An exciting addition to New Zealand's burgeoning crime genre, this is the first novel to be set in Turangi and features the beautiful Tongariro River.
THE CHILDREN'S POND is a debut crime novel for NZ author Tina Shaw, a well-known writer in her native New Zealand, it's written with the authority of an experienced author. Especially as it puts a city girl, moved to the country to be closer to her son in jail; somebody with a dodgy dating history, but a strong work ethic; and debutante fly fisher into the central character in a surprisingly taut analysis / thriller. It's not often that somebody can combine fly fishing and a dark, interweaving of evil, and secrets and make a river a character into the bargain.
A novel based around sense of place and character, there's a lot of back story filled in for Jessica, her family (parents / foster children raised alongside her) and now her son. Most of this is dotted throughout the narrative so it will take a while for readers to get to know these people, and there's no doubt at all that there is something being held back. Less of an unreliable narrator however, this reads as Jess being somebody coming to terms with the past, present and future at the same time as the reader.
Based loosely around the structure of a crime novel (a young girl is found dead, then another death, both of which are suspicious), THE CHILDREN'S POND is more an exploration of consequences in many ways. Jess, her sister, son, parents and her lovers - past and present, all come together and push apart, exploring the way that the past leaves fingerprints all over everything. There is a thriller overtone - somehow for such a beautiful place, and a beautiful river, there's something sinister, something in the undercurrents of this society.
This is an absorbing read, and you will need to have your concentration glasses on to tackle THE CHILDREN'S POND. There are little hints, and clues dotted throughout the narrative that you need to keep up with, and whilst the pace could allow you to charge through, it's better if you slow, watch, and catch the clues cast about. The Tongariro River is a beautiful setting, but it's also a wonderful analogy. The undercurrents, the weaving through a place and people's lives, the ripples, the quick flash of tempting flies darting across the surface...
An unusual approach, and not just because of the fly fishing, THE CHILDREN'S POND wasn't at all what I'd expected. In a good way.
Review - THE LUMINARIES, Eleanor Catton
It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky.
Obviously one of the most commented on aspects of THE LUMINARIES is the size. Clocking in at 830+ pages this is not a book for fans of thrillers, or fast reads, not just because of its sheer size, but because of the dense nature of the writing and the story. Set in 1866, this novel feels and reads exactly as if it was written in that time. Littered with so many of the elements that come into this sort of fiction: opium dens, families losing everything, illegitimate children, multiple identities, belief in the spirit worlds and illicit relationships, there's something utterly perfect about the evocation of time and place.
The other commented on element is the cleverness of the structure - with a decreasing number of pages in parts as the book proceeds. Undoubtedly quite a writing feat to pull off, and something that commentators are fascinated by.
The characters in this story are beautifully apt for their time, and their voices realistic. The sequence of events felt believable and everything about the setting works. The descriptive passages of both the people, their inner turmoil and the place in which they are located is beautifully done - in fact that's probably what this reader came away from THE LUMINARIES with. There are some absolutely beautiful words, built into some glorious sentences, that alas seem to suffer from not a lot of conviction in a large number of pages.
Perhaps it's because it is so very mannered, controlled and structured, genteel and staged that there seems to be such a lack of fire at the source. Certainly the tone struggled to hold this reader through the same sequence of events, from a number of different character perspectives, frequently hurried towards the end, but consistently passionless - rushing / or jumping to a conclusion for reasons to do with page count rather than motivation. Mind you, it's hard to put down a book which has each new chapter starting with the impact that they do. Yet so many of those chapters petered, padded or simply wandered around lost and vaguely disengaging. In the first half of the novel that journey too quickly becomes a series of long drawn out one on one discussions, explanations and explorations of the action, motivation and behaviour. It tipped too quickly into "tell, don't show" and that, for this reader, lead automatically to attention flagging, of finding excuses to put the book down, of a certain dragging feeling to say nothing of inevitability.
