Fletcher of the Bounty by Graeme Lay – 2017

FletcheroftheBountyI really enjoyed Lay’s James Cook trilogy, from the first installment which adores Cook, through to the final depiction of a man gone mad.  I picked up Fletcher of the Bounty expecting a combination of the two – adoring of Christian and a depiction of an insane Bligh – needless to say my history of the events comes from various movies!  Lay’s portrayal is much more complex, following Christian from a youth whose prospects are thwarted by the fall of his family, through to his failed attempts at creating a Pacific utopia.  And Bligh from a fair leader with an honorable history, through to an insecure man conscious of his humble origins; a lonely and isolated man.  At the beginning, I was a bit distracted by cousin John seemingly introducing Christian as his nephew, and Christian being offered a job where he will “mess as an officer” and then his causing a kafuffle because “you’re just a gunner, and gunners don’t eat with officers.”  But I was soon absorbed in the unfolding of the tale, and horrified by the choices made and intentions expressed on the basis of roaring hormones, and the consequential abuse of any exotic woman.  It really is an appalling tale of a far from noble enterprise.  And Fletcher, although feeling guilty over the business of slavery that underpins his voyage to the Pacific, is certainly not pure in many of his intentions.  And his reasons for mutiny are nothing to be proud of when looked at through the lens of today’s sensibilities.  The point is made that any success that the Pitcairn settlement enjoyed was totally due to the women taken to the island.  Fletcher of the Bounty is a tale of how a life can become something so different from the one imagined in youth or in one’s yearnings – perhaps it is intentional that Lay has a fiction encounter between Fletcher Christian and William Wordsworth when they were both youths – Wordsworth growing up to realise the mess we make of our potentially perfect worlds: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.”  This book is not a pleasant read, but it is an interesting one – and one that brings another chapter of our not too glowing history to life.


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Catching the Last Tram by Susan Holt – 2017

What a charming book!  Catching the last tram is a romance that follows the usual Catching the last tramromantic arc – but not at all in a usual way.  Beth is a librarian who has moved into a new part of town, she is lonely and on the lookout for a fella – her last few relationships having not ended well.  Beth finds a likely prospect on her commuter tram, but her fixation on behaving in a way that will give her the best chance of pursuing a relationship, means she misses some very odd details about the tram and its regulars.  The reader is suspicious from the outset, which leads to a fun read as you try to work out exactly what might be going on.  Beth’s world is modern, but the style of writing is slightly not – until the cell phones came out I was thinking we were possibly in the 1950s, and the processes at Beth’s Library seem a bit dated as well – all of which added to the mystery.  I don’t want to give anything away, as the enjoyment of the book is in not knowing, but it gets pretty darn scary in a number of places.  Holt includes the theme of the evils of bullying, and the value of friendship, and a quite tongue in cheek reference to an environment where money trumps true love.  I still had a few questions at the end, but nothing that got in the way of this being a delightful read.

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The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington – 2017

the earth cries outRuth is a young girl, living with her family on her grandparent’s apple orchard in Nelson, when a terrible accident tears her family apart.  Ironically it also keeps her family together, as her parents were talking divorce before the accident, but afterwards her father decides they should take their grief to Irian Jaya.  He intends for them to work on community development programmes – building a hospital, introducing rabbit breeding and avocado growing, handing out health pamphlets.  Little Ruth packs up – armed with A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of New Guinea and The Swiss Family Robinson, gifts from her grandfather “Thus armed, he could send me anywhere.”  The novel is the story of Ruth’s time in the small mountain village of Yuvut.  Set in the 1990s, the civil unrest and uneasy mix of peoples in the village echoes Ruth’s inner turmoil:  Wracked with childhood guilt about what part she may have played in the accident that took the life of her little sister, and feeling apart from her unhappy parents, she laments: “In Yuvut you would try to guess who was on whose side, but there seemed to be too many sides and no one was ever on yours”.  The small and large cruelties inflicted by people on people, by people on animals, by  people on nature, and the suffering of people at the mercy of nature – these are all described; when Ruth is in a plane looking down at what appears  to be pristine forest, she can imagine the enormous devastation man has caused to the environment and “I imagined, too, the tinier forms of life, the dancing birds of paradise, the spirits waiting at the edge of things for their time to come, waiting for the water to get low enough in the swamps and expose all of Papua’s hidden secrets: its bodies of planes, of people.”  The book also deals with the difficulties of translation; the tenuous connections between those who don’t speak the same language, or who must rely on a third person to interpret.  At one point these connections are likened to Papuan rope bridges – “The ropes sometimes broke.  But people kept crossing them anyway.”  There are inserted sections throughout the book that are named for various plants, all of them relating to the horrors that have played out in Papua.  These inserted stories are from different years and perspectives – most seemingly gathered from a later time when Ruth is working with refugees – from one of them: “We’re all just sitting with our toes dipped in that dark water and the only thing separating mad from not mad is how far we let ourselves slip in.”  The Earth Cries Out is a sad book, but I found it really compelling, and Ruth a wonderful character.


