Things I Learned At Art School by Megan Dunn – 2021

Megan Dunn takes you on a journey – from her first infatuation with Strawberry Shortcake dolls, through her fixations on various other mass-produced toys, later wearing them on clothing as “beacons of burgeoning sexuality”. She attends Elam School of Fine Arts, the Intermedia department, she accrues a whopping student loan and becomes a video artist. She founds an avant-garde gallery in Auckland. She has waitressing jobs, and then is a receptionist/bartender at various massage parlours. She farewells Aotearoa – and then comes back for the heart of the story. Megan Dunn appropriates and edits her own life to create a resonating work of art.

Like the author’s brilliant Tinderbox, Things I learned at art school defies classification. It is a memoir, an essay collection, and a novel. It is full of facts. Facts about the conception and production or various toys, about the making of Splash and other movies, facts about TV themes and popular songs, about famous works of art. It describes what it was like to be a conforming non-conformist at art school. Where she and her cohort were unoriginally intent on deconstructing (ripping off) the originality of others to give the finger to the establishment. To be fair they were living in a time where a model of a balloon artist’s dog could sell at auction for US$58 million.

The book has a beginning, two middles, and an end. Many essays are structured into a narrative with characters. Her character lives through various guises, she is Alice in Wonderland, a massage parlour logo, Patricia Arquette, a mermaid. The narrator writes in the rhythms of the Jabberwocky, in the style of Genesis. Growing up she is bullied, and she has a sad view of the desires of ‘old’ people. Later she has fluctuating weight. She is hyper-impressionable to certain movies and authors. She is insecure, realising at best as an artist she is someone else’s “leap of faith”. She recognises public self-harm might not be an artistic statement but rather an expression of private self-hate. She breaks down during a psychosynthesis course, and she’s never been able to “feign affection” for herself.

Megan the character grows up with wisdom posters: Desiderata, The Serenity Prayer. She lives by appropriated catch phrases: “Are we having fun yet?”, “You’ll smurf what to do when the time comes, Smurfette”. “Everything retro can be brought back, thinner the second time around.” She has the required snobbery for art school: “art like so much else in our society has its hierarchy” and her cohort thought the mainstream was “beneath us, intellectually and emotionally”. The bubble of creating art works purely from appropriating the works of other artists, sometimes themselves appropriated, finally pops. The narrator becomes a reviewer and essayist. Her father describes an early piece as “a bit of a word soup” – “I’ve been making it ever since”.

After her time working in massage parlours, the author packs up for London. Saying goodbye to the beginning and two middles. And then there’s the end. Things I learned at art school says much about art, and true works of art are found adorning hospital walls, created by people in memory of their dead. She spends time with her mother, and the book falls into perspective. Her mother, who was always there when she needed her, despite her daughter ignoring her, or even disparaging her. Her mother sent the author a poem when she finally left home: “One / Lonely / Toothbrush”.

“Art is about everything surplus to requirements – that’s what makes it so essential”, a line that reminded me of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa: “there will always be those that say that art is excess and surplus to existence … Yet surely what makes humans human is always this excess and this surplus we create”. Things I learned at art school is wonderfully created surplus. I admit to being one of those thinking this was going to be Dunn’s ‘mermaid novel’, and quickly found it wasn’t. But in a way it is – with the author describing the emerging and submerging of artists, events, lives. I absolutely loved this book: “I’m drawing a picture from life. See?”

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The Leaning Man by Anne Harré – 2021

Solace in the Wind is a Wellington waterfront statue, nicknamed The Leaning Man. Stella Weston loves the statue, wanting herself to be able to “lean fearlessly into the unknown, forge ahead, get things done”. But Stella is still traumatised by the incident that caused her to flee her hometown some years before, and Wellington is full of haunting memories. Excruciating toothache and jet lag add to her feeling “unsettled”. She is starting to doubt that her return for her parents’ 40th anniversary was wise. Then one of her best friends, Teri, is found dead in an alley, she discovers a body floating in the harbour, rough sleepers start falling victim to brutal attacks, and she reconsiders her view that “This wasn’t London or New York, for god’s sake. Things don’t happen here”.

Mad-Dog is a rough sleeper, he busks, playing angelic music on his expensive violin. He was once a classical performer, but after the death of his wife and child, he had a breakdown and has ended up on the streets. He keeps himself well groomed, but he is in constant pain and has a nasty cough. He has a few friends: a fellow rough sleeper, a luthier named Gus, who takes care of his violin while Mad-Dog is not busking, and one of the librarians at the central library. He tingles at the rare touch of another human. He muses “It’s all we want really … warmth, kindness, someone to believe we’re worthwhile.” Stella wonders “How can one man be so invisible” but “Mad-Dog had cultivated invisibility, turning it into an art form”.

