Shadows of the Mind by Owen Clough – 2018

Shadows of the mindShadows of the mind is the second book in Clough’s Whispers of the past trilogy.  This installment follows the story of Samuel McInnes (Mack), who was bundled away from New Zealand on the HMS Esk while still unconscious after an affray in Auckland in 1863.  He regains consciousness on board as Lieutenant Samuel Mack, with no memory of who he is or where he is from, with an unidentifiable accent, a head full of peculiar vocabulary and extraordinarily prescient ideas.

In the first part of Whispers of the past a group of blokes on a pig-culling job for DOC in the Tongariro National Park in 2014, walk into a strange mist and emerge in 1863 New Zealand.  One was Mack, another was Bob Kydd, a history student.  Bob got back to the present and is now living in Southland in 2019.  He decides to take time off his teaching job to apply himself to some genealogical research to find out what happened to Mack; a third friend, Shane, who also stayed in the past, managed to get a message to Bob, but he has received nothing from Mack, which is driving him and Mack’s parents and sister to despair.  Bob believes his mate’s personality was so unique that he will be able to see traces of him through history if he looks hard enough.

As with the previous novel, Shadows of the mind is very gung ho.  Lieutenant Mack is nursed on board by a firebrand of a nurse called Bella Wrightson. They fall into the usual man/carer relationship, but with as much of the impetus coming from Bella as Sam, and she applies herself to helping him regain his memories.  This leads to some funny moments, especially with Sam’s colloquialisms.  And some poignant ones, such as when Sam’s iPhone loses power, and he loses all the images of his mates.  Sam doesn’t know how he knows what he knows, or where the odd words keep coming from – he sees a coachman load luggage onto a coach at one point and ‘bungee cords’ pops into his mind.

Meanwhile back in New Zealand and forward in time, Bob starts his online genealogical search.  He taps into online groups and sends out international requests for help.  He uses online newspapers, genealogy databases and Google, but he makes quite slow progress due not only to Bella using a false name in New Zealand but also Sam changing his name to Selkirk when he marries Bella.  There are some clever moments when you see Bob glide over relevant pieces of information when searching, the reader knowing what Bob doesn’t.  Clough has done what he can to make vicarious online searching interesting, but there is only so much you can do, and it seems to take Bob a long time to uncover relevant information.

The bulk of the novel is Sam feeling out of kilter with his environment, presenting lucrative ideas to his father-in-law, innovative ideas to garment manufacturers and security agencies, treating everyone as equals in a very hierarchical society, winning everyone over with his musical ability and instinctively applying his conservation ideals to his work on the family estate of Shadymore in Shrewsbury.  Things go so smoothly for him, and all around him, and this is where the novel lacked a bit of punch for me; there is no conflict or challenge to add tension to the plot.  Sam appears to be able to charm the new elasticated pants off everyone.

Shadows of the mind is charming and has some great characters.  More conflict, and a few more commas, would have been beneficial, but it is fun to read and ends with a hint at what the final installment has to offer – which looks chocker full of conflict!

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Stall Turns by Penelope Haines – 2018

Stall turnsStall turns is the third in the Claire Hardcastle mystery series and starts with Claire and her detective boyfriend Jack Body having a well-earned break.  They are on their way to help with the Labour Day Weekend sheep muster on Jack’s uncle’s remote sheep station in the King Country.  Sounds fun, but what Claire hadn’t envisaged was the dead bodies, the earthquake, the flood, being buried alive, being drugged and left out in the bush to freeze to death or having to pilot a sabotaged plane!

Claire and Jack get a bit lost on the way to Uncle Pat’s and when Jack is trying to find someone for directions, Claire stumbles (literally) on human remains.  They are happy to leave the unfortunate find to the local Police and carry on to the sheep station.  Once there, Pat and his wife Joanne tell them the property they found the body on is a luxury lodge, often a discreet getaway for the rich and famous.  And that some of the staff and guests will be joining them on the muster.

Retakure Lodge is run by a Chinese outfit that caters for Chinese business people as well as international celebrities.  Some of their guests had joined the muster the previous year as well, and that they been “a feisty lot”, arguing all the time.  The novel starts stacking up like an Agatha Christie murder in a stately home, as characters and clues are introduced.  We meet a pair of Chinese brothers, “I wasn’t sure their values aligned with mine” muses Claire.  A Chinese Lodge employee Wu, who appears not to speak English and Phil the Lodge’s farm manager.

The muster is going well until nature intervenes and an earthquake sees Claire save a man’s life and then end up at the Lodge where more characters and interesting photos and bits of information are added.  Over the next days we get more natural disasters, more bodies, more being stranded and more clues as to what crimes may have been committed, and their possible motives.

