The Fell by Robert Jenkins – 2019

The fell

This is an extraordinary novel, a bildungsroman set for the most part in a boarding school reminiscent of Gormenghast, where an unnamed narrator makes his way in a community of violent, abandoned teenaged boys.

The Fell is short for Feallan House, situated in the town of Cutter.  Cutter includes a few elements of the author’s hometown of Nelson but is more reminiscent of literary Valparaiso or Brest!  The narrator is sent to The Fell after an awful event in his unnamed hometown, where his sister, Lilly, is sent to jail.

The narrator is haunted by these early life events, has lovely memories of life with his lifeguard-father and hears Lilly talking to him through the soundwaves of a smuggled radio.  He makes friends with a shambly group of misfits in The Fell, including a ghost and animated marionettes – and the bulk of the novel is made up of their testosterone banter, their alcohol and drug-fuelled nights, their survival-type exploits, their first loves, and their loneliness: “there is no hell worse than being ignored and shunned and lonely.”

“I think maybe we were lacking sufficient and significant adult supervision at a critical juncture in our development” says one of the narrator’s close friends, Johnny – and a truer thing was never spoken.  Most of the adults in The Fell are corrupt and mean, as seen though the eyes of a troubled boy.  There are some exceptions, but they are the minorities in both senses of the word: “They were really nice people, as criminals and gangsters and illegal immigrants usually are.”  There is one ‘good’ teacher, an African, Mister Solomon Sesay, “on the edge of being mad”, who tries to temper the narrator’s leaning towards violence.

The narrator and his gang want to break Lilly out of jail, just one of their many plans to be heroes, but how do you go about being a hero?  In one planning session with Johnny: “… we didn’t know what to write or what makes a real-life full-time professional hero so we gave up and made a list of people to kill instead.”  And The Fell doesn’t shy away from violence, or the ease with which boyhood fantasies can seep into reality.  The novel has a Lord of the flies feel about it at times.

There are moments of beauty as well, the intensity of a young boy’s first love, in the narrator’s case with Melody Grace, a fabulous character full of energy and wisdom.  The fireworks of youth that knows it is finite: “For one week the trees blaze and light up the world and then it’s over and things change and this is like youth and love and life.”  And the moment when Johnny talks of listening to the dying heartbeat of stags when he has just shot them: “It’s like God dies with end of a heartbeat.”

The alternate time/place feel of The Fell works well, you don’t know where/when you are, which makes you long for a different reality for the boys.  And they do too, one going off to the “Foreign Legion”, Melody Grace leaving for “Cadiz”, the narrator’s friend Majid inviting him to Arabia where “… if by Allah’s will we are not to be holy warriors, we can drink tea. Peppermint tea.”  It is as though their dreams are the only things they have to look forward to – apart from Johnny, who is white and from wealth.

The Fell is sad and tragic and makes you want the world to be different, even though the world described is extreme and unreal – the resonances are all too real. Unrealised potential, misunderstood possibilities, uneven playing fields of opportunity …  And you despair for the narrator: “… it seemed like all my life I was made of sand and took the shape of everyone I got blown up against but I had no shape of my own and however hard I clung to that shape it always went away and the winds came and I was nothing again …”  I highly recommend this book.

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When it All Went to Custard by Danielle Hawkins – 2019

When it all went to custardWhat a delightful book.  Jenny’s neighbour Andrew seeks her out to tell her he has found her husband in bed with his wife – the rest of the book deals with the fall out of this infidelity.  It is an entertaining read, which considers why we make life choices, and how to stay above the morass of insecurity that often bubbles beneath us.

Dave, Jenny’s husband, moves out, leaving her living on the farm that has been in her family for generations.  She has two young children, Nathan and Lily, a needy sister living down in Wellington, and parents who still help Jenny but who are thinking a proper retirement with money from selling the farm is an attractive proposition.  There are men around her who are keen to help, but some of them are more interested in taking advantage of a woman on a valuable property.

