Dance Prone by David Coventry – 2020

Con Welles was a punk rocker in the 1980s, touring the U.S. in a van and bludging food to stay alive. Most of his friends from that time, later became professionals: lecturers, lawyers, artists … But Con had been left in a hiatus, never knowing who had violated him, never knowing why his friend Tone Seburg shot himself the same night – his life defined by “what occurred there in Burstyn in ’85”.

Dance Prone ranges in time, from periods in the 1980’s through to 2019, and drifts geographically, from the U.S. to Northern Africa, Croatia, Spain, New Zealand… It is written in a poetic, hypnotic cadence, like a never-ending song lyric. The young characters talk in that slightly wanky way of well-read youth, which slides into a form of short-hand communication as they age. Years pass between Con’s meeting with one or other of his friends, years between the sharing of shards of information. As you become immersed in the lives of the characters, you start to see images from the past coming into focus.

The novel is about the unreliability of memory, the fact that history and explanations are all invented narrative: The oldest form of violence.” Con watches videos of events he has no recollection of attending. His on/off/on girlfriend, Sonya, lies about their past, but does it really matter? In one awful moment of revelation, Con realises he had unwittingly burdened another woman, Miriam, with his angst at a time she was dealing with her own horrific experiences.

Coventry’s wonderful debut novel, The Invisible Mile, had the same mesmeric technique of using one event, in that case the Tour de France, to explore the confused experiences of one man, and his attempts to make sense of his experiences. In The Invisible Mile, the stones of Carnac eerily and ambiguously emerge from the mist. In Dance Prone Conrad comes upon a “strange array of columns …, seven lined across the centre of the field. Thirty feet high and waiting on something”. Coventry is a master at making the reader see significance, make their own narratives.

I think how Angel’d said once how it takes up the same amount of memory recording nothing as it does an orchestra”, the vagaries of time, the pointlessness of art. There is a nihilistic thread through Dance Prone, “I thought every instant was a version of the end” – but then it is told from the point of view of post-traumatic confusion. Con and his friends consider the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the money spent on plans for restoration “as Afghans starved, as the poor suffered in drought and crop failure”. But the punk generation was about creation – Con is in the mountains near Marrakesh, witnessing the completion of an enormous artwork conceived by one of the many peripheral characters, Paloma: on the cliff face, enormous painted reconstructions of the blasted alcoves, “Blackened Buddhas caught in time”.

“‘The teenage versions of us used to be hardcore. Now we’re something else,’ Angel said”, punk rockers trying to make a difference: “I was just kicking my guitar around on the floor, watching it bang and clatter, how the strings were always hunting out harmony and how harmony happens to change its rules at the highest volumes. Feedback and flight: the great gifts of the twentieth century.” The reader can hear the feedback, smell the van, feel the cold of unheated travel, the fug of dingy accommodation, and fear those with “something compelling them to explore the output of violence and stupidity”. And amid the travelling, the band break-ups and the reunions, Con is always trying to find answers.

There are other tragedies besides Con’s in Dance Prone, major events and developments that the reader puts together. All the characters are keeping secrets, all carrying burdens for each other. All feeling, as Miriam does, that “There’s no such thing as random, and there’s no determined events, she’d told me, just a kind of nervousness for spectacles we can’t control or account for. There are those who know what happened in Burstyn in ’85”, and who the actors were, and they are damaged by knowing. The novel is meticulous, all mysteries are solved, all things explained. But the reader is still left with the uncertainty of history and sadness of damaged lives:I could no longer hear the interior monologues of others, just the ever-shifting shape of my own silence.”

Dance Prone is just superb – read it and see if you agree.

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Deadhead by Glenn Wood – 2020

Spencer is a teenage genius, he makes a bit on the side to help his solo Mum pay the bills, by procuring things for school mates, or by providing them with answers to upcoming exams. But one job goes awfully wrong – a job for a student who has started up the Burdale Yakuza. Fearing retaliation, Spencer enlists the help of his friend, Regan, and they disinter a body so Regan can remotely control it to act as Spencer’s bodyguard.

The body happens to be that of Constable Garret Hunter, killed while on a lone stakeout aiming to catch the notorious Undertaker, an evil crime lord who uses a local bikie gang as muscle. When Spencer decides to use Garret to rob the Stamport Savings Bank, comparing himself to “Robin Hood, robbing from the rich – the bank – to give to the poor – his mum”, Garret has to make a hasty exit and he gets electrocuted, and things take a turn for the weirder!

