QuByte by Cat Connor – 2018

Hand sanitizer anyone?  You will want some after reading the latest in Cat QubyteConnor’s Byte series, QuByte, which deals with biological terror threats.

Special Agent Ellie Iverson (nee Conway) from Delta A, an elite force within the FBI, gets involved in disparate cases – the links between which are a bit of a puzzle: Her FBI Director Cait O’Hare has been killed, as have heads of various intelligence agencies, and the Trump administration’s isolationism makes working with overseas colleagues a bit tricky.  And then there’s the kidnapped monkey, and the hit and run of the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who had managed to sneak out a file hidden in a song that talked about the theft of a mysterious infectious agent, and the proof is in the contaminated bottled water that has been distributed to high-end hotels.

Delta A is a close-knit team, extremely professional, prone to cutesy nicknames, and with an ESP link that could be the result of long-term familiarity, or not … Ellie has a form of lexical synaesthesia, where she doesn’t taste words but sees them floating, crawling, slinking … and she is also in the habit of seeing yellow fluffy ducks and visualising metaphors.  Oh, and her most useful brain-storming partner is an imaginary friend.  We see the world through her brain.

The plot is driven, and all the Delta A team, including Argo the trauma dog, end up at O’Hare’s ranch house, surrounded by an armed biker gang, which is just par for the course for Ellie, except this time her husband and infant twin daughters are there.  QuByte is about a big conspiracy and the dangers of “… the ‘alternative facts’ brigade’s propaganda machine”, and there is a more personal kind of dread: “How well do we ever know someone?”, and the toll of ongoing harassment “… living with constant harassment isn’t one thing.  It’s bullying. It’s undermining. It is disbelief wrapped in pain.”

Connor quite optimistically misses New Zealand off the list of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance countries that are in line for the planned biological attacks, as it’s “not a strategic country for terrorists” due to its “isolation and small population”.  And there is an idealistic plea for people to: “Not just listen but hear what’s said.  And then act on the knowledge instead of pretending it’s not our problem as humans inhabiting the earth with other humans.”

Ellie has a knack (with some spooky help) of solving riddles and codes, the biggest riddle is whether the death of her friend and boss, Cait, is connected to the other killings, and whether all of the killings are connected to the clear and present danger of the biological threat.  And QuByte has a curious ending, where at least one mystery is solved with a very mundane solution but the others? … “Pollyanna has left the building” and we might need to wait for the next Byte to fully understand the mystery.  An exciting and intriguing read.


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Cassie Clark: Outlaw by Brian Falkner – 2018

Cassie ClarkCassie Clark is an eighteen-year-old university literature student with a depressed mother, a prickly younger sister, a great friend called Jackson from Jackson, Mississippi, and a bodyguard.  She is still recovering in hospital from being knocked off her bike when Cam, the bodyguard, tells her that her Speaker of the House of Representatives father has gone missing.

Cassie refuses to believe the reports that her father’s disappearance is connected to an infidelity, and she and Cam do a bit of investigating.  But when Ethan Arbuckle, the husband of the journalist her father is supposed to have had an affair with who has also disappeared, sneaks her a note: trust no one, both Cassie and the reader start double guessing everyone’s motives.

Cassie enlists her mate Jackson, and his friend who is a conspiracy theorist and computer geek, to help her work out what story Janice Arbuckle might have been working on that made her a target.  And she unearths a conspiracy theory of massive proportions, centred on agents so powerful they seem unassailable.

Cassie is loyal to her mother, despite her depression making her quite unpleasant, and to her sister whose vindictiveness is bottomless.  But she inadvertently puts them, and her friends, in great peril, as she is determined to get to the bottom of the plot, which doesn’t end with her father, but reaches up to the highest echelons of U.S. Politics.

“I got brains. I got the ability to figure stuff out, to solve problems.”  And Cassie does, without Cam, without Jackson, she battles on – and it comes in handy that she has done gymnastics and Kendo training!  Cassie Clark: outlaw is full-on action; dams and bridges blowing up, forests set alight, snipers shooting through windows … yet Cassie still finds moments to ponder the beauty of the Joshua tree desert in the starlight, and to have regrets she didn’t recognise the writing talent of her sister, or the loneliness of her mother.

Despite the outlandish plot and daring actions of Cassie, the reader is drawn along, even Cassie is shocked at the pace: “I can’t believe that just a few weeks ago I was worrying about my end-of-year exams and my weight.”  And she negotiates some pretty hairy situations, including having to make a snap decision which of two extremely important people to save.

Cassie Clark: outlaw is a YA novel, the language is quaintly softened (although it doesn’t avoid violence or death), and Cassie has a bit of a crush on Cam, but it would suit anyone of any age who likes a good adventure/thriller.  And there is a big hint that there will be more Cassie Clark adventures to come.


