Book Review: This Mortal Coil, by Emily Suvada

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_this_mortal_coil.jpgWell, this book has everything that you could ask for in a dystopian novel, and more. There is some romance, there are a whole lot of horrible dystopian goings-on, including a particularly unpleasant virus which makes people explode (might need to check the science on that), and a marvellous array of geek-speak which is wonderful.

Our fearless heroine Catarina – known as Cat – is the daughter of a famous geneticist who, it was hoped, had the fix for the virus which is devastating what’s left of the known world.

When Cat hears of her father’s death from a soldier who has been gene-hacked – this is quite common in this story – she also discovers that there’s a code which she, and quite likely only she, can possibly crack, to save the world.

Yes, I know, you have heard this all before.

But what makes it different is the complexity and interweaving of all the various strands in this novel. Emily Suvada has degrees in math and astrophysics, and her expertise is well-utilised. While I did have to suspend disbelief several times, I still wanted to keep reading and see how it all turns out.

There are a zillion twists and turns, and those whom you think are evil may not be. And vica versa.

I would recommend it to any dystopia-lover, but if you have never read a YA dystopian fiction novel, this might not be the one to begin with.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

This Mortal Coil 
by Emily Suvada
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780141379272


Book Review: Gabriel’s Bay, by Catherine Robertson

cv_gabriels_bayAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

At 426 pages, Gabriel’s Bay is a book that promises to fill a good few hours of reading time. So well written are the characters and the lives they lead, that I read it in just one and a half days. Catherine Robertson tells us in the book’s accompanying media release that she decided, after three hilarious chick-lit style novels, to try a new tack, focusing on what she feels good at: humour, characters and dialogue. As these are the things that most interest me when well executed, I can say that Catherine has succeeded in her stated aim.

I like that the novel is set in a recognisable New Zealand. The character who holds the whole cast together is a young man from the UK who, after making a shambles of his life at home, answers an ad for a home help in the small township of Gabriel’s Bay. Unlike some books of similar ilk, the people who live there are not cheerfully stoical and determinedly positive. They are a more realistic portrayal of the people who live in the little townships down the road from where you live, or perhaps, even, your next door neighbours in your own little township.

We get to know the characters well as as the young man becomes involved in the fabric of the village throughout the novel. Issues that we are familiar with in our own lives are dealt with in a way that fit into the story being told without dominating it or detracting from the tension the reader experiences.

Not all the ends are neatly tied at the finish just as they never are in real life, but the author has written a book that is so well tuned to real life that I, as the reader was satisfied that the characters had ended their tales on a note of optimism. I identified with each and every one of them, even the not so nice, and to me that is the mark of a story well told.

New Zealand can be proud of the work of our authors and poets. Catherine Robertson has written a novel that testifies strongly to that. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Gabriel’s Bay
by Catherine Robertson
Published by Black Swan
ISBN 9780143771456

Book Review: All Our Secrets, by Jennifer Lane

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_all_our_secretsI began this novel with no expectations at all beyond the blurb, which made it sound dark and murderous, something along the lines of your usual crime fiction novel. And yes it would suit those who enjoy that type of read: but it is much much more than this. This is your ultimate immersive summer read.

Our 11-year-old narrator Gracie is the eldest in her family, which comprises of her mum, occasionally her promiscuous dad, and her extremely Catholic Grandma Bett; plus Elijah, and the 3-year-old twins Lucky and Grub. She and Elijah have a secret spot that they hide in while their Mum & Dad fight (usually about his indiscretions), but she is quietly proud to be his daughter. He is, to her eyes, the best-looking man in Coongahoola. Unfortunately, many other women agree.

‘At approximately three thirty in the afternoon, while walking on the banks of the Bagooli River, Martha Mills alleges she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary.’

The Bagooli River was not somebody anybody from the town went. ‘Not after the River Picnic. Not after Stu Bailey’s wife drowned in it, and whatever else happened that night.’ But one week after the vision, the Believers arrive. There are 500 of them, to camp beside the river and to worship the Virgin Mary under the tutelage of the self-named Saint Bede.

