securing his access to information about Anna and Lotte, far off in another camp, Theresienstadt. You do not run a place like Buchenwald without the engagement of many service-providers, many favours, many trade-offs, all part of the ‘collaborative machine.’   

Remote Sympathy is exquisitely plotted with a building tension. And what is behind this ever more escalating situation? There is the advancement of disease, the approach of the allies, the increasing desperation of an addicted gambler. And there is fake news: photos of “Our time at Buchenwald,” movies of the pleasant life at Theresienstadt. There is the myth of those with tainted blood, the Mischlings, whose affliction could be disappeared with an official certificate, or created to place someone you need in a camp near you. There is the fake news of propaganda, of common knowledge, of the endless justifications for your own behaviour. Even when you admit you are doing wrong, you justify it by those actions protecting those around you, never by them ensuring your own safety.

Hahn’s interviews are full of his sensible actions to ensure efficiency and the smooth running of the camp. The complicit citizens of Weimar are still outwardly in denial even when they are taken through the camp post-liberation. There is a sense that Hahn and most of the people of Weimar feel hard-done-by, that if the war had gone their way, their actions would have been merely what had been required. And this novel resonates with our current situation, where we buy cheap good quality goods, knowing they have probably been manufactured in far from ideal conditions, for far from adequate wages. When we still engage pleasantly with regimes who put ethnic minorities in ‘re-education camps’ or permanently separate children from their parents at their borders. Where we see the dangers of racism and manufactured ideas of ‘purity’ used once again to justify separation and violence.

Remote Sympathy is not unsympathetic to its characters, you feel sympathy for Greta and Weber, especially when they grow fond of each other. There are occasions of sympathy even for Dietrich, when he carefully places a snail out of harm’s way, when his concern for Greta overwhelms him. You can understand the boon the camp must have been to the businesspeople of Weimar, what a boost to the young women having handsome soldiers around. There are also moments of hope, the small, and sometimes not so small, efforts of the inmates. Their taking little pieces of the Goethe oak as talismans, one carving a chunk of it into a representation of all those who suffered in the camp. Even Hahn takes a piece – a festering splinter in his finger.

But as the story unfolds so too do the horrors, the lives lost indicated by the skills of those in the camp, or from the theatre tickets left in coat pockets. There are the children, those not wanting to be ‘dirty Jews’, those who learn how to throw stones at prisoners, those who appear to fall easily into the role of torturer. The children who are hidden, those who are lost, those whose only experiences of life have been those of nightmares. There is the view of the citizens of Weimar held by the inmates: “A skinny flotilla of strangers from a place they swore they did not know.” And there is the ever-present gnawing hunger, “Take your hunger in your arms”, the cause of despair and conflict in the camp.

Remote Sympathy is an intricate retelling of events that we are both familiar with and constantly shocked by. Shocked that in such a few years we could go from the ideal of a body resonating to health like the string of a piano vibrating “as it recognised its own frequency in my voice.” The hope of all the world being alive with energy, a world where bodies could affect each other via remote sympathy, dwindling to the arrival at a concentration camp where “There can be no sympathy here, they said.” Read it!  

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Kealaula by Kim Cope Tait – 2019

Kealaula lives in Vermont, her father calls her Chickadee, a bird with a plaintive call, “the saddest sound I knew” but also with a “trill that sounds like excitement spiralling up a spine.” Through this novel, Kealaula learns what that is like; to have “so many reasons to be sad” yet at the same time starting to feel the excitement of connectedness.

Kealaula is a Bildungsroman, taking Kealaula from childhood to being a “human in my own right.” When her mother is diagnosed with leukaemia, Kealaula and her young sister Virgilia, are sent to Hawaii to stay with their Auntie ‘Ānela. They go from the smell of maple syrup and making snow angels to the fragrance of plumerias and floating in the sea. Kealaula starts on a journey of discovering her Hawaiian heritage, all with a tinge of sadness, knowing what her parents are dealing with back home.

This novel could have been trite and predictable, but it is far from it. Kealaula’s family history, even the world she has been born into, is complex and intriguing. People and places have names full of conflicting histories, Kealaula’s name is Hawaiian, Virgilia is named after her grandfather, their father being a 7th generation Vermonter. They live near Jamaica Village, named after the Natick word for beaver, but of course having other resonances. They have an aunt training to be a Rabbi, Kealaula refers to a later interest in yoga. The children in the school that Kealaula attends in Hawaii are a mixture of looks and ethnicities. The sisters discover they have a Japanese grandmother, Tūtū Akiko.

