Book Review: One Single Thing, by Tina Clough

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_one_single_thingJournalist Hope Barber disappears two weeks after returning to New Zealand from an assignment in Pakistan, leaving her front door open and her bag and phone in the house.

Hope’s brother Noah contacts Hunter Grant and his partner Dao, to investigate her disappearance as the New Zealand police are reluctant to become involved. The reader is soon drawn into the mystery with the author cleverly incorporating details about Hope’s time in Pakistan which seems to raise more questions.

When I received One Single Thing, I was intrigued by the cover, a plain black background with a white wheelie bin on the front cover, but it was soon revealed within Hope’s blog why this simple design was used by Tara Cooney Design.

This is the first book by this New Zealand-based author I have read and I found it a thoroughly absorbing read. Hunter had appeared in a previous book by Clough, The Chinese Proverb, when he used his front-line Army experience to save Dao.
I soon picked up the background to the earlier book as Clough recaps key facts at intervals in the early chapters of One Single Thing, so I did not feel at a disadvantage picking up the story at this stage.

The novel highlights a number of modern global issues, such as ‘honour killings’ which Hope Barber had been investigating in Pakistan; and Clough skillfully incorporates how surveillance can affect someone’s life without them being are of what is going on.

The story moves along at a steady pace, the chapters are short and I enjoyed Clough’s descriptive style: ‘The rain starts as we drive on to the Harbour Bridge; within minutes it is a downpour of tropical proportions. The windscreen is a blur of running water, cleared for only a fraction of a second by each sweep of the wiper blades.’

Anyone who enjoys crime/ mystery novels will find this an engrossing read and I am wondering if Tina Clough will find another assignment for Hunter Grant, Dao and their dog Scruff, as she has established solid characters which will appeal to not just New Zealanders but a worldwide readership.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

One Single Thing
by Tina Clough
Published by Lightpool Publishing
ISBN 9780473469139

Book Review: Necessary Secrets, by Greg McGee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_necessary_secrets.jpgNew Zealand-born playwright and award-winning novelist Greg McGee delivers a powerful examination of life in his new novel Necessary Secrets.

The story follows Dennis Sparks (Den), recently diagnosed with dementia, and his three adult children as they navigate the joys and hardships of their seemingly individual – yet ultimately connected – lives. Each sibling is allocated a season in which their lives unfold and unravel. Starting from eldest son and meth addict Will, we then move to ‘guarding angel’ and social worker Ellie, and the narrative concludes with self-sustaining and soul-searching Stan.

McGee’s characters are bold and distinct, and he does not shy away from revealing their flaws. A line which comes from Den about his children early on in the novel captures the essence of their development: ‘[W]hatever we’ve become out in the world, we always come home to be what we were.’

Eldest son Will is snarky, cruel and materialistic. We assume this is an effect of his drug addiction and broken marriage. But, even in recovery, his chances to redeem himself turn out to be self-serving or corrupt, betraying not only his siblings, but the reader who can’t help but urge him to turn his life around.

Ellie, at first, appears to be a do-gooder – she volunteers, she fosters children in volatile situations, and she helps women escape brutal domestic violence. Yet she faces her own challenges too, and her good deeds end with cynicism. The charity she volunteers at turns out to be a corrupt commercial operation and she is constantly aware of the repetitive cycle of violence. She is afraid of bringing her own child into the world and confesses that killing all abusers would be an easier (and safer) solution than the uncertain process of the New Zealand courts.

Youngest sibling, Stan, who has lived ten years of his life in a self-sustaining community, finds himself unsatisfied and yearning for more. Although he’s always detested commercialism, he is lured back to the city by the opportunities that inherited money gives him in modern society.

McGee creates deep connections between the three siblings and the reader. We are constantly learning and being challenged by what we know as each sibling becomes more complicated and (sometimes disturbingly) real. Their lives speak to the dark desires of the human condition, to the constant lurk of mortality, as well as to the joys of growth, perseverance, and human connection.

