Obsession by Elspeth Sandys – 2017

ObsessionWhy do people become obsessed with places, things or other people?  What has evolved in us that enables us to continue to desire unrequited relationships, when to do so brings great suffering to ourselves?  And what hyperactive flourish of male arrogance through the ages has ended up with the cruelty men are capable of towards women?

Obsession is a tale framed in the ‘found manuscript’ format.  The manuscript is that of a famous New Zealand poet, Andrew Petrovich, who has died in tragic and obscure circumstances.  The ‘publication’ of the manuscript – a memoir – may shed light on his mysterious death.

Petrovich is haunted by his tragic youth.  His wife left him to find herself in India, leaving him to raise their daughter.  And he becomes obsessed with a woman, Tessa. Tessa is the latest in a series of wives collected by Petrovich’s friend, a famous author and serial monogamist / womaniser, Dick. Dick is obsessed with himself, and his island home, a ferry ride from Auckland.  Tessa is also a gifted author, who is obsessed with Dick, who stifles and thwarts her career with his cruelty.  Their stories are told in a non-linear way, through the social upheavals of New Zealand in the 80s and 90s – from idealistic hopefulness through to New Zealand being somewhere to move to for “The chance not just to make a better life … but to make a killing.”

Sandys’ prose is luminous.  And given the selfish and paternalistic ‘male artist’ described, it is strangely non-judgemental.  The story is told from a male point of view; the evidence is just there for the reader to note the terrible price family and friends must pay for the existence of ‘great male art’. And as Petrovich contemplates: “when I think of the great women writers … it seems no one was asked to pay a price at all.”  The self-obsessed Dick is portrayed with evidence of forgiveness: “If our bodies are composed of ninety percent water, it is perhaps not fanciful to describe Dick’s psyche as composed of ninety percent fear”.

I just loved this book, with its scraps of poetry, its unpredictably predictable characters, and its insightful mentions of New Zealand’s emerging culture.  It is about people who feel they’ve “been given the wrong life”, who seem incapable of making the right decisions, even after long and thoughtful consideration.  And when you think of it, that is probably close to a definition of being human.  Through his manuscript, we get to know Petrovich, and why he is unsure of his worth and his judgement:

Hope, Byron complains in a letter to a friend, is nothing but the paint on the face of Existence; the least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hollow-cheeked harlot we have got hold of.

I ought to have those words engraved on my forehead.”

Obsession is a wonderful read.

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The Only Secret Left to Keep by Katherine Hayton – 2017

This is the third – and hopefully not last – in the fabulous Detective Ngaire Blakes series.  And, as with The three deaths of Magdalene Lynton, Blakes is onlysecretlefttokeepon a cold case.  A skeleton is discovered by an idiot looting houses that have been evacuated due to the hills of Christchurch being ablaze.  The skeleton is in a shallow grave, and from a protest badge close to the remains, appears to date from the time of the 1981 Springbok Tour.  An autopsy finds evidence that the young man was killed by a Police baton.  Added to this, when the deceased is identified it looks like the investigation into his death was virtually non-existent.  So, was this a cover up of Police brutality?  As Blakes investigates, she discovers divisions between families, the racism that is still alive and well in our society, and the sad and complex lives of those whose lives don’t fit “the norm”, like the victim: “A prince of oddities in a community where being the same is a commodity”.  Sam, the victim, had a girlfriend, Shannon, who has served 15 years for brutally killing two teen-aged boys.  Shannon’s father is wracked with guilt over something.  Down in Dunedin a Christian counsellor is helping men stay true to the lifestyle God intended for them.  How does this all fit together? – wonderfully.  The only secret left to keep is a cleverly plotted and sad satisfying mystery, one you have to think your way through to put all the pieces together.  And the unravelling reveals more of Blakes, her traumatic history, and her determination to face her demons.  You could read this as a stand-alone, but I am glad I read the series from the beginning.