Despite finding out Dave’s infidelities have been plural, Jenny wonders whether she should take him back, for the sake of the children.  And this is at the heart of the novel, Jenny is actually quite relieved when she finds out about Dave’s affair, as she got together with the idea of him rather than getting to know him, believing farmers were “by definition quiet, capable, manly men with understated senses of humour and the ability to fix anything at all with duct tape, number eight wire or both.”  She has been living her life for the sake of others for a long time, and wonders if she has finally been given a chance to live a life that is right for her.

The neighbour bearing bad news, Andrew, plays a Darcy-like character, grumpy and taciturn, but he does provide his brother, Harry, to help on Jenny’s farm, and the pair of them end up providing some trustworthiness in her life.  Jenny is a great character, with the very feminine trait of blaming herself for everything and failing to see how competent she is in her multi-tasking life.  She is great with Lily and Nathan, has a part-time job as the Building Control Officer in the Council, manages to organise a jumble sale for Lily’s school’s fundraiser, can whisk up meals, has a fabulous garden, oh, and she manages a large beef and sheep farm.

There is a bit of a puzzle in When it all went to custard, as there is a solution to Jenny’s problems, which the reader perceives before the characters, which adds a nice element to the novel.  It is also a very funny read, laugh-out-loud in places, such as when her loud doctor rings her in the middle of a farm management meeting, or when she is discovered playing air guitar with Lily.  Another aspect of the book I loved was Hawkin’s descriptions of Jenny’s love of the land: “In the paddock below them the pet lambs, released from leading class, raced across the hillside in a mad twilight game of tag. The air was soft and golden and full of the clamour of birds settling down for the night.”  This book is a therapeutic read, not shying away from difficult situations, or gruesome details of farm life, or the sadness of unexpected changes in people’s lives, but letting you know that for the characters that deserve it, things will work out OK.


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One for Another by Andrea Jacka – 2018

One for anotherOne for another is a classic Western set in Idaho in the 1880s.  It is full of great characters, balances colonial racism with the recognition of indigenous wisdom and is also a cracker of a murder mystery.  The novel introduces Hennessey Reed, a woman who runs the local bar and brothel, who has an alcohol and drug problem, who is a ‘sensitive’ and who has a stubborn streak a mile wide.

The novel is lusciously written, in un-contracted English that sends you to a different time, even if you do have to read some sentences a few times to parse their meaning: “Nathan alleged facial hair unsanitary.  I was not the only person with self-preserving reluctance to disagree with this opinion – or any other he held, for that matter.”  The small-town West is a setting familiar from movies and TV programmes and you immediately immerse yourself in the environment.

Most of the book is written from Hennessey’s point of view.  She lives in the wonderfully named Melancholy, where the local law is Raff Cooper, and there is history between the two.  She is a tormented character – “I am tired, Raff … I am tired of death. I am often tired of life” – with a solid backstory, which you piece together as you go along.   There are lots of interesting characters, all with their stories, including Lizzie, Hennessey’s close friend, who along with her husband, Clay, runs the local general store.

The characterisation and plot hinge on the problems of living in a remote and unforgiving environment, where the women especially are living isolated lonely lives.  The line between despair and insanity is dust thin.  The crimes that Hennessey and Raff are struggling to solve are vile – the torturing and murder of young girls.  There are plenty of suspects, and as the search for the perpetrator drags on the tension builds when a girl of special importance to Hennessey, Lizzie’s daughter Evangeline, disappears.

One of Hennessey’s most loyal friends is Raven, her wolfhound.  She is not that popular with some people in the town, especially as it is moving from being a gold rush town to one in which “the trappings of civilisation had begun to take lodgings.” But she has her supporters, most of whom either work at or frequent her establishment – the Fleur-de-lis.  Raff is initially reluctant to let her help with his investigation, but as time wears on he “conceded if the Devil himself were to appear on his doorstep to offer an opinion, he’d be motivated to listen with undivided attention.”

