Overcast Sunday by Christodoulos Moisa – 2016

Overcast SundayWell I was hoping there was going to be a good murder mystery in here somewhere – buried beneath at least two history books, one books of Greek philosophy and a small collection of extremely offensive Greek proverbs.  Moisa tells the reader up front what his novel does (never a good sign): “It explores the clash of mores as an outer majority, and inner-minority communities try to adjust to a near violent past and a prospering post-war economy”.  The setting is very promising; post-Second World War Wellington as experienced by the Greek and Cypriot communities, many of whose members are still suffering the effects of the war and the various other conflicts affecting Greece and Cyprus.  A fascinating period in New Zealand history and a complex migrant group – Greeks and Cypriots having different immigrant statuses.  And lots of the establishments named in the book were familiar to me from my Wellington childhood, and I would have enjoyed reading more of their owners and patrons.  Overcast Sunday has two main protagonists: Hari, a haunted war veteran and university student who at one time intended to become a priest, and who is now working for a tailor.  And Jimmy, also a veteran and a bit of a lad about town, with a reputation that makes him not that popular with many in his community.  The novel opens with Jimmy discovering the body of a young girl outside the Wellington Greek club – OK – but then we start to meet the various characters major and minor inside the Club.  And as each character appears he is introduced with a long history of his difficult past and how he ended up in New Zealand, and details of the wider political context of his history, all of which is exposition and not folded into the narrative.  These historical lectures require jumping about all over the place timewise – and remember this is while a young girl lies dead in an alley outside.  And such disrespect is not all that out of place given the misogynist banter inside the club.   When a short time later Jimmy and Hari are taken in by the police under suspicion of having something to do with the murder, I thought things were finally going to come together and the narrative would really get going.  But alas there is just more historical paragraphs triggered by more characters or snippets of information.  And there is no real murder mystery, just a death and a sad explanation.  And the latter nothing to get that distracted by, after all she was only “the town bicycle”.  I was obviously not the intended audience for this book, but it is hard to say who would be.  Those interested in the fascinating history of the period and the migrant group might enjoy the straight-out history – which makes up about 80% of the book.  But I have read lots of riveting fiction where you can enjoy the story while absorbing the history – and try to work out a mystery along the way.  This certainly isn’t one of those books.

 

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Psychobyte by Cat Connor – 2016

Readers of mysteries, thrillers, chick lit, paranormal fiction, police procedurals and the psychobytemacabre will all find something to like about Psychobyte! It is the eighth in the …byte series, featuring FBI Agent Ellie Conway.  I found much to really like and a few things to not like about it: it totally aces the Bechdel test, being full of named female characters who operate as fully functioning adults really liked; two of Conway’s staff call her ‘Chicky Babe’ and ‘Chicky’ really really didn’t like, especially as tolerated by Conway who says things like: “I don’t like cute names for killers.  It trivializes their actions.”  I really liked the writing style: the reader is totally inside Conway’s head throughout with Connor’s use of Conway’s interior / exterior dialogue.  And Conway’s head is a pretty weird place to  be: Faced with a series of bizarre murders, Conway talks to the deceased to find out more about the crimes, mentally communicates with some of the other characters, and communes with an imaginary but handy being who provides vital clues – or maybe he just jolts them into the forefront of her brain.  The supernatural stuff worked OK for me – especially when matched with Conway’s visceral descriptions of her internal and external environments, which give her perceptions real texture – “The thoughts sloshed from side to side and spilled over the edges of my brain”, “A low drone rippled down the wall and undulated across the floor when I stepped into the busy room” – really liked.  The plotting is complex and rips along – liked; there were many coincidental connections between the characters, which was a little disorienting – didn’t really like.  The victims (unfortunately very un-Bechdel) are all young women and all bloodless blondes who have been stabbed in very clean bathrooms, and there are enough clues through the book for you to work out the motive for the crimes – but the solution is so bizarre kudos to you if you do!  The chicklit elements come from Conway’s upcoming nuptials and the personal challenges she faces as she works to solve the crime before more young women are killed.  The whole package is quite zany – and I can imagine you could get into following the … byte series.  Psychobyte also comes with a YouTube trailer: http://bit.ly/2nTwq0k

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Skin of Tattoos by Christina Hoag – 2016

