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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The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney – 2022

1975 – a fire rages through a tenement building, killing a woman, her child, and two men. A man is tortured to death and his body dumped in the city. A bomb blast disintegrates a pub and shatters its surroundings. The Glasgow Serious Crime Squad is tasked with discovering who lit the fire, who killed the man, who bombed the pub. DI Duncan McCormack, recently returned from six years in the Met in London, heads up the squad.

Reading The Heretic, you smell the stench of uncollected rubbish, feel the fear of those who worry about retribution from the Maitland gang, “Walter Maitland ruled the whole city”. You sense the heat of the fire, the horror of the bomb blast. You read about a society that is misogynist and cruel, one that doesn’t get to display its homophobia, as gay relationships are scrupulously hidden, but you know it is there. There’s an atmosphere of unfinished business. McCormack has returned to Glasgow where he solved the case of the serial killer nicknamed the Quaker. Although, as he stands by the grave of a woman whose body does not belong to the name on the gravestone, he knows that case still has loose ends.

McCormack has returned at the encouragement of DCI Flett, but Flett has had a heart attack, so McCormack is reporting to DCI Alan Haddow. Haddow hates McCormack because in bringing down the men behind the Quaker, he brought down Peter Levein, a high ranking cop to whom many had hitched their careers, Haddow included. McCormack has broken the promise of backing up your colleagues, “how’s anyone supposed to trust you now?” McCormack’s new team is made up of DC Liz Nicol, who had a good start in the force, before the ‘integration’ of women officers ruined it for her and other women. DC Iain Shand is on the team, a prickly obnoxious officer who is oddly keen – McCormack doesn’t trust him one bit. And DS Derek Goldie. Goldie was McCormack’s partner on the Quaker case, so his career options have plummeted and he bears much resentment.

The Heretic describes hierarchies, the echelons of sex workers, gangsters, police officers, politicians – with members always wanting to rise up, or being forced down, their respective caste system. It is easy to see the big picture, the turf wars, the endless jockeying for position. But Nicol and McCormack know it is often personal grievances behind atrocities. Nicol sees prostitutes as people with information, not “hoors” or “slappers” – Shand’s words – and she gets some valuable intel. Many of the characters were either in ‘care’ as children, or they had connections with children’s homes, one in particular: Auldpark.

The characters in The Heretic are vividly drawn. Nicol with her tragic backstory, determined to succeed in her career. Christopher Kidd, a young man with ambitions, motivations, and a load of guilt. Alex Kerr, one of Maitland’s henchmen, making a brief but memorable appearance as a man with a colourful history who is on the cusp of death. Maitland’s feisty young son: “There’s more than one way to kill a family.” Eileen Elliot, daughter of Gavin Elliot, the man who had been tortured in a very specific way before being killed. She is an intriguing woman who neither the reader nor McCormack takes at face value. And then there is McCormack …

We first met McCormack in The Quaker, and we learn more about him in The Heretic. He’s a Highlander, a Catholic, and he’s gay. He lives in a time-slip of a flat he inherited from his gran. He draws the line at the polis being in the pockets of gangsters, but he is not above trashing a pub to get a point across. He has kept a pile of unopened letters from a single person, and he doesn’t take or return tearful phone calls. When his lover arrives from London, he lives with a tense mix of love and constant fear. He copes with the hostility of his fellow officers, and has a tolerable working relationship with Goldie. He gets on well with Nicol, apart from the occasional spat, and they have a banter that shows McCormack’s sense of humour.   

The atmosphere of The Heretic is like around-the-fire-storytelling, the narrative coming at you as the dark closes in, and you really want to hear how the clan’s hero conquers all evil. But it is never that simple. One character remembers serving in Belfast: “It’s as if a war is happening in a different dimension to everyday life” – that is the feeling the reader gets, that there are parallel realities in Glasgow, and maybe the polis are operating on the wrong plane. There is another sequence of letters in the writing, these the only first person narrative in the book, they are unsent and provide yet another sad dimension to this profound novel.