Kealaula looks at home in Hawaii, and is accepted as a local, as long as she doesn’t speak. And some of her friends, although they are locals, are shamed for “sharing the blood of the Conquerors”, because they don’t look Hawaiian or don’t have Hawaiian names. This melange of people and information is the background for Kealaula’s discovering how her mother ended up in Vermont, how families can be wrenched apart and lost to each other for years yet remain somehow connected.

The book refrains from being over sentimental, even though Kealaula feels an affinity to the sea, and the landscape around her, she’s not that good at the hula and her first surf is a disaster. And there are subtleties to the differences she experiences between Southern Vermont and Waimea, Hawaii. The male/female divide is more pronounced, making her experience of female connectedness intense, and her slight sexual attraction to her cousin and to a friend’s brother more visceral.

The mystery at the core of the family story is a revelation for Kealaula, and a prompt for her to see her relatives in a new light. She ponders Whāngai-type relationships in a world where people and families travel far and wide. And how anger is always from a point of view; that seeing something through someone else’s eyes can turn that anger to sadness. The book is full of references to rivers and the sea, Kealaula sees people as waves, all individual yet all connected, she spends a lot of time unsure: “I felt myself as in a limbo, and floating.” She has vivid dreams when away from home, all somehow related to water.

Kealaula is a lovely read, achingly sad yet also full of optimism due to the connections between people that persist through time, and that give comfort and the constant hope of renewal. It is a Young Adult novel which can be enjoyed by all.

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The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle – 2020

For the love of money is the root of all evil, and the proviso on Ridge Carmichael’s will leads to all kinds of evil. The first of his children to bear a child will receive one hundred million dollars, and they will be forbidden to share the money with their siblings: “My father had no interest in compensating losers. It was winner takes all.” Ridge’s eldest children are twins, Summer and Iris. They are mirror twins, with their features and organs reversed, when they look in the mirror, they don’t see themselves, each sees the other.

There are seven Carmichael children, the twins have a younger brother, and Ridge’s third wife, Francine, has four children. The eldest of Francine’s children is Virginia and she was born while Ridge was still married to Annabeth, the twins’ mother. Ridge’s first wife, Margaret, had no children, so he left her, “the mistake of leaving the business of having children until too late. We girls wouldn’t have the option of trying again with a younger wife.”

The girl in the mirror is told mainly from Iris’ point of view, she considers herself the “unexpected twin, the surplus twin”, and sees Summer as the beautiful one, the one with a perfect life and a loving husband, Adam. When Iris is called to Phuket to help Summer and Adam out, it is the perfect chance for her to leave what she sees as a failed life, her marriage has ended, and she is aimless. She is needed to sail the family yacht, Bathsheba, now owned by Summer and Adam, to the Seychelles, as Iris is a great yachtsman. Adam’s son Tarquin has been rushed to hospital so his father or stepmother will be staying with him in Phuket. Iris thinks she will be sailing with Adam, but arrangements change and Summer and Iris head out to sea. So, the scene is set – twins with the only things distinguishing them things that can be altered; eyebrows, hairstyles, a scar on one that can easily be reproduced on the other. A tale of confusion, deceit, and greed ensues.

The girl in the mirror is skillfully plotted, and the descriptions of the wide-open seas, bustling Phuket and tropical Seychelles are great. Not all the twists are unexpected, but the details of how the story plays out continue to surprise. The writing is inventive, reversing roles is “like passing through a mirror”, Iris when feeling at once trapped and free: “I am the albatross around my own neck.” The reader is constantly guessing about the characters, is Iris a reliable narrator? Does even she believe her adoration of Summer, who told her horror stories to frighten her when she was young? And what about Adam? “I almost feel that Adam doesn’t care which wife is which as long as she cooks and cleans, looks after the kids and puts out.”

However, I did find the main theme of the book. the lengths to which privileged people will go to get richer, led to some uncomfortable reading. And as conception and babies are involved, it is quite troubling. For some reason even poor little Tarquin is described as having “festering genitalia.” There are disturbing scenes where rape is endured and then “I can’t hide the hot waves of pleasure that wash over me.” It is a world where the promised inheritance heightens the requirement for women to be dynasty child bearers – not falling pregnant is seen as “a disaster.” The lengths Francine is willing to go to secure teenager Virginia as the winner in the race to fall pregnant and give birth are appalling. “Fertility is one step away from decay.