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Wedlock by Denis Wright – 2018  

WedlockLucy has a mixed life: She is more-or-less the only capable adult (at age 15) in her family, living with her aging-rocker Dad and ex-prize-fighter Grandfather, who is living with Parkinson’s. She has some mates and manages to negotiate the bullies and avoid the lecherous older boys and teachers.  But one day her life takes a massive veer off course, when she is abducted into a cult.

Wedlock is the story of how Lucy survives the horrible experience of being abducted and held as “The Maiden”, the chosen one who will marry the cult-leader Isaiah and breed a child who will save the world.  At the beginning, that sounds as whacky to Lucy as it does to the reader, but slowly things change, and her anger gets larger and larger amounts of wanting to submit mixed in, until it is the outside world that doesn’t make any sense, and it is in the cult where she feels safe.

Lucy is an interesting character, since her mother’s death five years prior, she has been the backbone of her family, and when she occasionally gets away to stay with an Aunt, she enjoys not feeling that responsibility, but she also feels stifled.  She is a very sensible 15-year-old, normally eschewing alcohol; deciding to sacrifice her own position to make peace with another girl who wants her role in the school play.  She lives in a world where she is often the receiver of unwanted male attention; this not only makes her wary of men, it also makes her the source of jealousy for her peers.

Until the abduction, Lucy’s biggest concerns are whether her boy friend wants to move to being a boyfriend, whether her Grandfather can keep out of trouble and take his medication, whether her father and his cronies can get their band together in time for a revival tour, and whether she can get on with her Dad’s new partner.  So, she is well used to tricky situations, and initially Lucy does everything she can think of to escape.

Lucy’s gradual transition to semi-submissive is well done – although there are occasions when you really do think she would have bolted for it, Stockholm Syndrome notwithstanding.  The moment in the book when something happens to allow her to see the cult leader and one of his followers for the nutters they are is quite extreme, and a little bit unbelievable, as is the resolution of her predicament.  But these criticisms aside, Wedlock is a good read, and does raise some interesting points about what a sane and safe society would look like; it’s not just in cults where men feel they are God’s gift!


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The Vanishing Act by Jen Shieff – 2018

Vanishing ActArt teacher Rosemary Cawley has been exiled to Auckland, New Zealand, due to her upper-class British family not coping with her accidentally-discovered erotic poetry; it is the 1960s – the Vietnam War, toothpick-skewered cheese and gherkins, an almost Victorian-era sex culture … and Rosemary gets close to one of her Elam colleagues, Judith Curran, who along with her “best boyfriend” Istvan Ziegler, isn’t above a bit of amateur sleuthing.  But when someone is murdered and others go missing, things get a bit out of hand, and just about everyone becomes a suspect, as “greed is such a monstrous thing.”

The vanishing act is a glorious romp, full of action and interesting characters and set in a complex sub-culture of sex-workers and gay women.  This lens allows Shieff to give her characters freedom to be themselves, while also referring to their marginalisation: Rita Saunders, a brothel owner, is side-lined at the funeral of her partner of eight years, and she must remain anonymous when making charitable donations; her income being illegal.

The novel opens with Istvan finding the body of a local G.P., George Abercrombie.  George has been disgraced as a gynaecologist, but mate-ly given a second chance.  He was friends with the Elam registrar, Alistair Dunstan, and they had a permanent weekly outing to a “car club”, and both were party to damaging information on the other: “Their friendship was mutually beneficial in a dark and dirty kind of way”.  The cast of characters is rich: George’s wife Virginia loathed him; Alistair is in an odd Turner-esque relationship with his housekeeper, Mollie McLeod, whose neglected but obedient son, Bobby lives with her ex-Madam, Bee Digby, Rita’s nemesis.  Bee and Bobby just happen to be neighbours of newly arrived Rosemary.  And Istvan works as a jack-of-all-trades for Rita.  The characters soon get entwined, especially when Rosemary and Judith divulge secrets from their respective pasts.

Shieff is light-handed with the research, but drops in enough styles, tunes, cuisine, and odd name for us to recognise 1960’s New Zealand.  Even the attitude of the cops is right, Inspector Allan Maynard “didn’t see the point of enforcing a law that did no harm”, and he models himself on Eliot Ness (the Robert Stack version).  The novel turns into a police procedural, even if the police are a little slack in their techniques – but this allows Istvan to keep finding clues, even if he is hoping they implicate rather than clear Rosemary, as Judith desires.

