Book Review: The Rift, by Rachael Craw

Available today in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_riftA few years ago, Rachael Craw captivated me with her excellent Spark trilogy. Now, in November, she returns with her new young adult novel, The Rift. Taking us on a new journey, to an island inhabited by a mysterious herd of deer, deer which hold the cure for any ailment. These deer must be carefully managed, and conserved, both for their safety and the safety of their world.

Engrossing and immersive, Craw has created an elaborate mythos, and settled it in with science. She has given us two heroes: Cal, a fisherman’s son, now initiated into the rangers, the people that protect the Herd; and Meg, the daughter of the head ranger, who has not set foot on the island for 9 years – since the tragic event that wounded her, and changed Cal and the rangers forever.

Now, she must return with her mother to settle an argument over property, only to find new turmoil. The way of the rangers is being challenged, and conspiracies and intrigue abound. As she becomes entangled in the complex snare, she cannot deny her growing attraction to Cal. Once childhood friends, could they now be something more? But their shared past has left him altered irrevocably – he can no longer bear the touch of another person.

The writing is eloquent and evocative, thrusting the reader into this strange and otherworldly place, whilst also delivering a modern political theme of corporations and greed, of putting profit before people.

I also especially loved the scouts (the rangers’ bird companions), and the manner in which  Reeve (a crow) communicated with Cal and Meg – and manipulated events to bring them together, added not only a touch of humor, but also unexpected delight.

Overall, another engrossing and thought-provoking tale from an NZ writer who deserves to be ranked highly in the young adult market. I look forward to reading more!

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Rift
by Rachael Craw
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781760650025

Book Review: Fishing for Māui, by Isa Pearl Ritchie

Available at selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_fishing_for_maui.jpgThis novel, the second by Ritchie, is an episodic stroll through the lives of the characters, all of whom are either related, or in a relationship with one of the main characters.

There are two sections – the calm, and the storm. The calm of course sets the scene for what it to come. It’s quite a storm, but I won’t give spoilers – but the calm is not all that calm either, really!

There are four siblings – Elena, the pregnant conservationist; Michael the surfer/student who is keen to learn about his Māori heritage from his grandmother; John who hates school and is therefore quite angry most of the time, and Rosa who observes them all with more than the average understanding you’d expect from an eight-year-old. The other protagonists are their separated parents sports TV fan Caleb and doctor/mum Valerie, and their grandmother Gayle. Also Elena’s sidelined partner Malcolm, and Michael’s kind-of girlfriend, animal rights activist Evie. The narrative centres on the thoughts, concerns, and dilemmas of these characters.

Each character has a distinct voice, generally well-drawn, although I find one or two less credible than others – the stereotypical dysfunctional, separated father is one, and oddly the doctor mother is the other. I say oddly because the other female characters are all well-done and even if they appear marginally crazy from time to time, they still are more credible than the mother.

The driving forces for all these people, and their interactions, move the book along, but in the end I did not really enjoy it all that much. Everyone seems to be just a bit too driven.

The writing style is straightforward, but there are some obvious errors of style and language which should have been picked up in editing. So overall, for me it just misses the mark.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Fishing for Māui
by Isa Pearl Ritchie
Published by Te Ra Aroha Press
ISBN 9780473437541

Book Review: The Quaker, by Liam McIlvanney

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_quakerThree women are murdered some weeks and months apart. DI Duncan McCormack is put in charge of why the murders haven’t been solved and why the murder squad haven’t managed to find the killer, getting him off the streets. There is fear amongst women as to where and who the killer will strike next.

McCormack is bought down from the Highlands in Scotland to Glasgow to join the investigation. He finds shoddy police work with nothing linking to anybody or where the murderer could have come from. The killer is nicknamed ‘The Quaker’ because of third hand memories of a man dressed in a suit, with a regimental tie and a religious pin on the lapel of his suit.

Who is The Quaker? Is he part of an organised crime syndicate or is he part of a network with a member of that syndicate inside the police force?