Meanwhile Constable Cadence Green has been trying to work out what happened to her ex-partner, Garret Hunter – she doesn’t trust the official version of events regarding his death. And Carl, the head of the Burdale Yakuza discovers he hasn’t done due diligence to see if there were any other Yakuza chapters already in the area – there is. The heads of the two major crime organisations get into a turf war, both thinking an army of re-animated corpses would benefit their cause.

The ensuing mayhem, with kidnapping, torture, murder, and explosions, entail various parties forming alliances – with teenagers on both sides. Amid all of this, Regan and Cadence form a friendship and Regan starts to think she might have a future after all. Cadence and Garret re-establish as much of a friendship as is possible with one party rotting away. And Spencer must use all his considerable intelligence to hold things, and bodies, together.

Deadhead is text interspersed with comic strip illustrations, and the narrative is in the comic Kersplatt! style, with lots of people being hurt, dying, and being heroic. And there is lots of gruesome corpse goo. It is also very funny, and it has a theme of loyalty and responsibility. The characters are engaging: Spenser who is brilliant but also just a kid who misses his dad and worries about his mum; Regan with no use parents who has found a second home with Spenser and his mum; Cadence the cop who is staunch and brave, and who still has a soft spot for Garret, and Garret who is starting to get lots of soft spots and who goes through lots of personality changes during his post-death experiences.

Deadhead is a YA novel, but I think adults will really enjoy it too!

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Lullaby Beach by Stella Duffy – 2021

Lucy is a “fourth-generation child of Westmere” weighed down by a burden of secrets. Beth, Lucy’s mother, and Lucy’s Aunt Sara are both living with sorrows of the past. All three have always found solace and comfort in Kitty, the sisters’ great aunt. But when Lucy goes to see Kitty in her cabin at the end of the bay, to ask for help, she finds her body. Kitty has committed suicide.

Beth and Sara are sad and angry, angry that Kitty has left them with no farewell or explanation. But Lucy has even more secrets; she has taken a note left by Kitty on which are four dates. Through Lullaby Beach, the reader finds out the significance of the dates, and the three women finally open up to each other so they too can piece together the abuse endured by all of the women, including Kitty: “All this crap has been going on for years. Long before us.” And the perpetrators of the crimes have all been from one Westmere family, the Nelsons.

Lullaby Beach is the cabin that Kitty has lived in since her return from London in the 1950s. It was an extension of the family run B&B in the small seaside town. And it is now coveted by Nelson Construction, as their foreshore tourism development requires land for an eco-friendly carpark. The Nelsons stand for white male privilege, they assume ownership, of business, of land, of people.

Danny Nelson, who is now in his 80s like Kitty, was an abuser, an horrific combination of violent abuse, childlike contrition, and business-like pragmatism. His grand-nephew Mark takes after him. Danny was always distraught that the only time his mother intervened in her husband’s violence was to protect the family dog, not her son. He too protects a random dog, but there’s no-one to protect Kitty. Sara worked for Nelson Construction, prior to going to university in Newcastle – that’s where she met Mark. 

Beth is jealous of Sara, jealous of how Lucy confides in her rather than her Mum. She thinks Lucy is just going through a stage of teenage surliness, until she learns what she has been dealing with. Through the book, Beth and Lucy are associated with fire, while Sara loves swimming in the cold sea. The sisters clash over what to do about the cabin now that Kitty has gone. Until they discover Kitty’s story, and the constant pain and ongoing harassment to which she has been subjected. The stories of male violence and cruelty persist, “She said to love him anyway, love him out of his moods when words wouldn’t work”.

Kitty’s funeral is sad, Sara’s eulogy very moving – Lucy’s little sister Etta, Beth and their father, having to support her. Afterwards, Lucy takes selfies of herself as a corpse. Kitty’s suicide has been exact, her nursing background ensuring she got the doses just right. Both Lucy and Beth lie about what they have taken from Kitty’s cabin, both wanting the power of knowing a secret.

