The French Perfumer by Amanda Hampson – 2017

French PerfumerIris is 35 and living in London in 1956, her only company her father, her cat and a workmate, Colleen.  She does have a brother, but their relationship is tainted by the brother’s ambitious wife.  When her father and cat both die, Iris takes Colleen’s advice and ditches her long-standing Civil Service job and heads off to take up a mysterious secretarial position in the South of France.  Not speaking much French and never having been abroad, Iris is very much at sea.  The large house she arrives at is being run as a guest house for rich eccentrics – but the focus of her work is Hammond Brooke, the brother of her hostess – who is a recluse living in the guest cottage on the grounds.  The novel is a light easy read and has all the requirements for a simple tale of an innocent abroad finding romance despite the artifice of the high society she gets caught up in – it even has quaint drawings within the text.  But there are many twists along the way, and this is a darker story than you first think – with the legacy of the war casting a shadow over the characters.  I was enjoying the read but then was a bit disappointed to find out the bulk of Hammond’s story as related to Iris by another character.  But then we find out a large part of Iris’ story in a separate narrative, and with another twist I finally understood the structure and frame of the book.  It is quite lovely – although dealing with sad things – and has a very nice resolution.

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The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey – 2016

Wish childThe Wish Child is a beautifully written tale of terrible things.  It tells the story of two children living in Germany from the height of Hitler’s power to his demise and beyond.  Erich lives on a farm near Leipzig, he listens to the buzzing of the bees and has the strange feeling that within him is a different person, and he experiences strange glimpsed memories.  Sieglinde lives in Berlin with her siblings and her obsessive mother, and her father who makes a living finely excising dangerous words from documents.  As the lives of the two children deteriorate and finally intersect, we see the ways people adjust to worsening conditions, hanging on to hope, trying not to face reality, knowing and not knowing what is happening around them.  Many of the horrors of the story are just alluded to, knowledge of the Nazi regime giving the reader the ability to fill in the gaps, but others are presented to us unflinchingly.  The narrator of the story is enigmatic, but totally satisfying when revealed at the end.  The Wish Child is one of those books that make you hope that by documenting past evils they will go some way to making sure such things will never happen again – while reminding you that unfortunately they probably will.  A highly recommended read.

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Marlborough Man by Alan Carter – 2017

Marlborough ManWhat makes a great thriller great is nerve-wracking plotting, rich atmospheric settings, and complex characters – Marlborough Man has the lot – and it treats the ‘Top of the South’ as Paul Cleave has been treating Christchurch for years – describing a heightened scuzzy substrate that tourists, and many residents, will never glimpse: “In rural New Zealand, calling police out at the sound of shots fired is like calling them out for the sound of cows mooing”.  Nick Chester, a Geordie cop, has been relocated to the Wakamarina Valley, near Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds, after an undercover job back home went South.  Chester makes fun of the Zild accent, double takes at the literary references to The Hobbit, and settles in to continue his class-based grudges, and to get to know Latifa Rapata, his new partner.  Rapata is 24 and is often the voice of reason; for Chester is a rebel; happy to toe the line when his duties only stretch to bad drivers and petty theft, but when it emerges there is a sexual predator preying on young boys in the area he just wants “… to catch the prick who’s been murdering the kids” – and he starts playing by his own rules.  He builds a case with the help of Rapata and her whanau.  And his interest is galvanized when he starts suspecting that the press-named “Pied Piper” may be one of the local arrogant-ocracy – those people that “… never get looked at …” – and to make matters worse one of them starts a logging operation in the valley that is ruining his view!  In Marlborough Man Carter breaks all the rules about not hurting animals, and he pulls no punches in showing the many sides of Chester – who makes some very bad choices.  Chester’s shaky marriage and his concern for their special needs son back-drop the story, as does the fact that comeuppance for the botched undercover job back in Geordie-land is stalking “the feral hills of the Wakamarina”.  The wild weather and visual beauty of the valley give you a sense of place in sand-fly-filled spades, and the mud and slips from the frequent downpours nicely echo Chester’s roller coaster ride.  A trip back to the old country triggers a new look at the Wakamarina, and Chester’s reentry into “A magic roundabout of people who won’t let go.”  It also gives Vanessa, Chester’s wife, a chance to become a more interesting character, and another foil to Chester’s excitability.  The crime plotting keeps you guessing the whole way, and the cliff hanger ending comforts me that there will be more.  Read this book!

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Lewisville by Alexandra Tidswell – 2016

LewisvilleLewisville follows the life of Martha Masters / Grimm / Lewis from the hard turnip fields of 1815 Warwickshire to a grand house in 1871 Wellington, NZ.  It documents the successes, the lies, the mistakes and the omissions of Martha and those around her as they try to carve out a better life for themselves and their families.  Martha is not a good woman, she has some good intentions, but in many ways she is reprehensible.  But the terrible things she does are those that people have done over and over again as they travel away from home in search of a better life.  Her story is about choices made, and how the lives of the members of one family play out in England, Tasmania, Victoria and New Zealand.  But it is also a story of human dispersal, a behaviour that has impacted on New Zealand from the earliest times when the canoes arrived from Hawaiki.  Martha arrives in New Zealand during the disorganised time of the New Zealand Company, but waves of migration continue, through my parents arriving in the 1960s to make a better life, to the ongoing arrivals of migrants and refugees hoping for the same.  Lewisville is based on the true story of Tidswell’s family and is told in strict chronological order, it occasionally wanes a bit but for the most part keeps you engaged in the tangled tale of one family through time.  It shows how even those who have decided to escape repeat patterns from the past, how human resilience often overcomes the direst of circumstances, and that when you travel to divest yourself of decisions made, they often hop on board and stay with you throughout your journey.  Tidswell has pieced together the true fragments of her family’s story and woven in plausible fictional motives and actions to present a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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The Revelations of Carey Ravine by Debra Daley – 2016

