Book Review: Nothing Bad Happens Here, by Nikki Crutchley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_nothing_bad_happens_here.jpgSet in the small Coromandel town of Castle Bay, life for everyone is disrupted when the body of a tourist who went missing several months earlier is found in a shallow grave.

Journalist Miller Hatcher is sent to cover the murder, but is she up to the task? As with most journalists in crime novels, Miller is troubled; she’s trying to get over a broken relationship and the death of her mother, she drinks too much, and she pulls her hair out when stressed.

An out of town detective is brought in to run the investigation, which doesn’t impress the local police sergeant, Kahu Parata. He feels pushed out, and upset at the ghoulish interest the murder has attracted to his town.

The plot of this book feels like a script for one of those crime shows that crosses over into another show’s territory – in this case a mix of Brokenwood Mysteries, 800 Words and Criminal Minds. I found some of it way too far-fetched to believe in a New Zealand setting.

There are several red herrings and Miller – who is staying in a healing retreat run by an aging hippy as the town’s accommodation is booked out – is given an anonymous tip that leads to another death. When one of the fellow retreat guests goes missing, Miller realises the murderer could be still in town.

As an awful lot gets conveniently tied up in the final few chapters, it’s hard to say much about this book without giving the ending away. It was a fast read, but ultimately not a satisfying one. A word of advice too, be careful where you read this book. When a drop of water from my cold drink landed on the page, the ink ran.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Nothing Bad Happens Here
by Nikki Crutchley
Published by Oak House Press
ISBN 9780473404505

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Book Review: Johnson, by Dean Parker

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_johnsonWhen I was at school we were given a book to read for UE English. It was John Mulgan’s Man Alone. Published in 1939 and regarded as a classic of Kiwi Literature it was the story of Johnson, an ex-soldier who escapes the devastation of the Great Depression back in the Home Country by emigrating to New Zealand to start a new life. Arriving first in Auckland, he becomes entangled in the labour and watersider riots that are prevalent at the time. At one of these he is accused of assaulting a policeman and so he flees south to the central North Island to work as a farm hand. Whilst there he has an affair with his boss’s wife. Then there’s the accidental killing of his employer which turns him into a fugitive, on the run across rough hill country. By the novel’s end, he is contemplating leaving the country to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

For us students, we were taught to contemplate how the economic state of the country was juxtaposed with the antihero mythology of the novel. Johnson, with his existential presence, has no close bonds to others and is determined to live by his own means. It’s the birth of the great Kiwi Bloke. The strong silent type who goes bush at the first sign of trouble. He doesn’t vote, he runs away. He’s John Wayne ‘cowboy’ of Aotearoa. A man who answered only to God and himself. You see this archetypical character emerge again and again – most recently in Sam Neil’s portray the cantankerous ‘Hec’ in Taika Waititi’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople – itself, an interpretation of writings of another great bushman, Barry Crump. And there’s plenty more – Roger Donaldson has made a career out of these men – remember Vigil, Sleeping Dogs? Incidentally, the prominence of the novel and the nature of Johnson have led to the term “Man Alone”, which became a description of a particular archetype in New Zealand and Australian fiction. I believe Mulgan actually took the title for his novel from a line in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

Still, what happened after Johnson left for Spain? Playwright Dean Parker attempts to fill us in. Our story begins with the cover, Lois White’s wonderful painting War Makers, rendered as almost ceramic figures, like the famous Lladró – strong, beautiful but ultimately fragile and brittle. Johnson is like one of those figurines. But he’s also a warrior. He fights the bloody battles in Spain, brawls with facists in London at the start of WWII, serves in Greece and along the way meets the cop that pursued him back in New Zealand in the high country. He’s also a guerrilla for a time in Crete, where he comes across an exhausted and deluded Kiwi officer called … Mulgan. It’s almost too much. How can he be part of so much history.

Something calls him back here and upon returning to our shores after the war he takes up his life of hard living. He mixes again with his old crowd and eventually joins the Communist Party. It is now 1951 and New Zealand is gripped by post-war class politics. The embers that will eventually fuel CK Stead’s Smith’s Dream have started warming. It’s the Labour movement versus the Employer and the Industrialists. It’s year of the great Watersider’s Lockout. More history to cram in.

