Book Review: Mulgan, by Noel Shepherd

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_mulganIn 1945, John Mulgan – soldier and author of the New Zealand novel Man Alone – committed suicide. The reasons behind his actions are still unknown today. But one of the many magical things about fiction is how it allows us to speculate. We can wonder about a different world, an alternative end. And this is what Noel Shepherd does in his novella Mulgan; he seeks to give John Mulgan an ending that will explain his death.

The novella begins with Mulgan’s life in Greece. There he meets Johns, an enigmatic figure with the same name as the main character in Mulgan’s own novel, Man Alone. Johns and Mulgan become partners in crime, working together through the war-stricken landscape of Greece. Shepherd has evidently done his research, and this shows through this text’s little details where he makes references to exact people and places. These details help bring precision to a world so far away from modern New Zealand.

The language of Mulgan was easy and enjoyable to read; Shepherd interpreted the last two years of Mulgan’s life with clarity. The story of Mulgan’s life in Greece was also interesting in itself. The constant pressure and threat of war overhung the whole novella and often there were short bursts of violent scenes, serving as a reminder that this danger could come at any moment. I got so caught up in the scenes of war that I forgot, from the beginning, that I knew what ending this story would lead to: Mulgan’s own suicide. The many snapshots of war developed Mulgan into the full figure of leadership that he is known for, but Shepherd made it clear that the horror of consistent violence leaves scars. When the all-revealing plot twist appeared, Shepherd stated it modestly, letting the reader’s own realisation wash over the text.

While reading the novella, I also felt a constant undercurrent of homesickness. Before the war, Mulgan studied the Classics and this was what brought him to Greece. There were moments when Mulgan described the ancient sites he saw: “crumbling pieces of the often conquered and sacked ancient Greek world”. However, being in Greece and in the thick of war also meant always being ready to leave. And the switches from place to place – Greece to Cairo, Cairo to Greece, but never home to New Zealand – was rendered so heartbreakingly in a single piece of dialogue from Mulgan: “I’m not sure who I am any more. I have no country, or maybe I have too many countries.”

After the revelation near the end of the text, I wanted the story to slow down; I wanted to understand Mulgan more. I soon realised that this could be my own flaw, too. The true cause for Mulgan’s death will always be a complex mystery. The speculation of Noel Shepherd’s novella is brilliant because, as Shepherd explicitly states in his introduction, the novella not claiming to be any sort of non-fiction. Instead, Shepherd shows an ending that you may have never considered, one that makes you pause and think. He invites you to wonder.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Mulgan
by Noel Shepherd
Steele Roberts Aotearoa
9780947493387

Book Review: The Flying Doctor by Dave Baldwin

9781775538929Available in bookshops nationwide.

Dave Baldwin is a medical doctor, and he’s also very good at telling stories in the style of the late Barry Crump.

Like Crump before him, Baldwin is a keen hunter and his tales of ‘glassing’ and then shooting deer and goats make you feel you’re there with him. Despite not being at all interested in hunting, this book was so entertaining and written in such an easy to read style, I finished it in days.

I’ve not read Healthy Bastards, Baldwin’s earlier book aimed at improving men’s health, but The Flying Doctor is what I’d describe as a bloody good read.

Baldwin tells of his life from the early days, struggling at school with dyslexia, and the bliss he felt going hunting with his beloved Granny Olive. The story of his life features some great lessons, particularly about not giving up, and working hard to achieve your dreams. It’s very much one of those ‘if I can do it, what’s your excuse for not trying?’ books, and it’s inspiring for those who don’t find things easy.

Baldwin talks about his medical training, and the sacrifices he and his wife, Sandi, made to forge a better life for their growing family. Early in his career, meeting a GP who seemed to have it all steered Baldwin down the path to his dream job – one that gave him time and space to follow his twin passions of hunting and flying. His descriptions of life as the base medical officer at Ohakea are worth the price of the book alone!

After buying a medical practice in Bulls, Baldwin established the Not-So-Royal Bulls Flying Doctor Service and began setting up satellite surgical rooms around the country at airstrips so he could perform aviation medicals for pilots. This also allowed him to hunt as often as possible, together with his son Marc, to whom this book is a touching tribute. He also wants it to be a reminder for people to keep an eye on their mental as well as physical health.

Baldwin knows the importance of building good relationships in his personal and working life and there are numerous mentions of the people whose help he has appreciated in his life.

