Exit .45 by Ben Sanders – 2022

Marshall Grade is living in New York, passing his time solving really hard Jackson Pollock jigsaw puzzles, when an old buddy from his Brooklyn South, NYPD days, Ray Vialoux, asks to meet him. Ray is deep in gambling debt, and his family are being threatened. Grade knows “Data has a gravity. There’d be a point where he’d learned too much, and couldn’t just walk away from the problem.”

Grade doesn’t get a chance to walk away before Vialoux is lying dead at his feet, shot through the window of the Italian restaurant where they had met. The cop assigned to the shooting, Detective Floyd Nevins, warns Grade that he’s got his pronouns mixed up – it’s not “I’m” or “we’re” responsible for finding out why Vialoux was shot – “Here’s a radical idea. Why don’t you leave me to do my job?” But Grade disagrees and starts to investigate. Although it’s true he does seem to get his pronouns confused – a “him” he tracks down ends up being a “her”, adding another layer of interest to the mystery.

Jordan Mora is from Aotearoa, an ex-PI who has worked with Vialoux. Mora, like Grade, knows that if a guy owes you money, you’re never going to get it if he’s dead – there is more behind the shooting than a gambling debt. Grade is attracted to Mora, and he also has a history with Hannah, Vialoux’s wife. His personal relationships make the case difficult to navigate, as he struggles to see “the divide between the pertinent and the personal.”

It is Grade’s specific take on the case that makes Exit .45 such a good read. We know he has OCD from previous novels, and his condition has heightened to engineering-level geometry. He is crystal clear about what’s happened and his role in it: “… the story is about me, isn’t it? I was right there at the beginning.” He is confused when others seem to put other considerations first: “Vialoux’s dead. I mentioned that, right?” Another source of puzzlement is the people he bumps into who have asked others to do jobs, but who feel disconnected from the consequences.  

Grade has an unusual view of justice, for him it’s not one-size-fits-all, it’s case-by-case, and he has no problem administering it when required: “He was wired for unilateralism, single-mindedness.” Any progress on the case seems to unearth more mysteries, and it isn’t long before he has triggered the interest of Deputy Inspector Loretta Flynn of the NYPD. He is sort of helping the police yet sort of their prime suspect: “But it was a strange experience to be standing here, moving easily through small talk and all the while knowing that a SWAT team might kick down his door.”

In the frame for being connected to Vialoux’s murder are a drug lord with a missing wife and an Italian mob boss. And closer to home there are pieces of the puzzle that don’t quite fit. Is Hannah’s daughter Emma acting suspiciously or just being a teenager? Is the grieving couple who witnessed a suspect for the murder what they seem? Their daughter, Emma’s friend, has committed suicide, and Vialoux was looking into bullying as a possible reason.

Exit .45 – a way out of New York or a wound from a bulletis a great read with clues scattered throughout and engaging characters. I thought the end was too abrupt until the ramifications sank in – the pieces keep falling into place after you finish reading. And there is Sanders’ lovely noirish prose: “he thought he could bend the bars of honesty a little, slip through to the other side of the mystery.” #YeahNoir!

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Slow Down, You’re Here by Brannavan Gnanalingam – 2022

Auckland in the time of Covid, and the lockdowns have made work even more precarious than usual for Vishal and Kavita. Vishal has been driving taxis since he lost his marketing job a few years back, he works evening-into-night shifts so he can be with their two young children, Aarani and Bhavan, while Kavita works as an accounts clerk. Ashwin, their friend of many years, is an engineer in a company riding the boom of post-earthquake building assessments, but he is not fulfilled in his job, due to systemic, casual, racism.

All three are working below their capabilities and are feeling despondent, being subjected daily to disrespect. Vishal having to put up with abuse from fares. Kavita having to deal with lazy executives trying to claim what they are not due. Ashwin knowing a less-experienced, trendy white guy will soon overtake him in the office hierarchy. Vishal and Kavita see each other in passing, and, as Kavita takes on most of the childcare and all the cooking and cleaning, their relationship is deteriorating. Kavita has started privately communicating with Ashwin, whom she has had a crush on for years.

When Ashwin suggests Kavita join him for a break on Waiheke Island, she is very tempted. Vishal will be on his days off, so can mind the kids, and if she is away longer than that, he can make other childcare arrangements. Kavita and Ashwin find that prejudice is as at home on Waiheke as in Auckland, they are used to it, but it still irks. Ashwin has booked the accommodation under the more neutral sounding Ash. Kavita finds it hard to keep quiet during an ersatz yoga class: “Repeat after me, ‘Ommmmmm’.” At a restaurant they end up sparring about the layers upon layers of discrimination that exist: “Our second chance is built on an opportunity that was taken from someone else.”