And the secrets of women are what Lullaby Beach is about, the secrets of abuse, rape, violence, abortions, blackmail, still-births, depression … The continual stifling of women’s lives. Even Yulia, at one time Sara’s flamboyant lover, liked “to dress in neutral colours, quiet clothes, to get through the night in the bar as a server of drinks, not someone to be interested in, looked over, reached for”, and Kitty after returning from London, feels liberated when dressing in her mother’s clothes to hide her pregnancy, liberated from attention that might inexplicably turn to violence.

“I said no. I. Said. No.”, But who listens to women? Everyone is judgemental of a woman who decides to stand out, speak out. Even a random cabbie is critical of Kitty in London when she is returning from helping along one of Danny’s schemes. And when one of the sisters decides to make an historical rape allegation, she knows it will do nothing but protect Lucy, there will be no justice for her. But “The trolls were both worse and far more relentless than she had expected.”

Lullaby Beach is a sad read, there is an awful abortion scene, and later the sad consequences. But there is also the security of the sisters’ friendship, and their determination to honour Kitty’s life of sacrifice, after realising women so often forget that older women have had their own tragedies. After the crucible of events there is the relief of the two sisters swimming in the cold sea. I would definitely recommend this book!    

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The Quiet People by Paul Cleave – 2021

Cameron Murdoch is living a reasonably successful life as a crime writer, writing in collaboration with Lisa, his wife. They live in Christchurch and “In the books we used to pretend that Christchurch was Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell, but it turns out we weren’t pretending at all.” Cameron’s life starts spiralling into hell after an unfortunate sequence of events at a bouncy castle.

I can’t give much of the plot away, it is so twisted and tangled that the tension of reading the book is in large part from not knowing what is going on. It does concern the horror of losing sight of a child, for a moment, for a week, forever. We think we know from the Prologue what has happened to Zach Murdoch, Cameron and Lisa’s seven-year-old son – but nothing is straightforward in The quiet people. Cleave is a confident enough author to play with the reader, and the plotting is superb. When you do discover what has happened, the clues were there, you just didn’t know where to look – and neither did the police.

The narrative alternates between Cameron in the first person, and a third person view of Detective Inspector Rebecca Kent. But Cameron also has a second person ‘Mr What If’ inner narrative going on, and at one point a spooky 1st & 3rd person point of view when he is in shock. All this aids the liveliness of the narrative. Kent is a great character. She is confused, swayed, kind, pissed off – and represents a police force who are totally human and who often make dumb mistakes. “This case … everywhere she turns, just misery piled on top of misery.” Cameron is brilliantly written – he is traumatised, angry, numb, drunk, calculating, and every now and again Kent glimpses the nice guy he might actually be.

Cameron agrees to pray with his mother, enters into a blokey agreement with his father-in-law, is falling apart yet coldly holding it all together. He personifies the oxymoronic Kiwi nature that Cleave talks of in the book: kind and good natured yet “we’re also a nation where more babies and children are beaten to death per capita than any other country”. This contradiction is echoed by the Greek Chorus of public and media outside the Murdoch’s house, one minute brandishing hateful placards, the next laying teddy bears and candles.

The quiet people toys with meta-fiction; there are characters and locations from Cleave’s previous Christchurch noir books, and the narrative often refers to Cameron and Lisa’s publicity quips about ‘killing people for a living’, and ‘getting away with murder’. Once Cameron’s reality is akin to one of his and Lisa’s plots, he finds himself reacting like one of his characters. And it is probably not a co-incidence that one of the sleazebag characters, blogger Dallas Lockwood, is a failed novelist. There are lots of comments about what goes on in the mind of a thriller writer – “Maybe that’s the thing about crime writers – you just can’t trust them”!

The name of the book refers to what neighbours always say when they hear people in their street have committed a violent crime: that they are shocked, they are such ‘quiet people’. There are awful people in the book, but there are also those who find out how quickly things can spin out of control. How mistakes and misinterpretation can lead to tragedy, and how trying to balance one tragedy can cause a worse one – an unconscionable one. It is a roller coaster of a read. With moments of great sadness, the time warping of disaster, incredible tension, and adrenaline pumping action.

Although The quiet people makes reference to earlier works, it is completely stand alone. Grab a copy and have a read pronto! Available in New Zealand from 8th April 2021.


 

 


 

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Neands by Dan Salmon – 2020

Charles Feynman Rutherford, the son of scientists, was named after scientists, and was expected to become a scientist. But Charlie is growing up in a world were science is being taught less and less. Science is being replaced by Christian Living classes, “… all about fear and flat earth, and we were taught that evolution and dinosaurs were dangerous theories”. And he is growing up in a world where people are changing.