One for another is an absorbing read with great plotting that keeps you guessing.  You can taste the dust, feel the mud and visualise the Western scenes: “Raff walked slowly to where his horse rested the tip of a rear hoof, dozing in the afternoon sun.”  You really get to know Hennessey, but there are also questions about her and her past that lead you to look forward to reading more about her and her exploits in Melancholy, Idaho.




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The Lost Dead by Finn Bell – 2019

The lost deadThe lost dead is a psychological thriller, not at all lacking in thrills but also working hard to round out the characters: the Rarua brothers, young Sophie, Eustus Grey and her fellow cops, and the psychopath: Charles Atkins – The Accountant.

The story opens with Tarana, Nikau and Googs Rarua – the older brothers already jaded by their lives, being hated by their West Coast community, being constantly let down by their father.  But Googs is still hopeful about their escaping and “going up north together.”  Fast forward ten years and we start learning about the warped views of The Accountant and find out the Rarua brothers have a plan to score some money and get Googs to a scholarship interview in Christchurch, which will enable him to finally escape their life on the Coast.

Given that the brothers’ plan involves stealing from drug dealers, things are bound to get complicated.  A new cop makes a right/wrong decision and the boys end up having to flee the Coast, but Googs wants to say goodbye to his girlfriend Sophie in Moana first.  Which is where they are, along with Sophie and The Accountant, when the earthquake and landslide hit.  The reader finds out about the methods and identity of The Accountant, and when the cops arrive things have got pretty topsy-turvy.

The main theme through the novel is an analysis of “the right thing to do”, and how that often depends on who you are and what choices you have: “Doing good things for other people means nothing, it only matters if doing that good thing actually costs you something and you still do it.” Key to pulling this off in the middle of a thriller is good character building.

The Rarua brothers have the odds stacked against them: “No getting out. No getting clean.”  Bell has done a good job of presenting them as decent blokes who just can’t get a break.  As Tarana and Nikau explain to Googs about mana: “when you’re born, you get given as much of it as your parents got.”  Googs is a smart cookie (nick-named after the search engine), and he gets it: “Mana’s like karma working backwards.”  The brothers decide: “Doing bad shit doesn’t count if you got no choice.”

Eustus and her fellow cops Sheryl and Caldwell walk a similarly fragile ethical line.  Caldwell is a highly educated city cop who has been sent to the remote West Coast due to breaking the rules for the ‘right’ reasons, but he finds himself in an area where his colleagues expect him not to follow strict rules, in order to get the best results for their small isolated community.  All the cops have found the Police Force to be somewhere where “Your choices can’t match your ethics.”

Bell’s attempts to get inside the head of a psychopath are most successful when the character moves into delusion, believing nature is arranging things just for his ends.  The Accountant’s methods are chilling and calculating, and the tension in the novel doesn’t come from any understanding or sympathy for him, but from just wishing he gets caught soon enough.  And there is one aspect of his methodology that has you wondering …

I read The lost dead really wanting to know what was going to happen. And there is a fair amount of trying to guess what has already happened – in a great device Bell has Googs working out the latter, linking all the clues dotted through the text.  The environment of a small remote community where drugs are a scourge is well depicted, as is the addiction to violence, on both sides of the law.  While the brothers are drawn sympathetically, my favourite character was Eustus, finding herself in one of those weeks “where every single day is its very own special kind of bastard.”  Another good read from Finn Bell.


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The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald – 2019

thenancysA small-town murder mystery with lots of suspects, dull police, amateur sleuths, a bundle of local secrets and lashings of glitter.

Tippy Chan is 11 and living in Riverstone, South Otago: “Main Street was busy today … I counted seven people on the footpath.”  Her Uncle Pike and his new partner, Devon, have arrived from Sydney to look after Tippy while her Mum goes on a cruise.  Tippy and her Mum are still having a hard time after the death of Tippy’s Dad.  Uncle Pike is larger than life and has his own demons to face on returning to Riverstone after many years.  This could be a domestic tale of small-town tragedies – but one of Tippy’s mates, Todd, ends up in a coma and one of her teachers is beheaded – and Tippy and Pike are big Nancy Drew fans – so enter The Nancys.