So, a thrilling read that keeps you guessing, and where the beautiful people are really really not!

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The Tally Stick by Carl Nixon – 2020

It is the late 1970s New Zealand, a car goes off the road into the dense forest, slipping “between the trunks like a blade”, and plummeting into the river below. Rain takes all traces away. In the car is a newly arrived family from England, taking a West Coast drive before the father takes up his new job in Wellington in two weeks’ time. Twenty-three years later the body of the eldest child, Maurice, is found, but his skeleton shows he lived for four years after the family’s disappearance. His father’s watch, a leather dog collar, a large amount of money, and a wooden tally stick have been found with his remains. Where was Maurice for those four years? And what happened to his parents and the other three children, baby Emma, younger brother Tommy, and twelve-year-old Katherine?

It is almost impossible to write a detailed review of The tally stick without ruining the plot. It is a compelling mystery, the effectiveness of which depends on the reader not knowing anything of what is going to happen. The story is told from multiple timelines and points of view, yet it is well structured and the different narratives weave around each other. We see through the eyes of some of the surviving children, as well as through those of their Aunt Suzanne, both when she makes four trips to New Zealand early on, trying to find her sister and her sister’s family, and then years later when she manages the repatriation of her nephew’s remains.

The tally stick is about so many things, and many of them link to the meaning of the stick – a record of unpaid debts. It raises the question of what, if anything, people owe each other, what must be earned and what should be freely given. It is about what you owe your family, at what point you may give up on them, follow your own path and disassociate from them. And if connections last through the years, what are you connected to? How do people change in different environments?

Maurice resists change, he is judgemental, seeing people who are different as stupid and “not civilised”, he says long words to himself to prove his superiority, he makes shrines to vengeance. Katherine is a more attractive character, always seeing the goodness in people, paying due respect to the dead and the damaged. Her eyesight is weak, and she sees spirits in the forest, reads meaning into the sightings of birds, and she makes shrines to the benevolent deities. She tries to pray but her words “seemed more likely to be heard by God when you said them in London.” We see Katherine change the most, as her name diminishes: Katherine, Kate, Kat.

There are other characters the car crash survivors encounter, and they are ambiguous. We suspect them and fear them, but eventually we understand them, to a degree. The colonial experience is somewhat echoed, by the survivors encountering people who have been shaped by a completely different world. And in there being those that adjust and those that can’t, but who are therefore changed in a darker way. Those from the UK often must ask for clarification, what is a Crunchie, what are the wop-wops?     

The writing in The tally stick is evocative, you can smell the native bush, see the birds, feel the soggy forest floor. There is much that the reader must fill in for themselves. It is a read full of conflict, violence, and dread, but there is also beauty and kindness, and the switching back and forth gives it an inevitability that puts the characters in the frame of a morality play. I am not going to say anything else about the story – you will have to, and should, read it yourself.

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The Silence of Snow by Eileen Merriman – 2020

The silence of snowJodi is a new doctor, working at Nelson Hospital, feeling out of her depth: “I keep worrying I’m going to kill someone.” But helping her out is handsome Rory, the anaesthetist with an appealing accent. Jodi’s controlling fiancé, Fraser, is living in a distant city and is dismissive of the stress Jodi is under. The silence of snow is set-up to be a medical romance and sure enough: “Kissing Rory had been like kissing a wolf – dangerous, and forbidden, and bound to get her into trouble sooner or later.” Things start to look good for Jodi and Rory, but this is Eileen Merriman, who wrote Moonlight sonata, so you know there is something wrong with this picture …

The silence of snow traverses some of the same themes as A mistake by Carl Shuker, considering the type of personality you need to have to cut people open, inject them with potential poisons, and make life and death decisions under stress. And as in A mistake, at the heart of The silence of snow is medical misadventure, and the fact that although such misadventures are the result of chains of events, the official processes try to find one person to judge, while the guilt weighs heavily on all in the chain. But The silence of snow is a slow reveal, and unlike A mistake, only gradually do you learn the whole story.