“How she was putting everything at risk, just for a few days” – Slow down, you’re here could be the not-unusual story of a woman taking a brief time to reflect on her choices and their consequences. It is a nuanced piece. The story told in turns from the points of view of Kavita and Ashwin. You read of their insecurities, their hopes, their misunderstandings. Kavita has a nightmare where her body is being reconstructed from other bodies, “they only had an old white woman for the thighs.” Ashwin monitors his comments so as not to come across as overbearing. They both try to reproduce what their relationship would have been like had it happened many years ago.  

But meanwhile, while Kavita and Ashwin are making choices and wondering if they are the right ones, there is a situation evolving back in Auckland, where those Kavita has left behind have few choices, and where events are overtaking them: “Why was everyone disappearing?” asks Aarani. Things are being pared back to the basics – eating, shitting, sleeping. An illegal visit from a landlord evokes a complex flourish of emotions in the reader. You want to intervene and help in the story. These sections are a worrying read. In this review I have only discussed the elements of the story that appear in the back-cover blurb, as the incredible apprehension the book excites is from having no idea what is going to happen.

There are those who make choices that have consequences, and there are those with virtually no agency who do the very, very best they can. As the novel comes to an end, the reader is repeatedly unsure whether Kavita will go home or not, and either way wonders what the rest of her life will be like. On so many levels an exceptional novel.

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Entanglement by Bryan Walpert – 2021

Paul is at a writers’ retreat in 2019, writing pieces in response to prompts, pieces from his life, from the stories he used to tell his daughter. Paul remembers episodes from 2011, in reverse chronological order, it is the year he got to know Anise, the woman he would marry. In no particular year, Paul is disoriented: “Was memory loss expected? Maybe you have forgotten you expected it, or will expect it.” He can’t remember his name. He has a photograph of Anise and his young daughter, whose name also escapes him.

Paul met Anise at the Centre for Time at the University of Sydney, where she was a philosopher of science. He was a writer wanting to know everything about time for a work in progress – seemingly dealing with the same subject as his first novel – his guilt over his twin brother being injured when they were young boys. The physicists at the centre are generous, if not slightly condescending, when explaining aspects of quantum physics and differing theories of time.

Paul is attentive and fascinated by the theories, but he is becoming more interested in Anise. Famous thought experiments start affecting his views of his relationships. Anise and his far away brother affect each other despite their never having met. Anise is behind the bedroom door being in any number of possible moods, until Paul opens the door, and her moods collapse into the mood she is in. Paul and Daniel, the twin brothers, one of whom goes away for such a short time, then finds the other irreparably damaged when they reunite.

Is Paul a time traveller trying to correct his mistakes? Or is he in a state of dissociative fugue due to the trauma of the loss of his daughter and his guilt over his brother? After all, we are all travelling through time, or maybe creating time as we link discrete events together, we are all time travellers. There are lovely musings such as what does vintage mean when you have travelled backwards. And nice dialogue: “I said, I suppose that rules out time travel. Why, she asked, is there somewhere you need to be?”

Paul is in a hospital café in Baltimore, the same hospital his brother was taken to, and where he and his parents sat at a table, when he looks up – “In the reflection you see a ragged man, possibly homeless, alone at a table for four.” The reflection is himself, he is bedraggled, maybe time travel does that to a body, or is it just jet lag? For all the fine theories of time there is always the mundane moment of experience. Paul writes of meeting a physicist for lunch, “He grapples with questions about, for example, the philosophical ramifications of relativity, yet he must still grapple with syrup and tables whose legs are for some reason not aligned”.

I initially found the dialogue in the Anise episodic memories unconvincing, and the writers’ retreat essays contrived. But then I realised everything was told deeply from the perspective of one actor – Paul, and I became emerged in his trauma. The sections dealing with the loss of his daughter are finely done, for example, his cleaning the house after neither he nor Anise had been capable of doing so for ages. His finding the vacuum bag “Half full of things that had been attached to his daughter”, and turning the vacuum on and off, and again on and off, to release some traces of her. He looks at the photograph of his family, remembers the click of taking it, the click that “marked the present made past, now present again”.

Entanglement is like Einstein’s relativity train; different readers will perceive different things. For me the novel is about guilt and grief, those instances that form you and make you who you will be, but “You hope that does not mean who you must always be”. The instinctive move away, the casual words spoken to a person when you don’t know they will be your last, the awful things said between people in the throes of grief. There are models of time: presentism, possibilism, eternalism, and then there is the task of navigating existence – “That is the problem with looking always to the future, always ahead. There are so many ways to avoid the present, to slip away from it.” I found Entanglement a touching read, and was a bit surprised by the upbeat ending, until I realised it was another thought experiment collapsed into an episode on a page.

Entanglement is short-listed for the 2022 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.