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Through the Lonesome Dark by Paddy Richardson – 2017

Pansy, Clem and Otto are inseparable mates in the West IMG_0247
Coast coalmining town of Blackball pre the Great War. The children have quite different home lives, Pansy having the worst of it by far – her father being a cruel drunk who abuses his wife and whose view of society would make him feel right at home in A handmaid’s tale. To make matters worse Pansy is full of promise, and with a supportive family she would have gone far, but she ends up in service. There’s nothing new in Pansy’s story, but it is well told.  The novel then switches point of view and we follow Clem off to war – he is a sympathetic character, but his reasons for enlisting are appalling. And his decision is seen as a betrayal by his ‘workers of the world unite’ dad. Clem goes from digging in the mines to digging tunnels for the allies, and his section of the book is again well told and textured, with lots of interesting characters.  I would have preferred to continue Pansy’s story while Clem was off at war, and also for Otto’s story to be told. We hear what happens to Otto but he doesn’t have a ‘voice’, which unbalanced the book for me. Also the author plays around with time sequences a bit, which is effective in keeping you concentrating while reading, but one twist to the story really had me struggling to fit it into the timeline.  And another twist I was sure would be revealed, drawing all three characters back together, never was. There is much in this novel that had me engrossed, but I would have preferred it to be longer, for it to give the reader a chance to be part of all three children’s lives and destinies, not just a slice of two of them, and for it to explore more the effect of the First World War on the lives and politics of small town New Zealand communities.

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Lifting by Damien Wilkins – 2017

LiftingAmy is a new mum, still coming to terms with having a ‘family’, her husband has moved from a job where he smelt of coffee all the time to one where he stinks of petrol, they have problems with the neighbours, her mother is ailing and her elder sisters judgemental – but all in all things are OK.  Amy is also surrounded by crime, she is a store detective at Cutty’s, a large Wellington department store, she was an animal rights activist in her youth, and from experience knows that most people have infringed at some point in their lives.  And Amy is being interviewed by the Police, and the interview has something to do with an incident during the disturbing last few weeks, the weeks since the announcement of the closure of Cutty’s.  Lifting drifts through these few weeks, and through Amy’s memories as she becomes quite disengaged from her life, observing her child, her husband, herself much as she observes the shoppers in the store.  She wonders about moving away from ‘security’ work, thinking that it puts her in constant proximity to low-level criminals, but then again maybe that’s exactly where she wants to be?  Amy uses her power of ‘discretion’ with the ‘persons of interest’ she spots as she pretends to be a fellow shopper, thinking she has a moral compass, but isn’t she just random with her grace and with her decisions to act?  The closure of the store becomes a metaphor for the disintegration of an era – with its sexist doormen, the sensual face-to-face rather than face-to-screen shopping experience, the tea and cream buns after the first bra fitting, and the various methods of shoplifting; brazen to furtive, but all on an individual, human level – not the horrific violent gang raids on dairies and service stations we see on TV, not the impersonal mass cyber robberies we read about.  “It was tempting to believe that venturing outside the crumbling world of Cutty’s would bring you even closer to the apocalypse and that gangs of wild children carrying improvised weapons wandered the streets … “.  And there is Gerty Cutty, the last surviving member of the founding family, an embodiment of the store’s long and shady past, Amy is intrigued by her and wonders if her sad farewells to the store aren’t also a good riddance, she watches her driven away “A small hand waved at the window as the car pulled away”.  As the staff of Cutty’s work through the final weeks, some getting jobs, some still hoping for a final reprieve, no one really has a handle on the situation – large items go missing, is it theft or part of the wind-down of the store?  And the staff start eyeing up items themselves, to buy or …  And interspersed in the narrative is the Police interview – which crime great or small is being investigated?  Is Amy a suspect or helping with the investigation?  As the store at once winds down and also starts preparing for a final sale – they are flying people down on a special flight from Auckland for it – there is a sense that something has gone very, very wrong.  Lifting is inconclusive and ambiguous, even the title can refer to petty crime or to triumphant moments, it harkens to a time of clarity and certainty that probably never existed on an individual level, not even in youth, and definitely not in any previous era.  It is a lovely read about the passing of time and how every now and again that passage leaves you unmoored for a while.