Skin of tattoosWhen I first started reading this book, I was thinking there are only so many stories you can tell – and that this was the one about the guy that gets out of prison, wants to go straight, can’t due to societal stigma and intolerance, so he gets back into the criminal life big time and things do not go well.  The story was being told by ‘the guy’, in this case Mags (Magdeleno) a Salvadoran LA gangbanger. I was enjoying his narrative style – salted with patois that was exotic, but also familiar from all the movies and TV programmes I have seen about LA gangs.  But then, as well as just cruising through the book, I started to become totally engrossed in Mags’ world; the characters Mags engages with are flawed and have agendas, which make them untrustworthy and far from predictable, and Mags himself is a complex character who makes some very bad decisions about what and what not to do.  Mags’ gang is the Cyco Lokos, and while he has been locked up, the ‘shotcaller’ of the gang, Chivas, has also been imprisoned.  Mags was Chivas’ lieutenant, but that place has been taken by Rico – the guy who set Mags up to take his wrap for illegal firearm possession – and with Chivas locked up, Rico is calling the shots.  Although angry at this, Mags has decided to go straight, not wanting to go back inside and also wanting to grow his relationship with Paloma, his best friend’s sister.  But he gets pushed back into gang action – and into confrontation with Rico.  And there is a comfort in this: “Revenge is the regaining of control. There’s nothing so empowering, so elating.”  But truly terrible things occur as Mags tries to set things straight and get his homies back on track, and he starts to realise that the gang code gets more flexible the higher you go up ranks.  If everyone is out for themselves, who can you ever totally trust to be on your side?  Even within his family, his alcoholic father, his hotshot firefighter brother, his Catholic turned Pentecostal Mother, and his sisters, one of whom has got involved with a banger from a rival gang – who will see him for who he is and not just see the gang tattoos that scream out what he is.  The tattoos are a great metaphor “They were a part of me, but not the whole of me”, they are a comfort as they give Mags identity, but they are a burden as they don’t allow others to want to see who he is and to what he might aspire.  Along Mags’ journey, as well as the fear and violence, there are some lovely moments: the family dinner where Mags felt “No matter what had happened in the past, I belonged at that table”, and when Mags’ clica crew sat around telling stories about a dead homeboy “til the wind blew through our clothes and the sea turned nimbus grey”.  Skin of tattoos is full of the inevitability of lost lives; of those who can’t escape the deeply worn tracks of their predecessors, even those “moving up the food chain who thought they were leaving the ghetto behind when they arrived in the San Fernando suburbs, but they just bought the ghetto with them”.  The sympathy Hoag has for her unsympathetic characters is effective – whenever someone does something awful you find yourself thinking not that they are bad to the bone, but that something awful must have happened to them for this to be their reality.  Mags even manages to conjure up sympathy for the despicable Rico: “For an instant I felt sorry for Rico.  Just an instant.”  And it’s those instants that have you rooting for Mags and worrying about him – so, have a read and get to know him.  This is a great debut novel from Hoag, who is an LA-based Kiwi writer.

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Snark / David Elliot after Lewis Carroll – 2016

snarkWarning: Not for the faint-hearted!  Snark: being a true history of the expedition that discovered the Snark and the Jabberwock … and its tragic aftermath is the delightful filling out of Lewis Carroll’s poems The Hunting of the Snark (an Agony in 8 Fits) and Jabberwocky, the latter from his Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  Elliot tells of the discovery of an old journal written by the youngest crew member on the Snark expedition: The Boots.  The journal tells of the organising of the expedition (and the reasons for it) right through to its end, folding in the Carroll poems along the way.  This is all fun enough but the real joy of the volume is Dunedin-based Elliot’s wonderful illustrations – calling on Australian fauna for the design of his Jabberwocks and Bandersnatches, and delightfully portraying the expedition members: Bellman and his Beaver et al.  As an added bonus the finder of The Boot’s journal published it some years before the present volume – which allows for a notes section at the end, made up of the many comments the author received from scholars who had studied the text.  But as advised in the author’s introduction read the book before the notes.  It is a lovely, lovely read – but be warned it is truly scary at the end!

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Dead Lemons by Finn Bell – 2016

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Novels can get your adrenaline pumping, engage your head or your heart, or take you to other worlds.  Dead Lemons to a degree does all four of these.  The narrator is a paraplegic and we first meet him hanging upside down off a cliff, with his wheelchair and one leg snagged on rocks.  The story goes back through time to explain his predicament, interspersed with updates on the current situation.  The flashbacks often end with more (metaphorical this time) cliff hangers and many of the situations are genuinely scary – so there is plenty to get your adrenaline going.  {Before continuing I will get the one whacky thing I didn’t like about this novel out of the way – the narrator is the author – i.e. Finn Bell, but the narrator is also the main protagonist.  Sometimes an authorial voice will place themselves in a scene of a book – but to make yourself the main character in a gruesome thriller is just weird!}  Finn (character) has fled to the South of the South Island to a remote cottage to escape his life (and possibly end it) after a disastrous bout of ennui that led to drink that led to a car crash that put him in a wheelchair.  There is much about his discovering options in the far South to touch your heart – plus the story is at times as creepy as Mo Hyder at her creepiest – so the heart thumping horror element is there too.  Then Finn’s working through his demons with a 70 something therapist engages your brain as weighty matters of life are discussed.  And within the thriller narrative is the question of whether you should act to right a wrong (to make yourself feel good) or leave a wrong well alone (which might make you feel bad but will protect those you love).  Finn’s cottage is charming and full of old history – plus is as far South as you can get on mainland NZ – so we are in a different place with local history thrown in.  And in this location Finn is emotionally and physically very ‘down’.  But he soon discovers his historical cottage has witnessed a more recent and tragic sequence of events – and that both the ancient and recent history of the place involves a very scary family who live on the adjacent farm.  So, at his lowest ebb Finn finds purpose: in his therapist-assigned homework, his intrigue with the tragedy of a missing girl and her father, his new-found friends and his new found sport – Murderball.  All these are great elements for a novel and for most of the book Bell (author) plots well and I was thoroughly engaged.  I would have liked more Murderball, and there are some oddities – the son of one of the characters for some reason hasn’t started school at age 8?  There are other snippets that ‘ping’ oddly as you read them but they are explained in the final reveal.   And this is the weakest part of the book – the denouement – I found it out of balance with the main part of the book and narrator-heavy.  Also when you do horrible things to victims I think they deserve respect and focus – and I didn’t think one of the main victims was granted these.  But for most of this book I was transported, moved, engaged and thrilled!