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Both Feet in Paradise by Andy Southall – 2021

A woman is waiting at Auckland International Airport for her parents to arrive. She thinks of them impatiently: “Dad off on his walks, and Mum busy with her cousins, her friends, her legions of family.” Adam is on an island somewhere in the Pacific, desperate to get home – his younger daughter, Naomi, is very sick, and he longs to be with her, but things keep obstructing his departure. Eve looks back on her life and her relationships. She is the daughter of a missionary to Samoa who never went back to England. Eve never wanted, and still doesn’t want, to leave the place of her birth, but she determines she must help Adam leave her island – her paradise.

Both Feet in Paradise is an extraordinarily powerful portrait of a man, Adam. His story is told in four sections, with the second and last told from Adam’s point of view. These parts are reminiscent of Ishiguro’s superb The Unconsoled, with the reader struggling to decipher what is going on as the protagonist’s world starts to make less and less sense. Adam remembers the Sagrada Familia in Paris, and he wonders if it was lira he and his wife used as currency there; warped memories of Parisian trips are frequent through the narrative. As are periods of panic as Adam remembers his younger daughter’s illness – her bleeding nose having been the first warning sign.

Adam has nightmare visions of another man usurping him as husband to Ruth, as father to Naomi and his elder daughter, Natalie. Time is Adam’s enemy; when he misses his flight, he scrambles to make new arrangements. But there doesn’t seem to be a working airport on the island. He remembers the general details of many international trips, but not the specifics of how he got to this island. He knows he has visited many countries, but his passport is blank. He starts losing all evidence of his planned flight, documents that would help him re-book. He sees a stranger behind a doorway: “an older man, unshaven, with a scuffed black Nike cap wedged on his head” – it is his reflection.

Everything is alien and unknown to Adam, but also oddly familiar. There are many people who appear helpful, but don’t help. And then he meets Eve – Adam’s temptress, his bully, his only friend. She is ominous, overly familiar, very presuming. When Adam’s credit cards start being declined, she is his saviour. He confides in her; he is an entomologist studying the local butterflies, he urgently needs to get home. He needs to phone his wife to explain why he wasn’t on the plane when she was waiting at the airport, but whenever he gets through it is someone else on the line – always the same person – “I think the world’s gone mad.”

The third section of Both Feet in Paradise is Eve’s story. Her tale is one of powerlessness but contentment. She visited Aotearoa to train as a nurse, and once home she never wanted to leave again. She was manipulated by someone, and the result was a daughter, Naomi. An engineer working on a dam enters her life, and takes her to New Zealand, to Paris. He is good with Naomi, but repeatedly puts her in danger. A nosebleed is an indication that one misadventure is potentially life threatening. Eve lives with the traditional stories of the island, one of which is of Sina who befriends a young eel, who grows and relentlessly pursues her. But Eve is afa Igilisi – as well as the traditional stories, she also understands the “humourless pālagi logic”.

Eve is fascinated by Tusitala Robert Louis Stevenson, a pālagi who visited Samoa and never left. When Eve’s daughter Naomi and her partner Rob visit, they have problems leaving. Her father never left. And of course, there’s Adam. Where do people belong? Where is home? When our lives move on, through choice or trauma, how accurate are our memories? “I’ve never been good with numbers.” Many of Adam’s memories circle around the circumstances of key events in his life – meeting Ruth, Naomi’s birth. Tusitala is a word for storyteller, and Both Feet in Paradise considers where stories come from, and how we can become lost in them.

The descriptions of Samoa are at once peaceful and beautiful, and dark and menacing. There are waterfalls and lush flora, but also the feral dogs that snap and threaten once you leave the town environs – “Why are they so aggressive?”. The imagery of the Garden of Eden helps the warping reality – Eve initially appearing as a seductive temptress, “Don’t worry. We’ll work something out.” Her taking Adam to her favourite places on the island. Him taking her to his butterfly grove – where she is bitten by a ‘snake’. Adam’s situation is one that many novels have attempted to deal with, and for me it is one of the most moving and convincing portrayals: “Yet sadly, no longer am I a part of my own life. Somehow I’ve become lost. No matter how hard I try, I can’t return.” A poignant and haunting book.

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To Kill a Conman by Kevin Berry – 2021

Stuart Baker might not want to work for money, but he certainly puts his all into running his multiple cons. They range from extortion to giving less to beggars than he takes from them, and they cover every type of scam in between. His biggest worry is remembering to park his Lamborghini where his impoverished ex-wife can’t see it, that is until he hacks PI Danny Ashford’s credit card. That is probably the moment things turn south for Stuart Baker.

Danny runs Quake City Investigations out of his flat in the still shaky alternate history Christchurch. It’s not just the streets and buildings that are crumbling – the cops are hopeless, and the banks are as dishonest as the many criminals who consider Quake City their patch. Danny can’t afford his rent, or the payment for the new car he needs after his last one was trashed. He acquires an Audi from a dealer, knowing better than to grill him about the car’s provenance.

