Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall – 2019

Pearly GatesPearly Gates is a very important man, in his own eyes.  He has been the Mayor of a small north Otago town for some years, and at the beginning of the book he is considering running for a third term.  He was almost an All Black.  He runs a successful independent real estate business.  But all is not well with this picture.

Pearly Gates is a study in white male privilege, Pearly (nickname since childhood for Pat Gates) is gently sexist, gently snobbish, and only does service or favours for the benefits it will bring him.  He is judgemental and critical of most of those around him.  He is suspicious of new things and confident in his own views of the world.  He doesn’t know why his brother, Richie, doesn’t admire him more for his achievements, while also, puzzlingly to himself, gently begrudges his brother his life on the family farm and his good relationship with his son.

Pearly considers himself a success: “He found his own life of unfailing interest and accepted that it might well be instructive for other people to be informed concerning it.” He believes he handles things deftly and fairly, and when things go slightly awry, he always has a view that will put others at fault.  His relationship with his son, Kevin, however is a worry, living in Auckland and only contacting Pearly and his wife, Helen, when needing money.  But the reader only gets Pearly’s disgruntled and feeling-a-lack-of-gratitude angle on the relationship, and there is enough hinted at to imagine there would be a whole other side to the story if we were to hear Kevin’s voice.  Pearly’s relationship with his daughter and her family however is perfect – they are on the other side of the world living in Wales.

Another slight irritation for Pearly is that there is another likely candidate for the mayoralty, Philip, his deputy.  Philip is younger greener and has a following.  And Pearly’s decision to do something to ensure his own victory starts his own trajectory of assured primacy on a wonky course.  Annoyances start building up: His knowledge of how he won the election, the arrival of Andrew, another high achiever (but in Pearly’s eyes a lesser man) to the local school reunion, Pearly’s life is starting to be punctuated with acquaintances’ illnesses and deaths, and a series of anonymous and abusive phone calls starts, which seem to find Pearly wherever he is.

Pearly’s wife, Helen, is his sounding board, and increasingly her responses to his concerns are quire cutting, reminding him he is just the part-time Mayor of a “tin-pot small-town”.  Pearly wonders longingly about his Father’s love letters his Mum kept, but he doesn’t consider such things relevant to his relationship with Helen, admitting “he had protected himself with a semi-facetious mode and the emphasis on the outer life”.  Helen is planning on going back to work as a nurse at the local hospital, and with Pearly’s gently patronising manner, I was hoping she would gently take off with her best friend, Alison.

Another support for Pearly’s ego is Gumbo, another childhood friend, who is faithful to a fault, and who is kept by Pearly as both support and a show of class magnanimity, Gumbo being a groundskeeper at a primary school.  And it is Gumbo who is at the heart of an event at the school reunion which the novel slowly builds to, an event that forces Pearly to be somewhat more self-aware.  Aiding this moderate re-evaluation is Andrew, who, not being quite the person Pearly had remembered from school, surprisingly becomes Pearly’s ‘confessor’.

Pearly Gates is a novel about a time in transition, climate concerns, random acts of arson, abusive anonymity, and the realisation that you should be accountable and genuine whoever you are and whoever you are with.  I don’t know that I hold out much hope for Pearly, but I appreciated being part of his life for a while.

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The Unreliable People by Rosetta Allan – 2019

Unreliable peopleIdentity is at the heart of this amazing novel, mainly set in post-perestroika Russia and Kazakhstan.  The Koryo-saram are ethnic Koreans, people Stalin termed The Unreliable People, descendants of those who fled to Vladivostok from Korea, who were then deported to The Kazakh SSR by Stalin, and then after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, ended up living in Kazakhstan. They share history and stories from each of these places: Are they Korean, Kazakh or Russian? 

Identity is explored through the story of Antonina, an art student in St Petersburg in the mid-1990s, just a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Antonina is enrolled in a high-end Art Academy, but feels drawn to the Centre of Nonconformist Art, where her friend Tatyana lives and works.  Antonina is working on two exhibitions, one for her grades at the Academy, another an expression of her Koryo-saram identity designed to be a brief installation at the Centre.  The theme of parallel lives and realities weaves through the story.