This is a ripper of a story with hardly a page where some new information isn’t imparted to the reader building up the profile of the killer. I found it difficult to put down the book at times but sleep is one of the necessary parts of life, so I was often waiting for another “spare” moment to pick up where I had left the off. The ending is superb.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Quaker
by Liam McIlvanney
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9780008259921

Ngaio Marsh Award Blog Tour: Finalist Kirsten McDougall

Tess is available in bookshops nationwide.

Tess___58022.1496194537Set in Masterton in 1999, Tess tells us the story of a drifter with unusual powers. Author Kirsten McDougall explores the world of a girl on the run, who is drawn into the troubles of the family of Lewis Rose, who picked her up one rainy evening. McDougall’s rich language takes us into the centre of these family dynamics, as Tess comes to understand that all families have their secrets.

Sarah Forster asks her a few questions about the book, as part of the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Finalist blog tour.

1. What did you begin with, when you wrote Tess? The character, a plot point, a setting? Can you describe the process of writing it?

The germ of Tess was in a notebook I found a few years after making this note: ‘a story about a girl who can see people’s memories’. I actually remember writing that note. I was at the Embassy Theatre waiting for a movie to start. Theatres are great places to daydream in I think – I often have ideas for stories when I’m in a dark, warm theatre.

I began writing Tess at the beginning, with the image of a young woman walking on a back road outside Masterton, with her hair and clothes wet. I didn’t really know what was going to happen to her, but I knew I wanted her to be desperate and down on her luck. When Lewis’s car comes along at first, I didn’t know what was going to happen – whether he’d mean her well or ill. I wrote it quickly, but left it sitting around for a good year before I agreed to let VUP publish it. I’d had a very bad reader’s report on the MS and it knocked all the confidence out of me and it took me a year to let my colleagues at VUP convince me that really it was good enough to publish.

2. Tess lives in a world haunted by the dangerous spectres of men and their desires. I find it interesting to think about gender in crime fiction and the power dynamics afforded by it – can you tell me your inspiration for Tess’s way of living in the world?

Power dynamics affect everything right – they shape our world. The only people who can be indifferent are those who hold the power.  Tess has little power, even the strange power she has makes her weird and outsider-ish. I definitely wanted to write about the power men have over women.

There was a period in my life where I hated men, I’d walk down the street scowling at anyone male. I don’t feel that anymore (I’m the mother of two sons!) but I can see I tapped into that anger memory to write this book. The scene where Tess is set upon by some rural bogans on the High St of Masterton – that’s a scene straight out of my teenage years. It’s wrong that a woman shouldn’t be able to walk along a street at night without fearing for her safety. Maybe I am still angry – but I no longer scowl, I put it in my writing.

3. I’ve been looking at articles for the definition of what makes crime fiction just that, and I certainly agree that the novel would fall over without the crime. Yet there are no detectives, no procedural drama, and not even a hint of an autopsy! Were you tempted to go for tropes once you realised the way the plot was leading you.

I actually wrote a scene with Jean and Tess and a cop but it was no good and I couldn’t be bothered to make it good. The energy I can feel in a scene as I write it is how I know if it’s a keeper. If I can’t get excited or I can’t be bothered to continue till I am excited, I know to dump it. So I guess the answer is – tropes need to come of themselves, naturally out of a scene.

It’s lovely my book is up for the Ngaio Marsh Award, but I don’t consider myself someone who has written a ‘crime fiction’. This is not because I have ideas about hierarchies in genre, it’s because I know that good crime fiction has things it needs to do, to satisfy readers who go out and buy crime fiction. I’m reading Denise Mina’s The Long Drop at present. Now, that is good crime fiction – her knowledge and technical skills are really impressive.

Having said that – I’m really not a fan of typecasting books by genre (see my note about YA below). I like to wander into a novel and learn its rules as I read – formulaic books bore me as a reader, and as a writer. I loved them as a child though. I reread all the Famous Five books over and over as a kid because their formulaic quality comforted me. I guess I’m not looking for comfort when I read anymore.