The three mysteries are complex, with many characters and no obvious connection between many of them. But McCormack and Nicol keep at it, they question all their assumptions, and eventually the connections fall into place, and the mysteries are solved. But that doesn’t make anything better, “This is Glasgow … We don’t do uplifting.” The Heretic is dark, tragic, but compelling reading – you want to keep reading, you want good things to happen, because you care about McCormack – hopefully we will meet him again in further mysteries. Highly recommended.

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Dying Grass Moon by Andrea Jacka – 2021

Dying grass moon is the second Hennessey Reed mystery after One for another. Back in Melancholy, Idaho Territory, in the late 19th century, Hennessey and Marshall Rafael Cooper are estranged but still very much connected. Their community is still trying to heal from the atrocities of Hennessey and Raff’s last adventure, and are holding a fair to lift spirits. Then Raff discovers a fresh crime has been committed, and this one turns out not to be a one-off horror.

As well as the return of Hennessey, madam of the Fleur de Lis, and Raff, Dying grass moon brings back many of the crew from One for another: Hennessey’s friend Lizzie, who has turned to the bible in response to almost losing Evie, the girl she took in as a baby. Retired Doc Tolliger, Shakey and Fatfoot still have reserved seats at the Fleur-de-lis bar. The trio are still served by Nathan, who is now soon-to-be-wed to Annie from the bordello. Deputy Daniel Hawthorne is still bumbling around. And of course Raven the wolfhound is never far from Hennessey’s side.    

With the fair in town, newcomers are not unusual, for example crystal ball-gazer Madam Beaulieux, “you’ll never see her without gloves and a scarf or shawl”, and her husband Ezekiel Beaulieux who “waddles like a duck.” A lawyer, Hiram Walsh, turns up to give Hennessey some good news, and then a Pinkerton agent, Kip McFarley, arrives. There are connections where there shouldn’t be, and as Raff comments: “things were about to get complicated.”

The plot revolves around a religious group called The Church of Celestial Light and Paradise Divine, and there are linked crimes dating backwards and looming forward. There are lots of clues through the tale, and plenty of action: ambush, a sniper, booby traps, and explosions. There is interest for the reader in working out the mystery, but it is the characters who carry the novel. And the writing, which is evocative: “Raff descried a difference between near silence that excluded humans yet incorporated birdsong and the sounds of nature, and out and out, unnatural silence.”

The setting is a character: the American West, the frontier of the acceptable and a refuge both for those outside the law and those outside social mores. And it is a frontier that is constantly moving, with Melancholy becoming more established and more establishment. Behind all the changes are the memories of the indigenous people who were displaced and abandoned. Hennessey has demons in her past, and she stands as a contrast to the perpetrators of the crimes: when thirsting for vengeance you can either turn your anger inwards and damage yourself, or you can turn outwards and hurt others. The moral of the story is that we are all damaged in some way.

Hennessey is “a woman ruinously dependent on the false-hope promises of laudanum and Irish whiskey”. She sees the spirits of the dead, which makes enclosed spaces and forests difficult. In the latter “the dead of a small country resided in their spiritual form in trees and undergrowth adjoining the trails.” Raff is of Indian heritage and has his own traumatic backstory. But where Hennessey senses “Pockets of terror were embedded in the essence of the landscape”, Raff hears wolves howling and knows “They spoke to each other, communicating to family much as humans did, though their family unit was loyal and loving the way many human families were not”.

What Hennessey and Raff do share is a moral compass, a love of animals, and although stubbornly ignoring it, a love for each other. This romantic tension is another aspect of the book that keeps the reader engaged. And the smattering of little-used words is entertaining: hornswoggled, absonant, caparisoned. Even the characters comment on Hennessey’s idiosyncratic speech: “When anxious or out of her depth her language got more flowery, more confusing than usual, and Raff often found it prickly to keep hold of what she was saying even when fighting fit.”

