Billy Bird by Emma Neale – 2016

Reading fiction fosters empathy – but rarely do you read a book where that process is sobilly-bird front and centre.  Billy Bird is the story of a family, from its rather accidental beginning, through its weathering of a number of tragedies, and up to its positioning itself for the future.  People react to life’s highs and lows quite differently and those grieving find it hard to understand the actions of their loved ones, or even understand that their own behaviour has changed.  But throughout Billy Bird you are aware that all of the characters’ behaviours need to be taken in the context of the events of the book – and do not represent who those people ‘in repose’ truly are.  This is quite an achievement when of course those people don’t exist outside the events of the book!  Having said all that, it is not a ‘heavy’ book but a lovely read – mostly because of the depiction of precocious eight year old Billy.  He is first named Billy Chatterbox due to his constant narrative on life, but when things go sad and Billy changes, his parents stop calling him that.  Billy’s dad Liam buries himself in work, Iris his mum gets a bit obsessive around the house, and Billy?  Well Billy turns into a bird.  And in a delightful way, as things get more and more strained between his parents, Billy’s bizarre behaviour starts to be the only thing that really makes sense.  It is a glorious book in many ways – depicting the wonderful intensity of childhood passions, and the experience of parents whose children can suddenly become total mysteries.

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Strip by Sue Wootton – 2016


I picked this novel up, saw the cover and glimpsed at the blurb, and started to read what I thought would be a humorous story of a man who decides to try a second career as a comic strip writer – it isn’t.  As I started to read I then thought it was an exploration of intra-family relationships – it’s not really that either.  Strip is an exploration of love and loyalty, and of quite frankly a lot of bad decision making on the way to trying to manipulate the world to make it ideal for those you love.  Harvey is a G.P. who would like to try being a full-time cartoonist.  Isobel is a museum administrator who is saddened that she and Harvey have not been able to conceive a child.  When Harvey’s cartoonist dreams start becoming reality and Isobel’s career is taking off, an offer of a baby for adoption threatens to both undermine and fulfill their lives.  A teaser chapter at the beginning indicates that something is going to go seriously awry in Harvey and Isobel’s lives – and as we move from episode to episode through time, there are plenty of opportunities for disaster.  But Harvey and Isobel both believe in carrying on and braving out tragedy – so it is not the events of the novel themselves that take the book on its odd course, but Harvey’s decisions and actions at various times; decisions and actions which the reader knows will not go unanswered.  It is not a preachy book – you know why Harvey does what he does – and even though you might disagree at many points, you do understand.  It captures very well the different ways that individuals might react to events.  For example, at various stages, for various reasons, Harvey becomes stuck inside – inside his house or in a hospital room: “But, outside?  The air out there … he was no longer acclimatized. … ‘Outside’ would mean leaving the capsule and setting foot on an alien planet. …He would need a helmet and a full-body suit.”  Whereas Isobel finds solace in the outside, in her job, in nature, and has space to ruminate about “Man-mammal … clawless, fangless, unwinged clumsy animals. We bipedal apes with such heavy heads”.  It is a moving and surprising read – just when you think you have a sense of the ‘main point’ of the book it goes off in another direction.  I found this a bit disconcerting at times – as it gives the book an odd shape – but perhaps the structure is supposed to be reminiscent of a series of comic strips?  Or just makes the point that our lives are messy and unpredictable?  Anyway, it is definitely worth a read.


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A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse by Brannavan Gnanalingam – 2016