His father has been investigating the changes to humans, the accelerated alterations to their DNA which is making them muscle-bound, smelly, and keen on physical sports and evangelical church meetings. But when Charlie’s father dies under suspicious circumstances, Charlie is left alone with his distraught mother. School is a nightmare, home is bleak. And then his mother disappears.

His mother’s disappearance isn’t that unusual; people are disappearing all over the place. Charlie decides to keep his head down and carry on alone. But then he is visited by Ngaire, a woman who claims to have been friends with Charlies’ parents. She persuades him to go and stay with her and her husband, Alan, and two other rescued teenagers; Ivy and Pru. Charlie once again experiences a kind of family-life. He starts surreptitiously making notes from Alan’s computer, trying to continue his parents’ work working out what is causing the changes in humans. He feels paper will be a more reliable record, as electronic information about the human change is disappearing, with the Internet getting smaller by the day.

Charlie, Ivy and Pru find that school is a nightmare of violent bullying, and there are fewer and fewer human kids to blend in with. Charlie sees that when change happens relatively slowly, odd things can start to feel normal. At his old school people were in denial about the human change, in his new one there is open talk of ‘the Neanderthals’. And it isn’t only the outside changes in Charlie’s world that are bothering him, his hormones are getting jittery, as he is constantly near two young, interesting, women.

The world keeps changing for the threesome, they consider ‘passing’ as Neands to be less of a target, they even wonder if just giving up and becoming Neands might be that bad. They experience the most heart-breaking incident at a zoo.  Charlie realises that if you don’t intervene as soon as you know something is wrong, you start being part of the problem, and “I got that if everything went wrong, sometimes it stayed wrong”. But they also become aware that there are still people secretly working to rectify the changes. When things take a turn for the worse with Ngaire and Alan, the three take off together.

As well as the genetic changes around them, the kids are also in the world of devastating climate change, and while sheltering from a violent storm they end up in a church offering food and shelter to the needy. They start running with a couple of boys from the shelter, and Charlie has a chat with an artist who finds himself in a world with no art, and Charlie starts to think that human DNA might be the culprit as much as any remnant of Neanderthal DNA: “How did we come to this – the species that gave the world Shakespeare and space travel and sour worms”. Charlie’s notes are interspersed through the narrative and give a picture of human-caused disasters.

The reader of Neands (unfortunately) recognises the Neands’ behaviour: bullies at school, Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol, idiots taunting animals incarcerated in zoos … The teenagers are great characters, especially Charlie. He is angry that he must grow up so quickly, angry at adults “I was only fourteen. We were only kids. Where were all the bloody adults?” – angry at them for leaving their kids, for creating the ecological mess that is his world. He has a conscience, always arguing with himself and others about the right thing to do.

Neands is a debut novel, and is a cracking adventure story, and a scientific mystery, and a moving read about a group of lovely teenagers: “Before things changed, we would have been the type of kids who did well at school, the science monitors, library assistants, drama club or band members; a bit geeky, but the cool geeks”. There is a glimmer of hope; the teenagers are good in water, and the Neands hate water. And there is also a glimmer of a sequel! Neands is a YA novel but would be enjoyed by all ages.

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The Stone Wētā by Octavia Cade – 2020

We are in a dystopian future where governmental and commercial interests have ensured the suppression of scientific information about climate change. Any efforts to inform humanity about the gravity of the ecological situation, and what might be done to halt the inevitable advance to catastrophe, is immediately and violently suppressed. The only hope is to hide such information in remote places around the world, and off world, so at least there is a chance of life on Earth having a future. The only people who can do this are those people in society who are less likely to be viewed as intelligent agents: women.  

The Stone Wētā is a wonderfully conceived book. The book is organised around life forms which live in extreme environments and which have evolved to adapt to violent changes in climate, and who are now facing unprecedented rapid alterations which challenge their futures. Each is the study subject of a woman who is part of the cell-like network caching information, and each woman has a story that echoes the behaviour and defence strategies of their study subjects. The book is full of amazing scientific information, this makes the reader consider the wonders of the natural world, and what is at stake if we don’t do everything we can to stabilise, and improve, the climate.