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Tell Me a Lie by C. J. Carver – 2017

tell me a lieAfter reading Carver’s Spare me the truth, I was really looking forward to the second in her Dan Forrester series.  And for brilliant plotting and a full on adrenalin read, Tell me a lie didn’t disappoint.  There is one coincidence the size of Russia in the plot, one which I found myself trying to rationalise throughout most of the novel.  But that aside, it is a great yarn, and the interesting characters from the first installment are all back.  Dan Forrester is still suffering from his patchy amnesia, but he now knows he was a spy, and has remembered some of his craft.  He is working for a ‘global political analyst specialist service’, and travels to Russia when a previous espionage contact says they have vital information, but will only speak with him.  Meanwhile, the wonderful synesthetic PC Lucy Davies is also back and as irrepressible as ever, as is her slavishly devoted soon to be future boss DI Faris MacDonald.  Lucy gets called into what appears to be a cut and dried case of familicide – but is not so sure the prime suspect is guilty.  Lucy starts to put a few random cases together, and that suggests a much bigger disaster is unfolding.  Meanwhile we get to learn more about Dan’s wife Jenny, their young daughter, Aimee, and Poppy the RSPCA re-homed Rottweiler.  All the above become embroiled in a conspiracy that goes back to the horrors of Stalinist Russia, and which has spread across the globe.  It involves sadistic Russian oligarchs, beautiful women trying to do the right thing, feisty women trying to save their own lives and the lives of others, and lots and lots of danger.  And if you buy into the logic of the conspiracy, there are intriguing future possibilities which emerge at the end of the novel.  So roll on number 3 in the series!

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Jarulan by the River by Lily Woodhouse – 2017

Jarulan is a crumbling mansion on a sprawling property in rural New South Wales, and jarulan-by-the-riverJarulan is a sprawling saga sporadically following the Jarulan residents from before the First World War to the present.  Much of the physical character of the mansion house and surrounds is the legacy of the American, Min Fenchurch, already deceased at the opening of the novel. Min met Matthew Fenchurch, the heir to Jarulan, when they were both on an OE in France. Min suffered from being confined in remote Jarulan, to the point of bouts of madness, and she imported large marble statutory of Greek and Roman gods and Catholic saints for the house and gardens – all of which observe the waxing and waning of the generations.

Matthew and Min had four children: Eddie, a musician and a party lad, was doted on and indulged by Min, and eventually sent away from the property after her death.  The other son, Llew, was Matthew’s favourite, an innovator of the station and the obvious heir of Jarulan. One daughter, Jean, married low and is living a hard life in Queensland, the other, Louisa, has married high and is a lady from Sydney.

The novel opens with Matthew in despair after having been informed of Llew’s death on the Western Front.  He is having a monument built in Llew’s honour, and in his grief, he succumbs to the wiles of a young ‘black Irish’ servant, Evie Tyrell.  When his two daughters and their young children arrive at the station for the unveiling of the monument, Louisa is accompanied by a nanny and a maid, Rufina. Rufina is a German who has fallen to servant status due to the anti-German sentiments and policies arising from the war, and Matthew is drawn to the beautiful young woman, much to the fury of Evie Tyrell.  After a time jump in the novel, Rufina travels to New Zealand to find the errant son Eddie, and Eddie’s son Irving ends up at Jarulan, and in turn becomes of predatory interest to the widowed Rufina.

Jarulan also hosts ghostly characters, not only the dead appearing in memory, but also a haunting or rather “More a warning than a haunting”, items being found in places before they have been put there, strange noises and fleeting shadows being seen.  The ghosts are seen, heard and felt and are not only remnants of those who once lived in the house, but some are brought there from outside, possibly carried in the minds of those arriving, possibly attracted by the emotional legacy of Min Fenchurch.

Jarulan has interesting characters, many of them not very nice, Matthew and then Rufina have a passion for taxidermy and the shooting of anything they admire; when we finally get to meet the golden Eddy, he is a drunk living on the periphery of marae life in Rotorua; Evie abandons her daughter, Helena, to be raised by the hated Rufina and Nan, the Jarulan housekeeper.  The settings are as interesting and looming as the characters: snakes are felt to slither everywhere, the endless rooms of the dilapidated and haunted mansion are swarming with insects and mould, birds are always raucous, the weather is extreme and corrosive.

It is no secret that Lily Woodhouse is Stephanie Johnson, she was outed in an article in The Press shortly after the book was released “It was almost like she wanted to be found” wrote David Herkt.  Johnson wrote under a pseudonym as it was her first work of “commercial fiction”, her first go at a “bodice-ripper”.  But Jarulan isn’t a bodice ripper, it isn’t erotic.  It is a family saga and is quite gothic: mad women in locked rooms, ghosts, decay.