When lawyer Julie arrives at the agency, wanting Danny to recover the money a fraudster has conned from her, he gladly takes the case. And the coincidences start piling up. Danny discovers he and Julie have been ripped off by the same guy. The Audi used to belong to a thief who Stuart engaged to steal some valuable software. And when Danny acts on behalf of his new neighbour, Chelsea, an exotic dancer at 88 Club, warning her boss to stop harassing her, more connections fall into place.

All is going well with the investigation until Danny ends up at the police station being interviewed – there has been a murder and Danny is the prime suspect. Fortunately for Danny, Julie turns out to be a criminal lawyer and she stops Danny being arrested, if only so he can keep working on getting her money back. Deepa Banwait, a journalist, and crime-busting partner of Danny’s is happy to help, for a story. And Chelsea is generous in letting Danny and his cat Torquemada hang out at her place to avoid the police – and the increasingly rent-needy landlady.

Pressure is mounting – Danny needs to solve not only the confidence crimes but also a murder, and he must do so in time to pay the rent, pay off the car, and avoid getting sent to prison. And both Julie and Chelsea are starting to act very oddly. Then there is another murder, and once again the clues point to Danny. Danny has no trust in the police, he knows he must prove himself innocent. And he must resolve the cons so all the victims get what they deserve, as the Financial Crimes Unit will skim some of the money, and the victims will end up with nothing.

Despite the police only having Danny in their sights for the murders, there is a growing number of other suspects. There’s the bank teller who has worked out where Stuart’s money comes from, his struggling ex-wife who has twin boys to support, a woman whose strip club started failing when 88 Club opened down the street, and the owner of the ripped off software company, who just happens to be a star kickboxer who has the wherewithal to trace extorting phone calls.

To Kill a Conman continues the Quake City Investigations series. Readers who enjoy the cartoonish settings won’t be disappointed, we still have the Richter Mail, Crumblo Street, Ricketyton, etc. Apart from the police interview transcripts, the narrative is first person Danny, and there are other noir tropes: the attractive woman arriving at the down and out PI’s offices needing help, the constant rain, the PI being played … There are enough clues for the reader to work out whodunnit – you will be guessing to the end – and there is the added interest in how Danny will sort out his financial woes, and those of the other victims of Stuart Baker.

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The Final Call by Jen Shieff – 2021

Carmel is approaching her 40th birthday. She is noticing the odd wrinkle, and she occasionally feels unattractive. She is torn between her job at the Grand Palais – and her relationship with Rita, the madam – and the possibility of going into a legitimate business and a romantic relationship, with Istvan, the barman and handyman at the brothel. But a gruesome murder, threatening phone calls, a wayward nephew, and a minx who seems intent on supplanting her, give Carmel plenty of other things to worry about.

Carmel is from a Catholic family whose mother died impecunious when her children were young. Carmel and her sister Tess both work at the brothel. Maxine, the youngest daughter, owns and works at a furriers. Jonathan the younger brother is a lawyer and is struggling with coming out as gay, even though his family and colleagues have known for a long time. The other brother, Felix, is a Catholic priest. Relationships range from close to virtually estranged, but there is a get together for Maxine’s birthday – and an unexpected announcement.

Carmel’s mother had not been poor as her children thought, and as the youngest child is now turning 35, there is a large inheritance to be divided between the siblings. Apart from a strange interaction between Jonathan and Tess, and an outburst from Maxine’s teenage son Gabriel, the birthday drinks are not too confrontational. Maxine is excited, as she has booked to go on a scenic flight for her birthday. And the surprise windfall will make Carmel’s decision about buying a hotel with Istvan simpler. But the next morning the discovery of a violent murder throws everything into disarray.     

Carmel is desperate to know who committed the murder and why “… if there was no reason, the silence would last forever, the dead person floating in Bardo without a guide, never finding rest”. She is relieved that Inspector Allan Maynard is given the case, as he has history and a good relationship with Rita and Carmel. But there are so many suspects – Jonathan is still acting strangely, Gabriel is turning into a loose cannon, some of the high-class clients of the brothel might have motive, especially the mysterious Simon Peterson. And there is Carmel’s ex-husband Mike, a bit of a creep who is turning up everywhere.

Carmel even starts to wonder about one of her long-term clients and friends, a priest who enjoys re-experiencing God’s forgiveness by frequently transgressing. And her nephew is a worry – Gabriel is teetering on a knife edge between teenage hormones and mental instability. He is prone to Pentecostal enthusiasm and spouts bible quotes – especially ones aimed at shaming Carmel and Tess. And then there’s Maria. Maria is a young woman who used to run the hotel that Carmel is in the process of buying. She moves into the Grand Palais and quickly starts to usurp Carmel – in style, in behaviour, and in Rita’s bed.