We first meet Antonina in the 1970s, when she is abducted from her bedroom by a mysterious woman, who tells her stories and teaches her dances as they travel on a train away from her home – a train that crosses the “screaming bridge” where the ghosts of those who died in the deportations roam “for eternity in search of their loved ones”.  But the woman, Katerina, finds she can’t carry out her plan and sets Antonina on her journey of memory and mystery.  Who was the woman?  Did Antonina ever go on that train-ride with her?  Whose are the stories and dances she knows?

The book centres on Antonina’s journey, but we also follow Katarina, and learn of the sad events of the Koryo-saram community in the late 1930s.  Running through the parallel stories are lovers separated, actions regretted, children lost or abandoned.  The shadow of the Soviet State falls heavily over events, the paranoia, the queuing, the suppression of individuality and identity, and the racism of state policy, a racism that emerges on a personal level once the mega-state loses its grip and ethnic independence emerges.  Through the experiences of Antonina, the reader discovers, and is appalled by, the history of the Koryo-saram people.

The use of Antonina’s art is a nice way to express many of the themes of the novel, and provides a link between Antonina and her mother, a potter who makes ethnic pieces in Almaty, formerly Alma-Ata, and who sends parcels of clay to Antonina in St Petersburg.  The centre-piece of Antonina’s creation for the Centre exhibition is made from frit, fused glass, that forms a rough surface that Tatyana is continually snagged by, Tatyana who is an embodiment of confused identity, who wants to be with Antonina.  And it is at the Academy exhibition where we see another side to the rough Konstantin, the black marketeer with whom Antonina boards, when he arrives with a limp bouquet of tulips because they “are from Kazakhstan.”

The link between the two main characters and storylines is quite rapidly revealed, which on one level sits oddly.  But on another level the resolution parallels the first meeting between Antonina and Katarina – fleeting and ghost-like.  The first meeting led Antonina on a trajectory where we become part of her story, and the second meeting leads her to where we leave her to merge into the story of her people, the Koryo-saram,

The Unreliable People is full of interesting characters and tragic history.  It is a history that makes the reader consider the plight of displaced people of all places and times, and to ponder the complexity of identity.

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Soul Etchings by Sandra Arnold – 2019

Soul etchingsI love short short story collections and Soul etchings is a superb example.  A collection of evocative snippets, about loss, grief, missed opportunities, women stuck in mis-matched relationships, misunderstood children, murder and over-obsessive inanimate objects.

When I reviewed another short story collection: Frankie McMillan’s My mother and the Hungarians, I wrote “The stories work like magic; your brain telling you a story based on snippets” and it is the same with Soul etchings.  There are 57 stories, all complete, but as you read them there are links and connections: The child full of wonder who is denied her experiences, the loss of a child through cancer, the missed opportunities to connect with those who have passed on, the unfair father, the fathers who want sons and not daughters.

One of my favourites in the collection was The day of the horse, with its lovely, but tragic, twist, on “crying wolf”, with the hearer at fault not the messenger.  Soul etchings is a collection embedded in our time, with our difficulties with connection, the solitary carrying of burdens, the attraction of the artificial rather than the natural, and the failure to see hope and wonder around us.  It is full of those brief moments that are etched onto our souls and which impact the rest of our lives.  It is both confronting:

“Until the day Briony came home from school and found her father dead in the kitchen she hadn’t paid much attention to detail”

And evocative:

“She wrote in shafts of sunlight striking the scrubbed white wood of the old kitchen table.  Head bent over her book, words streaming from head to hand to pen to paper”

I devoured this collection and highly recommend it.





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Home to Me by LaVerne Clark – 2019

hometomeErotic Romance is all about the tension between the main protagonists – and Home to me is a pure example – emotionally damaged Lucy meets us with Sam, a family friend she has always been attracted to, in a bar at the beginning of the novel and for the rest of the novel they are simmering away!