Stella wants to find Mad-Dog, as he has a vital piece of evidence relating to Teri’s death, and she worries he might be the next victim of the rough sleeper attacks. The librarian Mad-Dog is friendly with is Stella’s Aunt Rita, so it should be easy to find him. Especially as Stella used to be a Wellington cop, on the fast track up the ranks to detective. She should go to the Police, but her guilt and self-loathing spills into her views of how others see her – old colleagues are the last people she wants to talk to. This drives Lassie, her lawyer friend Mitchell Lassiter, to distraction. He, and almost everyone else, thinks Teri committed suicide, but Stella is sure she didn’t. Mad-Dog might have the evidence to prove it.

Running parallel to the lives of the rough sleepers and Stella’s dishevelment, is the flow of affluent life around Wellington. For those readers who know Wellington, The Leaning Man is full of local references and familiar types. But Stella ends up descending into a nightmare world: she (perhaps too coincidentally) finds the floating body of a young girl in the harbour, she blunders upon suspicious goings on at a Kāpiti Coast day spa. Then she visits an exclusive night club where another friend entertains, and where Teri used to work – more strange encounters lead to Stella getting an awful inkling of what Teri might have discovered. The Leaning Man is a tense read, using that great technique where there are enough clues for the reader to be slightly ahead of the sleuth, knowing when they are heading towards danger not safety.

Stella is a great character, rough, clever, sad, and likeable. She finds out things about her family that she feels she should have been told about: her sister wants a child, her brother has gone off the grid, her mother has had a health scare. She finds it hard to realise life has gone on without her. This adds an interesting slant to the story, a haunted insecure woman determined to solve the mystery on her own – why was Teri killed, how does the body in the harbour fit in, who will get to Mad-Dog first? There are plenty of suspects, red-herrings, and psychopaths in the narrative. The reader starts suspecting what’s at the heart of the sequence of events, and it’s awful – but not as awful as when the truth is revealed!

“Like the fall of the Roman Empire, we are in decline”, the rational for the atrocities – things are falling apart so why worry about right or wrong? What gives this book its heart is that someone unhesitatingly does – I hope we see more of Stella Weston. The Leaning Man is a great debut crime novel.

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The Only Living Lady Parachutist by Catherine Clarke – 2021

Lillian Hawker, Gladys Van Tassel, Gladys Freitas, Leila Adair, Lillian Rayward … are they one woman or many women? They are all aeronauts, ascending in hot air balloons, descending under parachutes – if all goes well. Through all her various personas, all Lillian is sure of is that when she is floating through the sky “She felt more alive than she’d ever been before”. But why? “What madness made her ricochet around the country like some sort of inexhaustible firework?”

Lillian is one of three sisters. Ruby, a fellow aeronaut, always outshines her, yet Ruby is the only person who really understands Lillian: “What was the point if Ruby wasn’t there to admire the risks she took?”. Essie also longs to take to the skies. Their mother often accompanies the young women on their ballooning tours. I was expecting a sparkly narration of bravery and daring, but The Only Living Lady Parachutist is far from that. Lillian lives through a series of rogues and conmen, a series of financial disasters (including the Australian banking crisis), and a long series of ruined balloons.

Lillian’s life is one of the Stage, the Circus, the outdoor spectacle. The events and venues often cheap and tawdry. Many of the people flocking (or trickling) to see her, are attracted by the possibility of disaster, and often get what they want, “After Lillian made a low-altitude flight at Ashburton, where she collided with a spectator and then a tree, Arthur was ready to try at Rangiora”. Lillian falls into the performers’ way of talking up their own prowess and history, playing up to journalists, and their hyperbolic headlines. And in “searching for that elusive, unattainable remedy for a yearning she couldn’t even name”, she starts to blur fantasy and reality.

There are two men in Lillian’s life. Henry is a ventriloquist who yearns for a settled married life, he is the father of her children. But she is always putting off marriage for one more ascent – leaving their children to Ruby or her mother to mind. She is torn between the “embers warming her heart from within” that are her feelings for Henry and the “ice cold shock and burn that coursed through her veins when ballooning”. Arthur has the same craving for adventure as Lillian, and is even a bit jealous of her: “Why is it that a woman clinging to a balloon is always a more thrilling attraction than a man?” Lillian isn’t sure which persona is attractive to which man.

Lillian tries to sort her life out as she tours the towns of Aotearoa and Australia: “What we made in Geelong we spent in Sandhurst, and what we made in Sandhurst we spent in Broken Hill.” She escapes drudgery and enters a world totally populated by performers; she ignores what is around her to live in a fantasy, dreaming of touring the Orient with “turbaned coolies serving tiffin and sweetmeats”. She is “a star, glowing with weightless brilliance”, yet also a laughing stock: “You’ve got more tenacity than you’ve got talent, Leila”, and a bit of a rogue herself.