And then the murders began. ‘From every telegraph on Main Road, Nigel’s face looked down at up. His brown hair was bleached by the November sun and the sticky-taped ‘missing’ posters were crinkled and curling.’ Nigel is the beginning of a spate of murders centred on the River Children – the group of kids born 9 months after the River Picnic, many of whom don’t resemble their purported fathers.

Gracie’s brother Elijah is a River Child.

Author Jennifer Lane has drawn the small town of Coongahoola expertly. Martha Mills (who saw the vision) was there for Gracie’s birth when her mother’s waters broke at the supermarket at which Martha worked. Gracie’s godmother the nosy Mrs Ludlum was also there, and the rest of the characters making up the small town are all brilliantly drawn, with complexity where it is warranted, through a child’s eyes. Grandma Bett is another key character – as the main caregiver when times are tough, she is Gracie’s hero, albeit with a bit more praying than Gracie would like to do.

‘Grandma Bett was always talking to God – how could he hear what Mum was saying at the same time? And what about everyone else in the world? How could he hear them all at once?’

The complexities of religious belief is an ongoing thread in the book, thanks to the Believers and their inevitable ideological clash with every other church group in town. And while Gracie was never too concerned about being unpopular; thanks to her mum’s relationship with the Believer church, she has to endure cruel bullying. But this is no ‘woe is me’ tale – Gracie is emotionally smarter than that.

Lane’s writing is fabulous for that of a first-time author. The book felt well-edited and polished (as you would expectof a book edited by the wonderful Penelope Todd), and the writing is descriptive and immersive. The moments where Gracie retreats into her own thoughts are managed without dropping the pace of the story, and there is not one chapter that you finish thinking ‘that’s enough for now.’

One of the questions I went into this book was whether it had potential to be a cross-over title – from YA to adult and back again. I think it does. The murders are handled in a clean way, no Stephen King gore to be seen (though the way in which the naive narrator is used reminds me a little of a King novel). The voice is authentically young – you never feel as though an adult’s thoughts are going through a child’s head. But it remains interesting and fascinating.

I’d highly recommend this as a summer read for age 13+. It’s a pleasure to be part of Gracie’s world, dysfunctional though it may be.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

All Our Secrets
by Jennifer Lane
Published by Rosa Mira Books
ISBN 9780994132215




Book Review: False River, by Paula Morris

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_false_riverThis is a very sophisticated collection of short stories, which sit comfortably together. While many have been previously published in magazines, or read on radio, bringing them together allows the reader to appreciate the true depth of Morris’s writing. The title story, False River was a finalist in the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in the UK, and Morris is no stranger to awards for her writing.

I am not a regular reader of short stories as once I have sorted out characters and setting, I prefer to settle in for a long read. But this collection allowed me to enter each world quickly and with minimal fuss as I became engrossed by the stories. It was a revelation.

Morris knows her settings. Be it New Orleans, Mexico or Latvia, we are quickly immersed in a familiar world where small details add depth. Some stories deal with relationships such as the delightful story Isn’t It. Here we have the Auckland housing crisis meeting family mourning. The meeting of these two worlds is beautifully portrayed.

A well-chosen black and white photo follows some stories. I like the inclusion of visual art within the written text as it adds another layer for the reader. However, I was a little disappointed at the cover of the collection. The dark blue, understated cover did not live up to the quality of the stories and artwork within the  book. Even the endpapers were more creative.

I really enjoyed this collection: it seems, after a thirty-year standoff with short stories, Paula Morris has lured me back. I would pick the book up to read one story, and then sneak another too. Of course, this meant I was running late!

This is the perfect summer read. A sleep, a swim or even a small wine could follow each story.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

False River
by Paula Morris
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780143771630



Book Review: Sodden Downstream, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sodden_downstreamSodden Downstream has one of the best high concepts of any recent New Zealand novel; a major storm hits Wellington and all public transport has stopped, but Sita, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, has to get from the Hutt Valley to the city or risk losing her zero-hour cleaning job. Along the way, she’s helped by a varied cast of economically struggling characters also caught in the storm.

The novel’s a tonal departure for author Brannavan Gnanalingam, whose previous books have been more comic, and it’s a mixed success as a genre experiment. I liked the crisp prose style, but it’s often needlessly explicit, as if unconfident it’s getting the point across. There’s a good paragraph about excessive WINZ scrutiny spoiled by the blandly didactic sentence ‘Struggling people weren’t allowed to make mistakes’, a point the rest of the paragraph was making perfectly well.