The thing with crime is essentially it’s about boundaries – what society is willing to tolerate and sometimes the line between moral and immoral, right and wrong, just and unjust is very filmy and complex. This is a ripe space for fiction. As a reader, the books I’m most interested in are those ones that explore situations that aren’t clear cut. I like moral ambiguity, I like people who are good and bad in one package. Long John Silver is one of the best characters for that reason, he’s bad but you can’t help really liking him.

4. Staying with Louis, for Tess, is ‘Better than being surrounded by people who wanted something from her, people whose blackness threatened to swallow her up.’ This leads soon to a memory of what she did with Benny prior to running away. Can you speak to the importance of backstory in your formulation of Tess’s further actions?

Well, our history is what makes us who we are. We all behave in certain ways because we hold our histories in our bodies and whether we are conscious of it or not, our childhood informs our adult behaviour. Tess isn’t someone who is able to make great decisions because she just hasn’t had the solid background and support that people need to make good decisions about what they do or who they hang out with.

Backstory can be technically problematic in fiction. It can slow down the action, make for a plodding story. We’ve all read those novels where there’s two or more temporal storylines and you make your favourite, and skim read the storylines you’re less fond of. Tess is a short novel with the focus on one character, so the backstory is brief, just enough to fill you in and, hopefully, ramp up the tension in the present-day action.

I’d like to write a novel with no flashbacks whatsoever. I don’t have anything against them, but I’d like to try, just for the sport of it.

5. Something I had cause to reflect on during my second read of the book was the comparative social status of Tess, in opposition to Louis and his broken family. Was this interplay of social status important to the novella?

Absolutely. From the very first I wanted to write about different classes intersecting. It’s not explicit in the novel – like, ‘This is a book about class’, but it’s very much there. Of course families can be broken no matter their class. In my book Lewis Rose is solid middle class, which hasn’t saved him from having a dreadful time of it.

Tess recognises the beauty of his home from the start – the luxury of space in his house and garden, of the large wooden dining table that shows all the signs of people spending hours around it, of books in a separate living room – these are all things that people with a certain level of income take for granted but Tess has never lived in a house like this because she’s working class poor.

For me, the kindest part of Lewis is that he shares his home with Tess, with someone who it would be easy to assume will nick off with some of your property. He does this out of loneliness, but also because he can see she needs care. Perhaps when you lose what Lewis has lost, you stop caring so much about property.

6. Can you describe the effect on Tess and Jean of their witnessing of the destruction of their mothers?  How important is this in bonding them in their relationship?

Tess and Jean bond because they recognise a need in each other that was created because they had shit mothers. I think people can feel need or lack in other people, even within a minute of meeting another person. We’ve all met those people we want to run from at a party because they give off neediness and those people we’re drawn to because we recognise something of ourselves in them; a similar level of brokenness. Both Tess and Jean have a way of toughing it out in the world, hiding their vulnerabilities, albeit badly. The thing about hiding your vulnerabilities is that it’s exhausting. Tess and Jean meet at a point when they’re both so tired of hiding, and they recognise that they can comfort one another.

I’ve come to realise that shit mothers are one of my obsessions in fiction. My next fiction will be even more about this. I have so much to say on this subject.

7. When I finished Tess the first time I thought – well this is a coming-of-age story, I wonder if I could review it on The Sapling as YA. Did you think of this as you were writing – that it might fit in that market?

Yeah, people have said that about it, probably because the protagonists are 19/20 years old. You know, I want people of all ages to read my work, I don’t care how old they are. I have no respect for the YA/Adult divide. I think YA was created as a separate genre for marketing in publishing houses, for ease of shelving in bookshops and libraries and to ease the moral concerns of some parents. I hate it when people get all uptight about what ‘shouldn’t be’ in a ‘YA’ book, like all the panic over Ted Dawe’s Into the River when he won the Children’s Book Award. Surely, the only question should be – is it any good? Is the writing good?