The Only Living Lady Parachutist is simply written, the story framed around Lillian distracting her granddaughters from the sorrow of the death of their young brother. We learn in the afternote that Thor, named after her own son, died like the captured butterflies mentioned in the story. He is one of many young boys whose deaths are scattered throughout the narrative – Lillian’s life is largely shaped in reaction to her guilt over the death of her brother when she was a child, “Ballooning was penance for my sin”. Lillian found it hard to get too fond of her own son, always worrying something would happen to him.

The book is a great piece of historical fiction, meticulously researched. Once finished, I immediately looked up 19th century aeronauts and found a world of wonder. Each chapter starts with an epigraph of an actual newspaper clipping of the time. The early #YeahNoir work The Mystery of the Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume, even gets a mention. The reader feels the squalor as well as the splendour – a Sarah Bernhardt performance scintillates, then quietens to awe as the audience pores over translations of the French: “It reminds me of a prayer meeting”.

The insertions of Lillian considering her telling of her story to her granddaughters, adds a mystery element to the story, keeping the reader wondering and reading on. And when we reach the final reveal, the reader reconsiders the whole narrative, and the pieces fall into place. I really enjoyed this book, and suggest you will too, so have a read.

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The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade – 2021

Can you watch something die and let it die?” The global mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, and consequential human deaths. The plundering of the environment, and consequential deaths of humans, non-human and ecosystems. The decades of spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing global warming and multiple natural disasters, causing deaths of humans, non-humans, communities, and environments. I often imagine the desperate frustration of those scientists, those ignored Cassandras with libraries full of prophesies, who must watch helplessly as their worst predictions unfold. This desperation is what The Impossible Resurrection of Grief is about.

Ruby is a scientist, enamoured of her research subjects – jellyfish. She is still focussed, as jellyfish are “one of the few creatures who flourish in a warmer ocean”. Her friend Marjorie is not so fortunate – her passion is the Great Barrier Reef and all who live there. She has watched the Reef and its inhabitants die, seen it become home only to “hungry, migrating starfish”. As a consequence, Marjorie has been infected by the epidemic that is sweeping the world; an epidemic of despair called Grief. Grief has no cure, cases always end in death, by suicide. Ruby tries to save her friend, who has become recreated as ‘Sea Witch’; Ruby supplies her with the lethal plastic she uses in delicate creations. But Ruby doesn’t have any answer to Sea Witch’s question: “Can you bring it back?

George, Ruby’s husband, is worried about Ruby’s efforts to help Marjorie, he is suspicious of her. He is an artist; Ruby is a scientist. He is Indigenous, a Māori from Aotearoa; she the descendent of the colonisers of Australia. They still love each other but are in the throws of a divorce – The Impossible Resurrection of Grief  is full of metaphors. Ruby travels to Tasmania, a place of “genocide and absence”, where for those who are gone, Grief will never come. She is following what she believes are Marjorie’s wishes. She finds an elderly woman who is infected with Grief, but who has acted in her despair. She has recreated the wonderful creature that was the thylacine – but there is something decidedly sinister about her recreations.

Get in the fucking car, Ruby!” George arrives to take Ruby away. They travel to Aotearoa, in response to an invitation to an art reveal, that George suspects is more of an invitation to Ruby than to him. After initially being charmed by another recreation, they again discover a dark side to events. Some of those living with “Grief – the inability to balance was left with what was left behind”, are scientists, those who enabled global destruction. And they appear to be collaborating. They are skilful, they can create illusions, miracles – “death, even extinction, was both too much and not enough”.

The Impossible Resurrection of Grief is full of tension, full of dread. Ruby and George can’t report their suspicions, they would just be considered the ramblings of those infected with Grief. The reader immediately understands the inequalities of power, the small inequalities, and the large – the disproportionate impact of the results of Western greed and complacency on Indigenous populations. Environmental disasters have been allowed to worsen, as initially they didn’t sufficiently impact the privileged. That’s when Grief became an epidemic – prior to that people were affected by Grief, but no-one who could act paid any attention. Another strand of the story comes from Andersen and Grimm. Those deluded by their own false beauty look at the world as into a mirror, not seeing the remains of their victims behind it, or the morals of the pretty stories they enjoy, but only the self-made illusion.

This small novel is disturbing and huge in its resonance, “When we saw how good we were at killing, when we made it part of us. Did you think it would just go away?”. We fear the imminent dangers from science trying to balance the chaos that science has enabled. Ruby is sympathetic to the suffering of other beings and their environments, but in an intellectual way – her jellyfish are flourishing. But … towards the end even she begins to realise there is yet another human-wrought disaster looming. An exquisite book, read it!