The only other LaVerne Clark novel I have read is Beyond the shadows, a genre blender: Romance. Crime and Supernatural.  Home to me is totally Romance – characters meet, get along, fall apart, reunite.  But although we see the story alternating between Lucy and Sam, and although eroticism is paramount in both of their experiences, we do get to hear about Lucy’s awful experience in Australia, about the tragedy of Lucy’s brother (Sam’s best friend), and the impact of that tragedy and the loss of her husband on Janet, Lucy’s Mum.

The plotting is great, the tension is kept up over a week or two, via a horse-riding outing and a paint-ball tournament, as well as through lots of long car rides.  It’s a bit of a tour de force really, although the second guessing of the two characters that prolong the wondering about the nature of their relationship, is a bit unbelievable in parts.  It also leaves two minor characters in the wind, maybe so the reader can hope they will find each other?  And near the beginning is the worst pick-up line ever – it is so bad it gets the donator into the dedication!

Novels such as Home to me take the sensations and emotions of hours and stretch them to weeks.  They are an interesting phenomenon – and going by library usage and the fact that when we had a group of Romance Writers at one of our libraries and polled the audience on how raunchy they wanted the readings they all voted for ‘over-the-top hot’ – they have a great following.

Home to me does a good job of contrasting the horror of brutal rape with the joy of loving consensual sex.  It is set unashamedly in a world of heterosexual monogamy, where people are toned and beautiful.  It is total escapism, and definitely not for those readers who prefer consummations to take place behind the bedroom door, after the chapter ends and before the story picks up.  In Home to me getting to the consummation is the story.  It is a great example of the genre – give it a go.



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Death of an Agent by David McGill – 2019

Death of an AgentWe first met Dan Delaney as a young wannabe detective holding the fort on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour in 1935, then again back in Wellington after having been a POW in the Second World War, and then in Auckland in the mid-1950s.  He is now an Auckland vintner, and reluctantly down in Wellington again – “What possessed anyone to live in this godforsaken city?” – to visit his ex-POW mate, now radio personality, Ru Patterson, and Patterson’s daughter Hine, Dan’s goddaughter.  It is Easter 1965, and the worst thing about Dan’s trip is the weather, until he accompanies Ru to a party for planning anti-Vietnam War protests, and a woman is found dead in a hot tub and Ru is discovered in a compromising position.

The dead woman is an Australian agent, working under the radar in New Zealand, as the Australians and the Americans are beginning to think New Zealand is the weak link in their ANZUS Treaty partnership. And Henry Cabot Lodge is on his way to New Zealand to talk to Prime Minister Holyoake about getting New Zealand troops on the ground in Vietnam.  And Australian spies aren’t the only ones trying to infiltrate the anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-Vietnam War groups – the New Zealand SIS are also active, slightly laughable, considered ‘clowns’ by the activists, but they are just the agents they know about.

With Ru in hospital, Dan stays in Wellington, hovering on the periphery of the growing protest movement, and getting a bit concerned about Hine’s flatmate, Oliver, a skinny theatrical type, who appears to be getting overly-friendly with his goddaughter.  He would have been happy though to quit the city and get back to his family in Auckland, and to pruning his vines, but then he, Hine and her strange flatmate are arrested.  And Dan’s old colleague, and far-from-favourite person, Detective Chief Inspector Milton, gives Daniel an ultimatum: Feed him information on the planned protests, or Ru and Hine will suffer the consequences.

The hectic environment of Wellington is well-described: The art scene, the café scene, the experimenting with drugs, and the still raw memories of war experiences.  The stories being spun about the ‘yellow peril’ and the ‘domino theory of communist expansion’ creating hysteria among some, scorn among others.  Political theories of communism, socialism, nationalism are being openly debated, and we have a Prime Minister who you can just call in on and be invited in for a cup of tea.  Among the array of characters there is tension building between those wanting to take peaceful protest action and those in favour of taking a more aggressive stance.  And an anarchist group has gone missing, and the threat of direct action against Cabot Lodge is of concern.  Having no useful information about when and where an attack may take place is driving the SIS, the Police and U.S. agents to distraction.