From the start the young medics are all tired and stressed, they drink a lot, don’t sleep much, and it really did make me consider the few times I have ended up in the ED of Nelson Hospital! For quite a while you worry for the patients who end up under the characters’ care, as their concerns seem to mainly revolve around their relationships. But this view evolves along with the story, and as Jodi becomes more confident and proficient, she and the reader get to know and care for some of the repeat patients. And then there is Rory …

Rory is waiting for the outcome of an investigation into a tragedy which haunts him and gives him nightmares, whenever he manages to get to sleep. He is always taking painkillers to “take the edge off”, and longs for the “absence of sound that comes with snow falling on snow.” Merriman manages to make Rory’s life splitting in two believable. He wants a life with Jodi, plans to travel back to Scotland with her, and at the same time his life is spinning, or rather drifting, out of control under the beckoning of the syringes of the “chalky white substance.” He is full of self-loathing yet gets good at slick lies, he looks down on other addicts, and he himself doesn’t know what he is aiming for: temporary or eternal peace? And the reader (at least this one) becomes divided too, in part highly judgemental, and yet understanding the attraction of the euphoria of silence, of the peaceful moment of waking from drug induced oblivion.

The novel describes the conundrum of people under great stress in an occupation that offers them free access to addictive drugs – it is chilling how Rory has such facility with the technical effectiveness of the various drugs he takes. And Jodi becomes aware of, and complicit in, the blurring of the edges around “do no harm.” Rory’s story becomes situational, with binge drinking “hardly an odd behaviour amongst junior doctors”, and doctors who work extremely long shifts “might as well have been drunk.” Jodi’s father asks, “does medicine attract more of the types of personalities that are prone to anxiety and depression, or does it create anxiety and depression?” There is a clinic in Dunedin which specialises “in doctors with addiction and mental health issues.”

The writing in The silence of snow becomes totally immersive, I live in Nelson and could imaging the settings in and around Whakatū perfectly, I even had a look to see if Gin Lane actually existed! The use of quotes from the poems both Jodi and Rory love, is poignant, especially when Jodi ends up reading aloud one of their favourites, The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock, at a particularly difficult time. Although the pacing is measured, it is still a roller coaster ride of a read. And has absolute gems like one of the doctors sharing a ‘fact of the day’ with Jody, that whales who sing in the wrong key get lost and are alone in the ocean. A beautiful metaphor, for “[i]t only takes one slip-up” for a life to drift off key, and drift away, even from those you love. And in the end The silence of snow is a love story, just not the type you thought you had in your hands at the beginning. A lovely, awful, and thought provoking read.

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The Murder Club by Nikki Crutchley – 2020

Evil “doesn’t always lurk in city centres after dark. It mows your lawns, frequents your local pub, takes its kids to school and contributes to communities.” Journalist Miller Hatcher is back, back in small town New Zealand, where: “Any ambition she held was now buried by past failures and mistakes.”

Miller is counting her days sober, but her thoughts are never far from alcohol. She has moved to the small town of Lentford, not far out of Hamilton, and misses her job with prestigious First look magazine. She pushes the boundaries in the Lentford leader, with articles on school bullying and period poverty in between those of local houses of interest and the Christmas Parade, but “… the readership wasn’t overly interested in the big issues.”

Miller is scarred, literally and figuratively, by her past. She believes Lentford is where she deserves to be, not where she wants to be. She doesn’t feel part of the community, but she values her few friends and is heading towards some level of contentment, she even has a bit of a crush on a local printer, Jay. But then a young woman is murdered, and the murderer reaches out to Miller via a letter asking her to tell his story, asking for her to make him a household name, as he plans to kill again.

Kahu Parata (from the first Miller Hatcher outing, Nothing bad happens here), arrives to take the case, he is now a Detective Sergeant and grieving over losing his wife to cancer. But Miller is confident the case will be resolved soon: “That’s what Kahu did. Caught the baddies.”

There are two other stories that run in parallel with the tension-building main thread:

Cassie is obsessed with finding out who murdered her mother, and her obsession has ended with her being institutionalised in a treatment facility in Lentford. She decides to stay on after her release, hoping to find out how her mother’s remains ended up buried on the town’s outskirts – Miller decides to help by running Cassie’s story.

Logan’s sister was murdered when he was twelve, and he was the one who found her body. A lifelong fascination with her murder has led to him starting up a True Crime Enthusiasts Club, the ‘murder club’, complete with planned tours of local murder sites – Miller agrees to help by running Logan’s story.