What is most affecting in Necessary Secrets, and certainly what lingers most, are the scenes blended among the seasons. Den’s battle with his disease, as it takes his memories, judgement, and understanding, is distressing. From seeing his care home as a “strange” hotel, to forgetting names, faces, and how to use cutlery, McGee captures Den’s desperation and confusion in his hauntingly simple prose. Den’s perspectives don’t exist in periods of time like his children’s, because he no longer has any determination of it. They float between the seasons, detached but heavy with fear – a fear no longer of his own mortality, but for losing his sense of self and home.

Necessary Secrets is an intimate yet stark story which focuses on societal issues that New Zealanders face every day, and it handles them with upfront honesty. It is a beautiful yet hard-hitting novel.

Reviewed by Susanna Elliffe

Necessary Secrets
by Greg McGee
Published by Upstart Press
ISBN 9781988516639

Book Review: The Bad Seed, by Charlotte Grimshaw

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_bad_seedThere is no denying that Charlotte Grimshaw deserves her place amongst the top New Zealand writers of fiction. Her writing is sparse: words are not wasted. Characters are deftly penned and well-defined: each one can be imagined, liked or disliked. Settings are vividly described often in poetic imagery: ‘Beside her the reflection of rain ran down the wall, a waterfall of silver and grey’.

The Bad Seed is a bind-up of The Night Book, first published in 2010 and Soon, published in 2012. This is being published to coincide with and promote the present television production, named The Bad Seed.

The setting of The Night Book is Auckland at the end of Helen Clark’s government, within the world of the rising National Party star – David Hallwright, a thinly-disguised John Key. Although real names are not used there is the obvious conclusion that the characters in both books are based on real people and real events. I imagine there would have been some discomfort and also pleasure among the wealthy and politically mobile in Auckland as they were shrewdly observed and described at the time of publication.

From the first few words of the opening sentence the plot leads the reader along effortlessly – this ability to instantly engage readers is an admirable feature of Charlotte Grimshaw’s writing.

The main protagonist is Simon Lampton, a wealthy gynaecologist and obstetrician. He and his politically-involved wife Karen are drawn into the top circle of David Hallwright, his second wife the beautiful and complex Roza, plus an assortment of political allies and cronies, none of whom are appealing. Simon is politically disinterested and is an astute observer of the machinations that finally bring David to power as the new Prime Minister. He and Karen learn that their adopted daughter, Elke, is actually Roza’s child. This discovery draws the Lamptons and the Hallwrights closer. On first reading of this I groaned as to me it seemed so contrived but as I read on I became once again engaged with how this was going to work out.

Simon foolishly gets involved in an affair with Mereana whose baby, earlier in the book, he had once delivered. He is aware of how dangerous his relationship with her is, and this is proven in the second book Soon.

The setting of Soon is four years on, during the Christmas Parliamentary recess at the Hallwright’s palatial holiday home at Rotokauri (read as Omaha Beach). The Lamptons and their children are long-term guests.  Simon and David have become close friends. David appreciates that Simon is not a sycophant nor does he seek favour. Roza and Karen are outwardly close as the ‘mothers’ of Elke, yet there is tension between them. As well, Roza and David now have a son, Johnnie. Roza narrates a story of her own invention to Johnnie using adult characters, and Johnnie becomes fixated, frequently demanding more of her tale.

Simon’s older brother Ford, a left-wing academic, is invited to stay. His acerbic observations about the ‘moral imbeciles’ Simon surrounds himself with challenges and infuriates him. Meanwhile, Simon’s affair with Mereana is discovered by Arthur Weeks, who tries to blackmail him, with disastrous consequences for both men.

Ethics, morality and the venality of political life are some of the many issues Grimshaw tackles in this compelling narrative all drawn together to a surprising conclusion. Or is there still another tale to tell?

I will be keen to see how both books are treated on television. The show begins on TV1 on Sunday, 14 April.

Reviewed by David Turner

The Bad Seed
by Charlotte Grimshaw
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780143773764

 

Book Review: The Dog Runner, by Bren MacDibble

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dog_runnerAs a kid born and raised on farms all around Aotearoa, author Bren McDibble can speak with some authority about growing up on the land. While she now lives on a house bus that travels around Aussie, her roots are clearly, and proudly, rural. That grounding speaks strongly through the theme of this ecological apocalypse she has created, which serves as a dark backdrop to this story. It comes through in her proposition: that a ‘all-too possible’ fungus could wipe out all the grass and starve our livestock. This, in turn would bring down the whole farming model and impact on our entire food chain and eventually our eco-system. It’s a familiar scene.