It’s literally one event after the other. At times, it’s almost unbelievable how much living one man can do. But this is apparently typical of Parker’s writing. He enjoys putting his procrastinators right in the middle of a staunch political and historical narrative of class warfare. And there are plenty of regulars drifting in and out of each scene. Like Hillary, a green eyed left-wing lass who seems to pop up everywhere. Especially all over Europe. This all seems just a little too unlikely. I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a challenge but if you suspend your belief and your relish the ways she finds a way finally manages to tame Johnson then you can see this through to the natural conclusion. The Man Alone no longer, as it were. This is not so much in the typical romantic fashion but as a long-term calming interest. How that happens ends up being just a little bit fantastical but don’t let that put you off. Perhaps this is just a comment on the way we all grow and mature. We all have our wildness and as we age, we need security and chose to settle.

It’s always a bit of challenge when a writer of one particular takes on a different genre and platform. As a playwright Parker is familiar with the power of economical, clipped writing, with no additional waffle or floral prose to fill the pages. I appreciated this as it fits almost seamlessly with Mulgan’s original material. I also hope that Parker might one day consider this as a play. It would be a great accompaniment to Mason’s End of The Golden Weather. While that was a positive and nostalgic reflection of mid-century New Zealand, Johnson is more of a darker, proletariat interpretation. Almost like the other side of the coin. But both have a similar style, feel and language.

Okay, so it’s loaded with plenty of coincidences, the cinematic and theatrical implications are large. But best, it does justice and perhaps enhances that original old craggy story of Mulgan’s. It was a little odd going back to a book I was effectively forced to read. I wouldn’t have chosen it back in my school days. Mainly because, despite the potential of the plot, the writing was just too dry and tedious for a 16-year-old. Parker must have realised this and makes sure that his book rockets along. Part of the reason he can get away with smoke and mirrors so convincingly.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Johnson
by Dean Parker
Published bt Steele Roberts Aotearoa
ISBN 9780947493530

Book Review: Salt Picnic, by Patrick Evans

cv_salt_picnicAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Patrick Evans’ Salt Picnic is set in Ibiza in 1956, where young writer Iola has just arrived expecting Roman Holiday-esque adventure, naïve to the political realities of Francoist Spain. The novel’s divided into four parts: Iola arrives in Ibiza and makes observations, Iola meets an excitable American photographer, Iola meets a prim English doctor, and Iola goes with the doctor to a nearby salt island for the titular picnic. Spare-plotted and with few English speaking characters, it’s a difficult book to classify; we could maybe think of it as an experiment in writing an international political thriller with the strictly personal stakes of the bildungsroman and the densely descriptive, self-consciously sensual prose of the contemporary literary novel.

Your enjoyment of Salt Picnic will depend on whether you prefer loveliness to energy. The novel’s unmistakably the work of a long-term industry insider, with the associated upsides and downsides; the prose is uniformly handsome at the expense of vitality, and its exotic setting shows warning signs of an author settling into that frustrating things-I-saw-on-holiday genre favoured by writers who reckon they no long have to prove anything. Evans has been an outspoken critic of the IIML-to-VUP literary machine, but his own writing has developed the same safe, workshopped quality, playing defence rather than offence – there’s no mistakes. For a fan of the clumsy energy of literary overreachers, it’s as dull as a Mayweather fight.

It’s a shame to see such stateliness from an author like Evans. In his nonfiction work, he’s one of the country’s most charming writers in a discipline not always renowned for charm – you’re unlikely to find another Postcolonial Literature primer that could plausibly be described as Shavian. Look up any article he’s written or any interview and his wit strikes you right away, but while his instinctive feel for the sentence carries over to the novel, the cutting insight doesn’t. Evans’ Gifted, though frustrating for similar reasons, at least found in Frank Sargeson a protagonist allowed to be as clever as his author, while Salt Picnic’s Iola is too naïve and ever-more-bewildered to think anything remotely pointed. Consequently, this is a pretty humourless book; the American’s a little goofy and the Englishman’s bad at crosswords, but otherwise the tone is so sober you’d never guess that a few decades ago Evans was writing comic novels about the bawdy misadventures of a hapless and horny underpants salesman.