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The Convict Stain by David McGill – 2021

The latest in the Dan Delaney series and Dan is nearing 70, he has lived through a lot and is disillusioned with politics, religion, life … He is in Sydney with his family to launch their Vukovich Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc onto the international market, but he is feeling more an observer than a participant. In the harbour, USS Buchanan waits for joint naval exercises, and for access to NZ waters, neither confirming nor denying it has nuclear capability. One priest has a diary, and another a revelation from a dying crime boss, both could destabilise Dan and his family. And preparations are being made for a secret meeting to determine the future of ANZUS.

Dan’s daughter Ali, who once considered a reclusive religious life but is now “manning the protest barricades”, has become involved with a deserter from the U.S. Navy named Brad, who is determined “the nuclear stockpiles had to be dismantled”. Ali thinks he is “Hollywood with a brain”, but he is a dope-head, not the best state for an eco-warrior. He also has a habit of getting kidnapped – but who is doing the kidnapping?

Dan’s second daughter, Maria, DS Pikowai, arrives like a whirlwind and never slows down. She is on a mission, preparing for the arrival of her charge – PM David Lange. She feels manipulated by the male chauvinist police force, and it doesn’t help her case that she is a magnet for trouble. Despite being suspicious of Brad, and recognising him for the misogynist jerk he is, she agrees to help Ali by finding out who might have snatched him, and as a result ends up not knowing who to trust amongst her temporary work colleagues in the Diplomatic Protection Squad – assembled to cover a secret meeting between Lange and Bob Hawke.

The Convict Stain is awash with characters, some of whom we know from previous Dan Delaney outings; once not so respectable Marty Webber is the new co-director of the Vukovich launch into Australia and beyond. He is now living in Sydney with Michelle, his flamboyant fiancée. And when an elderly gangster Ali is looking after, Frankie Frankuvich, asks to see Dan, Dan sees someone he didn’t think or hope he would ever see again. And there are new characters aplenty: the slobby journalist Portillo, who turns up in unexpected places. The aging Father Petrus, source of history for the Delaney family, associated with St Brigid’s Infirmary, where Brad keeps ending up. And Michelle, the fiancée who becomes central to the action.  

There are also the larger than life characters of the different countries: Australians with their racist banter, speaking like low vaudeville comedians, their gangsters strutting around in eye-hurting silk suits; American military guys storming around like ‘ugly Americans’; the French wine merchant, slickly romantic and devious; the Pommy journalist, messily gross and devious. They all feed into the board game of patch protection and jingoistic manoeuvring that Dan has wearied of: The U.S. “The nuclear superpower”, Australia “the supplier of the vital uranium”, the U.K. “We’re last century’s power”, and the U.K. considering Aotearoa – “… you are, well, just a little island far, far away.” And the historical characters – Dame Kiri Te Kanawa makes an appearance, as does transgender role model Carmen, who plays a role in the plot, and of course David Lange: “He talked like an angel but was a devil to deal with.”

The book is partly about the fascinating politics of the time. The jockeying for position, influence, alliances. So resonant now with the damage to the international image of the U.S. caused by the Trump years, and the consequential flexing of Chinese and Russian ambitions. It suggests the role that comparatively small nations can play if they have a clear supported policy and the guts to implement it – even if the leader is a bit unpredictable! The social times are well presented too, although maybe with a few too many film and book references. Fashions help set the scene, as does the emergence of new technology like CCTV, and the description of Ali and Brad’s flat is spot on.

But the story is also about family dynamics, strengths, and fragilities – Dan resisting finding out the truth about his family, resistant to change and to having to absorb new information. And, in parallel with the larger arena of national politics, he must adjust to new ideas, new freedoms, new realities – unless he wants to isolate and become estranged from those who care about him and who support him, who see him as the anchor of their expanding family.  

There are some great moments, such as the moving interchange between Dan’s wife, Jas, and Father Petrus, when Jas starts to see things from Dan’s point of view, rather than seeing him as “a witless study in puzzlement”; realising how unfair she has been and vowing to make amends. And the Dickensian will-reading scene, complete with idiosyncratic cat. And my favourite, when Jas and Maria go on the offensive, but are bedevilled by hysterical giggles due to the adrenalin running through their systems.

The Convict Stain is the sixth Dan Delaney novel, if you haven’t read them, give them a try. You will enjoy yourself while learning some great New Zealand political history.

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Victory Park by Rachel Kerr – 2020

Kara and her son, Jayden, live in Victory Park – a block of flats with a bit of a playground. Money is a constant concern, and she scrapes by, by providing childcare. She and her neighbours form a sort of community, they are all a bit wary of each other, but they do support one another, arranging help for those who need it. Recently Bridget has moved into Victory Park with her son, Rafe. Compared to the other tenants, Bridget is “Flush with cash”. Jayden and Rafe have become mates, and Kara finds Bridget intriguing, and she has luxuries like a car, and they start hanging out together.