While set in the 1960s, The vanishing act has more than a touch of the ‘Golden Age of Crime’ about it, and the murder mystery is neatly solved – and yes you can get there first, there are enough clues.  But in a way that is secondary to the description of the contradictions and darkness of society, Rosemary being in one way quite free and independent, but in another being forced into situations and choices, the spectre of suicide looming over gay women, and the outrageous behaviour that men were (are?) allowed to get away with – well sometimes.  The vanishing act is a follow up to Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club, but can be read as a stand-alone.


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Shadows of the Mind by Owen Clough – 2018

Shadows of the mindShadows of the mind is the second book in Clough’s Whispers of the past trilogy.  This installment follows the story of Samuel McInnes (Mack), who was bundled away from New Zealand on the HMS Esk while still unconscious after an affray in Auckland in 1863.  He regains consciousness on board as Lieutenant Samuel Mack, with no memory of who he is or where he is from, with an unidentifiable accent, a head full of peculiar vocabulary and extraordinarily prescient ideas.

In the first part of Whispers of the past a group of blokes on a pig-culling job for DOC in the Tongariro National Park in 2014, walk into a strange mist and emerge in 1863 New Zealand.  One was Mack, another was Bob Kydd, a history student.  Bob got back to the present and is now living in Southland in 2019.  He decides to take time off his teaching job to apply himself to some genealogical research to find out what happened to Mack; a third friend, Shane, who also stayed in the past, managed to get a message to Bob, but he has received nothing from Mack, which is driving him and Mack’s parents and sister to despair.  Bob believes his mate’s personality was so unique that he will be able to see traces of him through history if he looks hard enough.

As with the previous novel, Shadows of the mind is very gung ho.  Lieutenant Mack is nursed on board by a firebrand of a nurse called Bella Wrightson. They fall into the usual man/carer relationship, but with as much of the impetus coming from Bella as Sam, and she applies herself to helping him regain his memories.  This leads to some funny moments, especially with Sam’s colloquialisms.  And some poignant ones, such as when Sam’s iPhone loses power, and he loses all the images of his mates.  Sam doesn’t know how he knows what he knows, or where the odd words keep coming from – he sees a coachman load luggage onto a coach at one point and ‘bungee cords’ pops into his mind.

Meanwhile back in New Zealand and forward in time, Bob starts his online genealogical search.  He taps into online groups and sends out international requests for help.  He uses online newspapers, genealogy databases and Google, but he makes quite slow progress due not only to Bella using a false name in New Zealand but also Sam changing his name to Selkirk when he marries Bella.  There are some clever moments when you see Bob glide over relevant pieces of information when searching, the reader knowing what Bob doesn’t.  Clough has done what he can to make vicarious online searching interesting, but there is only so much you can do, and it seems to take Bob a long time to uncover relevant information.

The bulk of the novel is Sam feeling out of kilter with his environment, presenting lucrative ideas to his father-in-law, innovative ideas to garment manufacturers and security agencies, treating everyone as equals in a very hierarchical society, winning everyone over with his musical ability and instinctively applying his conservation ideals to his work on the family estate of Shadymore in Shrewsbury.  Things go so smoothly for him, and all around him, and this is where the novel lacked a bit of punch for me; there is no conflict or challenge to add tension to the plot.  Sam appears to be able to charm the new elasticated pants off everyone.

Shadows of the mind is charming and has some great characters.  More conflict, and a few more commas, would have been beneficial, but it is fun to read and ends with a hint at what the final installment has to offer – which looks chocker full of conflict!

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Stall Turns by Penelope Haines – 2018

Stall turnsStall turns is the third in the Claire Hardcastle mystery series and starts with Claire and her detective boyfriend Jack Body having a well-earned break.  They are on their way to help with the Labour Day Weekend sheep muster on Jack’s uncle’s remote sheep station in the King Country.  Sounds fun, but what Claire hadn’t envisaged was the dead bodies, the earthquake, the flood, being buried alive, being drugged and left out in the bush to freeze to death or having to pilot a sabotaged plane!

Claire and Jack get a bit lost on the way to Uncle Pat’s and when Jack is trying to find someone for directions, Claire stumbles (literally) on human remains.  They are happy to leave the unfortunate find to the local Police and carry on to the sheep station.  Once there, Pat and his wife Joanne tell them the property they found the body on is a luxury lodge, often a discreet getaway for the rich and famous.  And that some of the staff and guests will be joining them on the muster.

Retakure Lodge is run by a Chinese outfit that caters for Chinese business people as well as international celebrities.  Some of their guests had joined the muster the previous year as well, and that they been “a feisty lot”, arguing all the time.  The novel starts stacking up like an Agatha Christie murder in a stately home, as characters and clues are introduced.  We meet a pair of Chinese brothers, “I wasn’t sure their values aligned with mine” muses Claire.  A Chinese Lodge employee Wu, who appears not to speak English and Phil the Lodge’s farm manager.

