Scoop Review of Books

The Price of Perfection

Book Review
Monsters of Virtue by L.J. Ritchie (Escalator Press, $28)
Reviewed by Emily Brill-Holland

monsters-of-virtue-cover-copy-1Alternative History. Eugenics. Teenagers. Plato. Utopia. Vicious. Brilliant.

The title slashes across the cover; the two nouns abruptly incongruous and it is this fine line that is played throughout the novel. Who are the virtuous? Who are the monsters? Can one be both?

Also – what happens when you tell a group of children they are the brightest of the bright and then leave them alone?

Monsters is an alternative history, looking at a critical point in New Zealand’s history – the early 20th-century eugenics movement.

Eugenics is the theory and practice of controlled breeding to increase desirable traits as applied to humanity. Methods to exclude undesirable traits include sterilisation. Hitler would be the most well-known advocate for it in the early 20th century, however, eugenic research was being carried out all over the world. In 1928, eugenics became sharply relevant to New Zealand with the Mental Defectives Amendment Bill plus a pro-sterilisation clause being put before Parliament.

It is this moment in history that Ritchie focusses on.

In our reality, the significant clause was removed, and the Bill passed.

In Monsters of Virtue, the Bill is passed with clause removed but Parliament reaches a compromise with its prominent and wealthy eugenics supporters. A Eugenics Department is established, and construction starts quietly on a private utopian settlement north of Wellington, owned by secretive millionaire Walter Hannay.

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On the Run

Book Review
Circus Hearts 1: All The Little Bones by Ellie Marney (Bearded Lady Press, 2018)
Reviewed by Rachel Stedman

circuis-hearts_coverI’ve been aware of Ellie Marney for some time. Based in Australia, Marney straddles the difficult divide of traditional and independent publishing. She’s won the Scarlet Stiletto Award for short crime writing in 2010 and has been shortlisted for a number of prestigious Australian awards, including the Gold Inky Award. Some of her works are published by Allen and Unwin or HarperCollins; others she publishes herself through her own imprint, Bearded Lady Press. Marney also helped spearhead the awesome #LoveOzYA movement – yes, the hashtag is obligatory – so when I saw she had a new book coming out, I was dead keen to try it.

Plus, her new book is about circuses, and what’s not to love in a circus?

Okay, so here’s a bit about All the Little Bones.

Seventeen year old Sorsha Neary and her friend Colm MacKay are on the run. Escaping from a crime Sorsha never meant to commit, they’re travelling south to Klatsch’s Karnival. Sorsha is a trapeze artist and Colm’s a trainee strongman, so with luck the carnival will have enough room for both of them. But the question for Sorsha and Colm isn’t if the police will catch them – it’s when…

All The Little Bones is the first in the three-part series Circus Hearts. The second in the series, All Fall Down, has just been released. The third will be coming soon, so if you’ve got a voracious teen reader, this series is a perfect read for them.

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Southern Fantasy

Book Review
The Kingfisher’s Debt by Kura Carpenter (IFWG Publishing Australia, Amazon Kindle $6.88; paper $35.95)
Reviewed by Rachel Stedman

kingfisher-debut-coverIt’s been a long time since I’ve read such an engrossing urban fantasy. This wonderfully written story is sure to appeal to fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Brandon Sanderson or Maggie Stiefvater.

Okay, so the plot summary: It’s midwinter in Dunedin. Solstice, when the nights are long and magic powers ebb. Tamsin Fairchild, part-time Power worker, part-time occult expert (and full-time criminal) is hired to help find a missing baby by the Dunedin Police.

As the story unfolds, the reader gradually learns about the Fair Folk of the Dunedin, their Elemental rivals, and their darkly exciting, half-hidden world. Initially, the story comes across as a who-dunnit starring snarky Tamsin, but as the plot unfolds a deeper tale emerges, of plotting and betrayal and forbidden Bloodmagic.