By the time I was 12 I’d skimmed for the sex scenes in many Judith Krantz books – and that’s the crap that’s actually dangerous, books where I got ideas about what women’s bodies should look like, what ‘normal’ sex is, as opposed to the glorious smorgasboard of real world bodies and sex.

The best thing I heard said about YA fiction is that it should offer hope. Who are we to rain on a kids’ parade?

8. Finally, something general! Do you read or watch crime fiction? Give us some recommendations!

I guess if I was going to broadly make statements about what I like I’d say I like ‘whydunnits’ more than ‘whodunnits’. The one thing I really don’t like is sex-crime fiction. I mistakenly took myself and a friend to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside of Me one film festival. I’ve loved many of his films, but this was horrific, about a cop who does these violent sex crimes and I just don’t see the point of making that film.

Is Daphne du Maurier crime fiction? I love Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel. I recently watched Search Party on Netflix – satirical millennial crime fiction which is smart and funny and horrific. I had my Kurt Wallander phase, though some of those books are clunky as. Also, I just saw The Guilty at this year’s film festival, which is a Danish thriller set in a police emergency call centre. The action never leaves the one room and plays out in real time. It was tense and brilliant.

Book Review: The New Ships, by Kate Duignan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_new_shipsThis book is just superb. Kate Duignan’s The New Ships is a novel set mostly in Wellington about Peter Collie, whose wife Moira has just died, and his relationship with their son Aaron. Aaron is biologically Moira’s but not Peter’s, although the two of them have raised him since birth. A lot of the book is told in flashback, and we learn that Peter’s daughter from a previous relationship may or may not have died as a toddler. Part of the reason we don’t know is because Peter has chosen not to investigate. It’s a pretty huge thing to be uncertain about.

There are a lot of huge uncertainties in this novel, and I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the ‘present’ of the book is set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Peter and Moira are white but Aaron’s unknown birth father was a man of colour, and Aaron’s ethnic identity is another source of uncertainty that troubles Peter. Moira says he was conceived in Australia – might he be Aboriginal? As a child Aaron befriends some Māori and Pasifika kids and declares his ‘real’ dad is Rarotongan. When Aaron boards a plane for London after Moira’s funeral but doesn’t arrive there, Peter starts to panic. Airport security and Islamophobia are peaking, and Aaron is ethnically ambiguous enough to be mistaken for an Arab and labelled a terrorist.

One of the things I really like about The New Ships is that it’s easy to read and also full: of ideas, of story layers, of exceptional writing. Here are a few sentences that I particularly loved: when describing a sailor Peter admires: ‘I’d trust this man to put down a dog I was fond of.’ At the tail end of a family holiday when Peter just wants to go home: ‘I was sick of … sitting like a damp, agitated ghoul at my wife’s side.’ When Peter is facing his first Christmas after Moira’s death: ‘It’s intolerable, summer ahead, all the days fat with beauty, useless.’

Peter is a flawed protagonist. We are in his head the whole way through the book so our sympathies naturally flow towards him, but there’s no denying he’s done some pretty dodgy stuff. Why doesn’t he lift a finger to find out for sure whether his daughter is alive or dead? There’s also a very uncomfortable narrative thread wherein Peter, who is middle-aged and a partner at his law firm, sifts onto a young, attractive female intern while trying to convince himself that he’s “helping” her. I found his behaviour distressing, especially in light of the real-life stories about the way female law interns are treated here.

Duignan resolves some of the uncertainties in The New Ships but not all of them, giving the reader a pleasing sense of narrative satisfaction without anything feeling pat or contrived. I highly recommend The New Ships to lovers of NZ fiction and of good books in general.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage

The New Ships
by Kate Duignan
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561889

Book Review: Death Actually – Death, Love and In Between, by Rosy Fenwicke

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_death_actually.jpgSet in Queenstown, New Zealand, Death Actually tells the story of Maggie, woman who has had to be both a mother and father to her two children, Kate and Nick, when her husband abandoned them.

