Book Review: A Change of Key, by Adrienne Jansen

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_change_of_key.jpgOn first immersion, this is a novel full of shadows, muffled voices behind closed doors, with single, solitary loners, ears pricked up in paranoia, pacing the empty corridors of a council housing project. How the loners ache to be included in the simple goings-on of neighbours they can hear through the thin walls, but fear of their own past catching up with them haunts their every motive and move. Behind and between all this however, threads of music slowly weave the residents together in ways none of them could possibly have expected.

This book, by Adrienne Jansen, is centred on the same characters as her 2013 novel The Score, but it isn’t necessary to have read this first.

The story starts with Marko, a once illustrious Bulgarian musician, peering through foreign language books in a second-hand bookstore far away from his home country. At the counter he is spat upon by the old Polish shop owner and called a traitor. Someone has taken his picture, and there is his face in the newspaper, attached to a small headline on the front page: MP Claims KGB Spy Living Here. At the same time, living on the same floor is Stefan, Marko’s piano-restoring neighbour. Both men have run away from their home, and run far. The men, joined by others also separated from their own origins, bond through the shared love of music, a language common to all.

Each character faces the threats and challenges of being a foreigner in a foreign land – trying to fit in, to be accepted, to work in employment beneath their qualifications just to pay the rent, and the sadly common experience: racism born of intolerance and ignorance. Throw in a hefty building rent hike, terrorist suspicion, blackmail, threats of exposure, and you have a physical and mental health bomb waiting for detonation.

Sadly, the author is not making all of this stuff up. The novel draws on Adrienne Jansen’s years of experience working amongst New Zealand immigrants, and their collected anecdotes as people who have lived the immigrant experience in New Zealand.

A Change of Key is a moving story, and in that movement, music reveals itself as an integral part of life. The musical interludes between the fear and angst reveal how music both weaves the characters together into unexpected and welcome friendships, but also helps to unravel the tension experienced by them all. Marco, Stefan and the mentally fraught Phil experience freedom from the world through playing their instruments together. Within music they loosen and sometimes lose their fears and inhibitions. And those that listen to their music are also consoled by it. A lasting image for me is Haider, suspected terrorist and Stefan’s neighbour, head against the wall listening to Stefan playing the piano he’s been restoring within his flat. The sense of longing for connection in a foreign land is intense in that moment.

The ability Jansen has to weave so many characters from so many ethnic backgrounds, ages, and economic statuses into one, easy-to-hold paperback novel is to be applauded. A lot of graft and care has gone into this work and I am glad to have had the opportunity to read it. If you want to be moved yourself, by music, or, by life stories foreign to your own, then you’ll want to read this novel. I haven’t read a book invoking this much feeling in quite some time. Potentially it will make you look at your world and perhaps your own words and actions in quite a different way. Possibly it will even inspire you to more inclusive action in your everyday life. Forming your own band maybe?

Review by Penny M Geddis

A Change of Key
by Adrienne Jansen
Published by Escalator Press
ISBN 9780473440916

Book Review: Everything is Here, by Rob Hack

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_everything_is_here.jpgRob Hack’s poems have itchy feet. They are the product of transience, a ‘driftwood life’. Hack moves from Cannons Creek, Porirua, to Niue, to Rarotonga, Australia, and even Paris and Verona. Understated, yet evocative, these poems are cinematic postcards to all the homes where the heart might find itself. Hack is a citizen of the global village. One feels ‘everything is here’ and then here, and here too. There is a feeling that Hack is Outsider, though, that he is never realised as a person of one place.

Hack’s poetry is visual and sensual. It evokes a technicolour nostalgia, by proxy, for a time and locality which the reader may never have experienced. The ‘green cordial’, the ‘apple box wicket’, the Four Square with its lolly bags that hang in rows. There is a dark undercurrent to some of these quaint, and quintessentially Pacific, scenes, however. In the Four Square, Hack encounters racism in the guise of an accusatory shop keeper. There is a hurricane in Niue, which can be read as both literal and symbolic. There are regrets, final passages, earthmovers scraping a ‘government mistake’, there’s the isolation of work on a station in Kimberley, and the twin towers – broadcast ‘falling again and again’.

Hack has some gorgeous lines, often with a wry sense of fun. His poem ‘When you get to Aucklan’ (yes Aunty)’, is reminiscent of Tusiata Avia’s ‘Wild Dogs under my Skirt’. It is written in a Cook Island vernacular, and is insistent and funny:

Fine a Cook Islands man, tall, who works the
factory too, remember listen to him, he know.
Then you can be the happy girl ay?
Are you listen to me?