The story moves skilfully from present day to past, without losing the reader in the narrative. Time-hopping is a difficult technique to pull off, as there’s a good chance you’ll risk slowing the plot or confusing the reader – so kudos to Carpenter for managing it in a debut novel.

The Kingfisher’s Debt is a gritty read in places, with an abused and damaged heroine, but the heart of the story is redemption and some fine, fine writing.

There’s so much to discover in this story – did you know there are hidden floors beneath the Dunedin Library, full of arcane knowledge. And to get in, you need to lick a piece of paper!? But beware, because if you try to tell others about this secret library, your tongue is forever tied?

The Kingfisher’s Debt needs re-reading, and I’ve just purchased the hard copy so I can read it again. The Dunedin setting is fabulous, okay so I live in Dunedin so I’m biased – but the evocativeness of the Victoriana, the midwinter darkness and the 80s kitsch of St Clair really work. And the Mustangs and the muscle cars are great too. I also found it a huge pleasure to read an urban fantasy told from a female perspective.

Don’t know what else to say really, except this book is perfect for goth-loving teens, all librarians ever and anyone who loves urban fantasy. I really hope there’s another book coming, as I want to know more about this world.

Six Feet Under — Maybe Less

Book Review
Death and Dying in New Zealand edited by Emma Johnson (Freerange Press, $30)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

death-and-dying-coverI’ve been to one funeral and two tangihanga this year: two former teachers and someone I didn’t really know. It’s true that we don’t give much thought to death until it’s right in front of us, and also that we probably should, both points Emma Johnson raises in her introduction to this collection of essays on the topic.

We’re a bit like that about lots of things: illness, old age, taxes. But especially about death. It comes to us all, but in many ways we have to live life as if it won’t, because if we thought too much about being dead for all eternity (as an atheist, that’s how I see it anyway), it would be that much harder to spend so much of our time at our meaningless jobs, doing our meaningless chores and indulging in our meaningless squabbles. And I’m with Ernest Becker in believing a whole lot of what we do is, consciously or not, a futile attempt to deny our mortality. 

The focus of Death and Dying in New Zealand is less on the philosophical than on the practical, though when it comes to death, they certainly overlap: it’s impossible to think about the latter without falling into pondering the former. And I did a fair amount of that reading this book, while discovering there’s a lot of interesting practical stuff I had no idea about: that more than 90 percent of of our dead are embalmed; that conservation and natural burial parks are here, but they’re land hungry and can be expensive; that there’s a newer (possibly better) way of disposing of bodies called aquamation (or bio-cremation or resomation or alkaline hydrolysis); that there are people who call themselves ‘deathwalkers’ who help “facilitate a loving, dignified and peaceful death”. Read more »

Rogues at Sea

Book Review
Scoundrels and Eccentrics of the Pacific by John Dunmore (Upstart Press, $39.99)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

dunmore-002John Dunmore CNZM is a distinguished New Zealand academic, historian and author, born in France in 1923.  He founded Dunmore Press and was Professor of French at Massey University till he retired in 1985. Dunmore has written more than 30 books, including a series of thrillers under the pseudonym Jason Calder as well as several plays.  At 94, he has declared this is his final book.  His main scholarly contribution has been about the French exploration of the Pacific.

Scoundrels & Eccentrics of the Pacific is a readable book comprising a series of short chapters describing a wide variety of adventurers in the Pacific, beginning with Hsu Fu, an ancient Chinese voyager. This is followed by a chapter on pirates and buccaneers from the sixteenth century onwards, ending with Von Luckner in World War I and a few German raiders in World War II.  Most of the rest of the book is about late eighteenth or nineteenth century Europeans and Americans.  Only Captain Bligh and the mutineers of the Bounty are well known today unlike Captain Edwards and the Pandora, sent to find the mutineers.  Edwards found some of them in Tahiti, but not those who had settled on Pitcairn. His ship was wrecked but, like Bligh, he eventually managed to get back to Britain in another one.

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