Book Review: The Sound of Breaking Glass, by Kirsten Warner

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_sound_of_breaking_glass.jpgI grew up in the Hutt Valley with children whose surnames, and often Christian names were so obviously European and therefore foreign, with facial features ever so slightly different from my bog-standard British-derived features, many also musical and artistic. And yet in many ways they were the  same as the rest of us Lower Hutt school children.

In later years, I discovered that one or both of the parents of these children came to the Valley after the war, either as children themselves or young adults – Polish, Jewish, Dutch, Yugoslav. I never knew as a child the stories of these families, and really why would I? I never questioned the back story but there was always a curiosity about my fellow classmates. These children would now be around the same age as the author of this novel – early 60s/mid-late 50s – and a good number of them would probably fall into the category of Second Generation Survivors – children born to people who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. It is hard to imagine your entire family wiped out because someone didn’t like what they were, hard to imagine having no grandparents, uncles, aunts because they simply are no more, hard to imagine what it must be like to hear your parent waking in the night from a terrible nightmare. Thank goodness for writers like Kirsten Warner, who through storytelling, can give us some sort of idea.

This novel is not strictly about the Holocaust or about what happened to those taken away to the camps. It is a frame of reference around which this story has been created, and unsurprisingly the make up, the personality, the essence of the central character, Christel, whose Jewish father was a refugee and survivor of the camps. Much like the author’s father, making the author herself a Second Generation. It has been shown that the children of survivors of extreme trauma have that trauma stamped in their own DNA, passed on by their parent(s), making them behave in ways that to someone without such DNA changes may well find difficult to understand, to empathise with, even live with. Aside from survivor’s guilt, Christel also grows up in fear – that one day in Auckland suburbia, the door will be bashed down and the whole family carted away to who knows where; that there are bad people all around her; that there may come a time when there is not enough food. It is against this background that Christel has grown up.

The novel is set primarily in 1990s Auckland, with a regular return to her childhood in 1970s Parnell. She is now married to Ted, has two very young children, and is a producer for a reality TV programme, which is similar to Fair Go or Target. She is also involved in a women’s protest group called Women Against Surplus Plastic (WASP). Hardly surprising that she is very stressed, so stressed that she is really at breaking point. While trying to balance all these high demands, it seems that she is losing her mind. Her imagination begins to work overtime, conjuring up a variety of ways to deal with the stresses in her life – this is so cleverly done, that at times I was sort of caught between what was real and what (patently) wasn’t. She had her own encounters with trauma as a teenager, long buried, and now in her increasingly fragile mental state, her imagination, her coping strategies and the reappearance of a long forgotten person are threatening to bring everything crashing down.

But she is not the child of a Holocaust survivor for nothing! This is also a funny book – always look on the bright side as Eric Idle says. And Christel has a great sense of humour – her boss is the Fat Controller; the women in her WASP group are Rock Star, Celebrity Yoga Teacher, Madonna. There is Car Couple, Karate Man, Artist; her alter ego the Big C; and Milk Bottle Man. For anyone who has grown up in Auckland, or spent long periods living/working in the inner city area, the setting will be very familiar, and no doubt bring about long periods of contemplative nostalgia. From the Parnell Baths, to Cox’s Bay, to the inner city, Remuera Road, Mt Hobson, Newmarket, Parnell.

This is a somewhat exhausting read, with so much going on, such intensity, continuous moving between Christel’s present and her childhood, examining the complicated relationship between her parents, coming to terms with her father’s and hence her own past. But it is also satisfying, clever and rich in its writing, particularly its characters, its unusual and unexpected conclusion. I hope that through writing this novel, Kirsten Warner also got some peace and personal resolution in her own life story as the child of a Holocaust survivor.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Sound of Breaking Glass
by Kirsten Warner
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780994137876

 

Book Review: Sport 46, edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

sport_46Literary journal Sport has returned for its 46th instalment, featuring a great variety of fictional pieces by 49 New Zealand writers. It’s a little difficult to know how to properly review Sport 46 as a book when it covers so many styles and formats. Each essay, poem, story and interview really needs to be considered in its own review. There are some very distinctive voices here, and each one demands your full attention; despite this, they feel perfectly at home alongside eachother.

The anthology opens with a interview with Bill Manhire by Anna Smaill, and from there covers an impressive range of fiction. Amongst the more traditional stories and poetry, seven essays fit in seamlessly, as does Barry Linton’s brightly coloured comic, My Ten Guitars. This is a story told through a list of the guitars that have followed the author through his life; from Hamilton to Auckland, from his first guitar at 16 to his friend’s Yahama guitar before it got stolen. The list of guitars survived by the author tell an autobiographical story in such a refreshing way; it would be wonderful to see more comics in future editions of Sport, as they are such an effective yet underrated storytelling medium.