Kara is proficient in life, she manages her son, and the other children in her care, she has a good relationship with her daughter, Alisha, and her mother, Robyn. Kara is content in her tiny flat, it is where she lived with her husband, Jimmy, until he died when Jayden was one. She still has his crash helmet and a fear of any type of two-wheeled vehicle, and when she hears a rescue helicopter, she thinks of “the latest in an endless series of emergencies”.

Kara knows she is struggling financially when compared to the people like Bridget and those she works for – the people who ask her over to their house for a chat, having no idea of the financial burden that is – the bus fare balanced against a loaf of bread. She enjoys spending time with Bridget, ignoring her insensitive comments, and her whinging about having to get by on an allowance that Kara can only dream of – Bridget’s husband, Martin, is under suspicion of running a Ponzi scheme, and his assets have been frozen. Kara is a bit amazed at Bridget’s slap dash approach to parenting; Kara must teach Rafe how to tie his shoelaces.

“Kara wanting Bridget to be fun. Not hard work”. Bridget however does start to annoy Kara, casually saying Kara should go and see her doctor for her persistent cough, when there’s no way Kara could afford it. When Kara takes Bridget to the foodbank, she behaves in her usual insensitive way. Bridget criticises Kara’s ‘choice’ of work, and when she loses the little work she has, Bridget talks as though all Kara needs to do is make better decisions. Bridget lets Kara down twice when she has promised to mind Jayden, and both times he gets into danger – “When she apologised, it was like she’d stood on someone’s foot by mistake – whoops!”      

Kara is someone that wealthy people think they can say anything to, do anything with. At one-point Bridget starts applying lipstick to Kara’s lips uninvited. Two people who have fallen victim to Martin’s scheme arrive at Kara’s flat, complaining that they have lost their lives, and must now live on a benefit, wanting Kara to do something about it. Martin’s brother expects Kara to help when Bridget won’t let Martin see Rafe, but Kara’s had it by then – “I’m sorry, but I’ve done my dash of it.”

Victory Park is a brilliant depiction of the gap between those at either end of the socio-economic divide. The gap that became obvious during the Covid-19 lockdown, with those worrying about their cancelled overseas holidays, and those worried about feeding themselves and their families. And it highlights how the gap is harder to span for the wealthy. Those with little must help each other out, and word gets around who needs help. Some of those with a lot feel it their right that others help them, and word gets around who to avoid.

Both Bridget and Kara end up in hospital, but via quite different circumstances that once again highlight the selfishness of privilege, and the sacrifices the non-privileged must make. Victory Park is vividly written – of Robyn “Some days she looked rock and roll, and on others like someone you would worry about if you saw her sitting on the side of the road”. It is well plotted and there are funny moments and scary moments, like Kara and the two boys having to hitch-hike and catching a ride with a male driver. Kara is a wonderful character, resilient, caring, vulnerable, crying in the face of a gesture of hoped for but unexpected kindness. Acutely aware that “Life was obscenely enormous, and then suddenly it was nothing”.

Victory Park ends on a both optimistic and sad note. With happiness a possibility for Kara, but only on her side of the unbreachable divide. Highly recommended.

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Nancy Business by R.W.R. McDonald – 2021

It’s 4 months on from the last The Nancys caper, and a year since Tippy Chan’s father died, when his car mysteriously veered off the road – Tippy’s “tattooed Santa on steroids” Uncle Pike, and his partner “unmanageable” Devon, are back in Riverstone from Sydney. Tippy is now 12, and the pair will keep Tippy company during her school holidays, while her mother, Helen, works all hours at the Riverstone Medical Centre. Tippy is looking forward to hanging out with the crazy caring duo; most of her friends have left Riverstone, and the one who remains, Todd, is still recuperating from a brain injury sustained during the last outing of The Nancys.

Tippy knows both Pike and Devon’s businesses are doing well over the ditch, and they are still full of banter, but something is wrong – especially with Tippy’s ‘Sissy’: “Devon didn’t seem to be his usual sparkly self”. Surprisingly, Pike and Devon have bought the “murder house” – a crime scene from their previous case – to renovate as a ‘pied-à-Riverstone’, and Tippy is given the job of Devon’s P.A. for the job. The trio settle into a decrepit downtown Airbnb, and although she is chuffed to be made a PA, Tippy wishes there was a case for The Nancys to investigate: “Nancys’ business is nobody’s business”, it would distract her from thinking about her Dad, and Devon from whatever is worrying him. And then a large section of the Riverstone CBD explodes.