The characters are complex: Dan is not sure what to think for most of the novel but then “He realized he wanted for the first time in his life to stand next to this thin line of unlikely protesters” – unfortunately at the time of his epiphany, he has a more important role to play.  Ru does not feature much in the novel, being in hospital for most of it, but Dan finds out that he has entered a pretty dodgy relationship with a local gang, uses drugs and that Hine is totally aware of this.  Oliver is very conflicted; privileged but abused, he has taken refuge in self-harm, religion, and a desire to act in the theatre.  He is committed to stopping the various groups that are threatening his idealised world, and his Catholicism – that is until he realises that there is something more real and down to earth to adore – Hine.

The novel is full of cultural references that will resonate with anyone who lived in New Zealand, especially Wellington, during the mid- to late-1960s.  At times I felt there were a few too many historical details added, and an over-abundance of adjectives and quotes – there is even mention of the dreaded short story about an earwig; the cause of my not being able to sleep with my ears uncovered since I was at high school – although it is attributed to Dahl, and I am sure it was by Oscar Cook.  But this slight over-enthusiasm for the times and background aside, there are some very thrilling moments, and the politics are fascinating – especially considering recent events in New Zealand – when we are once again realising sections of our community are being dangerously swayed by myths of imminent threat.  Another great New Zealand read and although it is part of a series, it can be read as a stand-alone.



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A Mistake by Carl Shuker – 2019

amistakeHeart surgeon Dr. Donald Effler once said that to be great, a surgeon must have “a driving ego”, “a passion for perfectionism.”  In A mistake, Dr Elizabeth Taylor is an exceptional surgeon with both these traits, but as a woman these attributes, seen as great in a man, are seen as aberrations by her superiors, her colleagues and her junior staff.

A mistake is about fallibility and culpability.  Humans have developed so far beyond simple mistakes that lead to predictable outcomes, in fact when one of these does happen in the book, I was hoping that Shuker had made a mistake himself and that the awful predictable consequences weren’t going to happen, but in such a meticulously written novel I knew that wasn’t the case – simple mistakes have simple causes and the mistakes can be forgiven, or not.

With the development of complex medical interventions, complex engineering, and complex human relationships, the scope for “complicated problems, and complex problems” expands, “And then there’s just chaos.”  Woven throughout A mistake is the story of the tiny ignored potential that led to the catastrophic launch of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, where five astronauts, one payload specialist and one civilian school teacher died.  Elizabeth refers to it as “The most beautiful story of error.”

Integral to the story is a new monitoring system soon to be imposed on hospitals, where surgeons are named, and the outcomes of their surgeries made public.  This is supposed to urge surgeons to achieve better outcomes, but of course it could also lead them to turn down operations where the chances of a good outcome are slim or lead them to re-categorise deaths.  And the new system ignores the fact that complex problems require complex solutions, and multiple actors.  Throughout the novel, Elizabeth is writing a response to criticism of an article she and a colleague have submitted to a prestigious medical journal, pointing out these dangers.

A mistake starts with a graphic description of a young woman, Lisa, being operated on, the operation being carried out with the deceptive nonchalance of experts carrying out their speciality.  Elizabeth is sleep deprived and constipated, but in her element, her preferences creating the atmosphere in the theatre.  We know something is going to go wrong, and when it does Elizabeth is superb at managing the problem.  All would have continued as usual, if the young woman hadn’t died early the next morning.

Shuker is wonderfully hands off in ‘telling’ Elizabeth Taylor, the reader is left to piece together her history, and decide when she is being ironic, when she is presenting her beliefs.  Elizabeth goes for a hair-raising drive at one point, is that her ‘controlling the universe’ gene, or a death wish?  She gives outrageous advice to female colleagues who want to succeed, is she being ironic or is that what she has had to do to advance?  It is a very effective device, and doesn’t mean Elizabeth isn’t nuanced.

Although regretting the young woman’s death, Elizabeth apparently feels no culpability for it, placing the cause as the original sepsis the woman presented with.  But when she is sitting on the loo going over her reaction to the crisis, who is it who considers:  “While a kilometre away in the morgue the wound did not heal and the body did not recognise itself, nor gather itself to itself, nor rise again”?  And when she gets an advanced copy of the new software, she plots her outcomes and watches the ‘dot’ that is her move from mid-stream to out in space as she includes and omits Lisa’s surgery … repeatedly.