The story of the women is low key and secret, with them having to be suspicious of everyone, never knowing if those reaching out to them are genuine or whether they have been planted to draw them out as part of the network. Each woman has retreated; to high mountain, arid deserts, or distant forests, to be alone in a large library – both to make it easier to spot enemies, and easier to find places to cache the information. They tend to be with other scientists who don’t know what they are doing, but who if they did would probably be sympathetic, and sometimes this proves to be right. Very few of the women know who the other operatives are, they all tend to find their own way of camouflage: vapidness; being totally focussed on non-climate-based science, being under the control of a husband.

The caching network is inspired by the librarians of Timbuktu, who saved many precious ancient texts from the ravages of Al Qaeda. One of the librarians has a niece, who regrets not having supported her uncle and his fellow librarians more, but who sees how their work could be expanded and applied to drives of electronic information: she is Sand Cat, who is well equipped to initiate the network: “When the sand cat moves, it slinks low and short-legged across the ground and when startled it freezes, crouches down and, if approached during the night, closes its eyes so that the light cannot be reflected back from the tapetum lucida behind its retina.”

Bodies are found; people are killed; we travel to Mars; there are enormous lethal explosions. But the action is all viewed by the women from their clandestine positions, wondering what it means for their project. This means that while the story progresses, the tension builds and adding to the tension is the knowledge that for the network to be successful, there will be more violence before things can improve. But the end of the novel nicely indicates that inflicting violence has consequences that must be faced to allow you to carry on. The book emphasises the need for cooperation and for action to be taken on behalf of the many, rather on behalf of the few of just one species who call Earth home.  

I really enjoyed reading The Stone Wētā, it is refreshingly novel and genre mixing, and it makes you think how close we are to the world being pushed into the horrific situation depicted.

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Katipo Joe by Brian Falkner – 2020

Joseph St George is enjoying his life as the son of British diplomats in late 1930s Berlin. His only regret is not being allowed to wear long trousers like his older friend Klaus, and not being old enough to join the Hitlerjugend, the Hitler Youth. But then things change suddenly – his father is arrested. Joe is shocked and worried, but he has good mates at school and enjoys bullying other kids as much as his friends do. He even joins in when they decide to harass the local Jewish baker, but when Joe sees brown-shirted soldiers beating the baker and making him and his wife clean their own blood off the cobbles, he can’t help but intervene.

Klaus comes and helps Joe to defend the baker, which is probably the only reason the brown-shirts stop, and the boys get away – Klaus is Martin Boorman’s nephew. Joe and Klaus become blood brothers. But soon after Joe and his mother must flee, and his mother seems to have extraordinary skills at evading followers. They have a nerve-wracking escape, and afterwards Joe is sent to New Zealand out of harm’s way. Joe doesn’t appreciate the peace of rural Aotearoa and can’t stand the idea of being away from all the action, so he stows away on a vessel taking food to besieged Londoners. He has an adventure on the high seas when the boat comes under fire from German U-boats.

Once in London, Joe befriends a group of kids and they help him trace his mother, who appears to be up to some strange goings-on. London during the Blitz is getting a bit too much for Joe when he manages to escape – by being kidnapped! He eventually ends up being enlisted into MI5, Joe’s fluency in colloquial German making him a valuable asset. After rigorous training, including how to kill people, he is sent on a top-secret mission to Paris. Joe finally gets to be a member of the Hitler Youth and re-unites with Klaus.

Katipo Joe is a rip roaring adventure story; we first meet Joe on the torpedo-threatened cargo vessel, and apart from when he is being billeted by a lovely young woman during his training, he is never really out of danger for the rest of the book. Joe soon finds out that there is a huge difference between the life of the spies he reads about in his adventure books and the life of a real spy. And he ends up confused and guilt-ridden rather than feeling himself a hero. And this is where Katipo Joe is so good; at pointing out the blurriness around goodies and baddies, and the sometimes-horrific things people do to further what they see as the greater good.

The book is poignant in a way, we see glimpses of the childhood and friendships Joe might have had, had not things gone insane. And you really do get a feel for the surreal as Joe wanders around London: him seeing a zebra wandering through Camden Town; seeing his mother shoot someone; seeing the immediate ghastly results of the bombing of London, and the long term results, with many of those he meets having lost people. There is a great scene in a bomb shelter when Winston Churchill’s rallying speech receives a less than enthusiastic response. For Joe “The world is a crazy place and it is slowly driving him insane.”