I really like flawed, insecure, but staunch Hennessey Reed. I like her worrying that she has brought danger to those she loves, like Raff, or that she has inadvertently abandoned an innocent, Mouse, a young boy who worked at the livery in Melancholy. Each chapter is prefaced by a piece of Indian wisdom, and you feel that it is the peace of such wisdom that Hennessey yearns for. Dying grass moon ends with the reader seeing more complications ahead for the oblivious Hennessey, so hopefully there will be another instalment of her story,  “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”

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Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara – 2021

Lestari, a tattoo artist, is helping her friend and business partner, Frank, install his latest art installation in Symonds Street Cemetery: a statue of St Michael, which Frank will document as it decays and is defaced through time. Jasper is there too, a 15-year-old stray who sleeps under the stairs of their tattoo studio. The trio witness and record a murder …

The beginning of Isobar precinct is a great mise en scene – a cemetery that has been found to hold many more bodies than it should, the idea of change and deterioration through time, weird crime, and the vagaries of memory. Incidents in the cemetery spur Lestari to action, until then “Like most other locals, my default’s stuck on shallow depth of field”. She and the others take their recording of the murder to the Central Police Station. But their memories don’t tie up, the recording is glitchy, and when they get back to the cemetery, there is no evidence of a murder having taken place.

The policeman they speak to at the Station is Tom – with whom Lestari volunteers as a trainer in a self-defence class. He is a jaded cop: “We’re not even the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We’re just the ones working out which victim to pin the blame on.” Lestari and Tom puzzle over the possible murder, and the repeated burglaries of Lestari’s tattoo parlour. There is an attraction between them, frustrated by Tom’s being married with two young children. They are both part of the local community, able to look at a passing crowd and see not anonymous people, but criminals, victims, people with pasts, people with hopes, or dread, for the future.

As Lestari investigates what she experienced in the cemetery, she discovers that her father, who disappeared when she was still at school, was part of a drug trial for a drug called Quantanxrmine. She finds that over the years there has been a pattern of drug deaths in the homeless and street worker communities in the area. And she enters a very strange and distorted world. Concerns the reader might have that she, and other characters, are a little chill about the various turn of events, are settled somewhat by hints that they are already living with instability.

Lestari and Jasper both have disturbing, recurring dreams. Lestari and Frank suspect a previous employer, who is a drug dealer, is responsible for the repeated brake ins at their parlour. There is passing reference to skyrocketing property prices in Tāmaki Makaurau, and the ease of slipping into rough sleeping. Most of the characters use drugs, prescription or otherwise, and alcohol. The tattoo parlour is called The Golden Ratio – referring to aesthetic harmony – and early on Lestari tells a client she got into tattooing because “Tattoos last forever … I hate change” – ironic given what is to come.

“[I]ts addictiveness stems from the basic human trait of wanting things to be better.” People take the novel drug as they want things to be better, they want to be able to put things right. But Lestari struggles with fate: “Alternate cause-and-effect, rerouting through the old. Make it stop.” She thinks she has saved a young woman’s life, only to discover another has died in her place. She finds a photograph of herself in the pocket of a jacket at a crime scene. She sees people inexplicably recognising one another, and people recognising others in the eyes of people from the wrong generation.

To explain what is going on in Isobar precinct would spoil for others what I found to be an unexpected and invigorating aspect to the story. What I can say is that it is thrilling, with attacks, explosions, and mysteries that become more and more mysterious. I can also say that the events described are open to interpretation – many of them drug-induced, so distorted and shakily held in the characters’ memories. The reader often feels like Jasper: “I took the freaking pixie dust.” We read of a gradual improvement of the stability of the drug since its rough beginnings: “More people are surviving the ride … language to describe the experience – not so much.”

Isobar Precinct – a space closed to traffic, a liminal area between those of equal pressure. Behind all the chaos of Lestari’s experiences are people more glued to their phones than interested in what is going on around them – those who take the drug (or drugs) are in a parallel reality. Added to that reality is the social backstory of the deinstitutionalisation of psychiatric hospitals, and the susceptibility of those on the fringe to be abused for scientific research. The fallacy of informed consent when “He didn’t appear to have any awareness of what was dangerous and what wasn’t. In other words – he was crazy”.