The title of this novel refers to a true incident in 1981 when one of our top SIS spooks lostbriefcase-cover his briefcase; when it was discovered by a journalist it had been left in the Aro Valley and found to contain his business cards, a diary of scurrilous gossip, three mince pies, two fruit pies, the NZ Listener, and a Penthouse magazine.  The novel isn’t about this embarrassing incident, it is however about the inanity of government agencies, especially those tasked with impossible jobs – like for example keeping all New Zealanders safe from an ill- defined threat.  If you have ever worked in a government department, especially a risk-averse one, you will sympathise with Rachel McManus.  Rachel has just started working for the New Zealand Alarm and Response Ministry.  She has previously been a civil servant so isn’t totally unprepared for the experience – but this is a time of global panic in the face of the unfortunately termed ‘Islamic Threat’.  Rachel faces the usual misogyny and racism – but writ large due to the ridiculously heightened stress levels.  She suffers the lecherous co-workers, the embarrassing after-work drinks, the insane meetings where no one wants to admit they don’t know or don’t understand, the slavish subservience to hierarchy – but all dialled up to 11.5.  Rachel is tasked – sort of – with tracking a terror suspect.  Having the most invasive technologies at her fingertips she plunges in.  The suspect is suspected of inculcating youth with radical ideas picked up overseas, and there is a consequential concern that he might be planning an attack somewhere in Wellington.  The novel becomes farcical when the evidence and the suspicions grow further and further apart; and there is a crazy sequence where Rachel decides to do some old fashioned on-foot surveillance to try and clarify matters.  She has no surveillance skills whatsoever.  In fact, she has no skills full stop given her parlous training – but possibly because of this rather than despite it, she is the only one in the Ministry who has any common sense.  But due to her being young and a woman, she might as well be yelling into a Wellington gale when attempting to inform her colleagues and bosses of her views.  Given the novel’s inexorable style it has no real shape – but makes its point very compellingly regarding racial profiling and bureaucracy gone mad.  And there are enough real world incidents thrown in (not out of place at all amongst the absurdity) to keep the novel worryingly grounded.  So, given there are still questions to be answered around how a country should position itself in a world at threat from terror attacks, A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse is at once funny, tragic and disturbing.


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The Direction of Our Fear by David Briggs – 2016

direction-of-our-fear_frontcover-1What a great book!  The direction of our fear looks at the many many small decisions we make every day that result in benefit or harm, to ourselves or to others.  Sometimes small harms and slights sometimes catastrophic.  It deals with the networks we are a part of; those we know of and those we don’t – and the many alternative universes that shimmer before they collapse down to the one that we experience.  It is a tense and absorbing story of four people. Three – Brendan an Irish widower, Sally a young school girl and Tamás a Hungarian immigrant – are all connected by their travelling on the morning commuter train to Wellington each day.  The fourth protagonist is Farida a young Muslim woman working as a translator for the security services in Dunedin.  We follow all of them and learn of their dreams, their regrets and their opportunities; they are all dealing with possible changes to their lives – Brendan thinking of starting a new relationship, Sally crossing into adulthood, Tamás trying to make a place in New Zealand for himself and his Hungary-based family, and Farida trying to make sense of her own world and that which she glimpses via her security work, and struggling with what to do when she thinks the two might be overlapping.  And we read of all of this within the frame of terrorist threats.  A sense of pending tragedy looms as you read of Brendan, Sally, Tamás and Farida – ordinary people whose lives may or may not soon be engulfed in disaster.  Highly recommended.


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Archangel’s Heart by Nalini Singh – 2016

archangels-heartThis is the first of Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter novels I have read – despite it being the ninth in the series.  But it is kind of fun to just jump in mid-stream – and there is a plethora of information about the archangel universe and the back-stories of all the characters to fill you in.  And for a good while I was just engrossed in piecing together the backdrop to the series:  It is an earth where archangels rule their territories, making vampires where appropriate (collective noun = “kiss”) and where to angels, humans are just those who are   “… always living their lives in fast-forward.” Archangel Raphael is the Archangel of New York and his ‘heart’ is Elena – once a mortal guild hunter, now an angel in training and with powers that hint of something vampiric in her ancestry.  The love between Raphael and Elena is the power that drives the novels.  The angels are all beautiful: “Angelkind really won the genetic lottery”, but beauty is not such a good thing, it is used as a weapon and a subterfuge and further removes the immortals from the rest of their fellow creatures: “Many immortals are unforgiving of physical imperfections.”  I liked the mechanics of angels in Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology books – where their wings are part of their pulmonary system and an indicator of health. The same fun is had here – the effort of vertical take-off as opposed to the fall from a height, the wing touching protocols, and the use of angelic singing for both coercive power and bestowing transient feeling of joy on mortals.  Vampires and archangels both are very animalistic, driven by instinct, and more than a bit unstable – guild hunters exist to manage rogue vampires, and it seems it hasn’t been that unusual for archangels to take out other archangels who have gone berserk.  But apart from the imaginative world-building there is also a great story.  One of the archangels has gone missing, and one has awoken from a long sleep.  There can only be ten archangels active at one time as their power is so immense and their instincts so territorial there isn’t enough geography for more.  So, if the missing archangel has gone to sleep all could be well – but if not all hell will break loose – and with signs of unrest in the missing archangel’s territory (China) things are not looking hopeful.  When archangels are not actively managing their vampires, the latter can get a blood lust up and go on the rampage (technical term = “twisted kiss”).  To manage the situation the archangels are summoned to the retreat of an angelic religious sect – the Luminata, who have not only retreated to gain personal ‘luminescence’, they are also tasked with ensuring balance is kept on archangel-earth, by summoning meetings when an archangel goes AWOL.  They meet at the Luminata compound in Morocco, and soon discover all is not well in this hallowed institution.  While Raphael meets with the rest of the archangel cadre, Elena finds out disturbing things about the sect and its relationship with the nearby village – where she is taking the opportunity to do a bit of personal genealogical research.  The three storylines – the wayward sect, the missing archangel, and Elena’s origins – are all resolved – although in one case with the hint of further installments.  So the plotting is good, but what I really loved was the contemplations on the relative merits of immortality and mortality, perfection and weakness.  Should it be of interest to angels if humans are being mistreated?  To them humans are like the ‘lesser’ creatures we unfortunately often mistreat.  Elena is a great character; she is down to earth, doesn’t “do heels”, only wears make-up as a weapon and isn’t cowed by status – and she enables some of the immortals to see the value in fleeting lives and flawed individuals: gives them “an awareness that mortality was but a shell and that the soul soared free in an immortality even the angels could not understand.”  Paranormal romance not your thing?  Get over it and give it a go!