While I love a good poem – and Sport 46 certainly has no shortage of very good poems – short stories are always the pieces I tend to enjoy most in an anthology. Amongst my favourite pieces in Sport 46 is The Pests, a short story by Zoe Higgins. A teenager who builds landscape models discovers that her perfect miniature worlds are being invaded by mysterious creatures. Another short story that particularly captured my attention was Blue Horse Overdrive by Anthony Lapwood. A group of young friends experience a number of startling things in a short amount of time; their band is noticed by a record company, the bass player begins routinely fainting while perfoming, and most concerningly, the band begin to see an electric blue horse appearing in the crowds during their gigs. The supernatural elements of both of these stories make them so enthralling to read; I thoroughly enjoyed them.

I strongly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of Sport 46 and sample some of the best work to come from New Zealand writers in 2018. There is an excellent combination here of the bizarre and the familiar, the distortion of a dream and the comfort of home.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon

Sport 46
edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall & Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562343

Book Review: From the Ashes, by Deborah Challinor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_from_the_ashesThe newest historical saga from renowned New Zealand author Deborah Challinor, From the Ashes tells a tale set in the 1950s – and of three families caught in a simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating decade of change.

From the Ashes is a standalone novel, but it is also a sequel-of-sorts to Challinor’s 2006 novel Fire, which depicted the Dunbar and Jones disaster (based on the 1947 Ballantynes’ Department Store fire in Christchurch – a disaster which killed 41 people).

Reappearing in From the Ashes, Allie and Sonny Manaia are now living in the metropolis of Auckland. Only two years on from the Dunbar and Jones fire, Allie is working on the Elizabeth Arden counter at the fashionable Smith and Caughey’s Department Store. As she tries to navigate a workplace that constantly reminds her of her friends who perished, Allie is left to struggle with her vivid nightmares and day-long ‘battle exhaustion’ (what we would now consider to be post-traumatic stress disorder) without help. As well as suffering their own personal tragedy in the recent loss of their baby daughter, Allie and Sonny are forced to face daily societal criticism for their mixed-race marriage.

One of the characters expressing disapproval is Kathleen Lawson, a woman with the wealth to shop at Smith and Caughey’s. A regular customer of Allie’s, it becomes clear that Kathleen is desperately lonely and bored. Trapped in an unhappy marriage with equally unhappy children – no matter how much she tries to present her ideal of a ‘perfect family’ – Kathleen is also trapped within her old-fashioned societal ideals and obsession with class, which are both quickly becoming redundant.

Spanning multiple generations and a myriad of characters, From the Ashes is an ambitious novel. It glimpses into the life of Allie’s elderly nan Rose, her hard-working mother Colleen Roberts, and her two younger sisters, Donna, who is training as a nurse, and Pauline, who is feeling lost as she tries to figure out what she wants from life. Sonny also has a younger sister – vibrant Polly who is leading a life on the lucrative underside of Auckland’s social scene.

From the Ashes tells of an age of social intolerance – especially in the city of Auckland, where signs stating ‘No Dogs, No Māoris’ were common.

From the Hawkes’ Bay, Kura Apanui and her friend Wiki Irwin know first-hand the trouble of discrimination. Living in squalid rental houses, not only do the families have trouble finding work that will accept them, but their large families are forced into cramped conditions – so different to the wide spaces and pleasant houses of the country. Kura’s cousin Ana has also been forced to moved from Hawkes’ Bay, and has challenges of her own – not only does she have to look after her own children, but she also has to look after her father-in-law, Jack, who suffers from a debilitating form of dementia. Focussing on the personal cost that caring can take, Challinor’s novel also explores the inhumane conditions of some 1950s hospitals.

In a decade that was especially difficult for women, From the Ashes is told solely through their eyes. Highlighting the importance of family and friendship, the novel also explores the serious discriminations of the time; the stigma attached to working women and unmarried mothers; the prejudices that led to people falling through the cracks created by society; and the burgeoning age of consumerism. With Smith and Caughey’s Department Store at the heart of the novel, there is a clear gap between those characters choosing to buy refrigerators and telephones, and those characters who can barely afford to buy food.

An easy read, From the Ashes is impeccable in its historical detail. Never over-explaining, historian and celebrated author Deborah Challinor creates a believable replica of 1950s Auckland and the people who may have inhabited it. While there are possibly too many characters – as some appear and then seemingly are lost to the story – the compelling readability makes up for the novel’s seemingly disparate nature. A long read, From the Ashes is a good holiday novel for those who enjoy historical sagas depicting a vibrant period of change.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

From the Ashes
by Deborah Challinor
HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781460754122

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.