The trio arrives at the scene of the massive explosion to find Helen tending to the injured, and Devon joins her to help. Tippy is distraught, as well as knowing there are injuries, and probably deaths, Riverstone’s founding tree is gone, “the beautiful old macrocarpa, alive since 1854” – “My town was ruined”. In the aftermath, Tippy realises The Nancys have a job to do – the Riverstone Police have the case almost immediately done and dusted – but The Nancys “don’t listen to what we’re told to believe. Like Nancy Drew, we investigate and we find out the truth ourselves”.

The mystery and investigation in Nancy business are great, The Nancys making slow progress using CCTV footage, old photo collections, interviews, observations, and lots of writing on the walls of “The Nancys room” in the under-renovation house. There are lots of suspects, and motives, and clues, but they are working under pressure – there has been a note emailed to the local police station threatening another explosion in 6 days’ time, and the number of days keeps reducing at an alarming rate. “I needed this case: besides stopping a bombing it was an escape from my blown up life” – also rising at an alarming rate is Tippy’s anxiety levels: she feels “Surrounded by something invisible, like a cushion of air; a kind of darkness you could feel if it wasn’t just out of reach”, “Was anywhere safe?”, “What if it happens again?”

And this is what is so good about Nancy business, despite being funny and with larger-than-life-characters, many of those characters are under stress. Devon has a form of PTSD. Unbeknownst to Tippy, Helen is barely holding things together. Tippy is dealing with the explosion, losing her friends, her father’s death, and her mother being a workaholic. She is finding that people under stress fall apart, and, as she is in many respects still a child, she blames herself when they do. Nancy business shows that whatever your style, all joy can get buried under memories, worries, and fears. Serious issues are handled well, for example suicide: “You get help, you always ask for help, no matter how hard it is.”

Tippy is taught lessons about the tension between people’s privacy and trying to protect others. And when someone breaks the rules to give her information about her father’s death, she starts to grasp the complexities of right and wrong: “I guess sometimes doing right feels really wrong”. Nancy business is a compulsive read, but despite the snappy pace, The Nancys’ progress on the case is glacial as the days tick by, and then things go ballistic, with a hair-raising car chase – Tippy in a truck with a less that compos mentis driver.

Nancy business is written in the first person, from Tippy’s point of view, and through the book she works towards adolescence. By the end of the book she has become a young woman. She realises what her mother has been dealing with, and that she herself is not the centre of the universe. And she starts planning the next case for The Nancys – which is good news for all of us.

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Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh – 2021

Home to the successful and wealthy, the Cul-de-Sac sits shrouded in the Waitākere Ranges, near Auckland. It is home to Ishaan Rai, whose wife, Nina, disappeared 10 years ago – along with $250,000. After a serious car accident, Ishaan’s son, Aarav, returns to the home to recuperate, despite his loathing his controlling father. Then the police arrive to tell Ishaan and Aarav that the remains of Aarav’s mother, Nina, have been found. She has been lying in her dark green Jaguar, hidden by the dense bush not far from their home, for those ten years. Nina hadn’t been driving and the money is not in the car. Aarav is determined to find out who killed his mother, and in doing so he finds this gated community is home to tragedy, abuse, blackmail, and murder.

The proximity of the crime leads Aarav to look at his neighbours, then the hired contractors who frequent the Cul-de-Sac, and then further afield via unsecured social networking sites. “People tell me all kinds of things because I’m polite and empathic.” And Aarav is an excellent researcher – he is a multi-millionaire celebrity author; his one thriller having become a phenomenon that has been turned into a block-buster movie. He is under pressure to produce a second novel, so splits his time between writing and investigating his mother’s murder. But both enterprises are somewhat compromised by the severity of the car crash that sent him home. He badly smashed his foot – meaning he must hobble around in a moon boot, and he seriously injured his brain – meaning he has gaps in his memory, crippling migraines, and a less than firm grip on reality.

Quiet in her bones is written in the first person, with Aarav as the narrator, and he is an enigma. He is full of self-loathing, yet he acts kindly and considerately. Is he the sociopath he declares himself to be, or is that just a persona he adopts as a famous thriller writer? – “Writers are professional liars”. He is the quintessential unreliable narrator, as much to himself as to the reader. The book is a journey of discovery and the reader travels along with Aarav and his shattered mind. All he remembers of the night his mother disappeared is seeing his parents fighting, hearing his mother scream, and waiting up for her with a leg that “hurt like a bitch”. As Aarav tries to piece things together, we learn about his persons of interest, and there is no shortage of suspects who might have wanted to harm Nina, or to take the money.