I really enjoyed the clues and mystery solving of Stall turns, I had enjoyed Claire’s previous outing, Straight and level, however in that novel it is obvious what is going on, there’s no real mystery solving.  But in Straight and level Claire’s character is great, young, capable and confident; in Stall turns we get mystery, but we also get a mixed Claire, a times one with a whiff of Danielle Steel about her, knowing when “There are times it pays to be a girl”, politely putting up with endlessly being called “girlie”, and responsibly handing an olive branch to Jack after an unconscionable rant at her for going for a walk alone, and her later feeling guilty because she had disobeyed him.

We do get to see the ‘real Claire’ in Stall turns, saving lives, being bold, chatting “the magical world of aviation” with Brett the Lodge’s pilot.  And it could have been the stress and alcohol that led to her and Joanne having a giggling fit over the fantasy of George Clooney arriving on the scene!  And when (possibly for plot reasons) she and Joanne are left alone at the Lodge because Pat declares it would be “much better if I don’t have to worry about you two”, it is not surprising that marathon running and high country sheep station living Joanne and inventive and technically savvy (“Aviate, Navigate and Communicate “) Claire make a great thriller section of the novel.

We don’t really get to know the full story behind the murder mystery, or indeed what the final body count was; it wasn’t Jack’s case, and he and Claire just want to get out of there.  But we do find out enough to be satisfied.  And hopefully Claire will have got over her ‘lesser half’ stage by the time the next Claire Hardcastle mystery rolls around.

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Make a Hard Fist by Tina Shaw – 2018

Make a hard fist is an extremely powerful YA novel about the physical abuse of young women.  It is edgy, scary and yet empowering.Make a hard fist

Lizzie Quinn is doing well, well apart from a hiccough in her relationship with a boy she just wanted to be friends with, and he wanted more.  She is doing well at running, loves pizza, has some great mates, and is saving to buy a Volkswagen Beetle off her uncle.  But then she starts to receive weird one-line messages in the mail.  She thinks it might be one of the spurned boy’s silly mates – but she isn’t sure.

Lizzie is confident, funny and feisty, but one day she is attacked while taking a short-cut home through a reserve.  The Police are supportive; Detective Sergeant Rose Wallis is patient trying to get a description of the man, but Lizzie struggles to remember.  Then she finds out there has been another attack, and the other girl hasn’t been as ‘lucky’ as Lizzie.  After the attack Lizzie is a changed person, she is not so quick to joke, her life is monochrome.  She talks to a councillor, but she still feels under threat – and the notes keep arriving.

Eventually Lizzie gets back into her running and decides to do something to help herself and others get some self-defence skills.  A teacher arranges for a young man, Junior, to come and do some training with Lizzie and some of her fellow students.  Not only does the training go well but Lizzie finds herself attracted to Junior.  She is working part-time in the local library to get the money to buy her car and sees Junior there, and they strike up a relationship.  But her stalker has not finished with her …

Make a hard fist is powerfully written; the attacks described will be hard reading for anyone who has been in that situation – as so many of us have.  At least the Police are trying to find her attacker; when it happened to me in the 1970s the first question the Police asked my parents was ‘what was she wearing?’  There are also funny moments in the book, lovely family and friend relationships, and one unexpected show of support for Lizzie that had me in tears.

Make a hard fist is a psychological thriller, even when Lizzie is feeling a bit more normal the reader gets a sense that worse is to come and danger is lurking everywhere.  As Lizzie confesses to Rose Wallace: “It just feels like it’s never going to end.”  The change in Lizzie after the attack is well portrayed, as is the effect it has on her family and friends.  She finds strength and vulnerability in unlikely people. The novel is also a YA love story, sort of.  Lizzie is trying to sort out her feelings and her priorities, both enormous tasks for a teenage girl without the threat of violence or unwanted attention.

Another good aspect of the novel is its recognition of the unfortunate normalisation of violence in our society; Lizzie’s father just wants to ‘beat the living daylights out of’ her attacker, she sees an uncontrollable violent streak in Junior, Junior got his fighting skills out of necessity with the violence in his family, Lizzie realises one of her school mates is interested in the self-defence session because of ongoing abuse at home, you get the feeling Rose Wallace has been attacked at some time in her past, etc. etc.

Make a hard fist is a challenging but important novel.

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Rain Fall by Ella West – 2018

Rain FallRain fall is set in rain-soaked Westport, amidst mine-closures and the decline in dairy prices.  The town in depressed; the residents trying to make the best of things.  But when 15-year-old Annie misses an important basketball game when her mate’s house across the street blows up while surrounded by the Armed Offenders Squad, and it looks like her Dad’s job might be the latest victim of the Stockton Mine staff reductions, and when she meets a rodeo star, things are never the same again.