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My Mother and the Hungarians by Frankie McMillan – 2016


For some reason I have never enjoyed the short story form (excepting Conan Doyle) but I read Ninety-nine stories of God by Joy Williams last year and now I am a big fan of the short short story form.  The stories work like magic; your brain telling you a story based on snippets.  McMillan’s My mother and the Hungarians, and other small fictions is a great example.  It is a collection of brief stories all looking at the Hungarian refugee experience in New Zealand in the 1950s – some from the point of view of the author as a young girl (in the home where her mother billets some of the refugees), and others from the point of view of the Hungarian men.  The short short form pushes the prose towards the poetic, and I wasn’t surprised to read that McMillan is a published poet.  Each story is complete but as a whole they tell you a whole novel’s worth of narrative.  We read of the experiences of the girl and her family, mainly but not solely relating to her mother and the Hungarians.  And the experiences of the Hungarians in the home – their stories being about their coming to terms with a new land and language here, their brief memories of ‘there’ – the October Revolution, the destruction and pillaging of the statue of Stalin, the seemingly endless list of peoples to victimise – and of the slight insecurity about whether they really have come to a new place.  Both points of view are a mix of sophistication and naivety – the Hungarians placed back in an almost childlike unknowing of their environment, and their presence exposing the girl to a world she might not otherwise have experienced.  It even manages to give you a run-down of what happened to some of the refugees many years later – just brilliant.  Give short short fiction a go – especially My mother and the Hungarians – they are quick reads!

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The Student Body by Simon Wyatt – 2016

Natasha Johnson, a 15-year-old schoolgirl – seemingly a paragon to her peers and elders – student-bodyis found murdered at her school camp at Piha Beach.  Newly promoted Detective Sergeant Nick Knight lands the job of managing the suspects side of the case, and he and his team have to sift through a number of likely suspects and persons of interest.  Wyatt himself was a detective and wrote The student body while convalescing from an illness.  He hasn’t quite got the knack of incorporating his detailed knowledge into the narrative – and at times the novel reads like a text book on police procedure.  The writing, while at times quite thrilling, is very patchy: I found some of the similes clumsy: “The savagery of these attacks … still hung around the area like prostitutes around K Road in the early hours”; “Cunningham’s reaction was to storm out of the room as quick as a Nazi soldier invading Poland”.  I also found the sex scenes out of place and gratuitous and wished that Wyatt agreed with José Saramago who once wrote “I don’t think it is worth explaining how a character’s nose or chin looks”, as Wyatt’s detailed descriptions of all of his many characters gets in the way of the narrative flow.  And the plotting is good and deserves a good flow.  There are parallel themes of domestic and student bullying, and a number of likely suspects for the initial horrific crime and others that ensue.  I didn’t find the resolution totally satisfying, as the story was so driven by Knight we got the facts of what happened but no depth of motive – and an apparent lightness of attitude to statutory rape.  With Wyatt’s background, it is understandable that the book is written from a police perspective – but along with this comes a slightly unhealthy view of the rest of society, and a dodgy view of women, which for me led to a loss of sympathy for Detective Sergeant Nick Knight.  I suppose some of this might result from Knight’s tragic background that is alluded to, and we find out he has a strained relationship with his criminal lawyer father – so maybe future installments will redeem him, after all he does love his dogs, even if they do get left home alone a lot.  And if there are future titles I think it would be interesting to see more of the criminal lawyer father – perhaps a way of giving the reader a bit more moral complexity.

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