Through the book there is a clear demarcation those who have enlisted to fight and innocent bystanders, and what motivates Joe is that the latter are as much in the firing line as the former. And what distresses him is that the indiscriminate killing is happening on both sides. And there is a shocking act by Joe that really gets you thinking through the rights and wrongs of it all. But this is all background to a thrilling read, and Joe acquits himself extraordinarily well, he reminded me of Alex Rider. And it appears this is not Joe’s last outing – a series is in the offing. The book is suitable for older children and YA readers, and is illustrated, and has a glossary and bibliography.

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A Trio of Sophies by Eileen Merriman – 2020

Ever since Sophie Mac first arrived at Eastbrook High School, feeling excluded as her solo Mum had no money for things like nice shoes, she has always stuck with the first two girls who befriended her: Sophie A and Twiggy (Sophie Twigg). The trio of Sophies are tight friends, that is until Sophie A disappears, and Mac starts writing a diary …

We read Mac’s diary in reverse for a good part of the book, counting down the number of days till Sophie A disappears. But the diary entries also flash back to earlier events, the events that led up to the disappearance, and include nightmarish dreams which add to the complexity of the narrative. And after day 0 the story continues in its tangled and tense way.

Sophie A has the looks Mac wishes she had, and Twiggy the money. Mac works part time at a supermarket, and makes a bit of money off Twiggy, helping her with her schoolwork – she is the bright one of the three. They are in their last year of school and Mac has an interest in being a forensic pathologist, which adds a background of bleakness to her outlook. There is another moving force in the lives of the Sophies, an English teacher, James Bacon. He first encounters Mac when she is out running, and not realising she is a school student, he draws her into a relationship. But soon after he gets a job at her high school, and all excuses for continuing the relationship are gone.

James is manipulative and violent – but he is Mac’s first relationship and all her peers, such as her friend Will, pale in comparison. After Sophie A’s disappearance, Twiggy drifts away, leaving Mac alone with her thoughts and fears. Mac has become proficient at lying due to her having to keep her illicit relationship secret, and she finds she is adept at fabricating the past – after all, memories are malleable. A Trio of Sophies deals with coming of age, honesty, jealously and most of all the destructive results of teacher/student relationships, where the adult has such power over the student. Mac is not the only victim of the relationship; her weaving of a convincing and false reality leads to others being hurt terribly. And even while she is plotting her revenge on him, Mac still sees James as her first love, he still has power over her.

The structure of the novel is excellent, complex and mind bending. And the reader is finding out crucial information right up until the end. It is an engrossing read, and occasionally you get a glimpse of the innocent last year of high school which might have been had Mac not gone running that fateful day. A Trio of Sophies is marketed as a young adult novel, and would suit the older range of that category, and adults.

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The Devils You Know by Ben Sanders – 2021

Should you be judged by your intentions or by the consequences of your actions? This is the question throughout The devils you know, from the rightness of taking a job, pursuing a fixation, or invading a country. Vincent decides to leave New York after his protecting a workmate ends up with three people in hospital and his house being blown up. He decides to take a “High pay, low stress” job protecting a California supermarket magnate, but things quickly start to get complicated.

Vincent is a jandal-wearing surfer with a lot of baggage from his past deployment with the military and special ops. His military disillusionment was complete after he read the Wikileaked CIA report on the use of torture. He is averse to guns, yet he seems to end up surrounded by them. Vincent is a big reader – at one point he uses Philip Roth and Martin Amis as protection, literally. He is writing a screenplay and is prone to a bit of philosophising, “…if a life’s got too much grey area, it doesn’t matter if you run it forward or back – it looks the same ethically”. Early on he decides he’s had enough of the supermarket magnate, but then things turn very bad and the magnate’s daughter, Erin, becomes the target of some very nasty people when she is set to inherit her father’s millions.

Erin is not unused to being a target, her first book outed drug crime families. But her second book, in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has brought on another level of fury. She is dropped by a publisher and some of her public speaking gigs are cancelled. She has a difficult ex-husband who is not keen on her talking to her only son, and she is barely in contact with her father, who dislikes her politics. But when she discovers her father and some of his staff seem to have been embroiled in something extremely unlawful and dangerous, and that people are after her for 30 million dollars, she is determined to find the truth. And she asks her father’s ex-bodyguard for protection, jandals and all.

