Shakti by Rajorshi Chakraborti – 2020

ShaktiWhere do divisive thoughts come from?  Why do extreme nationalism and xenophobia take hold in a community?  Why is misogyny, homophobia and intolerance so rife?  Playing out in Bengal in recent times, Shakti asks us to consider the role the manipulative power of reality TV and social media plays in instilling ultraconservative views, and then asks what would happen if that manipulative force could extend into minds, manipulating us from the inside …

Shakti is full of people who are not what they seem; when we first meet the main protagonist, Jaya, she is a male ‘agony aunt’, Chandra Sir, hiding her identity to save her job as a teacher in a conservative girls’ school.  Of course, the woman who pretends to be a man is being written by a man, so the ‘masks’ are already multi-layered.  ‘Chandra Sir’ is approached by a young girl, Shivani, who is experiencing strange powers, and when Jaya misses some clues, things do not end well for Shivani.

Then Jaya’s friend and part-time housekeeper, Arati, has a religious encounter with a snake goddess, Manasa, who gives her a choice that could lead to her finding her long-lost child, Tunituni, and she asks Jaya for help – but how can you tell if your instructions are from a god or a demon?  The price Arati ends up paying is complex, political and very familiar.  And then Jaya joins Shivani and Arati when she discovers she has been given her own power – but is it a power or a curse?

Jaya is set on a whirlwind path to help Arati and atone for her part in Shivani’s fate, and it rapidly becomes apparent that “nobody doles out superpowers for free.”  As we follow Jaya, we experience a deeply misogynist society, where all men are predators: the father, the neighbour, the doorman, the grocer … And all women have experience of abuse, of themselves or those around them – and many carry the guilt of having ignored the abuse of others due to fear for themselves or their situation.  Poverty leads people to do horrendous acts and provides a layer of scapegoats for those better off.

In the past Jaya has ignored abuse around her in fear of losing privilege, even spending a period ingratiating herself with her abusive father.  In the past Jaya has also done unspeakable things to protect those around her.  But has Jaya been given a power now due to her ability to ignore evil, or due to her once being a perpetrator of it?  And what political role is she being asked to play?  Is it as part of a conspiracy to align Bengal to the right?  What will be her reward?

Shakti talks about Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia in India, and the efforts of Modi followers to infiltrate left-leaning Bengal, the “PM” even makes an appearance at one stage.  But, “Turn it into a hashtag and see what people say” – the messages of divisive politics and using ‘fake-news’ to polarise people applies to many countries, and misogyny and gender intolerance is universal.  The political machinations and methods feel familiar to the reader, what is novel is the idea that those methods might spill into mental manipulation that approaches, and makes use of, religious experience.

Jaya is a wonderfully complex character, she herself doesn’t know if she is genuine in her mission to use her superpower for good, or if she just likes being powerful for once – knowing that the haunted, the broken, the rapist, the torturer – “each can be lured further into hell by the promise of more power.”  She is not above using sex to get information from men, sometimes not that successfully: “I feel like a rubbish honey-trap. This is what happens when you try to bypass spy school.”

Jaya decides not to navel-gaze: “I was desperately seeking shelter in make-believe about other lives in order to avoid looking front-on at my own.” She gets addicted briefly to being able to relive her memories on demand, until she realises most are fabricated as there weren’t that many good ones, and gets back on track with her mission – but does she know what that is?  Even in wanting to do good is she being manipulated? After all she ends up on a fake reality TV show aimed as sowing sectarian unrest, and she struggles to see how she can turn the tables on the producers without harming any ‘innocents.’

Perhaps just helping people one by one as she goes along for as long as she can is the best she can do – but even her power is not under her control: like an Internet shutdown: “We’re large groups of ‘gifted’ women at the mercy of men who can switch off our powers whenever they like.”  Despite the gender flip of power – the book opens with a young man walking confidently through the dark at night, to fall prey to a woman – Jaya is still very much in a male world, not knowing “who are ‘we’ who are ‘they’?” and where people who, “by sheer coincidence, happen to be women – have to obey men like you.”

Shakti is a political thriller, and a deeply disturbing one, one where the reader struggles to ‘touch bottom’ as to who is controlling the conspiracy, whether there is any rational objective hope, how sense can possibly prevail when “the most lasting evil is that in which no one is innocent.”  And the real-world resonances are clear – as I write this review, there is breaking news of sectarian violence and multiple deaths over amended citizenship laws in India.