Readers of Shieff’s previous books: The vanishing act and The gentlemen’s club, will recognise many of the characters in The final call. And they will also recognise the mix of historical detail (the Erebus disaster, the wrongful conviction of Arthur Allan Thomas) and good old Golden Age style crime – there are even family gatherings complete with policeman. There are lots of 1979 cultural references, and maybe a bit too much detail of clothes and accessories – although they do provide flamboyance to the cast. And strongly present in the novel is the unfairness of the laws of the day.

Carmel is “a woman’s woman”, despite herself she is bewitched by Maria. She loves Rita, but knows no woman could replace Rita’s true love, the deceased Glenys. There are no laws against women such as Carmel, but there are laws against men such as Jonathan – men “Scuttling into their own home with their heads down, keeping the blinds drawn, all the time worrying about what the neighbours might say.” And there are laws against sex workers – when the police go to search the brothel, there is a great scramble to hide the money stored in cases under the beds.

Maynard detains then releases a number of suspects, but still there are threatening phone calls and letters, warning Carmel she will be the next victim. She finds out Maxine also received a warning letter, and that both Jonathan and Felix have been attacked: “What on earth is going on? Are we cursed?” But the crime is eventually solved, and in a satisfying way. Carmel makes her decisions about her professional and personal life, and is clearly still going to be calling the shots in her relationship with Istfan. The final call is an atmospheric murder mystery with fascinating characters and a great setting.  

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The Leonard Girls by Deborah Challinor – 2022

It’s 1969, Joanne Leonard is at university, playing in a folk trio, a member of the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM), and fiercely opposed to the war in Vietnam. Jo’s sister, Rowie, is an army nurse passionate and excited about her up-coming tour to Vietnam, where she will be caring for young Kiwis and Australians stationed there. One of those young men is their distant cousin, Sam Apanui, doing his job as a New Zealand soldier in Vietnam. It is a job he took to avoid ending up working the freezing works like his brothers, but it is still a job he is proud of. The Vietnam War will change all their points of view, and all their lives.

When Sam takes a brief trip home to visit his seriously injured Dad in hospital, he meets Jo again, who sings folk songs at the father’s bedside “If Sam had had a hammer, he would have put it through Jo’s guitar.” They are attracted to each other despite their opposing views, which over coffee they can’t seem to avoid: “I didn’t sign up to kill people. That’s not why people join the army.”

Sam returns to duty and much of the The Leonard girls is set in the steamy heat, ubiquitous dust, and squelchy mud of Vietnam. But this is not the surreal nightmare of the Vietnam of American popular culture – the human ear garlands and the drug induced manias – that is carefully disposed of early in the novel. This is the Vietnam War as experienced by the ANZAC troops. Not seen through drug glazed eyes, but with eyes that try to rationalise the real horrors they witness.

Aotearoa in the 1960s was probably no more racist or misogynist than it is today, but these prejudices were more blatant, and more generally accepted. Rowie is soon disillusioned with Vietnam, and she is trying to find a way to endure her year of service. She falls into racist thinking, even trotting out the persistent “they don’t value human life as much as we do” trope when talking about the Vietnamese. She comes face to face with the boys whose bodies have been maimed by the war, and she finds few people with whom she can share her shock.

Unlike Rowie, Sam has Eddie, his mate from childhood, to confide in. Even though in charge of separate groups of soldiers, they share a tent and spend all their time together. They also share their thoughts on the war, their fellow-soldiers, and Sam’s deepening feelings for Jo, with whom he has taken up a long-distance relationship. He is pleased when he hears she has left the folk trio, Grafton Road Players, and that she has joined another band, Dark Horse.

Jo’s university studies have taken a back seat while she pursues her singing. She has gotten off-side with other members of the PYM, being able to separate the political decisions behind New Zealand’s participation in the war and the young men at the front – something the other members don’t seem able to do. And her growing affection for Sam, with a dollop of fate, sees her join Dark Horse, a group headed to Vietnam to entertain the ANZACs.

When Jo reunites with Rowie in Vietnam, she is shocked at the change in her sister, who she always thought of as the perfect one in the family. Rowie is smoking and drinking, she has suffered a personal tragedy “love and lust always burn much, much hotter in a war zone”. Rowie now recognises that every death is a “ripple in a pond” of sorrow. She is finding it hard to manage the cognitive dissonance of her experiences and her task: “Nurses provide professional care and the comfort of a well-made bed, a soothing voice and reassuring encouragement.”

Rowie has visited a nearby orphanage, full of babies and children left by women who have been raped by foreign troops, or who have fallen pregnant while working as prostitutes. And she witnesses the mysterious birth deformities of many of the babies – but refuses to believe the head of the orphanage, Sister Theresa’s, belief that they were caused by American defoliants. But Rowie is starting have her doubts about everything. She doesn’t understand those who enjoy the work at the army base “It’s weird. I think being close to death, living on the edge like this all the time, makes some people think they are really alive.”