With Aarav’s increasingly frequent blackouts, his lack of memories of major events, his slipped chronologies, and his sleepwalking, he starts to suspect himself as much anyone else in the neighbourhood. The two people he loved most, his mother and his last serious girlfriend, Paige, both left him. And he starts to wonder if he was the victim, or the cause of their going. But the reader often sees Aarav as a good person. Not least when he is with his half-sister, Pari, daughter of his father’s second wife, Shanti. Shanti was ‘bride-shopped’ in rural India as Nina had been, and she is much more the obedient wife that Ishaan had been hoping for. Aarav finds out that Nina was as unfaithful as his father had been, and his memories of her perfume are always mixed with the smell of alcohol.

Quiet in her bones is cram packed with vivid, interesting characters, some of whom are dead – Nina is a real presence, despite our only meeting her in ghostly memories. In the Cul-de-Sac are those who observe but are generally ignored, those who gossip, those who are keeping long-held secrets. And there is a mix of cultures, some of which value family honour over justice: “Rich Indians don’t report domestic violence, detective”, “Alice never tell. Shame. Shame”, “If you killed your mother,” he continued, “then we deal with it inside the home.” Then there are the multiple medical specialists Aarav consults. He has given up a reliance on alcohol and is living on an unhealthy diet of Coca Cola and sweets. He confuses his medications, and when he is shown proof of conversations and correspondence, he has no memory of them. He totally forgets people. And he gets others to tell him whether his writing is coherent, he can’t tell anymore.

Quiet in her bones is a slow burn, the tension comes from knowing Aarav’s condition is deteriorating and that he must find the truth before he is totally incapable of doing so. And a sense of dread comes from the looming Waitākere Ranges that surround the story, usually drenched in rain. They are menacing, with parts closed off due to kauri dieback disease, a disease which “brings slow death”. There are kauri that guard the Cul-de-Sac, and “Should humanity stop tomorrow, the dark green would begin its takeover the very next day.” There are plenty of clues in the narrative, but even when the reader gets them, they aren’t sure who is implicated. Despite the physical, mental, and environmental difficulties, Aarav won’t give up: “Someone had murdered my mother, ended the angry brilliance of Nina Rai, and I wasn’t about to let them live in peace.”

A great psychological thriller, highly recommended.

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The Beautiful Dead by Kim Hunt – 2020

Cal Nyx came to live with her Aunt Zin in rural New South Wales, after an horrendous incident at her home in Aotearoa. She is now an adult, a park ranger living on the property of a farmer friend, and spending most of her time out in the bush. It is when she is carrying out a moth count that she finds the body – it is very decomposed, but as Cal muses, it was once “Someone who lived and breathed, who probably belonged to others.”

Detective Inspector Liz Scobie is given the case when the death is ruled a murder, not an accident. She has a small team of two two-person teams, and plenty of suspects, but no obvious motive. On the suspect list is a young part-time mechanic who looks after his mother who is living with MS, a man who runs diggers and trucks and who has a criminal record, and a young rich son of a local legend, who has a financial interest in a local nightclub where the victim provided the sound system.

The victim, Phillip, was a suspect in a previous murder, that of his partner, Stefan. Stefan’s body was found at his stylish home, where expensive artworks adorn the walls. All three of the suspects were known to associate in some way with the victims. And it transpires that Stefan also has a sister who lives out of the area, but who was at one time suspected of trying to extort money from her and Stefan’s mother. Was the motive for the murders “Money. Sex. Hate. All possible … Fear’s a pretty strong motivator”?

Meanwhile Cal discovers she knew the person whose body she discovered. Phillip (Pip) was the brother of a friend of hers, Di. She is also dealing with the imminent death of a close friend, who is in a hospice. So, she takes some leave, intending to spend time with her ailing friend and to attend Pip’s memorial service. But really, she wants to help Di by doing some poking around to see if she can work out who killed Pip, and why. With two parallel streams of investigation, it isn’t long before Cal realises that her being in most of the places of obvious enquiry, means she is being added to the police persons of interest list. And then Cal becomes a different type of person of interest for DI Scobie, and that leads to the police teams starting to wonder about the leadership capability of their ‘skip’.

What I really liked about The Beautiful Dead was the character of Cal. She is part of a community apart from that where she works, which is not a community, just a group of people who “looked out for each other because they needed one another for survival”. Cal’s community are those she feels safe with, free to express wants that are “not governed by rules or etiquette.” Cal has her uniforms altered to fit: “Trousers, men’s fit … The wide-waist and narrow-hip cut fit her perfectly”, she likes driving fast, pushing cars to their limit, she was “brought up by wolves”, she’s “No lady, mate”, and she frequents a dungeon.

But Cal is also vulnerable, and she is guilt-ridden when she loses her friend in the hospice, and then another woman who was very close to her, in the space of two weeks, feeling she let both down. She is an expert in the local trees, plants, and animals. This means the sense of place is well captured, as Cal is always mentally taking in her surroundings, and birds flying over her or in the bush beside her. You realise the vastness and dangers of the bush, and another skill of Cal’s is getting into danger, leading to some pretty tense scenes.

