A Surfeit of Sunsets by Dulcie Castree – 2016

surfeit of sunsetsWhat an absolute treat!  Dulcie Castree wrote this novel in 1986 but its publication fell through.  Her grandson digitised the manuscript in 2015 to make some print copies for family members, and then organised a limited published run, which took off like a rocket.  In 2016 it was picked up by Mākaro Press.  The novel is a beautifully poetic depiction of a Kapiti Coast town, its inhabitants and its short-term visitors.  It is a town of sadness and regret, of happy routine, of people fleeing nearby Wellington, and of poetry.  May, a child in her 40s; Shirley, a newcomer fleeing personal loss; and Poesy, a widow who came “seeking solitude but giving out her phone number” are just some of the characters who become involved in this snapshot of time, taking in the height of a summer and a blustery winter.  Anyone from Wellington and environs will recognise the locations, the snobbery, the depiction of New Zealanders as isolated individuals trying to connect, and the sunsets.  Much of the prose is bordering on interior monologue, the long lists of free associations that events, emotions or comments trigger: “Felicity would have accepted that as she did the death of Hessoos on a foreign beach fighting for a better world. Lest we forget. Lest we forget. Repetition makes it easier, bearable. They grow not old. It’s old that is ordinary; the going down of a sun after too long a day. Sentimental but I don’t care. Untimely death needs trappings. It should be ennobled by sacrifice for a brother, a country. Greater love hath no man, pro patria mori. It helps, it helps. There’s more wreaths for one thing, and monument and TV specials.”  The shape of the novel is lovely, the forbearing of tragedy nicely handled, and the characters are such that you are always second guessing just what type of people they are – all except May of course, who is as transparent as the idealised lives for which all the characters yearn.

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The Chinese Proverb by Tina Clough – 2016

_The Chinese ProverbOnce I had grasped that The Chinese Proverb is a simple piece of storytelling I started to really enjoy it.  Hunter Grant has nightmares from his time serving in Afghanistan; he lives a semi-solitary life organising security for anyone who can afford it “from dictators to drug cartel bosses”.  He has a supportive family, two sisters living close by his Auckland home and his parents further away.  He hangs out with his dog Scruff, retreats to his cabin out of Auckland whenever he can, and occasionally sleeps with a woman with whom he has nothing in common.  But his numbing life is jolted into focus one day when he is walking near his cabin and Scruff finds what Hunter fears is the dead body of a young boy.  But the body is alive, and not a boy: Dao is a young woman of indeterminate age who has been enslaved since she was a child.  The combination of Dao’s childlike naivete, fierce intelligence and hard earned survival skills hits Hunter where he lives, and she in turn becomes slavishly attached to her saviour.  The Chinese Proverb is the story of Hunter, with the help of his mates, making sure Dao’s tormentors get their come-uppance.  There is no mystery to solve, no surprises in terms of who are goodies and who baddies, no angsting over the fact that Dao is being pursued by the sorts of people Hunter employs to provide security for his clients – mercenaries who “will do anything if you pay them enough”.  The goodies are interesting: Hunter’s sisters, the lawyer Willow and the student Plum; his old army buddie Charlie, solid as and whose loves are her partner Kristen and her Eurocopter Squirrel AS350; and even the cops are caring, understanding and good sorts.  As for the baddies, they are really bad and we don’t get to find out anything about them apart from their badness.  I was expecting twists for a while – someone to be not who we think they are – but nope they are exactly what we read.  The energy of the story comes solely from the ongoing threats to Dao and Hunter, but this wouldn’t be enough to keep the reader engaged if it weren’t for the character of Dao.  She is as fascinating for the reader as she is for Hunter.  Dao knows nothing about how to navigate her newly discovered world, but also has none of the dissembling or conniving that goes with that world.  She has a native wit and intelligence which has enabled her to teach herself complex maths and a facility with machinery.  She is interesting enough that you can believe that she would turn Hunter’s world upside down in just a few days.  There is a great denouement, scary and eerie, but for me the novel ended too abruptly.  But maybe that just means Dao and Hunter will be re-appearing in another tale?  Which wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.


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The Agency by Ian Austin – 2016