Jo certainly feels the immediate threat of death during one genuinely scary drive from the main base Nui Dat, where Sam is stationed, to Vung Tau, where Rowie’s hospital is. She also experiences the difference from the ANZAC bases when visiting the U.S. Military Base at Long Binh. It is a tiny encapsulation of the U.S. – racial tension among the troops, and the excitement and dangers brought by free market enterprise. Jo’s stint in Vietnam is hot and confusing, both for her and Sam. He thinks about life on the road for members of a band “in which you tolerated meagre pay, endless travel, and unstable personal relationships. He nearly smiled as he realised he’d just summed up being in the army.”

The novel considers the moral ambiguity of war, how in the thick of conflict, the right course of action is not always the safest one. Sam does a 180 on his view of his job: “it aptly described what they were: hunters and killers of men.” The Leonard girls doesn’t shy from the toll that the war has on the characters, both physically and mentally. And it backgrounds the story of the war with men trying to deal with serious trauma back home – Sam’s dad with his multiple workplace injuries, and Jo and Rowie’s father who lost an arm in the 2nd World War.

The book is full of the 1960s – Mum deodorant, beehive hairdos, smoking on commercial flights, Indian restaurants unknown in New Zealand. And the lingo – “what a dag”, “grouse”. In the text te reo words not having macrons. The Leonard girls is the fourth and final installment of Challinor’s The restless years series. Through the book are characters and family lines we know from previous books. At the end, a cycle is played out that nicely finishes the Vietnam arc. Then there is the Epilogue, which fills in some details and furthers the stories of characters we have just read about, but also refers to situations outside the scope of the book, but which either finish off plot lines running through the series, or maybe are set ups for a further series.

Being part of a series means we don’t get to explore some of the aspects of the story a reader might want to, such as the Agent Orange atrocities. Challinor manages this by an Author Note, which gives the reader copious information about the Vietnam War and aspects of it touched on in the story. The Leonard girls can be read as a stand-alone or as the conclusion to a series. Whichever way you read it, it is a moving and very human-scale consideration of the moral complexities of war.

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A Good Winter by Gigi Fenster – 2021

It is a good winter for Olga, she has befriended Lara, and is spending most days helping her look after her daughter Sophie, and Sophie’s son Michael. Sophie is experiencing post-natal depression and finding it hard to care for her son, and she is still mourning the death of her husband. Lara has left her part-time job, so she and Olga spend most days in a routine of caring for Lara’s family. Olga has found her soul mate: “We’re both roll-up-your-sleeves-and-make-a-pot-of-tea kind of people.”

Olga is the sole narrator in A good winter, Fenster sets up her obsessions very clearly. You read her prejudices and nasty opinions, and through her descriptions the reader can tell how she is misreading almost every situation. Olga cleverly does not speak out loud most of the things she thinks, she knows she will appear clingy or risk pushing Lara away – if she does upset her she quickly turns the situation: “I have made her cry, and I have made her stop crying.” But the reader gets all of Olga’s unpleasant inner commentary.

Olga knows she is a new-comer to Lara and Sophie’s network of friends, “I was not one of the so-called girls”, and she doesn’t have time or a kind thought for any of them: “a group of outcasts put together by a nut case.” Some of the motivations she gives others are the only clue to her own drivers. She thinks others want to feel they are more a part of Lara, Sophie and Michael’s lives than she is. At one point she assumes that Lara is behind Sophie asking Olga to mind Michael once a week, she having gone back to work, as she must want Olga to spy for her.

The reader does get Olga’s back-story, and again knows it is a warped version of events. She and her brother lived on a sheep farm with their hard working father who loved their artistic mother. Olga knows her mother only loved her, and plotted for the two of them to escape the farm. When Olga was 10, her mother died and her father was distraught – Olga assumed he was crying for her. She hated being fussed over: “What I needed was for everyone to shut up so that I can get on with it.” The brother, Brian, still lives on the family farm.

Olga is the chairwoman of the body corporate for the apartment building where she and Lara live, a position that allows her to volunteer to do jobs and then feel resentful that people expect her to do them. She volunteers at church each Christmas to give her an excuse not to visit the family farm, and is then annoyed she has to waste her time on a “Bunch of winos”. Brian has kept in touch and visits Olga. She wants Lara to meet him so she will be impressed that Olga doesn’t complain about having such a loser as a relative.

Sophie is everything Olga’s mother warned her not to be as a child, “a wallower who liked being depressed”. Olga makes sure Sophie is left to wallow, and tries everything to drive her back to needing care when she turns a corner. Spring comes, Lara goes back to work, and Sophie holds a big garden party to celebrate new beginnings. Olga’s good winter is over. She suspects she might lose her new-found security, but “I am not easily dismissed”.