To make sense of our dystopian reality you almost have to believe in the sort of supernatural/invasive manipulation that is at the heart of Shakti – let’s hope that the other shakti mentioned in the book, the “Real Shakti, deeper than any magic” in comparison to which “everything else is just a means, or a shortcut or a trick” can prevail.  Shakti is gripping, meticulously written, thought-provoking and the cover of the NZ edition is luscious – I loved it, read it and see what you think …

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Moonlight Sonata by Eileen Merriman – 2019

Moonlight sonataMoonlight sonata starts like a typical slice of New Zealand life novel, with a family meeting up for the Christmas/New Year break in a seaside home, with the usual tensions and jealousies. But this book turns into a much more complex, and emotionally difficult story, a story of ongoing parental bullying and forbidden love.

The story is told from the point of view of some of the protagonists: Molly, frustrated with her work-obsessed husband, Richard, worried about her teenage son, Noah, and glad to be back with her twin brother, Joe.  Molly is right to be worried about Noah, their family has recently moved to Melbourne and Noah hates it there, is sick of hearing his parents fighting, and is enjoying the company of his many cousins, especially 15-year-old Lola.  Lola is an aspiring cricketer, is annoyed with her over-protective mother, Kiri, and struggling with her recently diagnosed diabetes.  Joe, who arrives back from the Middle East, is an exotic and exciting uncle, a critical brother-in-law and a beloved twin brother.

These are the characters from whose point of view we read the story, but there are lots more siblings, cousins, parents and children holidaying and struggling with each other.  Some of the characters are more rounded than others, but all are believable.  The story jumps back and forth from the present through incidents in Molly’s life, and the times and places are evoked with clothing (legwarmers!), trends (dying to see Footloose) and behaviours (changes in the drugs of choice), and you never feel lost.  And the New Zealand summer by the sea is captured perfectly: the sand between toes and in bedsheets, the sunburnt noses, the voracious appetites, the wet hair …

To tell the story would be to reveal the secrets of the family, the reader guesses pretty early on what they are, but the tension is still there.  What intrigues the reader are the anecdotes of shared history that give context to what has transpired, and to the decisions that have been made. The book highlights that experiences of childhood and youth influence adult outlook and behaviour.  The facts and consequences are there for the reader to ponder.  The story gets very tense, and a summer storm builds as does the danger to the characters.

Moonlight sonata is a read that is on the one hand very familiar and comfortable, and on the other completely original and tragic.  Merriman is well known for her YA writing, and Moonlight Sonata is a smooth transition into adult fiction – read it yourself and see what you think …

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Josephine’s Garden by Stephanie Parkyn – 2019

Josephine's gardenWhat does it mean to be a woman in a time of revolution, a time of colonial expansion?  Was Rose de Beauharnais an extraordinary woman or a woman in extraordinary times?  She hailed from exotic Martinique, narrowly survived the reign of terror, married an unpleasant young soldier for the security of her children, eventually rose to be the Empress of France – but who was she?  Josephine’s Garden is a wonderful depiction of a woman in a time of chaos.

Josephine’s Garden starts with Rose fearing the arrival of a messenger – will she have to leave her precious garden at Malmaison?  Will losing her husband mean losing her life? for “Who am I if not Bonaparte’s wife?”  The ambitious reclusive soldier she married has become an Emperor, Napoleon I; he funds her house, her garden, his influence provides her menagerie, gets rid of her previous obligations, even gives her her name: Josephine.

We look back over Rose’s life, from the dark days of the reign of terror, when the heroes of the revolution were sent to the guillotine, through the “joyful madness” of post-revolutionary Paris, and on through the unimaginable cruelties of French expansion under Napoleon – to a time when “There were no young men left in Paris.”  And the cruelties weren’t just the slaughter of sons, brothers, husbands, but the pillaging of art and science institutions.

We see the world from the points of view of three women – Rose; Marthe Desfriches, who marries the biologist Jacques Labillardière, and whose misery in his cold presence leads her to seek revenge for the death of a young man lost in the war: “What must it be like to be married to a man who could not conceive of your thoughts at all?”  And there is Anne Serreaux, wife to the gardener Felix Delahaye, who gardens alongside her husband, bears children, is the envy of both Rose and Marthe, but who longs to be leading a simple country life, and who bears a terrible breakdown all on her own.

