Book Review: The Wish Child, by Catherine Chidgey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_wish_child_nzI don’t quite know where to begin – this book is a tour de force, a work of art, an insightful commentary on the horrors and pointlessness of war and violence, a love story, a shocking peephole on to the Nazi modus operandi and so beautifully written that it hurts.

I found that I was by turns immensely saddened, then amused, horrified, having moments of “Oh, I know THAT person”, and caught up in the stories of the main characters and the enigmatic voiceover who pulls it all together.

I don’t want to give any spoilers at all, it’s far too good a novel for that.

However I will tell you that the stories are told through the voices of the children, Erich and Sieglinde, who live with their families in Leipzig and Berlin respectively. Chidgey’s descriptions of life under bombing and destruction is a poignant reminder that in war everyone suffers, regardless.

Catherine Chidgey has written a novel which is gripping from start to finish, which has twists and turns and surprises, and which I consider to be one of the best novels I have read this year. Actually, maybe one of the best novels I have read, period.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Book Review: Dear Mr M, by Herman Koch

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dear_mr_meFamous in the Netherlands and – since the translation into English of The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool – well known elsewhere, Herman Koch is a most interesting man. He was in Auckland earlier this year for the Auckland Writers’ Festival and I was lucky enough to be able to go to his session. Smart, funny, quirky, ever so slightly subversive – after all he was in a Dutch version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – this was an entertaining and stimulating session, and not at all what I was expecting from the author of the two aforementioned books which are more like psychological thrillers, with plot twists and cat and mouse maneuverings between horrible characters – at times really quite creepy.

He read an excerpt from Dear Mr M, just the first few pages as I recall, with all those elements so critical to The Dinner and Summer House simply dancing off the page. In beginning my own read of this, a huge sense of familiarity rose up, anticipation in knowing I was going to be reading more of the same, with a totally unexpected ending. Settle in for the ride.

This book, however, is considerably more complex than his two previous novels, and although a similar size and length to these others, actually feels much longer, often a bit of a wade through rather than a clear cut brisk hike. There are three, maybe four different narratives going on in this story.

Mr M, now well past middle age, is a famous writer, but beginning to feel the vulnerability of his age, with dwindling sales – wondering if he is still relevant, not wanting to lose his footing on the ladder of fame and the adulation and vanity this brings. Being married to a younger woman helps of course, but there is no denying he has become a grumpy old man.

Observing him is a younger man, Herman, the author of the letter, Dear Mr M, that opens the book. This younger man, perhaps in his mid 50s, has been an acute observer of Mr M, because some years ago, Mr M wrote about the involvement of Herman and girlfriend Laura who were teenagers at the time in the disappearance of their school teacher, Mr Landzaat. It is this creepiness of the adult Herman stalking Mr M and his family that is pure Herman Koch, and is done so very well.

The story of this disappearance is a second thread in the story and takes about half the book. This is actually a complete story of its own, that for the most part, is not at all connected to Mr M and Herman in the present day. But rather the story of teen love,its volatility and oddness, the angst of being a teenager, parents, sexual awakening, teachers. All quite normal and predictable really, giving me uncertainty while reading it, as to where it was all headed – other than the disappearance of the teacher. It takes a long time to get to this event, which after all, is what the whole book is really based on.

The third strand is Mr M himself. His vanity and insecurity fight with each other continually, gradually revealing themselves to the reader through interviews that take place with variously, a journalist, questions from the floor during a book reading, and with Herman himself, where he confronts Mr M with his novel of the teacher’s disappearance. This inevitable ‘confrontation’ between the two becomes the crux of the book – firstly the reader discovering who Herman is; secondly that in the novel, Mr M being very liberal with the facts of the case, essentially accusing Herman of causing the disappearance of the teacher, the burden of which Herman has had to carry all his life; and thirdly what is going to happen when Mr M figures out it is Herman who has infiltrated himself into the lives of him, his wife and child. How much of Mr M is in Herman Koch I wonder, or even how much of Herman is in Herman Koch?

This undercurrent of tension is most apparent when the narration is by Herman the adult. Mr M, by contrast, is far too preoccupied with his diminishing presence and influence in literary circles, and thus unaware of the danger that may be creeping up on him. Although he does become aware that there is something increasingly familiar about Herman, but unsure what it is. In the end the danger comes from a completely different source.

So you can see, there is a lot happening in this novel. Too much for me I am afraid, which makes it difficult to say what type of novel it is. Are we reading of the self-destruction of a gifted and famous writer? Is it a tale of revenge and thus a lesson to all writers that they must be careful how they tread when basing a novel upon actual events? Is it primarily a coming of age story for a group of teenagers and how quickly things can spiral out of control? I wanted much more of the interactions between nasty and horrible people, that make his other novels so fascinating and terrifying to read. I wanted more tension, twists and surprises that left me gasping with evil glee. With much less of the navel gazing, and self glorification that Mr M wallows in. Is this who all writers are? I hope not….