Rain fall is a YA novel, told from Annie’s point of view.  She is a realistic young woman, describing what it is like to be one of her peers: “You are all just the same.  You are all just nobodies.”  And of living on the Coast “This is the West Coast, … Anything can happen tomorrow.  We take what we can get today.” Her descriptions of Westport are great, when asked when the wet season is: “It starts about the first of August and goes through until about the end of July”, and if the Buller River floods “Nothing survives if caught in its waters.”

So, a great environment to set a mystery, the young lad who blew up his house is generally thought to not be capable of hurting anyone: “Doesn’t sound like the Pete we know.”  And the townsfolk keep information close, they are a besieged lot, they are pro-mining, pro-hunting, and not just anti ecological activists but pro Rimu-logging.  Annie has picked up the secrecy bug and fails to tell her parents several things, including her knowledge of vital clues, and about her relationship with Jack, the rodeo star she meets on the beach while riding Blue, her horse – and yes, we are in pro-rodeo territory as well.

Once Annie and Jack meet, we are in a real YA romance novel; first kisses, mistaken beliefs, not knowing whether to trust or divulge secrets.  Jack’s father is the detective sent up from Christchurch to find the missing Pete (no human remains being found in what’s left of his house), as well as blowing up his house Pete is known to have shot up the local Police station.  And Jack’s dad is also there to solve a suspected murder that is somehow connected with the explosion.  The Police think maybe a drug deal gone wrong, but they are struggling finding out what has happened.  And all we know is via the conversations Annie overhears, or the things she works out, or that she sees on TV between reports of conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The Coast is a real character in the story, and its history is hauntingly evoked: People struggling on farms their families have been on for over a hundred years, the moving roll call of mining disasters, and the five layers of wall paper coming down in Annie’s house, in preparation should they have to move.  Annie has been in Westport forever, but her parents only moved there when she was a baby, so they are much more comfortable about moving should her father lose his job, while Annie is in a state of trauma about a possible move.  She is a young woman amidst a whole lot of change, and she makes some quite rash decisions that get her, and Jack, into danger.

Rain fall is a love story, a murder mystery, a thriller, a book for horse-lovers, but what I most liked about it was its portrait of a town struggling with massive social change, and the character of Annie, she can ride, she can shoot (guns and basketball goals) and yet she has a lovely teenage fragility.  It is a YA novel but is a good read for older people too!

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Call me Evie by J.P. Pomare – 2019

“Who is the mad one, me or him?” Male privilege, the dangerous side of social media, Call me Eviechildhood trauma, teenage angst and the vagaries of memory, all play a part in this slow-burning thriller.

Kate is a seventeen-year-old teenager living with partial amnesia.  She is in a small rural New Zealand town, Maketu, apparently being held captive by a controlling yet devoted man named Jim, who has renamed Kate Evie.

Kate remembers enough to know she wants to go back to her home city of Melbourne.  There is an extremely traumatic event that has made Jim bring Kate to Maketu, but Kate’s memories of that night are blurry and partial. As she starts to remember, she becomes suspicious of Jim – is he really trying to help her or manipulate her?

Kate is used to being manipulated by men: “Boys are so skilled at drawing apologies when they’re the ones who owe them.”  She had her controlling father, her overly jealous boyfriend, the father of a friend who made some weak choices, and she now has her new friend Iso, but can she trust him? I really can’t say anything about the twisting plot without giving the game away.  But believe me, you will change your mind about what has happened and what is going on many many times as you read.

The story is told in six parts, flashing backwards and forwards between ‘before’ and ‘after’ and is peppered with questions from a psych interview form.  All of which adds to the mystery.  The vulnerability of children, the power of the Internet to ruin lives, the anonymity of social media and the ability of people to create their own realities are all skilfully handled.  “The truth, I realise, doesn’t matter.”

Call me Evie is a great debut novel, read it and see if you agree!

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What You Wish For by Catherine Robertson – 2019

what you wish forCatherine Robertson published Gabriel’s Bay in 2018 and What you wish for takes us back to the New Zealand coastal town, which is even more geographically unfettered this time – the story of the locals being bracketed not by that of a dog, but by that of a local moose!