Add to that a tendency for some of the more curious characters to fade into the background, and the second half of the novel starts to draw out, which given the sheer size of it, becomes an increasingly daunting task. Whilst the beauty of the writing doesn't let go, the plotting and devices used bury much of that in a frantic desire for something, anything passionate, committed or unexpected to happen. Something that says that yes, these are people who believe in what they are saying / doing / commenting on.
Review - WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO, Liam McIlvanney
After three years in the wilderness, hardboiled reporter Gerry Conway is back at his desk at the Glasgow Tribune. But three years is a long time on newspapers and things have changed - readers are dwindling, budgets are tightening, and the Trib's once rigorous standards are slipping. Once the paper's star reporter, Conway now plays second fiddle to his former protege, crime reporter Martin Moir.
"Professor Liam McIlvanney, the son of novelist William McIlvanney, was born in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, and studied at Glasgow and Oxford Universities. After ten years lecturing in Scottish and Irish literature at the University of Aberdeen, he moved to Dunedin in New Zealand to teach at the University of Otago. He lectures in Scottish literature, culture and history, and on Irish-Scottish literary connections, and holds the Stuart Professor of Scottish Studies chair at the University."
WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO is set in Glasgow, but there is a hat tip to New Zealand in that Gerry Conway's partner, and mother of his beloved youngest boy, is a New Zealander. Which country she returns to when things get dangerous for anybody too close to Conway. The second book in the series, Conway is a newspaper reporter in a world where newspapers are increasingly marginalised. In a country that is about to host the Commonwealth Games, vote on their independence and in the middle of a brutal gangland conflict. He's a loving father to his youngest son, and the two boys from his first marriage. He's a good friend to his ex-wife, and he's a caring man, despite being more than a bit jaded about the state of the world.
There is a fabulous sense of place and character in this book. Conway is quintessentially Scottish and an old newspaper man. His time in the wilderness in PR seems like a bad dream every time he looks back, even though his return to the Tribune has him marked down on the pecking order and wondering about his future. Everyone who plays a part in this story makes sense, even the dead man, who seems to manage to maintain his influence long after death. Conway is dedicated, determined and single-minded in chasing down the truth about Moir's death, even though every revelation seems to suggest that he didn't know his old friend as well as he thought.
Woven into the believable scenario of an investigative journalist, investigating, WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO looks at the question of influence, and money. The fight for survival for newspapers, for journalists and for politicians all coincide with the fight for survival of the gangs. Justifications, reasons and ultimate aims might be slightly different, but there's something chillingly similar about motivations, and even methods in some places.
Nicely balanced between character, place, plot and pace, WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO is a fast-paced thriller. Well written, this book takes a believable scenario and fleshes it out into the underbelly of a society whilst simultaneously looking at the loss of influence of newspapers and the way that communities can be pulled apart by economic circumstances. WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO is the follow up to ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN, but it works even if you've not read the earlier book.
Review - SURRENDER, Donna Malane
"A detective as tough as the country she comes from..."
Missing persons expert Diane Rowe is used to making sense of other people's lives. It's just a pity she's not having much luck with her own.
The brutal murder of her little sister, Niki, and the break-up of her marriage have tested her usual tough optimism. When Niki's killer turns up dead, Diane is determined to nail the truth, despite the best efforts of her policeman ex-husband to sideline her.
The first book in the Diane Rowe series, SURRENDER is part of a two book series (MY BROTHER'S KEEPER is out now), set in Wellington, New Zealand, featuring a private investigator scenario that makes a huge amount of sense.
Diane Rowe is an ex-cop and now missing person's expert. Her marriage to still serving cop Sean fell apart as she struggled to cope with the murder of her younger sister Niki (all of which happened before this book), and now Sean now finds himself investigating the murder of the man everyone believes is Niki's killer. Which investigation Rowe cannot help but interfere with - even though she's warned off by everyone.
Told from Rowe's point of view, the action is fast moving and the style is witty, pointed and nicely nuanced. Rowe's a strong character who will be the sort of wise-cracking, self-doubting, frequently daft but undeniably brave, and dedicated female character that reader's are either going to get, or hate. But she does work really well - holds the central viewpoint strongly, is believable and understandable. There's a strong sense of humour built into Rowe - even when she's grieving her sister, even when she's just got herself into a tricky situation. Her relationship with her now ex-husband is really well done, as are the trials and tribulations of someone you love moving on, and what Rowe is going to do about her own personal life.