The writing in Isobar precinct is sharp – descriptions of the drug effects hitting Lestari are shocking and quite exhausting. The characters are clear and original. Lestari is strong yet also vulnerable. Her mother, a mix of Balinese, Javanese, and Chinese, is a highly educated refugee who is only able to do menial jobs in Aotearoa – she has taken solace in alcohol. Frank has kicked a morphine addiction he fell into after an accident, and he is very protective of Lestari. Tom self-medicates, a habit stemming from his job, but also from a background of having seen his respected father severely beat his mother when he was a child. And there’s Joe, a young boy Lestari catches robbing the parlour, who is a dupe, and whose death, described in terms of any young addict’s death, is tragic. And there are many others.

The novel is firmly placed in Tāmaki Makaurau: the bustle of Karangahape Road, the quieter suburbs, a protagonist having worked on the Britomart project so “I know about tunnels!”. And despite the frantic pace and bleak subject matter, there are light moments, Tom: “So knowing all this shit is meant to make my job easier? Just shoot me now.” It took me a little while to get into the not-rhythm of the story, but once I did, I was hooked. Isobar precinct is Kasmara’s debut novel and is all the more extraordinary for that.

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To the Sea by Nikki Crutchley – 2021

A man feels blessed to have survived a disaster. He and his devoted daughter make a new start – moving their family to a beautiful wild seaside property. Starting afresh with new names, they create a world where love of family and home will keep them safe. OR … A man with a brain injury and a young traumatised girl confine their family to a remote dangerous location. They create a world of cruelty and fear – a world held together by dark family secrets. Two perspectives on a place called Iluka.

In To the sea, Crutchley explores the motivations behind inexplicable behaviours. Why would a mother agree to her daughter being constantly physically punished? Why do people, usually women, stay in abusive situations? Why does abuse often become intergenerational? How can society turn a blind eye to suffering? The Iluka family patriarch leaves his job as an accountant, moves his family to Iluka, adopts a new name, Hurley, and re-names his wife and two children, all their names relating to the sea. Ostensibly, his intentions are to provide his family with safety and security. Iluka has a pine plantation to source wood for Hurley’s woodworking, land for cows for milk and butter, a large vegetable patch, and bees for honey. The children will be home-schooled. They will be practically self-sufficient.

The story of the family on Iluka is told alternately from the points of view of Anahita, Hurley’s daughter, in the past, and from that of Ana, Anahita’s daughter, in the present.  “We have our stories, our beliefs here at Iluka” – the reader gradually discovers the truth about these stories and beliefs. We read of them coming into existence, and of the truth behind them. Although extreme, To the sea is believable. The family identity is based on Hurley’s best friend having died in the storm that Hurley survived. It is grounded in the fact that Asherah, Dylan and Anahita’s mother, committed suicide, not recognising the gifts that Iluka has to offer. These tragedies bind the family together.

The family members rarely have to venture from Iluka: “Remember, we will always protect you. The only thing out there for you is loneliness and pain.” And when they do venture out, Anahita and her brother Dylan, and then later Ana, do indeed encounter evil and cruelty. Anahita can remember the horror of being assaulted by a man on the way home from school before they moved. When young Cleo and her alternative lifestyle mother, Wanda, move onto a neighbouring property, Dylan discovers the existence of awful abuse. The local townsfolk are judgemental and nasty. Ana encounters a neighbour Brent, who she finds frightening.

“You don’t understand. It’s not a punishment. It’s a reminder.” Alongside the freedom and safety of Iluka, are the rules. Hurley is an imposing man, and controls his family with taps of his fingernail “grown especially long just for this purpose”. The family have adopted a practice of ‘self’-harm, finding release in the pain. The punishments are brutal, but Anahita and Ana both find solace in the fragrances, vistas, and feel of Iluka. Ana loves the non-judgemental nature of her environment. The girls, and then women, are told to view the punishments as a reminder that they are part of the family, part of Iluka.