Tippy, Pike and Devon plot and snoop and interview and draw unpleasant conclusions, while the police think they have the right person in custody.  The Nancys not only want to find out who the murderer is in their midst, they want to free an innocent person.  And they partner up with some unlikely allies, such as local journalist Lorraine, who for some reason was loathed by Tippy’s Dad and still is by her Mum.  There are clues galore and the reader can guess, and re-guess along the way.  There are thrills, and there are creepy bits: The murderer seems to be leaving origami flowers dotted around; texts received might not be from who they say they’re from.

McDonald portrays Pike and Devon as flamboyantly gay, “They’re from Sydney” explains Tippy.  “Really living the cliché”, their presence in Riverstone makes a gaudy splash and gives confidence to others in the town who feel they are alone and that they don’t belong.  They certainly help Tippy, who has dressed in grey since her Dad’s death and who still feels guilt that she didn’t cry when he died.  And they literally transform Tippy’s neighbour’s granddaughter Melanie – voted “most likely to survive a zombie apocalypse” by Tippy and Todd – into a contestant in the Show Queen pageant at the local A&P show. Melanie wants to enter to cheer up her grandmother who is in an abusive relationship – and she might have other motives as well …

Tippy is a great character, she is 11, she worries her mates are sexist, Todd sends her text Tits 4 real!!!! Sam, her other friend, laughs when Pike says words like penis, and cheers Tippy up by asking questions such as “do bats poo upside down?”  She is delightfully young; she doesn’t know her apes from her monkeys, Pike and Devon’s innuendo-laden banter just flies right over her head, she has an aversion to the smells of adults.  But she is also mature enough to want to do the right thing and has the heart-breaking tendency to blame herself for things that happen to those she loves.

The Nancys is a romp of a murder mystery.  It is also about just being who you are and feeling OK about that and knowing it is OK to feel sad sometimes, and about celebrating the best of people while being a bit relaxed about their letting us down occasionally, unless that entails unrepentance, abusiveness or cutting people’s heads off.  In some ways The Nancys is a traditional murder mystery, in others it is refreshing and novel – not least by having an 11-year-old main protagonist in a book written for adults.  We learn a lot about Tippy and her family through the story and I felt happy for her in the end when she realises “… that this was my life now. The old everyday normal was gone.”

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Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka – 2019

PurakauAfter reading some works you just see the world differently, maybe for a moment, maybe a few hours or days, maybe permanently. Pūrākau was such a work for me.  Pūrākau is a collection of contemporary writings relating to Māori foundation stories, stories that are ancient and resonate through the generations.

Right from the editors’ introduction we are in the world of myth and legend, and wherever we are from we are ready to recognise multiple layers of reality, the importance of the health of the natural world, young women who must be allowed to disappear before dawn or go back to the sea, the shapeshifters and the tricksters, the warring brothers, the heart-breaking tragedies and the longing for redemption.

Whiti Hereaka’s prologue gently takes us into the dark, into a place where the stories can be told, and what stories they are! Arranged into groups that help the reader navigate, they are a combination of already published and newly commissioned works and are all fresh and engaging – e.g. Hereaka’s Papatūānuku, newly separated from Rangi and worrying about her newly wayward sons: “They were so cramped before, living on top of one another really. It was no place for growing boys.”

The writing styles differ, some biographical, others set in the timeless other-realms, some in the vivid ‘now’, others in the futuristic world of science-fiction and future technology, and many placing traditional elements in a contemporary setting.  One strong theme that emerges through all the re-tellings is that of the power of women: “Wāhine carry the stories, they carry the kawa, they carry the songs” – Renée in Te Pura, Warrior Taniwha of Te Wairoa.