There are poems that transport their reader to the heat of the Cook Islands, as in the poem ‘All day on Mauke’. The imagery is bold and accessible:

All day the reef argues with the sea and no dogs bark.
Palm fronds fall across the road where
goats tied with rope bleat
and pigs scatter through tall grasses

Rob Hack writes with a rare sincerity. His poetry doesn’t toy with, or manipulate its reader. It doesn’t do party tricks, or hoodwink, or hoax. Like the collection’s title, Everything is Here, this poetry shows its full hand – and it is delightful hand, at that.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Everything is Here
by Rob Hack
Published by Escalator Press
ISBN 9780994118677     

Book Review: Like Nobody’s Watching, by L J Ritchie

cv_like_nobodys_watching
LJ Ritchie is a graduate of the Whitireia Polytechnic Creative Writing Course and this is his first novel, about surveillance and how easy it is, even when seeking to do good, to become seduced by the power that comes from access to unauthorised information.

The novel is set in a not-so- thinly-disguised Wellington secondary school and revolves around a group of good friends who find that there is a great deal of bullying going on which is caught on camera. However, it seems also that no-one is bothering to check the camera footage regularly, so some fairly unpleasant acts do not get their come-uppance.(Side note – having worked in a school with surveillance cameras, I know just how time-consuming it is to check footage, so its unsurprising to me that bad behaviour goes unnoticed…).

But back to the novel. Of the group, naturally one is an expert hacker and is able to get into the school system undetected by using the password of a former teacher. (Next side note – many teachers have typed their password into a screen visible by students at one time or another. Mostly they report that and change the password. Not in this case, which helps the story!)

The plan is to let the bullies know that they are observed, and thereby potentially end the bullying behaviours , but eventually – and inevitably – the plan goes wrong the roles are reversed.

The story is quite well put together, although I must say I don’t particularly enjoy the present-tense writing style. However it does give a sense of urgency and drives the book along. The characters are pretty well-drawn, if a little stereotypical. We have our geek, with a conscience; pretty and talented girl who turns out to be not as pretty in her behaviour; one of the group with an unspoken crush on the geek…. However, there is enough variety to keep you interested.

Overall, I think it’s an okay, if undemanding,  first novel and should appeal to younger teenaged readers.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Like Nobody’s Watching
by L J Ritchie
Escalator Press
ISBN 9780994137203

Book Review: The Shark Party, by Janet Colson

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Janet Colson’s debut novel is set in the world of New York cv_the_shark_partyphilanthropists, artists and general glitterati. On the surface it is a world of luxury, privilege and good deeds – but is all as it seems?

Carla, a thirty-something artist, has been in a relationship with businessman/philanthropist/art collector Nathan for a few years now. She wants marriage and children, but Nathan is somewhat older, already has children from his first marriage, and is lukewarm to the prospect of starting over. Carla is a bird in a gilded cage; Nathan pays for everything including her studio space, and is actively encouraging her to stop her work as an illustrator so that she can focus her energies full time on him.

A chance meeting at a bookstore shakes up Carla’s world, and offers the opportunity for her to fly away from her cage, but is she brave enough to risk it? And what are the actual risks, anyway?

Billed as a psychological drama, the plot moves along at a cracking pace, and I found myself finishing the book past midnight, because I wanted to find out what happened at the end. There were a couple of twists and turns that made the story unpredictable, and this was all to the good. The main characters, Carla and Nathan, were well drawn, and I found Nathan almost instantly unlikeable without him actually doing anything much, which I thought was clever and sets the scene for the story arc.

I found the passage of time in the story a little hard to comprehend – at times events seemed very close together, and others a long way apart, and I was a little off-balance because I wasn’t always able to work out which was which. The secondary characters are less well-drawn than the main protagonists, which becomes a bit problematic as the story unfolds in the second half of the book, as I found I wasn’t sure of the motivation behind their actions. A number of characters appear to switch allegiance, and I couldn’t work out why.

I recommend The Shark Party as a good holiday novel. At just over 300 pages it’s a fairly quick read, especially if you get caught up in the “what happens next?” aspect, as I did. It’s an insight into a world of privilege that most readers won’t have the opportunity to experience, and it made me feel pretty grateful for my simple, uncomplicated life and straightforward partner!

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Shark Party
by Janet Colson
Published by Escalator Press
ISBN 9780473295141