I initially thought this book would appeal more to men than women, but now I’ve finished it, I honestly think it would appeal to anyone who enjoys a good read written by a ‘good bastard’, which is what Baldwin undoubtedly is.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Flying Doctor
by Dave Baldwin
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775538929

Book Review: Want You Dead, by Peter James

Available in bookstores nationwide.

How would it affect you if the one whom you loved was found immolated − suicide cv_want_you_deadsuspected?

In this, the tenth in James’ series featuring Police DS Roy Grace, the author drip feeds us teasers into the drama with each of the opening, short chapters revealing a different character’s own story − first the person soon to die by fire, then the obsessed perpetrator, then the subject of the perp’s obsession. It’s a technique which hooked me − I stayed reading through the whole day.

There is a certain gutsiness within Red, the target who the would-be killer spirals towards, creating murder and mayhem which seems for a while to be unrelated, until the connections are found. Grace leads the investigation of the cryptic evidence, while trying to ensure threatened disasters are prevented. Red is determined not to alter her life again.

But there is no determination greater than that of someone scorned by a lover. Someone with a wealth of short-term job experiences which contribute to the skill set that creates terror in Red, family and friends, and frustrates the movements of the those trying to protect her, all the while quietly closing in on her.

The thriller’s finish is one you will not expect − and thoroughly satisfying, too.

Reviewed by Lynne Street

Want You Dead 
by Peter James
Published 2014 by Macmillan, London
ISBN 978-0-230-76058-5 HB
ISBN 978-0-230-76060-8 TPB

Book Review: Forgive me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick

This book is in bookstores now.

This is a remarkable book, on several levels. cv_forgiveme_leonardpeacockIt may shock you, sadden you, make you laugh and cry at the same time, stretch credibility more than once, but ultimately it carries a great message of hope and encouragement for its readers. I hope that parents, librarians and booksellers recommend this book to kids who are struggling  – with their identity, future plans, feelings of self-worth, and all the myriad issues which they face daily.  It goes without saying that those same librarians, booksellers and parents should read the book themselves.

Matthew Quick bravely addresses that toughest of all topics in young people’s fiction writing, the idea of suicide.  Leonard Peacock, uber hero or anti-hero perhaps, is about to turn 18 and has a plan for celebrating his birthday.

His school life is irksome, he has few friends, is pretty much a loner, and is confused about a whole raft of things – not uncommon for the modern teenager. He also has a severely dysfunctional parent who chooses to spend most of her time away from home, only returning if summoned to deal with a perceived crisis. This aspect of the plot stretched  credibility for me – but perhaps  there are parents out there who would sooner bolt than deal with troubled teens!

Leonard is a complex and intelligent character, and mostly very credible. His relationships with his teachers ring true (particularly if you work in a school, and have observed the teenager at work). He has a healthy disregard for authority, not altogether a bad thing, and a well-developed sense of trying to be a good person.

The other major characters are generally well-drawn – in particular the teacher Herr Silverman, and Walt the aging next-door neighbour. These adults are the most constant and reliable figures in Leonard’s life, and you get a good sense of how these relationships work through clever dialogue and footnotes (more of that shortly).

Some of the other characters are less developed, but the flawed character of Asher Beal, one-time best friend turned tormentor, is a cracker.

There are many twist and turns in this book, and each time you think you’ve got it, something else surprises you. It’s written in the first person, which is not always comfortable for readers. I imagine Matthew Quick intended this – by using this voice you as reader get inside Leonard Peacock’s head whether you wish to or not. It’s not pretty and not easy being there, but it’s a terrific technique for such a powerful novel.

I mentioned footnotes – unusually for a fiction writer, Quick has opted to flesh out details and background  and provide sarcastic comments in Leonard’s voice by using footnotes. The footnotes are informative, funny, enlightening and it’s a very clever way to avoid breaking up strong narrative with too much detail. I think kids will find this appealing. I certainly did. There’s also the use of letters to Leonard from people in the future – again, an interesting way of managing the complexities in the book which might otherwise disrupt the narrative.

I have deliberately not given out any spoilers in this review – or so I hope. Highly recommended for older teenagers. Despite the occasional hiccup (like the mother!) I really enjoyed the book, and I look forward to hearing what my student readers make of it.

Reviewed by Susan Esterman

Forgive me, Leonard Peacock
by Matthew Quick
Published by Hachette (imprint: Headline)
ISBN 9781472208187