The mistake in the operation was that of Richard, Elizabeth’s registrar.  But mistakes are complex and operations the work of teams, and Elizabeth led the team.  When Elizabeth discovers a complaint has been made and an enquiry started, she is clear that the responsibility is hers.  She considers her response to the mistake was effective, it was a controlled response, never chaotic.  She sees her job as not only being the lead agent, but also fixing the errors of her team – nicely paralleled with her inability to live with a tiny flaw in her house, in the only wall that she hadn’t gibbed herself.

When the fallout from Lisa’s death leads to another tragic death, Elizabeth is offered absolution of sorts, but it is an ‘out’ of playing the system, and Elizabeth has never been able to play the system – never able to stop from speaking out at meetings, in conferences – a fact that puts her off-side with colleagues of both genders and all levels.

A mistake is an insightful look at the pressures on medical professionals – pressures which are hugely heightened for women.  It looks at the idealised reality of medical monitoring systems as opposed to the complexity of the world.  And it exposes the conundrum of expecting our surgeons to be cautious and keep us safe whilst also allowing them to be cavalier enough to cut us open.  I thought this was a great book, read it and see what you think.

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The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy – 2018

The ice shelfJanice Redmond has had a terrible childhood; neglectful parents, constantly being moved from one school to another, being abused by various men, and nowhere she lived had a fridge …

Thirty years later, Janice, along with her big green fridge, is on her way to an Arts New Zealand awards ceremony, where she will receive her Antarctica Writers Residency, which she will take up the next day, and for which she was waitlisted and is a late recipient. Janice is used to this, used to residing in “makeshift liminal spaces”; she was waitlisted and then a late admission into her creative writing class.  She is used to not being the first choice and narrowly missing things.  She narrowly misses out on receiving a break-up settlement by one day, misses out having her first work, the spineless Utter and terrible destruction being considered ‘a novel’ by one page.

But Janice is a “glass-half-full kind of person” and tries to see all her setbacks as opportunities to nurture her writing.  And she embarks on documenting her gratitude to the various people in her personal and literary life in the Acknowledgments for the novel she will write after her time on the ice, but which she has already written: The ice shelf.  And that is where The ice shelf starts, middles, and ends.

The ice shelf is a wonderful piece of metafiction, telling us about Janice’s history, her warped sense of herself and others, the snobbish and cliquey New Zealand literary scene, and the continuous low level angst of living in a New Zealand where the weather is being disrupted by climate change, and “a piece of ice shelf the size of New Zealand falls off the polar cap every day.”  Janice gets her only sense of self-worth through social media, her minute circle of ‘likers’ and ‘RTers’, and she posts and tweets in an upbeat way throughout her various disasters – many of which are of her own making, fuelled by vodka and orange.

As Janice battles through windy Wellington with her fridge, and recalls and experiences her life, she starts to edit The ice shelf, gradually whittling away her work and herself.  Her narration of her painful childhood, and her existence on the far edges of the literary scene, are funny but tragic.  Her naivety is the source of much of the humour in The ice shelf, making her an unreliable narrator: “If the Meeting was populated only by men, that wasn’t the result of any kind of prejudice, it was just because the women hadn’t finished the washing up yet.”

And so, it is a bit of a shock when you end up feeling sorry for Janice, seeing the cliques that shun her through her eyes, and along with her “begin to cruise among the angular haircuts and commonplace objects pinned to lapels” in the Kōwhai Room of the National Library, waiting for the awards ceremony.  You are concerned about her as she prepares herself for Antarctica “the cold expanse that lies not too far away from our islands and perhaps even closer to the New Zealand psyche”, as she gets inspiration about the New Zealand character from The cinema of unease, as she worries that she might have warmth that will threaten the ice, or that the ice will take her last piece of warmth.

Janice has no community to bounce ideas off to get a sense of who she is and why she writes, and as often happens with excluded people, her whole life has become this one thing, trying to validate herself as a writer.  And through the novel we tragically see that validation melt away like ice on a warming planet.  I loved The ice shelf, see what you think.

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