 

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The Pretty Delicious Café by by Danielle Hawkins – 2016

the-pretty-delicious-cafeI picked up this book for a light feel-good romantic break from a run of bleak tales.  It started exactly as I had hoped, but then turned into a darker yet still sugar-coated read.  Set in a coastal town in northern New Zealand, The Pretty Delicious Café is the story of Lia, who runs the café of the title with her friend Anna, who is about to marry Lia’s twin brother Rob.  The opening sequence is brilliant – with Lia scaring herself silly by reading a thriller – not only are we firmly placed in another genre, we learn that the twins have a psychic connection and we also meet Jed, the romantic interest.  There are many great characters in the book; Lia and Rob’s hippy mum, the local mechanic, their lovely lonely half-brother, Lia’s loser ex and Jed’s delightful son, to name a few. The writing is light and witty and the story an interesting one of friendships strained under pressure but solid at their core, and love blossoming against the odds.  But The Pretty Delicious Café gets pretty shocking in places and deals with post-traumatic stress; the conflict between partner loyalty and self-preservation; and what to do when love goes against societal norms – all without veering from its light romantic comedy style.  The settings are finely drawn – the assumption that a beach house book collection will include “a selection of Catherine Cookson novels, The Clan of the Cave Bear and Future Shock”, and the reading choices in a hospital waiting room being “Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes and a March 2006 Woman’s Day”.  And no matter how distracted Lia gets, she still manages to throw together a menu, and a wedding cake.  Lia, Rob and Jed don’t use their real names – which links them as the main core of the story and also indicates their wanting to control their own lives.  All of which gives you confidence in the characters and allows you to believe things will work out well for them – despite the dark shadows around their lives – which made this the feel-good romantic read I was looking for.

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A Moment’s Silence by Christopher Abbey – 2016

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Martyn Percival is on a belated OE – in his early fifties he has successfully salvaged a career post redundancy, but wasn’t able to salvage his marriage once his wife of over thirty years was determined to leave.  He was starting to settle into a new lifestyle in Khandallah, with just his daughter’s cat for company.  But when he experienced a fellow club member being farewelled with just ‘a moment’s silence’ he considers his life and decides to visit the UK and Europe in search of adventure.  Joining a whistle stop bus tour of Southern England he is deciding to branch out on his own, things being a bit tame, when he spies something in the back of a car stopped beneath his window – something that brings him much more adventure than he was hoping for.  Being a good citizen he reports his sighting to the local Cotswolds police – to Sergeant Elizabeth Candy.  What he has stumbled upon is linked to a recent terrorist attack – and the Scotland Yard becomes involved.  Meanwhile we are following Linus, an IRA soldier gone rogue, and his alter ego who does worse things than blow up national monuments.  Linus is a tad unstable and when he realises his perfect plan is coming unstuck, he becomes obsessed with taking out the “nosey parker who’s ruined everything” – Martyn.  When the Police realise that Martyn is their chance to catch the villain, they ask for his help – but he has had enough adventure thank you very much.  However, Elizabeth (Liz) Candy is interesting and attractive, and she convinces him to continue his holiday in the hope of luring Linus out where the police can nab him.  The combination of Linus being skilled, the police not being up to the job, and the relationship between Martyn and Elizabeth blossoming produces a great thriller!  The plotting is tight and the dialogue mostly convincing (I could have done without Liz’s occasionally dropped ‘h’s), and the story unfolds at the pace of a whistle stop bus tour.  And given how sloppy the police work is – both in the UK and in New Zealand – it does make you wonder about the wisdom of acting on your ‘civic responsibility’ if you stumble upon information!  Abbey gives us background on many of the main characters, and even if the leaping backwards and forwards is a little clumsy at times, knowing the characters adds to the tension and the texture of the read.  We don’t get to excuse anything, but we do read of the difference between a psychotic who is drawn to a violent cause, and a lonely kid who finds a home in that cause and becomes a loyal soldier.  The action takes us touring around England and eventually to New Zealand – where Martyn eventually does get ‘a moment’s silence’, but is this one for him or for Linus …?   Read and find out.

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