It doesn't hurt that she's an animal lover and now owner of an ex-police dog who is a character in these books in his own right. It also doesn't hurt that the central investigaion is balanced against the discovery of a long dead body, deep in the New Zealand bush, who Rowe is called upon to identify.
As happens all too frequently around here, I read the second book first, which really made me want to go back to the start of the series and get Rowe's backstory from the outset. The missing person expert angle is an elegant way of getting Rowe into all sorts of situations, and the style with it's lighter touch, and slightly wacky female protoganist is increasingly common in the mystery world. Which means that fans of this sort of book have lots to choose from, particularly with a more local flavour.
Review - JOE VICTIM, Paul Cleave
Joe Middleton has a lot on his plate, to say the least. Arrested for a whole slew of murders he says he can’t remember, Joe—a.k.a. the Christchurch Carver—has been in jail for the last year awaiting trial, charged with the task of convincing the psychiatrists interviewing him that he wasn’t of sound mind and can’t be blamed for what he did. And, incredibly, that’s the least of his worries.
In 2006 THE CLEANER was released and the opportunity to review it provided this reader with a life-long obsession with Paul Cleave's books (and a sneaking suspicion he was trying to scare me half to death!)
In my review at that time I said:
"Early on in this book, I'll be perfectly honest, I was thinking that the world could really do without another self-impressed, self-involved, self-narrating serial killer and about the time I was ready to throw this out the nearest window, bang, Cleave suddenly turned THE CLEANER on its head and Joe finds himself in a very very strange place. From then on the book takes you on a bit of a wild ride whilst Joe ramps up the killing spree, and tries to find the perpetrator of the one murder that he didn't do. Professional Pride? More likely a handy scapegoat."
When JOE VICTIM was released the really big question was how on earth Cleave would pull off a follow-up. Something that could continue the journey of the characters in the first book, given the resolution to most elements, albeit with a tiny bit of wiggle room. Which Cleave, being the sort of author that he is, blasts away revealing a whole new scenario, built around some very clever plotting, and a pair of central characters who are unrepentant. Mesmerising but utterly and completely unrepentant.
There's nothing in my rules that says that any book necessarily needs a character that a reader can like, or even sympathise with. What JOE VICTIM does is take the reader into the uncomfortable territory of the ultimate evil person, providing absolutely no grounds with which you can sympathise or even find an inkling of understanding of them, and yet, make them human, absorbing - mesmerising. There's even a point where you could be excused for a bit of barracking for the baddie - really uncomfortable for this reader when realisation dawned. Whilst character is a huge part of this book, the scenario in which Joe (aka the Christchurch Carver) finds himself, his upcoming trial, and the potential of a vote for the return of the death-penalty, all make up parts of a plot that really works. There's not a lot here that's unbelievable, even when it all gets a little weird.
THE CLEANER was the book that announced Paul Cleave to this reader, and since then, it's fair to say that he's not written a book that disappoints. Always different, always confrontational, often laced with dry humour and the unbelievable made perfectly acceptable, there's never a downside to a new book from this author. JOE VICTIM, however, was a particular stand-out, and whilst it will work as a standalone, knowing the first book makes this scenario more intriguing.
When JOE VICTIM first arrived that question of how on earth a follow-up could be achieved resounded. By the end of this book, of course he could do it. What made me ever think otherwise? Not only is JOE VICTIM a strong follow-up, it's a great story in its own right.
Review - ONLY THE DEAD, Ben Sanders
When a failed witness protection operation ends in multiple homicides, evidence suggests the crime is linked to a series of violent robberies in Auckland City.
For Detective Sergeant Sean Devereaux, solving the case is proving next to impossible. His own superiors in the police department are refusing to cooperate with his investigation. After Devereaux shoots a suspect in a botched surveillance job, he is forced to start providing the answers rather than demanding them.