The women are wise, they are measured, they are terrorists and warriors, they often make the best of their tragedies, such as Patricia Grace’s Rona in Moon Story, or Tina Makereti’s Pania in Shapeshifter, who is still a wonderful presence even though imprisoned in bronze.  Waitaiki was confined in Pounamu and her story is told in Nic Low’s Te Ara Poutini.  Not only are they imprisoned, women are deserted, betrayed, beheaded … but they are also vital agents – when Tāne finally manages to create the first woman, Hine, Makereti (in Skin and Bones) has her say “I’m so glad you figured it out. I’ve been waiting for ages.”

Other constant themes that make the stories timeless and relevant, are the pollution of the natural world and the mistreatment of animals.  Hatupatu slaughtering Kurungaituku’s animal friends in Ngāhuia Te Awektotuku’s Kurungaituku, the sad story of Hora-ngā-rangi and Teu-ngā-rangi, the two toroa in Ihimaera’s telling of Pourangahua bringing potatoes to Aotearoa (The Potato).

In The Potatio Ihimaera likens his writing to kūmara “which I could offer to people to enjoy”. In his Niwareka and Mataora, he likens his writing to tā moko “the difference between writing and Māori writing is that without the inspiration of tā moko, the inscriptions of our stories would only be superficial and easily wiped away.”  I could only read Pūrākau from the point of view of a pakeha New Zealander and a lover of foundation stories, I am sure there is much I missed and very possibly things I misinterpreted.  But I found this collection deeply engaging and its effect on me won’t be easily wiped away.

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Whatever It Takes by Paul Cleave – 2019

What-Ever-it-Takes-669x1024In Paul Cleave’s Whatever it takes we have moved away from his ‘gateway to hell’ Christchurch to Acacia Pines, a small isolated town in the U.S.  Acacia Pines is a sawmill town, surrounded by a “Green Hole” of forests, with only one way in and one way out.  Deputy Noah Harper lost his job, his wife and his home in Acacia Pines when he broke all the rules in order to do ‘the right thing’, and now 12 years later he’s back intending to do ‘the right thing’ once again.

The novel starts in a bloody mess and through the novel Noah gets up to fight again more times than Arnie in T1.  His is an extremely flawed character, with a tendency to violence that is quite marked.  But he is a compelling anti-hero that you would like to think would be on your side in a fix.  And he does think his way through most situations, weighing up the pros and cons, and always makes decisions for the ‘right’ reasons – but of course he doesn’t always work the equations out correctly.

Noah made a promise to a seven-year-old girl, Alyssa, before he left Acacia Pines, a promise that brings him back when his ex-wife contacts him to say Alyssa has gone missing.  Alyssa’s uncle, a priest, is on his death bed and convinced something bad has happened to Alyssa, despite the local sheriff – Noah’s ex-partner Drew – having evidence that she has just left town unable to face her uncle’s slow demise.  What is great about small town stories is that when people return, they know everyone, and they can create a rich place and history for the reader to become immersed in.  And the reader can suspect the motives and actions of people a little more clearly than the main protagonist.  Is Noah the only character with good intentions but suspect methods?  Who can he trust?, and what the hell is going on in that little town?

The characters are great, Noah of course but also Drew, his ex-partner, Maggie, his ex-wife, Conrad his nemesis and Conrad’s dad Sheriff Haggerty, who as an ex-sheriff dragging an oxygen tank around still wants to run Noah out of town.  There are many more the reader gets to know, and you are constantly wondering who is bad and who is sort of good.  But it is a Paul Cleave novel, so you know the line between the two is like ink in water, and the characters keep developing as you read.  But there are some things you can hang onto – Noah loves his three-legged cat Legolas, and he did make that promise to a seven-year-old girl, a promise he intends to keep regardless at what messes he finds himself in.

The writing is smooth, a little humorous to counter the violence, and very suspenseful.  I read it in one go as I just had to know what was going on.  There are clues throughout, and I did feel smug guessing one plot twist – but was totally unprepared for the main reveal!  And as with many good thrillers, you end up knowing more about how sick humans can be in the real world than you ever really wanted to.  “What kind of world is it where shitty things happen to good people? … The only one we have.”  Another great thriller from Paul Cleave.

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