Food is scarce. So, humans are reduced to become scavengers and are helpless to fend for themselves, having abandoned their skills following mass production and corporatisation. It’s a bleak new world. Think of the movies Quiet Earth, Mad Max, I am Pilgrim and so on. Desolate, wiped out. The connections to the great Irish Potato Famine are also pretty obvious, too. Except this time, immigration will not solve the issue. In this world adults are useless, and powerless, having become slaves to supermarkets, the internet and their electronic devices. They fall into are petty habits, squabble and join tribes to survive instead of rallying together. They are ultimately selfish and self-serving. Therefore, it’s up to the kids to save the day. It’s a book that comfortably sits alongside other YA authors like John Marsden.

With the help of their five big ‘doggos’, our heroes Ella and Emery must use a dry-land dogsled to leave the security of their inner city apartment and navigate their way through rough terrain to reach the relative safety and food of Emery’s mum’s place. Ella’s dad has disappeared. Emery’s mother works for a power company, and holds a vital job managing this precious resource from a remote location. She does it reluctantly, under pressure from her employer. It’s never really explained but she must remain at work, separated from her family, inexplicably obligated carry out her tasks for Orwellian masters. The parallels to Soviet Bloc utilities is not overlooked as the power splutters on and off, exposing a decaying, cracked network.

The kids must escape their urban prison and venture out into these new wastelands. Along the way, they encounter a range of difficult characters, who challenge them is many ways. I don’t want to provide spoilers but again, think of those characters in the Mad Max movies, with fewer guns.

The story throws you straight in, with little need to explain the setting or situation and then drops plot hints, like a trail of breadcrumbs, to keep you going. It’s told from the first person, with Ella holding the camera as she pans around revealing her world and every step she must take. We are teased along, even as Ella and Emery get further and further away from their crumbling city. From time to time Ella breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader. This is partly a reassuring inner dialogue, and a popular mechanism for YA fiction. The way it’s written, Ella could be either a boy or a girl. Her voice has no defining gender, beyond a name. It means the reader doesn’t take sides, and can empathize with these challenging circumstances.

Given climate change this scenario is a real threat and given we are so reliant on grains for basic food and feeding livestock, it’s a problem we, as humans must consider seriously.

But it’s not all gloomy. With the same adventurous spirit as Blyton’s The Famous Five, MacDibble revels in the pursuit of adventure. The story is fast-paced, there are fraught hideaways, difficult puzzles and dubious foes. These kids are fierce and brave, like farm kids, and creative and innovative. They see every problem as an opportunity.

Once again, MacDibble delivers a thoughtful and provoking read. Her first novel, How to Bee, also had an ecological them, examining our world without bees, which has become more of a very real threat over the last few years. This book takes a few more steps into oblivion, visualising not only a world where grasses and grains are wiped out but asking questions about what would replace these vital food sources.

Both teachers and parents should recommend this to upper primary school readers and return after to spark a wider conversation. It was also be a great one for further classroom study.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Dog Runner
by Bren MacDibble
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760523572

Book Review: Quest, by A. J. Ponder

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_questIt has been a few years now since I felt the indulgent pleasure of reading bedtime stories to my children, having a nightly excuse to become a child again myself, immersed in a world different from that of GrownUp. Escapism, fairy tales, fantasy, magic, a sort of parallel reality to adulting, where all things are seen from a different perspective.

So when I chose this little gem to review, I was secretly wanting to be taken back to the days of magic, the mischief that magicians and sorcerers would get up to, princesses and princes, dragons, silly story lines. And this sure delivered. Reminiscent of The Princess Bride.

In this action packed story Princess Sylvalla does not want to be a princess. She wants to be a hero, to slay dragons, to wield a sword, to break out. And one day she does – she escapes the castle, setting in motion a ‘princess hunt’ which attracts all sorts of dodgy characters, opportunists, wizards, con men, runaways. It is actually hilarious. Some of them even join Sylvalla in her posse to hunt dragons – Jonathon the con man chasing his stolen treasure; his 150 year old father who is also a wizard; Dirk the world’s most deadly swordsman; and Francis, the horse groomer who sees a chance to escape his lowly existence.