Sodden Downstream’s narration is limited to Sita’s perspective, but the interior monologue we get doesn’t always gel with the actions of the character. Satirist Gnanalingam wants Sita insightful, while the plot needs her naïve; sometimes she’ll express confusion with New Zealand social norms, then a few sentences later make a wry, knowing observation about them. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with her being a smart, funny character, but her inconsistent cultural vocabulary leads to moments where you’re sharply aware you’re not listening to a barely-getting-by refugee but a middle-class Wellington intellectual. At one point she says her cooking wasn’t going to get a Michelin star, which I thought was one of those bits of cultural knowledge limited to people who had to wear ties to high school; I’d assumed a restaurant having one star meant it was rubbish and had to look it up.

Another voice issue is that we just don’t feel the urgency the plot needs. The mock-epic needs the same amount of tension as a straight quest narrative, especially when the tone’s as serious as it’s meant to be here, but Sodden Downstream feels almost casual when it’s meant to be pressing. There’s a very effective punctuationless chapter near the end where Sita flashes back to the civil war, but prior to this we don’t get that much of a sense of the strain she’s under.

This might be by design; what’s the trial she’s facing now compared to those she’s faced in the past? But it creates a major technical problem – if the novel’s about how bad things are now, and also how much worse they were before, it devalues the current struggle from a narrative perspective, which is the exact opposite of the book’s political intent.

Sita doesn’t set out on her quest until about 50 pages into the 180 page novel, a structural choice I can’t see the logic behind. This is a novel with a clean, stark premise, but it’s bogged down with a conventional expository first act instead of starting the story with the clock ticking. Because the details of Sita’s stressful home life are kept separate from the main action, we nearly forget about them once things are moving, and we don’t feel the connection between her life and her journey – we don’t have a strong enough sense of what she’s fighting for. If these details were spread throughout the story they’d cement that connection, and they’d be more interesting because we’re already identifying with her struggle. It’d help with the voice problems too – wouldn’t a woman in Sita’s situation be more likely to fret about the home life she might lose than strangers’ micro-aggressive questions about cricket?

The other characters are types, but generally well-drawn ones. Gnanalingam, a Lower Hutt native, has a great feeling for the area’s personalities and a precise ear for its idiom; a scene where Sita meets a just-released prisoner is especially good. The baddies are handled with less grace, though. They’re cheap targets, for one; cops, SUV drivers, WINZ. They’re painted a little more sympathetically than the monster in Alien, a little less sympathetically than Jew Süss. They’re moustache-twirling bastards, devoid of charisma, uninterested in even trying to conceal their essential bastardry. When Sita’s boss calls her, he uses the word ‘odium’ five times in two pages as a power move and calls her by a hated nickname every other sentence.

Would someone really act like this? I conceded they might, even that the specificity of ‘odium’ suggests it might be taken straight from a real-life anecdote. But realist fiction is a technical trick, a genre with a set of arbitrary conventions; it doesn’t matter if something is real, it has to feel real. Probably the rich are as awful as Gnanalingam makes out, but real life’s allowed to be cartoonish, while realist fiction readers demand complexity even when it’s phony. Especially bad is a scene where a red-faced, tight-uniformed cop bullies a troubled teenager, where he’s so blandly, typically wicked that I felt perversely compelled to take his side, if only to liven up the scene’s tired dynamic. Sure, it’s also a tired, familiar dynamic in real life, but we can at least ask fiction to inject a little specificity into everyday tyranny, right?

The flaws mean that this isn’t as strongly-worded a social critique as you might expect from the premise. Since only consensus villains are called out, readers are unlikely to feel their beliefs have been challenged. The non-villains are often casually, clumsily offensive, but are otherwise lovely, full of compassion and local colour and bonhomie, and there’s a slightly uncomfortable amount of praise of New Zealand from Sita. Chalk this up to cultural cringe, maybe – I was also pretty uneasy with the novel’s extensive use of the word ‘Kiwi’, which I associate mostly with advertisements – but it feels like calculated punch-pulling, as if Gnanalingam’s pre-empting an attack on his patriotic credentials from the Plunket-Hoskings-Garner editorial triangle.