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Straight and Level by Penelope Haines – 2017

Claire Hardcastle is a twenty-something pilot working for a small aviation Straight and Leveloutfit on the Kapiti Coast.  Her new, still finding out about each other, partner is a cop – and currently off in the Solomon’s on secondment – leaving their relationship at the Skype level.  She loves flying and is studying for more qualifications, she is swearing off alcohol for a good cause, and enjoying the mix of work, friends and living alone with her cat, Nelson.  But not far into the novel Claire starts meeting a range of intriguing characters, getting odd flying assignments, and being in the vicinity where bodies are being found.  Claire doesn’t end up unravelling the mystery so much as getting swept along into it – her piloting skills being of great interest to both the good guys and the bad guys.  She is a great character, a mix of pizazz and composure – and very human, she gets a rumbling tum at a very tense moment, and fleetingly thinks she didn’t really need to have changed the sheets during a torrid sex scene.  It is great to have the males the ones who are agonising over relationships, and eliciting “Magnificence in a man can be so transitory” comments about their physiques.  The plot involves drugs, gangs, rich people, Maori sovereignty and a very whacky attempt at bio-terrorism, but somehow it all hangs together.  And there are a few red herrings along the way.  The settings are great – the beautiful Kapiti Coast, the Marlborough Sounds and the misty Uruweras, are all described to great effect, often from the air.  The technical information about flying is absorbing – on more than one occasion I thought of taking lessons!  This is the second Claire Hardcastle outing and a third is on the way.  Well worth a read.


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See You in September by Charity Norman – 2017

See you in SeptemberCassy has a typical love/hate relationship with her parents, especially her ex-army Dad, and she is well on the way to completing a Law Degree when she and her ambitious boyfriend Hamish decide to go off on a short trip to New Zealand, to fill the gap between a friend’s wedding and heading back to varsity.  At Heathrow, she promises her family she will see them in September.  But a fall out with Hamish and an offer of a lift from a friendly band of ‘hippies’ sees Cassy spend years in Gethsemane, a commune/cult not far from Rotorua.  The novel is structured with two and bit streams – one from Cassy’s POV, the second that of her devastated family, and there are some quotes from The Cult Leader’s Manual, written by an anthropologist specialising in destructive cults.  Although this book tells a predictable tale, it does so in a very suspenseful and ambiguous way – and there were a number of times when I was ready to pack my bags and head off to Gethsemane!  I was sure I knew what lay ahead for Cassy (or the woman formally known as Cassy – renaming being part of the package) but her story is so carefully told that I became totally enmeshed in her ‘present’, and I was kept guessing throughout the book whether Gethsemane and its leader, Justin Calvin, were really that bad compared to the ghastly events unfolding ‘outside’.  The depiction of the destruction of her family back in England is appalling, especially the effect of her choices on her younger sister – but isn’t that because her family just refused to believe all the wonderful things they are told about Cassy’s new home?  Even by the Private Detective they hire?  We are told we are living at the most peaceful time in human history, but it is kind of hard to believe with all the bad news bombarding us every day – and there have been a lot of earthquakes lately …  I don’t want to give too much away, as I was still questioning right up to the end of the book, but Charity Norman does a great job of making bizarre human behaviour seem perfectly reasonable.  I really enjoyed this book.

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