ONLY THE DEAD is the third Sean Devereaux novel from NZ author Ben Sanders, but only the second I've read. Back in 2012, reading the second book, BY ANY MEANS, it was obvious then that Sanders is an author who likes to work with pace, and complexity. The plots in both these books are built on swirling / shifting sands, making sure that the reader is never exactly sure of anything. Add to that a strong reliance on a noir style, taking a central protagonist, putting them through all sorts of physical challenges, and keeping them dancing that line between good and bad, right and wrong.
Building on many of the basic elements from the earlier books, Devereaux plays a lone hand for most of the action, although he does have a good relationship with ex-cop John Hale, working PI in Auckland and good backstop. Particularly as Devereaux spends much of this book on the outer - sidelined, under suspicion, suspended. In this book he also has a rather shaky romantic relationship lurking around in the background, but that's more about a how to guide on screwing up your personal life.
In the earlier book the music, the popular culture references, and a tendency to lose the basic stylings detracted markedly from the plot, getting things bogged down often. That's been sorted out in ONLY THE DEAD, with the asides and around abouts less distracting and built into the action more naturally and seamlessly. That noir, pared down, choppy style is much more consistent, albeit heavy-handed, but combined with the types of characters, and the action it works. Well enough to make it perfectly acceptable that a place like Auckland would have a dark side, that there's violence and dodgy cops barely under the surface, and that a working PI would be meaningfully occupied.
If you've not read any of the earlier books, ONLY THE DEAD would still work. It is definitely the book where this series starts to make it's mark. Although you do have to feel a bit sorry for tourist authorities in these sorts of locations. There's enough realism here to make you wonder what they're not telling you about "the City of Sails".
Review - MY BROTHER'S KEEPER, Donna Malane
Diane Rowe, our missing persons expert, will once again take us on a dark ride through the underbelly of a city not prepared to give up its secrets easily. Ex-con Karen needs Diane's help to track down her fourteen-year-old daughter, Sunny, who she's lost contact with while she's been in prison. To Diane, this appears at first glance to be a simple case of a mother wanting to reunite with a beloved daughter. But she soon learns that while Sunny miraculously survived her mother's attempt to kill her, little brother Falcon was not so lucky. Tracking the girl down is easy.
MY BROTHER'S KEEPER is the second Diane Rowe book from New Zealand author Donna Malane, and it's a really strong idea for a protagonist. Rowe is a PI who specialises in looking for missing people, which seems like such a believable, unsurprising thing to do, even in this cyber-connected-technical-no-fault-divorce world, that it gives the character gravitas from the outset.
Not that she's an overly sober or considered woman. Rowe comes across as someone of great compassion, and concern for her clients, but flawed and a bit chaotic. She's a straight talker, and prepared to go the extra mile, but she's also not bullet-proof or perfect. Her personal life is just crazy enough to be believable, her professional instincts strong enough to give her credibility, her determination to continue makes her very likeable.
The book isn't all about Rowe though - Sunny, the daughter being sought, is also a strong character. A realistic 14 year old, with the sort of fragile core that seems to go with the aftermath of her mother's actions. At the same time, she's a teenager with a protective father and a fractious relationship with her stepmother. When her life starts to spiral out of control again, her turning to Rowe for support makes sense.
Finding Sunny for her mother is only part of this plot, as that doesn't take too long. Convincing Sunny and her father to meet with her mother after all these years isn't the easiest task, and Rowe has to work hard to convince everyone. Along the way the situation at Sunny's home starts to become clearer, and her father, and stepmother are soon under question. Not as much as Sunny's mother Karen though.
Whilst this plot is intricate and heads off in a lot of directions, it's reasonably strong. Even though there's a real possibility that reader's could guess the truth, getting it confirmed, and understanding the why is as important as who and what. There is even a strong romantic thread built in for fans of that sort of development. Set in both Wellington and Auckland it's possible to get a bit of a feeling for both those places. There's also a very good, dry, wry sense of humour built in. Interestingly the author is a producer and script writer, but in this book she's balanced the effects of that background by compressing the action into a number of days, without giving the entire thing a film script treatment.