Evans has said Salt Picnic is the third in a trilogy of novels inspired by Janet Frame, drawing on her 1956 trip to Ibiza, but that Iola is not intended to resemble Frame. This might be a bluff to avoid once again incurring the wrath of the notoriously combative Frame estate, but Iola is so indistinct a character that it’s difficult to say. There’s been some controversy over whether Evans considers Frame to have had a genuine psychological condition; I wondered if Iola’s extreme passiveness and naiveté is meant to suggest this before considering that it isn’t ideal if you can’t tell whether a writer’s depicting a radically alien schizoid or autistic perspective or if the character’s just boring.

Assuming neurotypicality, Iola’s naiveté about personal, political and sexual matters stretches credibility even for a young woman in the 1950s. She’s written like a sheltered fifteen-year-old despite presumably being an adult – her age is unclear, though she’s been travelling Europe alone for some time before coming to Ibiza. Passive point-of-view characters are a literary standby, but we’re presumably meant to heavily invest in her character given the intimate scale of the story and if we don’t, the story’s revelations fall flat, because they’re meaningful revelations to her and not to us. Plus she’s alone for huge chunks of the book – picture The Great Gatsby with another 30,000 words of Nick Carraway pottering about West Egg looking at old buildings and spying on his neighbours.

I struggled with the novel’s elliptical style, often having no idea what a scene was about thematically and sometimes literally. Evans likes having bashful-monologued Iola refer modestly to ‘that’ without telling us what it is, and I often didn’t know. There are key plot points I’m still unclear on – halfway through the novel Iola seems to be pregnant, but I don’t remember this being mentioned again after a scene where her lover insists she can’t be pregnant. Was he right? Surely Evans would’ve resolved this somehow, but I didn’t pick up on it, don’t remember it, and can’t find it scanning through the book. C.K. Stead confessed to not understanding a number of crucial plot points in his review of Evans’ previous book, The Back of His Head, so I’m not alone here. It’s possible this is an immensely rewarding book if you really put the time in, but I felt no organic impulse to; by the time the novel ended with Iola telling the Englishman she had something to confess, I no longer cared that I didn’t know what that was.

This ambiguity gives the book a lot of thematic leeway. You can’t be sure if a point’s banal or if you’re unperceptive. If the blurb didn’t tell me Salt Picnic was “about mistranslation, fantasy and the historical echoes of ideology”, I would assume I’d missed the thrust of the novel completely. I still don’t think I really get it – Iola meets a fascist, and he’s a right bastard, and she finds out about what happened during the Spanish Civil War. Is this it? I have no idea. If the point of the book is a naïve character’s introduction to the realities of the war – and in a closing note Evans references the lack of real popular awareness about wartime atrocities prior to the 1960s, so this might be it – it doesn’t land, since we already know about these things. Presumably there’s more to it than I picked up on, but the style reflects a reader-adversarial understanding of subtext: if you have to work harder to understand something, you’ll consider it more valuable and profound.

Salt Picnic is a fantastic objet d’art – it’s got a great cover and a great title and if you open it to a random page you’ll be impressed. It’s handsome, admirable, and static. There’s definitely an audience for this book, but it’ll likely leave readers who can’t supply their own engine of interest cold. I’d recommend Salt Picnic for New Zealand fiction completionists, prose aficionados, and those who find their chief literary pleasure in the detective-work of meaning; late Henry James fans might love it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Salt Picnic
by Patrick Evans
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561698

Book Review: La La La, by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Jamie Kim.

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_la_la_la.jpgLa La La is a somewhat unique and quirky book and a very modern take on the power loneliness has on children. Rather than text, the book uses illustrations of the natural elements in our environment to fine effect in telling its characters’ story. La La La being the only words that are used. To most the using of these words is generally an expression of joy, but in this book their contextual use is a little less joyless, and a little more plaintive. A desire for a response threads through the book and motivates the character to keep persevering.

A rather remarkable book for it’s powerful message and unique style and setting, it offers the opportunity for thoughtful and nuanced conversation and would be most suited to the 7 upward age group. It could be very well used as a shared reader introducing the topic of loneliness to children in a classroom setting. In it’s own quiet way this book offers it’s readers an opportunity to reflect on loneliness and the skills that can be developed to counteract it.

Review Marion Dreadon.