The sudden death of both her parents leads to her returning home to New Zealand from Australia with her young children, to take over the family business of funeral direction when her brother took off overseas following his parents’ accident. With the support of her best friend Elka and her mentor Betty, Maggie has had to accept her role and has since become very much part of the Queenstown community.

The reader is taken into the lives of the people who are important to Maggie with the author’s clever characterisation of Lizzie, Elka and Betty making the writing realistic, and I really felt part of the Queenstown lifestyle. Nick and Kate lend a hand and support their mother and her friends, but there are some secrets in the background, which add complications and the new doctor in town is at times an irritation to Maggie.

Set in winter when the ski season is at its height in Queenstown, there is death (actually) in the book and I found the role and tasks undertaken by the funeral director was extensive and at times challenging, but the author has written these with sensitivity and grace.

And of course, a modern day story set in the resort would not be complete without a jet boat accident, a movie on location nearby and the dramas which accompany these activities.

The author has gently moulded the strands of the story together with humour and it moves along at a brisk pace with some very satisfactory outcomes from the twists and turns she created among the characters.

Like any good book there is sorrow as well as celebration, but friendship and love is an important thread entwined throughout the pages and anyone who likes an inspiring family drama of modern living will find this a good read and like me, they will find the vivid descriptions around Queenstown to be captivating. The underlining theme highlights strength, reliance and hope while looking to the future, ‘Alexander Benjamin Potter was born normally, at nine twenty-one on a dark and stormy night in early spring, in the back of his grandmother’s hearse, in a paddock in central Otago. He weighed 7 lbs 13ozs, and was full of fight and noise, much to everyone’s relief and joy.’

Rosy Fenwick is a doctor, writer and mother of three adult children living in Martinborough. In 2017 she released her first novel, Hot Flush, which received excellent reviews, and which I would be keen to read to see if I enjoyed it as much as Death Actually.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Death Actually: Death, Love, and In-Between
by Rosy Fenwicke
Published by Wonderful World
ISBN 9780473430986

Book Review: Aspiring Daybook – The Diary of Elsie Winslow, by Annabel Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aspiring_daybookIn Aspiring Daybook by Annabel Wilson, Elsie Winslow returns home to live with her father, Simon, and help care for her terminally ill brother, Sam. Her former lover Frank lives nearby. We share in Elsie’s life for a year through this book, her diary, which includes poems, yes, and also photographs, Facebook chats, emails and newspaper clippings. This is what Elsie chooses to record from her day, her month, her year. This structure means the reader is glimpsing small moments, gathering up character and events but has to let them go, not knowing how they might return.

Because of the form, Wilson’s characters, and perhaps most importantly their relationships, are slowly revealed; there is a cryptic, uncertain nature to them. This is powerfully used as the story unfolds. But it can get confusing – reading an email on page 69 I suddenly wasn’t sure who had cancer (I worked it out). This isn’t a book which can be dipped in and out of while expecting to keep track. It is better to be immersed in its images.

When I say images I mean both the photographs and the poetic imagery. I enjoy the mixed-media elements of the book but the strongest images are created in the poems. About her brother’s cancer treatment Elsie writes, ‘This is what they call burning down the house to get the mouse in the basement.’ Later she creates Ibiza with words – the people, flavours, scenery – and ends with ‘sunsets everyone claps for.’ Elsie remembers mountains ‘which bite the sky like a deathly incisor.’ My mind can see these teethy mountains extending into the sky just as I can look at the photograph of a mountain on page 40.

Aspiring Daybook is experimental, adventurous and mysterious. It’s a mixed-media narrative. And it’s the kind of thing I love; I’m predisposed to like this work. If you like experimental narratives or mixed-media storytelling than I think you too will find it’s a wonderful, moving, surprising read.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

Aspiring Daybook: The diary of Elsie Winslow
by Annabel Wilson
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109230