There are people around who have the opportunity to intervene to make sure all members of the family are safe. But the police choose to listen to the man rather than the woman when they are called to a situation. A government agency worker just accepts the pragmatic boundaries of her job. The locals find it more enjoyable to be mean than sympathetic and caring … When Dylan’s friend Marina joins the Iluka family, she starts a business offering accommodation at Iluka as a retreat for artists. Ana sees Nikau arrive, he is a photographer and, unusually for the visitors, not far from her in age. It transpires he is a journalist – he takes an interest in Ana, but it is more an interest in getting a good story than redressing wrongs or helping her.

To the sea looks at generational relationships. The reader initially assumes a clear start to the madness – with a clarity around what is right and wrong. But it is not that simple. The more you learn, the more complex it becomes, the more you discern hidden motives, and buried crimes. Ana has so little experience of people that, like the reader, she does not know who to trust. And that is one of the messages of the book; by and large the characters are all untrustworthy. Ana is on her own: “I was terrified of discovering the truth.”

Ana was born at Iluka, and has accepted it as part of her being. The sea: “[t]he constant, comforting sound was like my own breath; inhale, water surging in, exhale, water dragging back out”. She feels empathy with trees that are logged. Anahita shores up Hurley’s views, but Ana starts to investigate them. The tension in the book comes from the presence of an unpredictable, domineering man, and from not knowing how Ana will react to finding out the truth behind her family’s solidarity. And she has the determination to find out – there is tightly controlled Internet access at Iluka, so she does have a way to get outside information.

Iluka, the location, is a character in its own right in the book. It is safety, but it is also danger. There is a treacherous ladder leading down to the beach and the sea, to the bay named after Hurley. There is constant erosion eating the cliff’s edge. Anahita saves Ana from a slip when she was young – Ana has the opportunity to do the same for her mother years later. And erosion is another way to unearth secrets … The sea is a constant presence impinging on the characters’ views of the world – Anahita sees a girl in town as one of “the sirens Hurley told her about who lured sailors to their deaths”. Dangers are everywhere and all lead back to the sea. “To the sea” is a dreaded command, and also a form of tribute.

To the sea has a many-layered plot, with the parallel time frames adding even more depth to the unfolding story. The reader is constantly learning new aspects to what they already know, and having other aspects undermined. Crimes and perpetrators pile on like ripples from a dropped stone – but where is the centre? The visceral descriptions of Iluka give the book an almost mythological slant – where those who reside there are wonderfully bewitched but also cursed, doomed to sacrifice all responsibility to the vagaries of the sea. To the sea is a tense, looming, slow-burning read, with revelations right up to the final page!   

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Aljce in Therapy Land by Alice Tawhai – 2021

Aljce is excited to be starting a new job at The Therapy Hub, a wrap-around private counselling service, where she will be able to build up the practical counselling hours she needs to complete her qualifications. But instead of the gratifying job she has envisaged, she falls down a surreal rabbit hole of incompetence, institutional absurdity, and ruthless bullying.

The reader gets hints that Aljce at some point has benefitted from counselling herself, hence her career aspirations. She is fluent in psychological diagnoses and self-affirmation. And this is one of the aspects that makes Aljce in Therapy Land such a good read – Aljce is far from the innocent victim of a toxic workplace. She is complex, self-absorbed, brilliant, and arrogant – at one point pointing out to a friend that boring people mate to create even more boring people, mind you she was stoned at the time.

Aljce spends a lot of time experiencing life “stoned and synaesthesiac”, she associates things with colours, and she has body dysmorphia. The novel is written tightly via her peculiar point of view. She has two daughters, Pleasance and Liddell, a reference to the original Alice, who are around six years old. But we mostly hear of the girls remotely, and when we do read of Aljce interacting with them, it is of her enjoying the kids’ star-projecting night light, or playing with their glow sticks.