Why can’t Sita be resentful? Why does she have to be the kind of noble, staunchly suffering refugee the Herald might write a fluff piece on? When you write a perfectly virtuous character who’s defined by their social type (and Sita certainly is), you’re playing into the idea that those people have to prove something, that the validity of their suffering is tied to them being better-than-average human beings. Since someone’s personal morality has nothing at all to do with the injustice of their social position, the really radical thing to do would be to write about a refugee who’s a total prick and demonstrate its complete irrelevance to the ethics of refugee policy. It might make for a better yarn, too.

Sodden Downstream is an alright novel with the components of a really good one, but they’ve been carelessly assembled. It could’ve been vastly improved with another serious edit, both for the narrative issues and technical ones – there’s a grammar error in the dedication, two sentences into the book, and more follow. Gnanalingam, a lawyer as well as a prolific essayist, critic and a five-time novelist in six years, feels like he writes as fast as he presumably must, and this work doesn’t seem to have gotten the attention it needed.

I like prolific writers because, as a rule, they’re weirder – more obsessive, less rigorously self-censored, closer to the lumpy, eerie source and further from good taste. But Sodden Downstream isn’t idiosyncratic enough to justify its very fixable issues; it’s not especially formally daring, or politically controversial, or boldly sentimental, or angry, or exuberant. It’s tasteful, and happy to exist in a familiar political conversation rather than push it anywhere. It’d be ideal for a year 11 English class; it’s got humanism and swearing.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Sodden Downstream
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473410292

Book Review: Baby, by Annaleese Jochems

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hires_babyWow, what an amazing talent this young woman is. At all of 23 years of age, there is an urgency and energy to Annaleese Jochems’ writing. Her insight into how social media, celebrity culture, the culture of ‘me’, and how the resultant obsession with self has manipulated her generation of young people is spectacular. The result is a monster of a young woman, the 21-year-old Cynthia, whose life and existence is completely dominated by her dangerously self absorbed, meaningless and boring existence.

This novel is well and truly a modern urban cautionary fable, about that privileged and over indulged generation us oldies like to call entitled, how their perception of self is so out of whack, and the consequences when it all goes wrong. A total nut job. I have already admitted I am the wrong demographic for this novel, even though I get what is going on (I think), but my 20 year old daughter, clearly of the same demographic as Cynthia and the author thought the book way too weird to continue reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is weird, but it is certainly disturbing.

Cynthia has a life of nothing. She has been to university, although it is not clear if she completed her degree or dropped out. She has no job, lives at her father’s home, a man who appears to be both physically and emotionally absent, but he does have a great bank balance, spends all her time on her phone, watching movies, playing with her dog Snot-head (who calls their dog such a name?) and doing yoga. Anahera is the yoga instructor, a slightly older woman, with whom Cynthia becomes obsessed. When Anahera turns up on her doorstep claiming she has left her husband, the madness begins. After raiding her father’s bank account, they drive off to Paihia, where absurdly, they purchase a boat called Baby, living on it just off the shore of Paihia beach.

Talk about cabin fever. As the days pass, and with no fixed plan of action, they begin to run out of money, Snot-head does not take well to marine life, Anahera remains disturbingly elusive, wanting to spend all her time swimming from the boat to an off shore island. Their random existence leads them to random encounters with others, none of which end well, Cynthia increasingly out of touch with reality, out of control with her emotions and actions.

So a bizarre plot with not a single likeable or even relatable character. All using each other for their own ends, the lines of communication and connection are constantly twisted and warped. The novel is narrated entirely from Cynthia’s self-absorbed perspective, so cleverly we get to find out very little about the other characters and what is going on in their minds with the strange set up they find themselves in.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book, some very strange and disturbing stuff goes on. But as an insight into the over stimulated mind of a young person it is extraordinary. As is the quality of the writing, the low level tension held through out, beginning with the first line  “Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.”, to the last paragraph  “For now, she shifts her head from one side to the other, resting it. Time passes and the trees are silent. A small winged bug lands on her wrist then flies away. She doesn’t notice.” This is an amazing new voice in NZ writing, we should treasure and nurture her, she will go onto great things.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

by Annaleese Jochems
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561667

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