The muster is going well until nature intervenes and an earthquake sees Claire save a man’s life and then end up at the Lodge where more characters and interesting photos and bits of information are added.  Over the next days we get more natural disasters, more bodies, more being stranded and more clues as to what crimes may have been committed, and their possible motives.

I really enjoyed the clues and mystery solving of Stall turns, I had enjoyed Claire’s previous outing, Straight and level, however in that novel it is obvious what is going on, there’s no real mystery solving.  But in Straight and level Claire’s character is great, young, capable and confident; in Stall turns we get mystery, but we also get a mixed Claire, a times one with a whiff of Danielle Steel about her, knowing when “There are times it pays to be a girl”, politely putting up with endlessly being called “girlie”, and responsibly handing an olive branch to Jack after an unconscionable rant at her for going for a walk alone, and her later feeling guilty because she had disobeyed him.

We do get to see the ‘real Claire’ in Stall turns, saving lives, being bold, chatting “the magical world of aviation” with Brett the Lodge’s pilot.  And it could have been the stress and alcohol that led to her and Joanne having a giggling fit over the fantasy of George Clooney arriving on the scene!  And when (possibly for plot reasons) she and Joanne are left alone at the Lodge because Pat declares it would be “much better if I don’t have to worry about you two”, it is not surprising that marathon running and high country sheep station living Joanne and inventive and technically savvy (“Aviate, Navigate and Communicate “) Claire make a great thriller section of the novel.

We don’t really get to know the full story behind the murder mystery, or indeed what the final body count was; it wasn’t Jack’s case, and he and Claire just want to get out of there.  But we do find out enough to be satisfied.  And hopefully Claire will have got over her ‘lesser half’ stage by the time the next Claire Hardcastle mystery rolls around.

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Make a Hard Fist by Tina Shaw – 2018

Make a hard fist is an extremely powerful YA novel about the physical abuse of young women.  It is edgy, scary and yet empowering.Make a hard fist

Lizzie Quinn is doing well, well apart from a hiccough in her relationship with a boy she just wanted to be friends with, and he wanted more.  She is doing well at running, loves pizza, has some great mates, and is saving to buy a Volkswagen Beetle off her uncle.  But then she starts to receive weird one-line messages in the mail.  She thinks it might be one of the spurned boy’s silly mates – but she isn’t sure.

Lizzie is confident, funny and feisty, but one day she is attacked while taking a short-cut home through a reserve.  The Police are supportive; Detective Sergeant Rose Wallis is patient trying to get a description of the man, but Lizzie struggles to remember.  Then she finds out there has been another attack, and the other girl hasn’t been as ‘lucky’ as Lizzie.  After the attack Lizzie is a changed person, she is not so quick to joke, her life is monochrome.  She talks to a councillor, but she still feels under threat – and the notes keep arriving.

Eventually Lizzie gets back into her running and decides to do something to help herself and others get some self-defence skills.  A teacher arranges for a young man, Junior, to come and do some training with Lizzie and some of her fellow students.  Not only does the training go well but Lizzie finds herself attracted to Junior.  She is working part-time in the local library to get the money to buy her car and sees Junior there, and they strike up a relationship.  But her stalker has not finished with her …

Make a hard fist is powerfully written; the attacks described will be hard reading for anyone who has been in that situation – as so many of us have.  At least the Police are trying to find her attacker; when it happened to me in the 1970s the first question the Police asked my parents was ‘what was she wearing?’  There are also funny moments in the book, lovely family and friend relationships, and one unexpected show of support for Lizzie that had me in tears.

Make a hard fist is a psychological thriller, even when Lizzie is feeling a bit more normal the reader gets a sense that worse is to come and danger is lurking everywhere.  As Lizzie confesses to Rose Wallace: “It just feels like it’s never going to end.”  The change in Lizzie after the attack is well portrayed, as is the effect it has on her family and friends.  She finds strength and vulnerability in unlikely people. The novel is also a YA love story, sort of.  Lizzie is trying to sort out her feelings and her priorities, both enormous tasks for a teenage girl without the threat of violence or unwanted attention.

Another good aspect of the novel is its recognition of the unfortunate normalisation of violence in our society; Lizzie’s father just wants to ‘beat the living daylights out of’ her attacker, she sees an uncontrollable violent streak in Junior, Junior got his fighting skills out of necessity with the violence in his family, Lizzie realises one of her school mates is interested in the self-defence session because of ongoing abuse at home, you get the feeling Rose Wallace has been attacked at some time in her past, etc. etc.

Make a hard fist is a challenging but important novel.

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