Vincent and Erin’s enquiries proceed apace; there are thrills, a mystery, and the attraction between two people with similar outlooks but totally opposing views. Vincent is a great character, tough and deadly, yet self-conscious when around Erin. And their discussions about war, with her clarity and his “boots-on-the-ground perspective” are superb, a counter to the social media-driven “abandonment of the middle ground when it came to political discourse.” There is a penultimate moment when you get to imagine the narrative taking a turn away from the reality of the situation, but then the reality comes crashing in again.

There are other complex characters in The devils you know: Locke, the U.S. Marshall, realising he’s got everything worth living for yet wondering why he is fixated on catching one scumbag. Beauden, who runs Bluesmoke, the agency Vincent is working for, and who is slowly falling apart as the story unrolls. And the psychopath Andre, happy to be what he is: “All these levels to life. Money, people, the power and authority they got. You have to know where you fit in, what your score is. And I only got one side to my life and that means one way to measure it. So what am I worth if I let you out of here having said that I won’t?”

The plot of The devils you know is satisfyingly wound up, but the joy of the book is in the characters and their ponderings, Vincent looking out a window at night: “The whole city like something biological, a brain map: every neuron glowing, some of them with bad ideas”, wondering about the contrast between civilian killing and wartime violence where you kill and move on and there are “No white sheets, no numbered markers by the drops of blood”. The descriptions of locale and action are sharp and visceral and through the book the California wildfires get closer and closer, adding to the tension.

I have really liked Sanders’ writing over the years, and The devils you know is a great addition. Read it and see if you agree!    

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More by Andrew Harris – 2020

A cure for a deadly epidemic, a religious leader rallying all to empower women to turn the tide on endless population growth – who is determined to stop both these worthy initiatives? And what does the murder of a star soccer player, an off-the-grid religious cult, and a pet food manufacturer, have to do with the plan?

Hannah and Lawrence and their partner Kitty announce an effective treatment for a deadly disease. Hannah and Lawrence are also excited about their upcoming nuptials. But not long after the wedding ceremony, Kitty’s fiancé Anderson, who has an addiction problem, comes to a rather sticky end. Hannah reluctantly leaves Kitty and goes with Lawrence to spend their honeymoon in Rio. Kitty is left to mind the business and Hannah and Lawrence’s dog, who has been reacting strangely to his new dog food. And then an even bigger problem descends on the research company. Meanwhile things are going well in Rio, Hannah has an invitation for an audience with the Pope, whose visit will coincide with Carnival, and Lawrence is scheduled to watch a soccer match with no less than Pelé. Then things start to go perilously wrong.

In the UK, Detective Sergeant Steve Mole and Maria Li, forensic technologist, are looking into the gruesome murder of a research scientist. Their investigation takes them in strange directions, with them ending up on a remote island, home to the The Church of The Perfect Love community. Their questions are initially met with relative civility, but then things start taking a nosedive and they find themselves headed to Rio on a vessel with some dangerous cargo. Later we find out that back in the U.S., Kitty is on the trail of a suspect linked to the attacks on the business, and that trail leads … to Rio.

The structure of More is very clever and effective, with most of the book being two chunks of the two stories, then as we speed up to the denouement, the stories alternate, first by chapter, then by section, adding to the tension. There are all the elements of a good thriller, kidnapping, protagonists not sure who to trust, helicopter rescues, and the blowing up of significant buildings and public monuments.

The themes of the book are the mindless destructive consumption of resources and of unhealthy food, overpopulation, and the tendency of humans to become addicted to what harms them. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest to make way for beef farms to meet the ever-growing U.S. craving for burgers, is a common story, but in More it is given a more sinister twist. And there is a suspicion that corporate greed is behind a lot of the mayhem, after all if you make your money from ill people you don’t want them to get healthy: “I’ve no doubt some drug companies would kill to preserve their market share”, but there is also the individual hubris that goes along with religious fanaticism to consider.

The religious conspiracy involves ‘angels’ who use the apocryphal Book of Enoch as their inspiration. A short while ago it might all have seemed a bit far-fetched. But given our current situation with the willingness of so many to believe dangerous conspiracy theories lightly clothed as religious righteousness, it almost sounds feasible! More is part three of the The Human Spirit Series, and there are plenty of links throughout for those who have read the first two installments, but it can be read as a standalone novel. I found it thrilling and thought-provoking.

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