Much of Jarulan is an engrossing read, but the problem I had with it was its lack of dramatic punch – when we meet the current Fenchurch generation we feel there is nothing significant about their existence, no monumental secret or event in the past triggering their being.  The prime motivation of all the characters is ‘making do’ – decisions and liaisons are for the most part pragmatic.  The most passionate relationships are the unseen (and possibly unrequited) longing that the housekeeper Nan felt for Min, and the love of Eddie for his first wife, who has passed away before we get to New Zealand.  As I finished the novel I was left with a feeling of petering out rather than a satisfied piecing together of past events and future possibilities.  And I didn’t understand the supernatural aspects of the story, literally didn’t understand what sort of emanations they were, nor their part in the narrative.  Jarulan is certainly worth a read, there is much to love about it, but I found it ultimately unsatisfying.




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The Suicide Club by Sarah Quigley – 2017

the suicide clubThree young people, one mistakenly named, two self-named, have all experienced childhood trauma.  As a result they feel abandoned, are haunted by horrific memories, or experience hyper-sensitivity due to early injuries.  All three are extremely gifted: either with beauty, with inventiveness, or with imagination.  All suffer from depression and tend towards self-harm, from milder forms of self-abuse through to suicide.

Bright is a successful author, Lace, a stand-up comedian so beautiful that even inanimate objects lean towards her, and Gibby is a brilliant inventor (who has invented things we all use daily) but is still in his first job; delivering newspapers in the inner city.  The city is imaginary –  un-named and in the north of England.  All three young people end up participating in a voluntary therapeutic course – when they attend it is held in Bavaria, but it pops up in different places and is always called The Palace.

Despite its title and the claim on the back cover that it “examines the last taboo in our society”, I don’t think The Suicide Club deals with youth suicide at all.  It certainly describes depression, and in a very moving way.  But the three young people are ethereal and their experiences so extreme – and that, along with the frequent charming meanderings into meta-fiction, takes this book away from a serious discussion of the appalling incidence and tragedy of youth suicide, towards a much lighter fanciful read.

The writing is magical and captivating:

Halfway down the banker’s building, as she is scrutinising the city with the sharpened perception of the recently fucked, she gives a start.  Far away, outlined against a huge glowing billboard, she sees a tiny body falling.  Somersaulting, twisting in slow motion so that, for a moment, the body and the lift she’s in seem to be descending at the same speed. Through heavy air, separated by some distance, they swim downwards in parallel lines, and their connection is only broken when other buildings come between them.

And the writing is also quite timeless: we are in the age of the Internet and cell-phones, but Bright, Lace and Gibby quote Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and lug books and notebooks around.  The ‘at a distance’ writing, inviting the reader to note aspects of the narrative, veers off into farce occasionally, emphasising clumsiness and chaos, and at one point goes into full blown slapstick – which I found quite jarring.

The story moves from the traumatised trio and their coping (or not) mechanisms, into a love triangle once they meet, re-meet, at The Palace.  I thought I was going to love this novel when I was first reading it, but ended up puzzled by it.  I really appreciated much of the beautiful writing, but was left with a feeling that the initial trajectory of the novel had gone seriously off course.  Have a read and see what you think.

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The Sound of Her Voice by Nathan Blackwell – 2017

the sound of her voiceMatt Buchanan has worked on a series of horrific crimes spanning decades in an Auckland where it is always raining, and years on he is still haunted by his earliest case, the still unsolved disappearance of a school girl, Samantha.  He is raising a teenaged girl of his own, after the death of his wife in a car crash, but still battles on while witnessing the worst abuse and violence that people are capable of.  He does leave the force a couple of times when things get too bad – but he is drawn back when further atrocities occur and he becomes increasingly convinced that the string of abductions, sexual abuse and murder cases, and unidentified bodies are all linked.