Definitely a great series for fans of something slightly lighter, yet not completely cozy and fluffy, MY BROTHER'S KEEPER is a really enjoyable outing which doesn't seem to suffer from not having read the earlier book.
Review - CROSS FINGERS, Paddy Richardson
Life has taken a sudden turn for the worse for TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. Her romantic holiday ended with a proposal...then a break up. Now her ex, Rolly, seems to be stalking her. Her boss has taken her off the investigation of a shady property developer, just when things were heating up, and he's charged her with producing a doco on the 1981 Springbok tour. How is she supposed to find a fresh angle on a story that has been hashed to death? Then there are the creepy bumps in night, the mysterious photos that keep arriving on her phone and the shadowy presence of Rolly.
Surely we've all got one of those authors. The author whose books languish on the To Be Read pile, even though you always enjoy them immensely when attention lurches into activity and you spy them sitting there. Even though they can, frequently, frighten the life out of you.
Paddy Richardson is one those authors for me, and in the past, she has frightened the life out of me, although I'm pleased to say that this time CROSS FINGER's didn't languish because of my fractured attention span, and whilst she certainly made me sit up and pay attention, this book wasn't flat out scary, rather a sobering experience.
In the early 1980's the Springbok Rugby tours in New Zealand and Australia caused considerable outrage. Even for a dedicated ignorer of football of all types, it was hard to miss the vehemence and passion with which fans of Rugby and people opposed to the tour took to their positions. Equally so in New Zealand it seems, where there were pitched battles in the streets, injuries and bad feeling that lingers to this day.
This book concentrates heavily on the character of Thorne. Everything is seen through her eyes, within her understanding. She goes about her role as a journalist with a dogged, almost fanatical dedication. Enough to make the idea that mysterious noises in her house of a night, strange phone calls and creepy photos being texted to her would obviously be something she'd put to one side, ignore whilst chasing a lead down - mostly in people's memories. The story of the tour protests is told through her "interviews" with a number of participants - protesters and cops, and it's the clues and observations in those accounts that lead her to the violent murder of the young man, onto his lover, their associates and eventually to her identifying the previously unknown "Lambs". That the Lambs, the protests, dodgy or over zealous cops all collide made sense, even though it's obvious from the start that they are going to. Her ex-boyfriend, the stalker and her new love also made sense, although the coyness with which the new boyfriend is revealed is probably something more for romance lovers.
It's strange to think of the 1980's now within a historical timeframe, but that's exactly what it comes across as in CROSS FINGERS. Historical in terms of the events, and particularly in terms of attitudes. Particularly sobering to realise that mindless anti-homosexuality laws still existed then. Although there is a small part of me that comes away from this book hoping the passion that sprung from the anti-Apartheid protesters still exists.
CROSS FINGERS is from the more thoughtful end of the thriller, investigative spectrum. Looking backwards into history might take away the immediacy of a threat (although that's compensated for by the current day stalker thread), but it does give this author a chance to look at history - and provide a timely reminder that sometimes you have to stand and fight for what you believe in.
Review - FREDERICK'S COAT, Alan Duff
When Johno comes out of prison, he resolves never to go back again. But his new life is not easy, especially as he soon finds himself in sole charge of his strange young son, Danny. Danny isn't the kind of son he would have chosen, but, in caring for the boy, Johno finds new meaning and new direction.
But what do you do when the world you've so carefully built comes crashing down? Can you ever escape your past?
From the author of Once Were Warriors, FREDERICK'S COAT is equally as surprising, challenging, moving and profoundly affecting. It's also particularly unusual in that it looks past the crime, the investigation and jail time to a life that is being rebuilt.