And there is the other Rose: raised in a man’s house, imprisoned on his death, but visited by Labillardière bearing a bouquet and whispering “… simply because our society cannot accept difference.”  She ends up living in his offices until she is part of a political arrangement which sees her sent to Empress Josephine in Malmaison.  She is always dressed impeccably, has exquisite manners and notices everything: “Marthe watched transfixed as the ape turned her head to her and lowered her arm to point directly at Marthe’s heart. I see you” – Rose is an orangutan, alone of her kind, a shadowy reflection of the lives of women – owned, with no choices, left alone and treated well enough – as long as they look pretty and behave – before they just disappear from your mind.

There are moments of joy for both Rose de Beauharnais and Anne, especially in the pleasures and triumphs of creating the garden.  And Rose does end up falling in love with Napoleon, but his interest drifts elsewhere when she can’t bear him a son – if women can’t have children, they have no purpose, unlike men, whose childlessness is seen as dedication to their interests.  There is little joy for Marthe, except perhaps in wandering the streets of Paris, finding a distant connection to the homeless, injured and destitute, wondering “What terrors am I capable of?”

There are resonances in the history as well, once the horrors of the revolution have occurred, where are the boundaries of what people ‘should’ do?  Once there is a regime of terror, how does a state recapture civility? “He promised to make France great again.”  And the lawlessness and entitlement are not just on the national scale – Napoleon takes a hunting party to the lake at Malmaison to slaughter Rose’s swans, he is unfaithful to her in rooms where he knows she can overhear.  Rose herself ends up bargaining with her daughter’s happiness, trying to turn what Napoleon wants into an advantage for her and her children, for she realises quite early on: “What I want is of no importance to Bonaparte.”

Josephine, the public persona of Rose, treads a fine line to remain a good propaganda icon, and not fall into the trap of scandal.  When an artist is trying to work out how to portray Napoleon’s atrocities without giving offence, the solution is to have the image include Josephine submitting before him – the ideal of a beautiful woman submitting to a powerful man.  Napoleon himself appears to have an idealised view of her: “We are both driven to be the best and brightest stars.”

Josephine’s Garden is lavishly written and totally engrossing, and it gets very tense: there are assassination attempts, people being hidden in basements, unpredictable tyrants, lines being crossed – such as people being executed without trial for political expediency, and the external threats of illness and poverty.  And there are the commonalities of the women’s experiences which eventually draw them together in the garden, the miracle of a garden where trees, plants and animals flourish where they don’t belong: “No one else has a garden such as this.”

I just loved this book … read it and see what you think …

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Scented by Laurence Fearnley – 2019

ScentedSiân Rees is a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Auckland, supported by the head of her department, Archer Hall, and used to picking up the slack for her ambitious young colleague, Jerome Roy.  She lives alone, “I preferred living alone to compliance with another person”, her passions being getting lost in research and capturing the essences of people and places in perfumes.  But when the University’s humanities departments are restructured, Siân is labelled ‘redundant’ and her world and her confidence disintegrate.

Siân sets out to document her own ‘base notes’, ‘heart notes’ and ‘top notes’ in order to take stock and get a grip on who she is, now that her identity as a “smart, professional, financially independent middle-aged woman” has gone.  She intends to create a perfume that is her “signature scent”, a perfume to make her complete again.

The reader accompanies Siân on her journey, learns a lot about perfume making, about the cruelties of heartless restructuring processes and the brutality of an ageist and sexist labour market, and becomes totally immersed in Siân’s predicament – as Siân realises that not only is she professionally adrift, she has become – and maybe always has been – unmoored in her birth country.

Scented, as you would expect, is totally evocative as it wends its olfactory way through Siân’s story – the scents of her youth were the ones I grew up with –  Bronnley, Veet-O, Morny, Lenthéric Tweed … Fearnley’s descriptions of the elements of the scents – both pleasant (“a night garden following a storm”) and unpleasant (“dog shit on the sole of  shoe”) – are so textured, you start being amazed along with her, that scents are not more of an active part of human activities.  But, as Siân goes longer and longer without finding work, she falters, she becomes suspicious of all around her, and feels more and more isolated.

Siân’s loss of status erodes her self-confidence and her sense of belonging.  She finds out who she can trust and who not, but also that her judgments might be skewed by her experiences.  She becomes estranged from the ‘young’, no longer in relation to them as a lecturer – encountering a group of students protesting to support the humanities, she finds their silent protest reminds her of “passive-aggressive sulking teenagers.”  Not that she is unsympathetic to their cause, fearing “the only people left will be the ones who communicate in bullet points.”