Nathan Blackwell is an ex-cop and The sound of her voice is a police procedural, and when I saw it started with a glossary of Police jargon my heart sank – expecting the details of the ‘job’ to swamp the storyline.  But this book is excellently plotted and totally riveting, the technicalities of the police work are seamlessly woven into the storytelling – the glossary is actually very useful!  The only thing I found annoying in the writing was in the earlier parts of the book, where Buchanan has a total lack of imagination when it comes to swearing – both in his first-person narrative and in his dialogue, leading to repetitiveness.  But this was a passing annoyance and quite overshadowed by the sensitivity of the scenes where Buchanan was dealing with the victims: a colleague dying in his arms, witnessing an autopsy, looking at the body of a young girl partially buried in a sand dune, even watching tapes of horrific abuse.  The descriptions are genuinely moving and totally explain Buchanan’s commitment to achieving justice for the victims. And when justice might not be guaranteed within the system, he might just have to consider his options.

Buchanan is a flawed hero – at one point Blackwell has him stumbling along beside a stream with just a compass to guide him – a lovely reference to his possibly losing his moral way.  The sound of her voice is an excellent piece of hardboiled fiction that seamlessly progresses to noir.


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Aukati by Michalia Arathimos – 2017

Aukati-Final-frontWhat I loved about this book was its uncompromising life-like messiness; things don’t go as planned, there are long periods in the doldrums, sex is sometimes not that great, something happens and suddenly one of the characters finds himself in a world he doesn’t understand: “he’d fallen out of the kind of story he knew and into a new one entirely”.

Regardless of the specifics of this book, we can all relate to its underlying themes of hopelessness and confusion in turbulent times, and in the face of bland authority.  It might even seem dystopic at times, until one recalls the 2007 police raids carried out under the Terrorism Suppression Act, or the fact that our Deputy Prime Minister recently said some New Zealanders have fewer human rights than others.

Autaki means border or boundary – and the story is that of protest against the forced alienation of tribal land, and the subsequent abuse of that land.  A group of protesters travels to a Māori community to help the fight against a fracking operation.  The operation is on ancestral land that was taken from the tribe long ago – the tribe is already disinherited – but the current land use is endangering the water, land and crops of the community, and the stability of the whole region.  The boundary of the title is geographic, but also cultural, gender, class …

The protesters are a jumbled lot – some very experienced, some with Police records, some new to protest, some suspected of being undercover Police, and all totally conflicted about not only the scope of the protest (environmental, historical?) but also about the nature and extent of the protest (legal, direct action?).

Woven between the endless meetings and re-drawings of plans are the stories of what becomes a temporary community.  The underpinning story for the newcomers is revolution; there are open relationships, railing at current injustices, wanting to blow stuff up, wanting to save the world.  The story for the inhabitants is one of a continuation of the degradation of their land, the annoyance at non-Māori speaking on their behalf but them having to push non-Māori in front of the media so their concerns are not seen as ‘just’ indigenous, the fear of doing anything that will once again bring reprisals that will traumatise their children, make further inroads into their lives, possibly even kill them.

The book is framed around two main characters.  Isaiah is part Māori and returning to his home marae – he finds there are expectations of his role there, which he struggles with, as he has grown up in the city and doesn’t speak Te Reo.  Haunted by the lack of knowledge of his own past, and the fate of his father, Isaiah is transformed through the novel.  Alexia is a law student about to sit her bar exams, she is fleeing from her Greek family’s expectations of her moving in with her grandmother after the death of her grandad.  She looks a little bit Māori and is forced to sing a waiata when the outsiders are welcomed onto the marae – Pokarekare ana is the only one she knows.  She is an outsider who is gradually accepted, and who realises how much she has changed when late in the novel she observes her fellow protesters outside a court:

“… with their tino rangatiratanga placards, and the activists with their patches, with Polly, Te Kahurangi, Matiu and Rangi, for whom the city was nothing and their poisoned corner of land everything.  During her placement she would have studied them curiously, possibly taking notes on behalf of a senior lawyer … She would have mentioned them in passing to her friends: the case that gripped the nation, etc.  But they would have remained cut-outs.”

Alexia also experiences synaesthesia – in her case seeing music as colours.  The ebbing and flowing of her synaesthetic experiences run almost like a barometer through the novel – echoing the intensity of Alexis’ feeling and the changes to the land.  The colours sometimes emerge for her from the sounds of the bush, linking her to the stories of the local patupaiarehe, fairy-like beings who can protect you as well as lead you astray.  So fitting, as the hopelessness and confusion of the novel stems in large part from uncertainty around whom the characters can trust, or what they can have faith in.  A challenging read but I loved it.

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