The Beautiful Dead is a good murder mystery – plenty of suspects, plenty of clues, plenty of possible motives, plenty of danger. Including the danger that stems from community prejudices which require some to keep secrets, secrets about ‘money, sex, hate, fear’, all motives for murder. I enjoyed this intriguing read.

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Toto Among the Murderers by Sally J Morgan – 2020

Yorkshire in the 1970s, a group of young people have graduated from art college. Most are starting to settle down into further education or jobs. But one of them, Jude Totton – Toto to a select group of friends – is still aimless: “Does the edge between life and death glitter for you, Toto?” And aimless is dangerous when the news is full of missing girls – for this is the time of Fred and Rose West, who pick up young women in their car and then torture and murder them.

Toto and some of her friends have just moved into a cheap flat in Leeds, their neighbours are cheeky kids, sex workers, and those who keep to themselves. The story is told from the points of view of Toto and Nel. Toto helps at an alternative school. Nel is training to be a teacher and hating it, she is only doing it to help her passive aggressive boyfriend Simon, who has stayed behind in Sheffield to do an MA in print making. Toto’s crowd are all experimental – with sex, with drugs, with relationships.

The alternative school where Toto hangs out is run by a combination of anarchists and dropouts, Toto is attracted to both: “I like the idea of True North being a wandering thing, trying to find itself. I like the idea of it being a magnet that everything points to, but which can’t find a place to settle.” Toto finds herself drawn to danger, she feels invulnerable yet is also afraid, “I’m frightened of everything, which makes me frightened of nothing.”

“… did Jude Totton ever turn up anywhere when she was supposed to? Ever since I’ve known her, she’s been in the wrong place, on the wrong day, with the wrong stuff.” Toto’s friends are used to her unreliability, yet they love her and stay loyal while she constantly flirts with danger. But they, and the reader, follow her story with dread – after all we all know that “The world runs on the random acts of cruel men”. And Toto is addicted to hitchhiking: “My preferred game is much more dangerous. It’s played with men in small cars who hide girls under leaves on the top of moors and deep in the woods.”

Toto among the murderers is full of the feel of the era: boys dressed like pirates flouting the sumptuary laws, light bulbs wrapped in coloured cellophane, “… posters of Indian gods and Cuban revolutionaries” on flat walls,  Your so vain on the record player, or for the slightly more elevated, “The mellow notes of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’” and perfumed candles on the windowsill. Toto is taken in by Callie and Hugo, one of the college lecturers. They have an open marriage, and Toto becomes a weapon between them. “Life is full of rules, but most people forget to tell me what they are. How am I supposed to know what I want?”

The tension in the book is relentless, “Fear is the only constant I know”, and there are some brilliant devices – such as Nel projecting her anxiety onto a murmuration of birds. Usually described in terms of beauty and elegance: “It wheels as though fearful, each bird is lost and clinging to the one beside it. An anxious sound like Chinese whispers – we’re lost, who knows the way? No one. No one knows the way.” Yet the characters are self-aware – Nel: “How the sweet Jesus did I end up picking a man like Dad? A weak man, a cruel, spineless man like my dad”. Toto: “Will I always be living in shit rooms in the shit parts of shit cities?”

The characterisations are wonderful, Nel bravely battling to freedom and honesty: “It has never occurred to me that I might be the one with talent or that Simon might be mediocre.” And Toto being so reckless, yet the reader understands why she is loved. And no less than when she is with the sex worker, Janice, who admires Toto’s shabby flat – “I’ve never had a room on me own”. You realise that despite herself, Toto is naturally kind. And you see it again when she falls in with two borstal boys, how she is easy to be with, easy to like. And Toto is fragile despite her toughness, hanging on to items that might bring her luck. As she says, it’s just that “I’ve been blown off course and have no idea where I am.”

Toto among the murderers captures that liminal time, between the freedom of youth and the security of an adult plan, the gradual awareness that the joy of waking up on the floor at a party and walking home barefoot is now “cold and hard”. When you look around while waiting for a lift on the road side, and you see your fellow hikers as “lost souls waiting for the boatman at the side of the Styx” – “If time stopped now, I would be forever frozen as a reckless ne’er-do-well, a grubby, hungry lost girl, listening for the ticking of an unseen crocodile.”

I just loved this novel, it talks of the terrors of the world, especially for young women, but also the friendship and unexpected love there is to be found in others. But having said that it is far from sentimental, the dread remains, even when there is the hope of a haven, it could be in “Something that might get me fired from jobs or beaten up outside nightclubs”. Toto among the murderers captures the self-destruction of youth, but also its conformity, the old tropes that play out under the guise of freedom and rebellion – there are many murderers around young women like Toto and Nel. Read a copy and see what you think.

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