The story line is pretty crazy, and the characters are all over the place, but the writing is magnificent. This book is made for reading aloud, it fair rollicks along, a huge vocabulary with marvellous character drawings, funny dialogue and conversations. The best parts though, to encourage fully engaged adult interaction with child, are the footnotes the author has made which are really for adult eyes only. Funny, wicked and sometimes a bit naughty. There is no happy living after in this story either! No handsome prince, no evil witch. So the traditional fairy tale is turned on its head, and I hope to see more of Syvalla’s adventures, because she is well set up to take on more baddies.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Quest (#1 of the Sylvalla Chronicles)
by A. J. Ponder
Published by Phantom Feather Press
ISBN 9780473451073

 

 

Book Review: This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman

Available in bookshops nationwide.
Finalist in the 2019 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize 

cv_this_mortal_boyIn 1955 New Zealand was far from liberal. Xenophobia was rife. English, and in particular Irish immigrants were generally treated with mistrust or even outright dislike. It was also the time of bodgies and widgies and “milk bar cowboys”, so different to the usual run of middle New Zealanders of the era.

Albert Black, the focus of Fiona Kidman’s latest novel, This Mortal Boy, came to Wellington with the encouragement of his doting mother, seeking a better life. Initially he made a friend of another immigrant and together they found labouring jobs and were able to board with a widow in Lower Hutt. The mother of the house treated them as well as Albert’s mother had treated him, and he grew fit and strong. He tried to save enough money to go back to Ireland but he was restless and homesick. It wasn’t long before he started mixing with the young people around the city and had stopped saving his money. The bright lights of Auckland beckoned.

He became the caretaker of a large central city house in Auckland and eventually started taking in housemates but it quickly became a rough party house with a bad reputation. Albert found “drinking, dancing and dames” to be more fun than working and saving. He fell in love with one girl but others chased him and he faced the jealousy of a small-time crook. In a scuffle one night, Albert accidentally killed him.

In prison for murder, Albert saw moral decisions being made on his behalf but always hoped for a reprieve. His mother in Ireland raised a huge petition which even went as far as the Governor General but it was ultimately unsuccessful. His was the last hanging in New Zealand.

Readers will recognise famous names of local identities and politicians and may be surprised by some of the attitudes expressed. This is a well-crafted story which is gripping to the very end.

Reviewed by Nan Turner

This Mortal Boy
by Fiona Kidman
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
ISBN 9780143771807

Book Review: The Wideawake Hat, By Amanda Giorgis

Available at The Twizel Bookshop

cv_the_wideawake_hatFrom the Scottish highlands to the South Island of New Zealand, life was harsh for early pioneers, but Sophia and George McKay had hopes for a better future when they stepped ashore on Boxing Day 1848. The reader takes the journey with them as they travel inland to begin a life farming sheep in the Mackenzie Basin.

In her preface, author Amanda Giorgis explains ‘the area takes its name from James MacKenzie, who with his black and white collie dog Friday, famously rustled a thousand sheep and took them into the basin in mid-1850’. Living in the area she has explored much of the area so has been able to portray vividly the landscape and conditions to which the early settlers would encounter. The story of James MacKenzie caught the imagination of Giorgis and a friend as they were discovering more and more places associated with his name, and so the seed of this story were sown. ‘Here is my interpretation of James’ story born from the other sets of footprints found when he was arrested with the sheep.’

I love this area of New Zealand and have enjoyed a number of trips and holidays there, but this book brought it to life for me again with the strong historical storyline which had me engrossed from the first page.

It is an interesting read as it is pure fiction with solid, resilient characters ideal for the pioneering adventure they set out on. The author has woven historical details cleverly into the book. The interaction of the new settlers with local Māori has also been skillfully incorporated and the use of the Māori language adds intensity at appropriate times.

Amanda Giorgis was born in Somerset, England, emigrating to New Zealand in 2008. She lives in the MacKenzie district. I look forward to further writing by this author as The Wideawake Hat is her first novel , and the first in the Applecross Saga. It will be of interest to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with some suspense as well as those with an interest in farming.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Wideawake Hat
by Amanda Giorgis

No ISBN recorded