A ghastly piece of online invasion leads to Siân reciting a litany of abuse at the hands of men, each awful but nothing unusual, yet quite devastating when all listed together.  But maybe more revealing is her realising: “I was born in New Zealand, had lived here all my life and valued notions of the unspoilt landscape, the bush and sea, and yet, when tested, my instincts and preferences sent me sniffing back to Britain.”

Scented is sad and haunting, and yet Siân’s experiences are cathartic – she has to get to the basic notes of her experiences to build up a perfume, so maybe after her life has fallen apart, she will find a solid base on which to build a more meaningful life.  I just loved this book – read it and see what you think.





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Auē by Becky Manawatu – 2019

AuēAuē! – a cry of distress – calling out throughout this extraordinary novel of fear and violence, of families torn apart and people trying to find connection and safety.

Taukiri leaves his brother Ārama with Aunty Kat on her farm in Kaikoura after a family tragedy. He heads to Wellington, trying to get by, trying to forget. Skip to the past: Jade is a young woman who had “only known life with a man” – who missed her chance to get away the first time, so doesn’t want to miss her second chance. Auē is told through the points of view of Taukiri, Ārama and Jade, but is populated with many other rich and vibrant characters, plus the linking voice of a spirit that blows like the wind, “I am drowned”, twisting around the characters, trying to break free but tied by the sorrow of her relatives.

Auē starts relatively paced, feeling like a familiar story: confused children, women trapped in abusive relationships, young men turning to drugs to dull their memories and their pain. But as you read, you empathise so much with the characters, that the mystery of what exactly has happened and how the people are related to each other is totally absorbing. And the tension of the last few chapters almost unbearable.

Taukiri is someone who loves the sea, he experiences his emotions and heightened experiences as waves that wash over him, but the sea is at the heart of his trauma, and drugs only help for so long: “There was a price for emptying your head. It emptied euphorically on the going out, sure, but all the junk flooded back eventually.” Ārama, eight years old, just wants Taukiri back, singing to him, calming his sleepless nights, teaching him to play the guitar, how to surf.

Ārama feels abandoned, even his Nanny doesn’t respond to any of the many many messages he leaves on her phone. Aunty Kat is nice, and the neighbours, Beth and her Dad Tom Aiken, are a refuge, but Kat’s husband Uncle Stu is one of the many abusive men in the novel, and Ārama never really feels safe. The little boy tries to comfort himself with sticking plasters; putting them over his heartbeat, over his eyes to keep the tears in.

For Taukiri, Ārama and Jade, there are periods when their lives don’t feel real, they feel they are ‘acting’ their lives rather than living them, feel their chance to enjoy existence has been stolen from them. They are all guarded in what they reveal of themselves, little Ārama: “I thought about how many terrible words there were, and how when they were let loose in the world, they sucked up all the air around them”, he and Beth escape into a fantasy world – based on Django unchained! Jade hears herself speaking and hears someone else after finally escaping from a gang house, and Taukiri drifts with his demons: “I painted her skin with so much blood”, living with the gnawing knowledge that Ārama is waiting for him, thinking that other boys had a bottom to their fall but that “The bottomlessness to my life was dizzying.”

The writing in Auē is immersive, the smattering of typos a jolt. It is a tale of heartbreak and violence, but there are lighter moments; the two children are charming and funny and keep themselves, and the reader, entertained. All the substantial characters in the book are illustrative of one of the book’s messages: “No one is just anything.” Reading Auē is a little like going to a tangi, as described by Ārama to Beth: you have to cry enough and laugh enough before being allowed to leave. A remarkable book.


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The Burning River by Lawrence Patchett – 2019

The_Burning_RiverThe burning river is a great piece of dystopian fiction, set in an Aotearoa that has been devastated by global warming and pollution. Van, Hana and her daughter Kahu set out on a quest to try and bargain for place of safety, a “place to shelter and then stand.”

Van is a swamp dweller, a whāngai; taken in by Matewai’s people, the Te Repo, when his people were killed, and he had to flee. For the inhabitants of the various areas in the region live on constant alert, knowing what keeps them safe is trade and shaky alliances, and that “there’s always people coming down from the north.”

Van and Matewai’s son Rau are grieving for Rau’s wife, when they encounter a ‘fetch’; a young woman who has come from the Whaea who live on elevated land, and who have negotiated a ‘gap’ so Van, Rau and the fetch, Kahu, can travel safely through the valley lands fiercely guarded by the Scarpers. Van has been to the Whaea place before, when he took part in the Summer’s Day ritual and met Hana, who has been occupying his thoughts ever since. This sets the scene for him to find out more about himself and take on the quest, along with Hana and Kahu, to try and save the Whaea.