Johno comes from a long line of single fathers. So it's no particular surprise that his release from jail after a long sentence doesn't lead to happy ever after in his personal life. Despite trying, it's not long before his wife packs up and leaves him, taking their daughter with her. This leaves Johno responsible for the care of their son Danny. Johno vows to go straight, to set a good example, to be different from his own father and grandfather. That's not to say that anything they did was cruel, or exploitative. In their own way, this is a family of caring and loving men. Lifetime criminals who did their best, it's that habitual criminal aspect that Johno is determined to avoid for Danny.
From the very start, as soon as Johno comes out of jail, it's obvious that Danny's very different. It's not just his artistic ability, there's something else. His social skills aren't good, he's instantly the target of bullies in school, he simply doesn't fit in. Johno takes each of the challenges that Danny throws at him and does the very best he can. He also works hard, builds a business, makes a lot of money, stays as straight as he possibly can, cares for Danny, encourages his artistic interests, is proud of his son. Along the way he helps out old friends, and eventually finds love of his own. All the while Danny's behaviour becomes more odd, and stretches Johno's understanding further. Although nobody could possibly predict the outcome when Danny befriends a homeless man. All Johno can do at that stage is stand by and watch the car crashing - or does he fall back on old connections from his criminal past?
FREDERICK'S COAT is an unusual crime novel in that it's exploring long term consequences. It does that in a particularly moving and sobering way. There's so much here about the struggle to change your destiny, the difficulties in handling the temptations that we all brush up against every day, and the ease with which wrong decisions can be made. It's also most definitely a story about love. There's real love between these generations of men, and there is a stoic acceptance of failings, foibles and faults.
There's also a touch of steel displayed. Johno is a man who is determined to get in front of his background, to make a change in his life. He's quiet about it, not flashy and not prone to emotional outbursts but there's something about him, in particular, that was so real, so raw and so beautifully drawn that it's almost impossible to get to the end of this book without a tear in the eye.
Regardless of whether you believe (as this reader does) that FREDERICK'S COAT is a psychological thriller, an exploration of background, upbringing and influence, it is definitely an outstanding analysis of consequences.
Regardless of how you want to classify it, FREDERICK'S COAT is different. Beautiful, moving and a difficult book to read, it was an absolute privilege to do so.
Review - THE BECKONING ICE, Joan Druett
It is February 1839, and the ships of the United States Exploring Expedition are thrashing about dreaded Cape Horn, on their way to a rendezvous at Orange Harbor, Tierra del Fuego, on a crazy mission to be the first to find Antarctica. A sealing schooner hails the brig Swallow with a strange tale of a murdered corpse on an iceberg--surely a case for Wiki Coffin, half-Maori, half-Yankee "linguister," who is the representative of American law and order with the fleet.
Having never heard of the Wiki Coffin series before, THE BECKONING ICE was an opportunity to read some historical crime fiction from New Zealand that doesn't come along all that often. Part Maori, part American, Wiki is on board the United States Exploring Expedition when a very odd murder is reported.
Reading this book it becomes very obvious that this is an area of history and naval events that the author knows a lot about. The book starts out in a very strong way with the sighting of a possible murder victim, and events that transpire once it is reported to the Expeditionary fleet. After such a strong commencement, the story does get a little less focused, with Wiki transferred between ships in the Fleet, and eventually, another suspect death and that investigation.
Along the way there is much racism encountered, an arrangement undertaken with another Maori crew member, and encounters with a group of sealers bent on discovery of a secret they believe Wiki's investigation has unearthed.
Reader's of historical crime fiction will be used to being launched into times or places that are nothing like our present. THE BECKONING ICE, and the whole of this series it seems, takes that even further in employing such an unusual setting, time, point in history and central character. It is a lot to take in first time out, and as a result you might find yourself involved in some fairly heavy lifting getting everything lined up and understood. There are also some points where, it seems by design, plot and advancement are subsumed by character and sense of place / time. Which will make this a perfect read for some, and not for others.
Having come to the series fresh at book 5, the detail did slightly overwhelm and the various character back-stories, and interplay and politics get very complicated. It seemed to be suggesting that it could be a series that's better to start at the beginning.
Having said that, it's certainly a most unusual scenario, and definitely should be on the radar of fans of historical crime fiction.