La La La
by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Jamie Kim
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406378009

Book Review: The City of Secret Rivers, by Jacob Sager Weinstein

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_city_of_secret_riversWho knew there was a maze of secret magic rivers flowing underneath London’s streets? Certainly not Hyacinth Hayward, the young heroine of this contemporary fantasy adventure. When she ‘fixes’ the plumbing and inadvertently releases a single drop of magic water she finds herself caught in the middle of a centuries old struggle for power.
A knock at the door reveals the strange Saltpetre Men who work for the Royal Mail. Slow moving and sibilant, they are the first of many strange characters she encounters in her race to recover the magic droplet and save her mother.

Aided by her neighbour, the elderly and feisty Lady Roslyn, the pair escape down into the sewers and into an underground escapade full of twists, peril, surprises, double crosses and riddles. Hyacinth has to trust her instincts in order to work through the situations she finds herself in. As her adventure progresses she uncovers a family connection to the magic which adds to her determination.

The story is full of clever plot points, many of which relate to real London monuments and events in the city’s long history. The characters are funny and unique; from the charming huge pig who communicates via printed cards, to the Saltpetre Mailmen and some who are seen here in a totally different guise than normal – I’m talking to you, unicorn!

Readers who enjoy magic and adventure will surely enjoy The City of Rivers and will be drawn into this engaging and well-paced story. The ending, while closing off this adventure, leaves you with a hint of further mysteries and questions to be answered in a follow-up sequel, which I am hoping is in the pipeline (pun completely intended!).
Now that we have been introduced to the magical world existing below the city streets, a visit to London will never be the same again…

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The City of Secret Rivers
by Jacob Sager Weinstein
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406368857

Book Review: Wolfy, by Gregoire Solotareff

cv_wolfyAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

After the sudden death of his old uncle, Wolfy has found himself in somewhat dire circumstances and he has too figure out what to do. Seeking help, he comes upon the very chilled Tom, a rabbit who had never seen a wolf before. United in a sense of adventure, the most gorgeous friendship between the pair develops, each having something to offer the other. Until things hit a speed bump when Tom and Wolfy play ‘Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.’ Fear takes over and Tom decides that the friendship is over. But is it?

This book hooks you in from the cover onwards, and uses vibrant, colourful illustrations to great effect, complementing the text and engaging the reader in the story. The story is well paced with a great dollop of humour that will make both adult and child reader alike laugh. It is poignant in it’s emotions but never heavy.

This is a great book for the 4 year old upward reader. I suspect older children will enjoy it and as a shared reader it leaves a lot of scope for interaction. A focal point is the need for understanding in friendships and this book could easily lend itself to teachable moments.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

Wolfy
by Gregoire Solotareff
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571567

Book Review: Today in New Zealand History, by Atkinson, Green, Phipps and Watters

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_today_in_new_zealand_historyOne of the joys of aging is picking up a book like this and recognising that nearly half of the events happened in my lifetime. I remember most of them too. This is not a highs and lows, shockers and disasters type of  book. Instead, we have a wonderful collection of events which include the quirky (introduction of Jockey Y fronts), the disasters, the political triumphs, cultural firsts (Anna Pavalova dancing here) and plenty of sports. My husband enjoyed the sports clips as they were often the lesser-known events. Interspersed with the events, are the birth of a variety of New Zealanders on this day. These little vignettes could be a book on their own, but included in the text and photos of the main items, they add another layer of enjoyment.

The collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the Alexander Turnbull Library has resulted in a book that is both informative and visually captivating. There is a photo of Michael Joseph Savage on the steps of the Social Security building. It is all art deco and serious but captures the amazing introduction in 1938 of the Social Security Act. The photo of the opening of the Christchurch Town Hall also made me nostalgic, for I sang at the opening and attended a meeting there on the morning of the quake.

By uniting two such esteemed groups, this team have produced a book that rises above the usual coffee table pretty. I found the clear and easy to read text gave me enough information without boring me through detail.

As a teacher, I am constantly saddened by the lack of historical knowledge shown by my pupils. I feel that a knowledge of the past enables us to truly face the challenges of the future. As New Zealanders we have travelled a long way in a short time. This book would be a useful aid to help students focus each day, on an event. My husband commented that he would be able to do this using just sports as there are often 2-3 stories for each day, and sports feature often. There is a pupil like this in every class.

Add to all this a hefty hard cover and wonderful photos. What a great Christmas present for those baby boomer parents who can relive their childhood and educate the grandchildren at the same time.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Today in New Zealand History
by Neill Atkinson, David Green, Gareth Phipps and Steve Watters
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593003