The reader meets wonderful characters along with the cast of The Therapy Hub: Aljce’s friend Strauss, whose stoner conversations with Aljce are some of the book’s highlights. And there is the inventive “Mad Neighbour” – Aljce can’t decide if he is mad, or a genius, or a “mad genius”. There is also Lewis, a man who Aljce has connected with via an online dating app. He plays a large part early on in the novel, and he is an author – helping to frame the story as a piece of meta-fiction. Aljce decides she wants to write a book too, talking about her future readers: “I want them to wonder whether my characters are real, or whether they’re just figments of the main character’s imagination.”

The reader often wonders how reliable a narrator Aljce is – I was a bit suspicious about the daughters till they appeared, and of Lewis. After all, all Aljce wants is someone who thinks she is special, and she is always saying that we create our own reality: “I may even be making myself up, I guess.” But then there is the brutal reality of The Therapy Hub, an exaggerated version of many workplaces. It is a workplace Aljce wants to leave, but with Pleasance and Liddell to support (their father is long gone), she needs the money, and she knows if she does leave she won’t get a good reference: She “wasn’t going to be judged on merit, but on the opinion of someone who it was impossible to please”.

Aljce in Therapy Land could be quite triggering if you have encountered workplace bullying. The Hub’s founder and manager is Jillq. Jillq is passive-aggressive, under-qualified, threatened by others, and supported by an entourage of sycophants. Her behaviour is extreme – played out in a building that “was like a rabbit warren”, with real rabbits on the grounds and golf balls (not croquet balls) rolling around the corridors. All the clocks are set to different times. There is no logic to the rules, or to the filing system, and those who are bullied eventually start to fade away like the Cheshire Cat, starting with their hair.

Underneath all of this Wonderland-unreality are descriptions of recognisable bad management behaviour. Jillq is threatened by any staff member who might reveal her incompetence – Aljce has a degree so is fair game. Aljce finds she is always contravening unknown rules, rules sometimes made up post the ‘infringement’. She also finds she is on a three-month trial not in a permanent position. Jillq, or one of her off-siders, are always there keeping an eye on Aljce.

The other staff members, to maintain their positions in Jillq’s favour, are at best not willing to support Aljce, and at worst willing to actively undermine her. Aljce is astounded that “community champions against bullying and violence could be so determined to ignore it when it was under their noses.” Aljce refuses to become a sycophant, but does try to fit in. She doesn’t however agree to change the way she dresses – which reads like serial cosplay. This aspect of Aljce doesn’t fit with her counselling theory of trying to be a blank but caring slate – but then Aljce doesn’t get to meet with clients.

We only read about clients who have been been appallingly let down by The Hub, and we learn that Jillq is collecting funding for non-existent clients: “Ahhh, the beauty of government contracts and being able to fudge those numbers.” And, again familiar, the work of The Hub has become bizarrely introverted: “A great deal of fuss was made when [clients] were present,  but a great deal of moaning was done about them afterwards, about how they’d interrupted the real work.” The Hub is coasting on “unrushed fake work”.

Aljce is fascinated with quantum physics and there is much in the book about the subjectivity of experience, and the complications of the Internet – at one stage the royals and the Kardashians are used as examples of fabricated public lives – but the message is we all fabricate our lives, “We’re all insecure.” And Aljce and others in the book find solace in weed: “It’s like being so close that you might be knocking on the door of the answer, and the answer’s just on the other side.”

The writing of Aljce in Therapy Land is compelling and disturbing: “She felt as if she was underwater with turbulent schools of dark fish; one shoal going that way, another shoal going this way, another smacking right into her. How was she supposed to know what they were going to do next?” It is also disorienting – the Alice in Wonderland references, the stoner experiences, and Tawhai using capitals instead of italics for emphasis, which I had to learn not to read as corporate acronyms.

The tension in the book is from Aljce knowing that you create your own reality and yet being puzzled as to how frustrated she is with her own. She learns everything is temporary, friends move on, circumstances change. But she also finds agency. She decides that evolution leads to a person either being empathic, or calculating and science-oriented, both types necessary – but it also throws up aberrations such as Jillq and her clan – people with no empathy who were “also essentially stupid” – people who need to be dealt with. The book has a good arc, and in keeping with the Wonderland theme the end takes us nicely back to the beginning …  

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