Revelations of Carey RavineA woman’s rise from dupedom in the 1770s.  Carey Ravine is a smart and capable woman who has escaped her dismal teenage years by entering the social swirl, cons, and ambitions of her husband, Oliver Nash.  Carey is not giving herself too much time to reflect on her life, or the puzzle of her father who has been missing in India for ten years. But a series of discoveries tantalises her, and draws her into trying to solve a mystery concerning strange poisonings, blue lights, and her place of fascination: India.  As she becomes aware of the potential impact of what is lying at the heart of the mystery, and the possible connection to her father – she finds she is not really satisfied with the frippery and dubious politics around which her life is revolving.  And as she becomes aware of cover-ups and conspiracies she, and the reader, start to suspect those around her might not quite be who she took them for.  The setting and language (I really must use bloviate more often) are rich, and Carey’s character admirable.  The book has historical detail, an intriguing plot, the evil East India Company, romance, and a strong female lead – a delight.

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Stray by James Lang – 2016

StrayStray is a glimpse into the wasteland created by drug culture from a south of the border perspective.   “The dark secret of every American suburb is that every blunt, joint or bowl, line or pill, every Charlie-fed frat party, cranking rave or huddled knot of office stoners is washed in Mexican blood” – and in Stray the effect of the cartels and corruption on a small Yucatan fishing village isn’t unveiled by a gung-ho ex-marine or a naïve but true blue FDA agent – but by Tom Mullinger, a 20 something New Zealander fleeing his own drug based disaster back home.  When things go very very wrong in Auckland, Tom heads for the Yucatan – for a small seaside village recommended by his mate Dog as a haven, and far from the violence of the cartels.  But Tom arrives in Ria Lagartos at the same time as three headless corpses; in the year since Dog’s stay, the capture of El Chapo and the unravelling of his Sinaloa drug cartel have allowed other cartels to make deals and spread – and the Los Zetas cartel now has a hold on Ria Lagartos.  And along with the cartel, government corruption and a local armed citizens’ militia complete the trifecta of terror for the local community.  Tom gets involved with a local environmental protection group, in large part due to his fascination with Lorena, a researcher who has moved to Ria Lagartos to work on her thesis, and who has taken the cause of the local Maya fishermen as her own.  In her sights is Miguel Sabas, the local rich guy whose short-term profit monopoly on the local industry is proving disastrous for the environment as well as for the locals.  As the intimidation of the cartel increases, their narcomensaje threatening messages going up around town and their blatant disregard of the local law enforcement being made apparent, it becomes increasingly difficult to work out who is loyal to whom.  And Tom gets totally embroiled when he agrees to help Lorena get evidence of Sabas’ illegal activities.  There are some terrifically tense moments and lots of action.  But what I loved most about this book was the feel of Mexico; you can smell it and taste it as Lang describes the village and the jungle, and the slow flying pelicans cruising over the Mayan ‘endless apocalypse’.  At times the historical narrative gets a little adrift of the story, and almost all of the characters are extremely insightful and erudite, but sections such as Lorena relating the story of her forebears, are totally engrossing.  Tom’s story in Ria Lagartos is interspersed with the events in New Zealand that led up to his flight from Auckland, depicting a New Zealand drug sub-culture where the authorities are similarly powerless: “People are gonna do what people are gonna do”.  Tom didn’t want to be a tourist, he was “an outsider who likes the company of others” and wanted to find a place just to exist.  But Stray is a great example of character arc!  I really enjoyed this book.

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A Surfeit of Sunsets by Dulcie Castree – 2016

surfeit of sunsetsWhat an absolute treat!  Dulcie Castree wrote this novel in 1986 but its publication fell through.  Her grandson digitised the manuscript in 2015 to make some print copies for family members, and then organised a limited published run, which took off like a rocket.  In 2016 it was picked up by Mākaro Press.  The novel is a beautifully poetic depiction of a Kapiti Coast town, its inhabitants and its short-term visitors.  It is a town of sadness and regret, of happy routine, of people fleeing nearby Wellington, and of poetry.  May, a child in her 40s; Shirley, a newcomer fleeing personal loss; and Poesy, a widow who came “seeking solitude but giving out her phone number” are just some of the characters who become involved in this snapshot of time, taking in the height of a summer and a blustery winter.  Anyone from Wellington and environs will recognise the locations, the snobbery, the depiction of New Zealanders as isolated individuals trying to connect, and the sunsets.  Much of the prose is bordering on interior monologue, the long lists of free associations that events, emotions or comments trigger: “Felicity would have accepted that as she did the death of Hessoos on a foreign beach fighting for a better world. Lest we forget. Lest we forget. Repetition makes it easier, bearable. They grow not old. It’s old that is ordinary; the going down of a sun after too long a day. Sentimental but I don’t care. Untimely death needs trappings. It should be ennobled by sacrifice for a brother, a country. Greater love hath no man, pro patria mori. It helps, it helps. There’s more wreaths for one thing, and monument and TV specials.”  The shape of the novel is lovely, the forbearing of tragedy nicely handled, and the characters are such that you are always second guessing just what type of people they are – all except May of course, who is as transparent as the idealised lives for which all the characters yearn.

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