This is where I expected A good winter to reveal layers of interpretation – where things weren’t as the reader imagined – that there would be something to justify Olga’s attitude. Some of her views are extremely unpleasant, for example her thoughts about her brother’s ex-wife and her new partner – so unpleasant that they need to be justified. But there are no plot surprises, everything has been flagged. The careful even plotting does start to unravel towards the end, but not in a way that leads to a startling denouement. Despite the book cover saying “Nothing will prepare you for the end”, I found myself quite prepared and somewhat disappointed. Having said that A good winter is short-listed for the 2022 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction – so read it and see what you think.

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Unsheltered by Clare Moleta – 2021

Mum, look! – the last words Matti had said, and Li hadn’t looked. Had Matti been trying to draw her attention to “A flicker of light or shape of a cloud, a wobbly tooth, a new trick, something small with wings. A clue”? Matti and Li had already lost Frank, Matti’s father, and then Li had lost Matti. All three had been together in Nerredin. But they had set out for “the best place we can find” when, after 14 years of drought, the countryside was severe and hot enough to burst into flames, and a flash flood had been so sudden and strong it had washed a child away down a storm drain.

Unsheltered follows Li’s journey to find Matti. The land is dry and harsh, “it’s mostly dust and salt now”, and divided into areas for the sheltered and the unsheltered. There is a hierarchy of transit camps, official and unofficial, where people wait, often endlessly, to get into a sheltered area, either under a quota or by payment. There are No Go areas between the camps and the XB barriers, behind which are the sheltered. But the reader gets snippets that life for the sheltered, although more stable, isn’t great. A soul destroying bureaucracy has built up around managing the unsheltered – refugees from climate disasters, from Sacrifice Zones, from the Wars.

Li keeps hearing rumours about the movements of the group of children that she believes includes Matti, but she is never sure if people are telling the truth – maybe they just want something from her? Eventually tales of “the children walking” become a way for adults to express their culpability for the planet’s disasters. Li is resourceful, good at patching equipment. She can also hunt, and make stills to collect dew. She remembers travelling the country with Val, who showed her how to survive. She had managed for the both of them when Val started drinking again, and was self-sufficient when he died.

As Li continues her quest, she remembers being a far from perfect mother, and she has to remember bad things about Frank to stop herself idolising him. He was the perfect parent, where for her Matti was “this thing she hadn’t decided not to do”. Li’s story is gradually filled in for the reader, exposing the awful choices people are forced to make in times of want. Matti had been traumatised by the lack of permanence of place, of security, and had feared the ‘Takeaway’. For Li there are enough real things to fear in her journey. XB Force who “carried precision rifles and batons, limb restraints and handcuffs”. Groups she would come across at night sitting around a campfire – she would back away before they saw her. Those who would betray her for what little she had, or who would trade aggressively and unfairly for what she needed.

It is an uncomfortably recognisable dystopia: overcrowded refugee camps, struggling NGOs, the vulnerability of women – in an experience of transphobia in one camp, “It had never occurred to [Li] that being a woman was something you might long for.” There are the frequent extreme weather events and the constant background of war, and the ever-widening gap between the safe and the homeless. And there are the mistakes – the sheltered places had been built to keep the unsheltered out, not the Weather. The Wars are an exercise in futility: “All the things they were fighting for were the things they were fighting with”.  Li sees jumpers trying unsuccessfully to catch rides under trucks going into sheltered areas, and she wonders what was in the nightmares of those sheltered – was it “People like her?”. She recognises that “They’re afraid if they let us in they’ll become us”.

The plotting of Unsheltered is tense and relentless, with Li always just missing Matti, or losing hope, or getting into a series of dangerous situations. She is burnt, she is injured: “Her body was a catalogue of things wrong: thirst, pain, lack of sleep, hunger.” The descriptions of the landscape are striking: “The dust deadened sound so that people loomed out of it dreamlike. Even engines were muffled, the trucks sounding distant until they were almost on top of her”, and they are beautiful: “Stars so thick they made smoke. Lumps of galaxies like slow burning wood.” When Li finds a map: “Strange to look at this part of the continent with only the old token borderlines, the ones Val said you could cross without even knowing” – so different from the walls and barriers and patrols of ‘now’.

The vast scope of Unsheltered is told through the intimate story of one woman. And despite the calamities, the book is full of human kindness. There is the sharing of heart-breaking stories between the women in Charlie compound, with its forced labour, industrial poisons, sweeping epidemics, and numbers tattooed on wrists. There is Li giving a talk one night on dryland farming in the West – telling the story of small-town life as a gift to her fellow workers. There are the many kindnesses she experiences on the road. And there is Rich, the medic who weaves through her story, and whose skills are a godsend.

Unsheltered has one of the most gripping endings I have ever read. People must make impossible choices when they are powerless and under stress, and everyone is the product of someone else’s choices. At one point in Charlie compound, Li can’t be bullied as she has nothing left, “it didn’t matter to Li because her privacy didn’t matter now, her mind didn’t matter”. But there are the smouldering embers of hope, hope of a future, of finding Matti, of there being safety in the Deep Islands, or even in the Sacrifice Zone in the North. I was desperate for things to work out well for Li, as her story is such a convincing read. And it is all the more powerful for the reader recognising that today in many places, for many women displaced by weather, war, or poverty, Li’s story is their reality. “This, in here, this wasn’t life, it was something else, something that couldn’t be added up.” An exceptional book.