The Murder Club is narrated through oppressive unseasonal heat, sudden short downpours, the smell of lawn clippings and heat, with Miller often in small fuggy rooms with cloying smells. She is surrounded by small time pettiness and gossip. When she becomes party to information about the current murders, she, a journalist, does a better job of discretion than one of the local cops, who loves to be the centre of attention at the local pub. The town has no shortage of possible suspects, and as each falls under suspicion, the locals don’t hold back in judging, exaggerating and embellishing.

The plotting in The Murder Club is superb, the stories all gaining momentum and interweaving. Cassie ends up in an abusive relationship with another woman, also an ex-patient of the facility, Logan seems to pop up all over the place, and there is the awful knowledge that as the letters keep coming, so will the murders. And of course, Miller and the reader knows that eventually the murderer will come for her in person.

The theme of the novel I particularly admired was the consideration of the ethics of “… the public deserves to know – don’t they?” The desire of the murderer to be notorious, the commercialisation of murder via the murder club tours, the immediate adoption of a soubriquet: The Scarf Killer. Do journalists do the right thing by telling the ‘other side of the story’, giving the deceased a voice, or do they commodify them and their stricken family members into victims? There is a powerful scene where, during a trial run of the club tour, they are at a murder site when the victim’s mother arrives to place flowers, and she confronts Logan in disgust. And why should we know about the perpetrators? As one of the murdered women’s mothers says of the murderer at a vigil: “He doesn’t deserve to be known.”

Also handled well is the story of the murder of women at the hands of weak and self-obsessed men, men who see themselves as victims but somehow noble. All the young women have varied stories and various reasons for being in Lentford, a small town where everyone feels safe until … they’re not. And there is a great moment of fury during the vigil, when a woman reacts to the mayor saying the women should take precautions to keep themselves safe – furious that the response to women being murdered is to advise them what they should do to avoid it.

The Murder Club is a tense, scary, atmospheric read and I really hope we meet Miller Hatcher again!

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Over Your Shoulder by CJ Carver – 2020

Over your shoulderThings were so topsy-turvy I was beginning to wonder if anyone could be taken at face value anymore”, Nick Ashdown’s world has hurtled off the rails. He was watching TV with his wife, Susie, when they saw a news item about a man acting heroically in the face of a lone-wolf shooter. But it wasn’t the possibility of random violence that had shaken Nick, it was the fact that the hero was his younger brother, Rob, who had died in a boating accident 12 years before.

Over your shoulder rockets along as we travel with Nick as he faces reveal after reveal about the past, and about his present, and faces the possibility that his little brother might not be a hero, but a murderer. Nick is so unprepared, so content with his life in the picturesque coastal village of Bosham. He is a graphic designer working not far from home, Susie does weekly commutes into London for her civil service job, his parents don’t live far away, and everyone knows him and his family down at their local.

The reader starts picking up clues along the way as we go on Nick’s journey, and we see things from Susie’s point of view as well as Nick’s. There is a great stereotype reversal in their relationship – Nick would like to have kids and become a stay-at-home dad, but Susie is ambitious, focussed on her career, and she is strong-willed: “I couldn’t imagine many wives letting their husbands continue what others might call a reckless undertaking.” Nick finds himself neck-deep in a world of drug smuggling, big money, chilling villains, possibly dodgy cops, and extreme violence.

Amidst Nick’s adjusting to this new and dangerous world, is his confusion and anger over Rob. Nick and his parents have grieved for him, Rob’s wife has re-married, his children have a new father. Through the book Nick is constantly taken back to the times when he and his little brother were growing up together: “I wanted to go sailing with him. Have a pint with him. Go walking along the shore, identifying the waders probing in the mud for shellfish and crabs, chatting about nothing in particular alongside the sound of curlews. I wanted to see my little brother and give him a hug. After punching him first, of course.

Nick finds a strength and resilience he didn’t know he had, and he discovers one of his biggest weaknesses is his inability to lie effectively. And as the twists continue, even those readers who have picked up clues along the way will be surprised at the climax! The plotting is excellent, and the coda after the main reveal gives the novel much more substance than it would have had with just a ‘got ya’ ending, and the extra twist at the end keeps you thinking for quite a while after you have finished reading.

Another excellent thriller from C J Carver, have a read!

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