However despite the shortcomings for me in this novel, it is still a good read. Herman Koch fans will enjoy it very much, as there is still plenty of that mistrust and dread brought on by tigers circling each other so as to remain ahead of the game.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Dear Mr M
by Herman Koch
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355505

Book review: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

cv_gun_machineThis book is in bookstores now.

Gun Machine – a crime thriller cum mystery by action-comic writer Warren Ellis.

The best part of Ellis’s writing is the way he changes points of view, from the protagonist’s (1st Precinct detective John Tallow) to the antagonist’s (“the hunter”) – it brings closer the ability to see the hunter’s desperation in his crazed world. And it took an accidental discovery for the hunter to enter the story.

When called to a disturbance in an apartment building, in which Tallow’s partner is killed by a naked tenant gone mad on learning his home is to be sold out from under him, Tallow has to kill the crazed tenant. During the aftermath with medics, police and CSU people swarming, Tallow examines a hole in another apartment’s wall, blasted earlier by the tenant. Inside the room he discovers a puzzle. No, an enigma, a mystery, a symbolic almost mystical gun display of as yet unrecognised significance.

Ballistic tests on a few of the guns link them to unsolved killings from years ago, and Tallow has “reopened several hundred homicides” – considered cold cases with any evidence long locked away in the vaults of the sub-basement pf the Property Office. The sheer numbers of cases to be reopened are overwhelming, and all are dumped on Tallow to work, with a team of two young CSUs.

From the hunter’s point of view, the disturbance at the apartment block is unsettling – he watches his collection being brought out from the building in crates and boxes, loaded into a police truck and disappearing. Right from the moment we meet the hunter, we see his double life – unhinged and switching from a cold modern reality to a self-created mystical identification with the native Americans who’d inhabited the sites of New York during pre-European settlement.

Tallow, under increasing pressure from superiors and fellow detectives, is expected to work alone as he uncovers corruption among colleagues and top citizens and bigwigs in both the commercial and the criminal worlds, as the hunter becomes more and more unable to control his delusions and becomes increasingly dangerous. Blackmail, manipulation, payoffs – all when revealed contribute to the resolution of the network of lies, murder and threats.

Ellis has written a gripper of a thriller, and I expect to become just as rapt in his other novels, starting back with his first – Crooked Little Vein.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

Gun Machine
by Warren Ellis
Published by Mulholland Books: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN (paperback) 9781444730647
ISBN (ebook) 9781444730654

Book review: The Island House by Posie Graeme-Evans

cv_the_island_houseThis book is in bookstores now.

An Australian archaeology student inherits a deserted Scottish island from her estranged archaeologist father. She travels to the wild, wind-swept island and tries to learn more about the ancient artifacts her father had begun uncovering. Meanwhile, on the same island, 1200 years ago, a Pictish girl comes into the care of a group of nuns and monks after her family is killed in a Viking raid. It’s a story of love and loss in two time zones, with a time-travelling ghost thrown in. Think Cross Stitch meets Clan of the Cave Bear and you’d be close.

There was a lot about this book to like. The descriptions of the fictional island of Findnar and life in a Christian commune in 800AD were evocative and educational. It is not a period of history I know much about and I found it interesting enough to have to head off to the internet after I finished to learn more about the fascinating Picts of northern Scotland.

The book began promisingly with two budding relationships. In the present day, Australian Freya Dane (and she’s almost always called “Freya Dane” or “Miss Dane” by the characters in the story; these people do not go in for informalities) and local Dan Boyne meet, hate each other on sight, argue passionately, and then, typically, fall head over cliché heels for each other.

The parallel story takes place a thousand years ago and sees Signy and Bear fall madly in love, despite circumstances conspiring to keep them apart.

However, every avid sitcom watcher and chick-lit reader knows that you can’t bring a blossoming romance to resolution too quickly; you need to heighten the anticipation by teasing the audience with “will they, won’t they” plot twists. It was therefore frustrating that both the fledgling romances in this book were resolved by two-thirds of the way through the story (one ridiculously and unrealistically quickly and one unhappily). That left the remainder of the story centred on the political machinations of the various clan leaders as they jostled for supremacy. I confess I lost interest and resorted to skimming my way to the end of the book.

This book ticked all my boxes for a promising holiday read – history, romance, culture, and gorgeous scenery. And I did enjoy it. But I didn’t love it. I suspect a large part of that was due to the annoyingly negative Freya Dane and her abandonment issues. At times, I just wanted to shake her – “You’ve just inherited an island, woman! And an island full of archaeological mysteries and hidden treasures at that. Your PhD thesis is writing itself. You’ve just met not one but two attractive and charming Scottish blokes. Surely you can crack a smile occasionally!”

If you can get beyond Miss Dane’s sulkiness and some of the “yeah right” implausibility of the archaeology, then this could be an enjoyable summer holiday read.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Island House
by Posie Graeme-Evans
Published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
ISBN 9780340920411