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Folded by Tina Clough – 2021

When Mariko Goto is grabbed and held captive in the apartment next door to her own, she drops exquisitely folded messages about her plight out the window. Grace finds the clues, and after talking to her only friend at work, Linda, she documents her findings and goes to the police. When Grace disappears, Linda contacts her old school-mate, Plum. Linda knows Plum’s older brother, Hunter Grant, has a reputation for solving crimes. Hunter says he will help in a hands-off way – but any reader familiar with Hunter Grant knows that arrangement won’t last long.

Folded is the third Hunter Grant novel, and Hunter is now living with Dao. Dao has a “whole network of people” on her side after her traumatic history, which readers of the series will know, but which is sketched out in this installment for those who don’t. Dao is immediately sympathetic to Mariko’s plight and wants to help. She and Hunter also have grave fears for Grace. But the police are being oddly slow to investigate.

Mariko’s clues however are detailed enough for Hunter and Dao take them very seriously. The head of the police investigation, Inspector Bakker, for reasons we later discover, takes an instant dislike to Hunter. One of the things Mariko has managed to convey, is that she has an American father, John Anderson, a corporate lawyer. Anderson flies over to Aotearoa when he hears of his daughter’s abduction, he is charming and very concerned about Mariko. But for Dao “learning to read the subtle signals of reactions and intentions was for her a way of avoiding being punished” – and she is suspicious of Anderson.

Hunter and Dao have support from friends such as detective Benson, ex-soldier buddy Charlie, and Simon the lawyer. And they are having some success piecing together what might have happened to Mariko and Grace, mainly using CCTV footage from Mariko’s building. But when Bakker’s dislike of Hunter stretches to his being arrested for interfering in her investigation, Dao is on her own. Or rather she chooses to be on her own, as she is loath to involve anyone else, not wanting to be responsible for their getting hurt.

Dao has promised Hunter she won’t go near Mariko’s building – but Mariko’s building isn’t the only one owned by a dodgy series of corporations, whose lawyer just happens to be Mariko’s father. Folded becomes very nail-bitey when Dao starts her investigation of a suburban warehouse, with only hired limo driver Richard for back-up. Her methods of surveillance are tense enough, but when the police again are bureaucratically slow, she goes in full tilt. The scenes in the warehouse and nearby mangrove swamp are tense and horrific.

Dao’s discoveries finally convince Bakker that Dao and Hunter are right. The case seems more or less a wrap, until they realise it’s not only the ‘good guys’ who can use CCTV for evidence – and Dao has probably now got a target on her back. Dao and Hunter go into lockdown, and into the doldrums, “I wonder if we are all in some mild state of PTSD”. Their state-of-the-art surveillance equipment then picks up a car casing the joint, and Hunter get’s his turn to narrowly escape death in an insane final action sequence – “If his thumb moves off the safety lever, the thing blows up in five seconds.”     

At the centre of the Folded mystery is an extremely unpleasant international criminal enterprise. But it is the characters rather than the plot that carry the book. And for me the stand-out character is Dao. She has a stare that is like “being pinned to the wall with black arrows”. She is methodical in her planning, keeping a record of what she will do and why. She teaches herself to use a Glock off YouTube, and she’s fearless. Which is why, for me, Hunter constantly referring to her as “little thing” is so annoying, especially when she repeatedly tells him to not do it – and then he eventually manipulates her into accepting it.

Almost as bad as “little thing” is Charlie’s overuse of “warrior princess”. Maybe it’s something about serving in Afghanistan that leads to the use of infantalising nicknames? The reader gets relevant backstories for Bakker and Grace, but the other main protagonist is Hunter. His is the only narrative in the first person, and apart from his belittling Dao, I found him interesting. He is still having nightmares from Afghanistan. Despite being a “protection expert” and Mr. Capable, he is oddly naïve – he doesn’t know how the Darknet works, he’s never heard of Manga.

Unlike the first book in the series, The Chinese proverb, where the characters were either good or bad, the characters in Folded are more morally complicated. The villain in the final showdown is oddly sympathetic. Benson flies close to turning a blind eye to law-breaking. And Hunter makes an unconvincing attempt at defending his business from accusations of it being a hiring agency for mercenaries. But I find flawed characters intriguing, and Dao is an exceptional creation.

Folded is a good addition to the Hunter Grant series. And as threads of the two previous outings are unobtrusively recapped through the book, it can also be read as a stand-alone. I for one hope Hunter’s declaration: “we are stopping, we’ve discussed it and I’ve promised Dao we will never help anyone again” is not true.

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