The AgencyWell they just keep coming – The Agency is another excellent Kiwi mystery/thriller.  The murders are part of a canny scheme of revenge and greed, perpetrated by an angry woman with a facility for disguise that would make The Jackal weep.  The solving of the mystery falls to an ex-cop with baggage – who has ‘escaped’ to New Zealand, and who ends up teaching the local force a thing or two about detective procedures.  Dan Calder has an attitude problem, the reason he is an ex-cop, and is also prone to depression – which makes him fair game for V. Stenning – who scopes her victims by hacking into depression-related websites.  Dan’s neighbour is an unemployed social worker who is keeping herself busy trying to find a romantic interest for her lonely neighbour.  Her success in this field, Tara, leads to them doubling up on Dan’s suspicion that there is a serial killer on the loose.  Austin is very aware that his plotting is thick with coincidences – and throws in the ‘six degrees of separation is much less in New Zealand’ argument to cover them, plus overstating the problem so you think it’s not that bad: “… the coincidences, freakish events and downright unbelievable twists beggared all rational explanation …” – which is all good fun.  The story has the frame of Dan’s Auckland Marathon aspirations, which works well and provides a nail-biting denouement.  Some of the other plotting is a bit uneven, and the book would have benefitted from a good proof read.  The procedural passages, where Dan is tutoring the task force, are really well done, as are the passages dealing with depression, which are quite moving.   The irony of Austin emphasising the gender differences between Dan’s approach and Tara’s approach is nicely placed against the complexity of the villain – all adding to the tension of the story and characterisation.  The Agency also doesn’t answer all the questions about Dan and his murky past – so there are undoubtedly more Dan Calder tales on the way.

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The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser by David McGill – 2016

Plot to kill Peter FraserI really liked Dan Delaney in his first outing in McGill’s The Death Ray Debacle, and was thrilled to hear he was back.  And I wasn’t disappointed with The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser.  Not only is Dan back, but so too are some of his adversaries from his pre-war stint protecting an amateur scientist on Somes Island.  This latest outing is post the war with Germany and in the last stages of the conflict with the Japanese, and Dan is back in New Zealand having spent most of his war years in a POW camp.  He has married the nurse who cared for him after his release – a German Jewish refugee – an old trope to be sure, but Rina is much more than a cipher in this novel.  Delaney is sworn back into the police force to help track down those behind a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Peter Fraser – and as with Death Ray there are many potential suspects.  Fraser is unpopular internationally, as he has been instrumental in setting up the new United Nations, and is not only lobbying against the veto powers of the newly emerged ‘great powers’, he is also denying those powers their wish to divvy up smaller nations as spoils of war, arguing for self-determination.  The Yanks are furious he is not allowing them permanent military bases in New Zealand.  He also has powerful enemies within New Zealand due to his nationalisation policies, and ironically his socialist policies are not favoured by the Soviets – as many of them highlight the advantages enjoyed by the ruling elite in the Communist Bloc.  So, Dan and Rina head down to Wellington – and a mysterious death and a coded report leads Dan once again to Somes Island, where the disaffected interned from all sides of the political spectrum would be prime targets for enlistment in an assassination conspiracy.  The plot unfolds with twists, turns and lots of action, is very complex, and towards the end you want to yell at poor old Dan the equivalent of “look out behind you!!”.  Some of the tangential plots are cleared up a little too rapidly, but the line runs through to the final denouement nicely.  What I really loved about this book is the way it presents New Zealand plonk in the middle of international political history.  This is great if you are part of the generation who was taught New Zealand history as a sideline to international history; the latter something that happened overseas in the ‘important’ arenas of the world, and not something of which our country was an integral part.  Wellington is depicted as a cosmopolitan city of cabarets, cliques and conspiracies.  As with Death Ray, there is heaps of historical exposition, but it is folded into the flow reasonably well and is fascinating.  And the narrative features a previous friend of mine when she was a little girl – which made it even more special for me.  I am really hoping this isn’t the last outing for Dan Delaney!

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A Confidential Agreement by Rita Ann Ryan – 2016

Confidential agreementWoohoo this is great: Interesting characters, complex plotting, multiple storylines – and hints at future volumes!  Frida Delaney has come home to her family’s small Kawa Bay home for her mother’s funeral.  She is haunted by a traumatic past and has an uneasy relationship with her ex-cop father.  Also new to the Hawke’s Bay region is Detective Sergeant Kelso Chang, an ex-Wellington cop.  Frida and Chang’s paths cross when Frida discovers the man in the neighbouring beach house has been brutally murdered.  The search to discover the murderer, and Frida’s efforts to clear a woman who is suspected, provide the thread through the story.  Left and right politics, institutional corruption, the fine line between eccentricity and madness, between ambition and greed, and the secrets held within families and organisations – it is a long and involved tale but keeps you guessing and intrigued throughout, and you keep changing your mind about characters the more you learn about them.  There is a theme of division: a group of key characters first got together during that watershed of national division: the 1981 Springbok Tour; there is division between and within the political spectrum (the son in law of the murder victim is putting himself up as a contender for the Wellington Central National Party seat; the victim worked for the National Union of Teachers – and they are a preparing for a strike due to the failure of pay negotiations with a Labour Government); there is division within families too, dysfunctionality common; and both Frida and Kel Chang are working out who they will align with in their new environments.  I don’t want to give any of the plot away as there are secrets to uncover and be shocked by – and cover-ups to be appalled by.  All I can say is read it, and like me you will want to read more about Frida Delaney and DS Kel Chang!


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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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