The burning river is an atmospheric, tense and nervous read. You are transported to a strange but familiar land. It is Aotearoa, with familiar bush species and familiar bird species, but where ‘the burners’ slash and burn – and we see and smell their fires, and the swamps are full of dangerous biting insects, presumably because global warming has allowed diseases and their vectors to flourish here, where people scrape by with no modern technology, and where Van makes a living mining and working with ancient plastic.

Many of the human groups are matriarchal, maybe reflecting what a mess the blokes made. And the predominant culture is Māori, probably reflecting what a mess the colonisers made, but also the fact that when people are forced to live by their wits, the indigenous in any land will have the edge. And although the groups are separate and antagonistic – there is a strong relationship between the Whaea and Te Repo, a history to explain their antagonism yet a connection that drives Whaea to desire being buried in the swamp, and to hold Summer’s Day rituals, possibly to avoid in-breeding in the group.

People in this novel have to take care of the basics: “water and waste” – keeping one pure and the other separate; making sure you can negotiate, or if that fails protect yourselves; make sure you always have something to trade: items, skills, knowledge; making sure you are courteous and understand the ‘others’ customs; and, know your lineage, your ‘waters’, so you know who you can extend the group to and trust if greater dangers emerge: “The whole world is new. We’ve all got to adapt.”  The burning river gives us an uncertain and recognisable future, as well as an optimistic ending that almost allows you to forget that “there’s always people coming down from the north.”  A great read.


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The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox – 2019

The_Absolute_BookTaryn Cornick is a lover of libraries, a valuer of ‘just in case knowledge’, and an observer: “She was always studying the world, not rapt or curious, but patient and dutiful, as if the world was something she’d paid good money to see.” Taryn meets a man with whom she enters into an agreement – to avenge the death of her sister, Beatrice.  And Taryn’s world will never be the same again.

Taryn ends up going on a quest to find a scroll which is a key to a language capable of commanding nature.  The absolute book is a wonderful journey into other worlds, a journey that has the reader drawing parallels and lessons from these other dimensions to try and understand our own world better – and better understand how things are going so horribly wrong.  At the heart of the journey is Taryn’s love of libraries as repositories of knowledge: our heritages and stories that hold the promise of global rebalance.  Taryn has written a best-selling book on the subject: The feverish libraries, about the threats to libraries “from silverfish to austerity measures.”

The worlds Taryn visits are gloriously described; the seemingly idyllic Sidh – a bucolic paradise with no biting insects, the bland repetitive purgatory with its occasional communal construct that may offer release – a hospital, a railway line.  Taryn’s quest is one she has no faith in or control over; she is possessed at times; she is constantly finding out new layers of more disturbing information – what keeps her going much of the time is her hope that she may once again see Beatrice.  The Dante reference sits alongside myriad references from literature, creation stories and mythology – Knox is as loving of literature and heritage as Taryn.

Taryn’s companions are as revelatory as their environments: Jacob, a young policeman who is suspicious of Taryn and ends up embroiled in, and bewitched by, her quest; Neve the beautiful but cold Sidhe; and Neve’s nephew Shift “even less human than his inhuman aunt” – he is hard to focus on, a shapeshifter, the Little God of the Marshlands, and he is one of the most intriguing of the characters in The absolute book.  Humans, demons, gods, demigods, angels, all populate the novel – emphasising the message of the dangers of forgetting or ignoring our various heritages or judging each other not by who we are but what we are.

There is humour in The absolute book, much of it from the juxtaposition of worlds: Taryn travelling through the Sidh and worried she will be late for a speaking engagement; her arriving through a ‘gate’ to a message welcoming her to British Telecom.  But the themes of the book are deadly serious – the colonising of others’ land, environmental degradation, the deals made that have enduring consequences, beings like the Sidhe, who know they are doing wrong but “their habit of living meant they just kept on living with it.”  The absolute book is conditionally optimistic: There is hope if we can remember that “… today doesn’t always know what tomorrow will need”; if we can remember, and make decisions, knowing “none of this is about us”.  Taryn doesn’t escape her punishment but there is a tantalising description of where she may go at the end of the book …

As I was reading The absolute book, I was beginning to think we were living in purgatory where it “wasn’t forever living with your mistakes; it was forever defending your decisions.”  It is an insightful book and resonates on so many levels.  I am a quick reader, but it took me a long time to read this book, as there is so much in it – I am sure I have missed a lot, so I will read it again.  I recommend you read it too.




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