As with Gabriel’s Bay, this novel is full of interweaving stories, some of them stories of the characters we got to know in the first novel, some of those who were then hovering in the wings.  For example, solo mum Sydney is back front and centre, now firmly in a relationship with Kerry the UK import. Kerry’s parents, Bronagh and Douglas make an entrance, staying with local farmer Vic, in a B&B his wife set up before leaving him for a bloke in Aus.  There are a group of environmentalists camped on his land too, who are infiltrated by a dodgy character called Loko, who Mac and Jacko’s daughter, Emma, has trailed back to Gabriel’s Bay.    Dr Love is now retired but still active in the town, and he has been replaced by the delightful Dr Ashwin Ghadavi (Ash), who is smitten with Emma, who has decided to wade in to help the beautiful Devon get a girlfriend … well you get the idea … lots of characters, lots of storylines, all intertwined.  There is a helpful cast list at the beginning if you get lost.

Amongst the kindness, joviality and the humour (I particularly liked the list of trendy baby clothes) there is some solid social commentary.  The tension between environmentalists and traditional farming practices (“How could Vic blame him for lamenting that bare paddocks had usurped lush native bush?”), between small business and big business, between inherited prejudices and gender identity, between those who unintentionally fall pregnant and those desolate with unwanted childlessness, about the battles you must fight if you haven’t got much money, and about the vulnerability of children – little Madison isn’t back from Gabriel’s Bay but we get to know her Christmas buddy, Reuben: “And children were the most vulnerable of all.”

All the characters, apart from Loko who we don’t really get to know, are complicated and contradictory, and most evolve through the story, they are willing to learn, either from wise elders or from their own mistakes.  What you wish for is another slice of Gabriel’s Bay life, funny, sad and dynamic.  It deals with the social problems New Zealand is facing, including how easy it is to get swept along with a crowd you may disagree with but are nervous of publicly contradicting.  You could read this as a standalone novel, but I was glad I had read Gabriel’s Bay first.  And hopefully we will get to return another day!

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Women in the Field, One and Two by Thomasin Sleigh – 2018

women in the fieldRuth Bishops is an assistant art keeper toiling in the Fisher Gallery in early 1950s London, shy of relationships after losing her fiancé in the war.  She reluctantly goes to view some paintings by Irina Durova, an aging Russian artist, and avoids her for some time after.  But when she sees Irina’s art series Women in the Field, One and Two, she becomes entangled in Irina’s life.

Women in the field, one and two deals with art, artists, male privilege and post-war trauma, and how paintings end up on walls in exhibitions.  Ruth is a passionate and brilliant woman who is overshadowed and undervalued by her male colleagues. She spends time with her sister and her two children, her brother-in-law still coming to terms with post-war life.  She is the typical introvert with a solid core.  Irina is a brash and over-confident artist, an extrovert who is fragile on the inside.  It is hard for the reader to know what, if anything, of Irina’s boasting is true: was she a famous avant-garde artist in pre-revolutionary Russia?  Did she even paint her early works?  For a while, it is hard to tell if she has any talent at all.  But when Ruth sees the Women in the Field paintings, we, along with Ruth, start to see the possibility of unacknowledged talent.

The politics of the British art world are stifling, and it is with some relief we find Ruth and Irina are going to travel to distant New Zealand: “it’s nowhere really; it’s the ends of the earth; it’s an outpost”.  Ruth has been given the job of suggesting and purchasing artworks for the new National Gallery in New Zealand (another source of resentment at the Fisher), and when her suggestion that they purchase the Women in the Field series is accepted, she suddenly finds herself booked to travel to the other side of the world along with Irina, in a way becoming ‘women in the field, one and two’.

Wellington is cold, windy and rainy, and bristling with colonial attitudes.  An excellent environment to look at the conflict between the artist’s freedom to create and the appropriation of cultural artefacts, the tension between wanting to start anew but also hang on to what is old and familiar, the sexism and colonialism of the art world, the tension between exhibitions and collections,  and the relationship between art, patronage and ‘the common man’.  And on the personal front, Ruth and Irina’s relationship is tested when Irina’s true intent and personal history emerge, allowing for ideas around art and life choices to come to the fore.

If it sounds as though Women in the field, one and two is weighty and complicated, it isn’t.  The ideas are all there behind the text, but the story is a very human one, for example, fleeting references to a man dropping to the floor and covering his head when hearing bangs, the subtlety of Ruth’s brother-in-law’s problems, the difficulty some characters have with talking about their war-time experiences, are all it takes to evoke post-war trauma.

Ruth is struggling personally and professionally with the world she finds herself in, surrounded by relationships and possibilities she is not confident enough to pursue.  But her trip to New Zealand allows her the perspective to self-evaluate, and the novel ends with a brilliant metaphor that indicates Ruth has finally found the freedom to revel in the choices before her.

I really enjoyed this novel, the characters were great, the depiction of Wellington, with its influx of people from Europe and the marginalisation of the indigenous point of view was interesting, and I learnt a lot about how to view modern art!  Highly recommended.

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